CD: You are French and shoot projects in Mexico. Lets start there: what drew you to Mexico and the Michoacan culture?
Florence Leyret Jeune: In 2003, I left France and went to NYC, working in the educational and art field. I was regularly going to Mexico for vacations, in the state of Michoacan. Mexico was for me a complete discovery, a sweet cultural shock, and I began shooting all types of subjects. They were self-assignments. I was challenging myself, overcoming my shyness, my fears of the unknown and lack of fluent spanish: I followed a group of clowns during a clown convention in Mexico city, the training of a young Mexican matador, a cockfight, the old timers of the Lucha Libre (wrestling), a group of policemen in Monterey working the streets dressed as clowns (yes, this is true!), and more. I discovered that, at least here in Mexico, people are eager to share their world with you, and that, most of the time things are simpler to access than what we may think!
Finally, at the end of 2012, I left NYC and came to live full time in Mexico , although I did keep my little studio in NYC, where I return periodically during the year.
I settled here, in Patzcuaro (Michoacan), a beautiful town still undeveloped and populated by a large indigenous population. I began to really dig into the cultural richness of this region, and into a very little known part of Mexican culture with its manifestations of syncretism, mixing Spanish and Indian rituals. With time, I concentrated on the folklore: the traditions and the rituals as well as the many artisans of the area, who generation after generation form an integral part of the identity and economy of Mexico.
Those traditions spoke deeply to my heart, and I felt a very strong emotional link with all the people I met along the way. I became passionate for this culture and totally immersed myself in it.
I guess coming from NYC and France, I could see better the threat of cultural homogenization and the importance of documenting those unique traditions, all based on a strong sense of collective effort, respect of spiritual values, discipline, sacrifice for the community and generosity.
I was just witnessing something absolutely beautiful, almost never covered by the media, never acknowledged. I probably felt it was some sort of a “mission” for me to counterbalance the overwhelming coverage of the isolated pockets of violence in Mexico, with my humble tribute to a society that, to my eyes, has so much to give to the world.
CD: Where and when in your life did you start shooting?
Florence Leyret Jeune: I have a training in the French Beaux-Arts and Education, and when I lived in France, my interest was in painting, etching and everything related to creativity. A little bit of photography, but not that much.
In 2003, I left and went to work in NYC, where I threw myself into the frenzy of the town with a camera always in my hand. I began documenting what I like the most, people. Jazz musicians, Harlem, Coney Island, mermaid parade, ethnic parades, and more. I also did a lot of child photography which is where I really began to work with lighting (www.petiteenigmas.com).
I spent a lot of time on tutorials of techniques, and presented my work in a few exhibitions and 5 self-published books on Blurb:
”Coney Island of sand and light” (2008), “52, glimpses of NYC” (2009), “Barba Negra, a Mexican portfolio” (2010), “53, glimpses of NYC”(2010), “XIV Convencion de Payasos, Mexico City international clown convention” (2010).
I was in the learning process and enjoying each minute of it!
It is during those years, I think, that I developed my ability to step into an unknown place, to integrate with all types of communities, something like melting in.
I have the feeling now that this ability for connecting with people is my main strength.
CD: How did you go about earning acceptance into this group and to photograph the Michoacan culture?
Florence Leyret Jeune: Obviously, you have to be humble and respectful. Ask authorization either verbally or through eye contact. Explain who you are and what you do. Explain why the values celebrated during the “fiestas” are important to you. I guess being French helps me too, as I explain that traditions in France are long gone, sacrificed on the totem pole of globalization and consumerism (well, I may not say it EXACTLY like that!), and that it is why it is very important for me to document the richness of Mexico’s traditions, with the hope they will keep strong!
Here in Mexico, festivities are a major part of life. Each “fiesta” is an occasion of renewal of faith, sacred actions, and reinforcement of the community. For example: Day of the Dead, when families gather to pay their respects and gratitude to earlier generations with offerings, songs, stories…..Good against Evil, morality plays danced, sung, acted out with the participation of the entire village …..The “jaripeos”( Mexican rodeos), where the “jinetes” express their devotion through ritual acts before entering the ring…..Carnival, a tradition of derision with masked dances…..Corpus Christi, a collective expression of generosity and gratitude when everyone comes to town with humble gifts to be shared…..
