We had the good fortune of connecting with Aaron Guy Leroux and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Aaron, how do you think about risk?
The first time I ever photographed a protest, this was before I had become a photojournalist, I had a police officer point a shotgun at me. It was a stark moment in my life. Frozen in the middle of a street, surging with adrenaline, wondering if this cop was really going to shoot me…this was not the ideal vantage point from which I could seriously consider the risks I was taking on in my life. It was not long after that moment on the street that I fully committed myself to photojournalism, and the lifestyle it demands. It is an often solitary life, filled with travel, reading, writing, and more than a little risk. Danger comes in many forms, I’ve found. It can, and often does come in the form of immediate, physical peril. But it can also come in the form of emotional trauma. Continually exposing oneself to the suffering of other human beings works like a kind of radiation that accumulates over time in the mind and body. Eventually bringing about physical symptoms and a sickness of the soul. Emotional risks of this kind in my work, took me by surprise. Imagining that I was prepared to witness the conditions in a place like the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos, Greece, and then, only much later, discovering the effect that reporting trip had on me; showed me that I had been naive in how I assessed and thought about risk. It is easy to recognize and understand risk when it is carrying a gun. It becomes much more difficult to think about and understand risk when it comes quietly, hungry, and wanting nothing more than for you to listen. Risk is a permanent feature of all of our lives now. I’ve made my peace with it by trying to be as cleared-eyed as possible in assessing what I face, and in doing my utmost to consciously and deliberately choose to face it.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I think what has set me apart and made the work I do possible is a combination of perseverance and my willingness to sacrifice. Anybody working in a creative field will immediately grasp the importance of those two ideas. I’ve found, in life in general, that most people give up too early. I knew when I decided to become a photojournalist that it would not be easy and that it would take a long time for things to happen. I knew from the start that I needed to construct a scale of values in which perseverance featured prominently as a measure of success. In terms of sacrifice, I’ve given up a lot to make my work happen. I no longer live in our society and haven’t for some time. I have almost no possessions to speak of, and I spend the vast majority of my time far away from the people I love the most. That is a lot to give up to take pictures. However, I made a conscious choice to sacrifice those things, and doing so has completely transformed my life into one that is filled with beauty, adventure, ideas, and a host of new friends and influences that have completely transformed me as a person as well as a photojournalist. How did I get to where I am professionally and was it easy? Good grief…No! It was not easy. Looking back, I see that I literally built up my practice frame-by-frame. I spent about seven years in the wilderness taking photos, all the while wondering what the hell I was doing, and if any of it mattered. These were tough times, but I was also learning a lot during this era. In 2013 I got a job as a photographer on a cruise ship. That was an odd moment. On one hand, I had a full-time job taking pictures. How could I view that as anything but a victory and a sign that I was on the path? On the other hand, I spent many of those days taking pictures of people eating or standing next to a colleague dressed as a pineapple. It was hard to know if things were going to work out. But it was on that ship that I met my dear friend and colleague, Ivan Armando Flores. He and I both wanted to be photojournalists, desperately so, and meeting him at that time is a large reason I’ve been able to overcome many an obstacle on my journey. Finding a tribe that can offer help, support, camaraderie…these things have made all the difference for me. In fact, meeting people and failure have been the principal methods by which I’ve overcome challenges facing me in my work. They have both proved invaluable to my work and my life. From many of these experiences and challenges, lessons emerge. None more important than this: Be kind. It may seem trite, but in a world rife with cynicism and selfishness, kindness goes a very long way. In my world, people generally don’t want a stranger coming into their lives and taking pictures. It is always a tough sell and more often than not I’ve been able to overcome that by being open, honest, and kind to people. Another lesson? Persevere. If you can be kind, and not give up, then just about anything you want in this life can be made manifest.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Whenever I make it back to LA, I have my usual haunts. I go to these places with friends, or just to work by myself. My closest friends live in West Hollywood, which means when I’m crashing with them I can walk to the Village Idiot, on Melrose. The staff at the Idiot can count on me wandering in at least twice in any given week for beer and/or food. Much of the tedious work of photojournalism involves long hours on the computer sending out pitches, doing research, answering emails…not very glamorous. On any given day when I’m doing this sort of work, you will find me at the V-Cut cigar shop on Melrose. This place is basically my office. The gang who runs the V-Cut also owns the V Cafe just over from the cigar shop. With access to good coffee, food, and cigars, I spend most of my days here, in good company with the cast of characters who inhabit the shop. For drinks I will almost always find myself at The Den on Sunset at least once, meeting up with friends. If I don’t feel like making my way to sunset, a regular spot for drinks, particularly whiskey, is the Snake Pit on Melrose. For morning coffee, I’m at Madison & Park on Santa Monica Blvd. If I’m in search of dinner, then I’m hunting down a Kogi food truck, or dishing out for sushi at Robata Jinya on Beverly. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
There are so many people who deserve recognition…my work has only ever been possible because of the love and support from my group of friends here in Los Angeles. They are my home, and they are the foundation on which my career is built. Without their love and generosity, it just wouldn’t be possible for me to do the work I do. So to TJ and Mel, Darieus, Alexis, Kate, Joel and Meiyee, Shawnté, Chris and Dawn, my sister Abbey, and my wife Cecilia…thank you all! More recently my colleague Adam Malamis deserves a heap of credit for his work on our recently released photobook, The Nature of Water. The book has pulled together the work of 50 international photojournalists who spent 2019 covering the Anti-Extradition protests in Hong Kong. Adam’s belief and dedication really made this book happen. I spent 2019 on the streets of Hong Kong, and I spent all of 2020 with Adam bringing this book into the world.
Photo by Aaron Guy Leroux/ Sipa USA