All those celebrations follow a very strict and complex ancestral system of organization, led by a group of “cargueros” (“the ones in charge”). It is important to ask one of them for permission before shooting any picture. The answer has always been positive for me. Once the authorization is given, all doors open and in a certain way, you gain some sort of protection.
The most obvious: Always, always bring back the printed pictures. It is of course not that much about the prints, but more about showing respect!
CD: I love the photograph of young girls during the Corpus Christi celebration. Tell us a bit about that photograph and what else you photographed that day.
Florence Leyret Jeune: Early morning on Corpus Christi day, nothing seemed to be going on when I arrived on the small island of Uranden, on Patzcuaro lake. There are no cars here, and the transportation from the “continent” is done by small canoes. A group of musicians was playing traditional music in front of a few men. I asked for authorization to take pictures, they welcomed me, laughing, joking and offering me a soda. Click, click…(That is the noise of my shutter).The musicians then moved on, climbing steps, to another place. Walking ahead of them, something made my heart jump. Two men were throwing bougainvillea flowers at the top of fishing nets they had stretched over the path…the flowers seemed suspended in the air…silence, blue sky, deep pink color of the flowers… click, click… pure beauty.
Later on, I joined a procession which was stopping intermittently in front of decorated altars and, little by little, made my way up to the front. There were soft songs, the smoke of the “copal” (incense) and a strong sense of communion. Young girls in their traditional costumes were leading the procession, sprinkling the narrow path with yellow petals. It was serene and few seemed to really notice my presence. click, click… (sometimes, I wish that shutter would be more silent!)
Another stop in front of another altar. On that day, each altar celebrates, through symbolic objects, the different trades of the village. This time the fishing nets stretched over the path held small fish made of woven straw (one of the craft of the region). click, click…As the wind blew, the straw fish seemed to float and move in the air…The land of the flying fish…It was simple, poetic and beautiful. I love those humble and ephemeral decorations celebrating the communion with the elements.
At the end of the day, the ambiance had changed, gone from silent fervor to excitement and cheers. Families were arriving from all the villages around to be part of the “ch’ananskua”. The villagers were making their way to the square, arms loaded with little gifts. The woodcutters, the fishermen, the bread makers, the merchants were going to throw away examples of their wares to all in the crowd, who were cheering and laughing, trying to receive with their outstretched arms the fruits of the earth and the daily work falling from the sky. Pure Love, click, click…
CD: Your portrait use minimal lighting. Tell us a bit about your approach to shooting portraits and what you want to achieve with these images?
Florence Leyret Jeune: I love portraits, and try to get the real person, the one behind the appearance, under the veil. I am looking for a direct contact, and in general, I get as close as possible.
The celebrations in the villages have sometimes a very intimate character. There are very few photographers around, if any. I need to be discrete and respectful: having a flash or reflector is generally impossible, and you have to go with natural light. I learned how to position myself in order for the subject to turn into the right light, or how to gently bring him into a spot with a better background, or in the open shade for example…
For my shots with the artisans, I enjoy to play with lighting. I work with a speedlite in a softbox on a stand. Due to limited space in most of the workshops, it can be challenging (or athletic!).
Generally, the artisans are shy and not very comfortable in the spotlight…Humor and small talk are important. I look (or ask) for the eye contact, giving a sense of openness to the portrait…an invitation to visit….
CD: What advice would you give a young photographer about to embark on a career in photography?
Florence Leyret Jeune: Do what you love and what makes your heart beat faster, stick with it, believe that the Universe is on your side and will bring you where you have to be, work,work,work,work relentlessly, know that all doors (almost) can open if only you ask, smile, be humble, be true to your word, be sincere, challenge and critique yourself, be aware of the dynamic around you, trust your instincts, know when not to take your camera, don’t wear a military jacket (joke), get close to your subject (Be aware, sometimes TOO close is no joke. I received two overweight wrestlers falling on my head one night in Mexico city, being with my camera too close within the ropes of the ring when they decided to fly. It hurts!), grow to know the world stage you are part of, anticipate possibilities and movements of action that you don’t control…have good legs…
List yourself on PDN/Photoserve: It is Barbara Goldman from Photoserve who spoke about my work to the author of FuseVisual, Cameron Davidson. All my thanks to both of them!