‘Let's Not Give In to Fear': An Interview With Hugues Lawson-Body, Photographer of Celebrities and Parisian Youth

Hugues Lawson Body avec sa permission

Hugues Lawson Body. Used with his permission

We live in an age where certain topics of conversation are difficult to raise in a public forum, let alone at the dinner table: immigration, sexism, social inequality, racism and the right to marriage for all.

Hugues Lawson-Body is one of those people who has the gift of being able to broach these serious subjects whilst keeping the conversation lighthearted.

Lawson-Body was born in Togo and raised in the Marais district of Paris. Globalisation and cosmopolitanism are not textbook theories for him, but concepts that form a part of his daily life through the portraits that he compiles of his immediate environment.

Lawson-Body says he likes the diversity in the portraits that he photographs: he has photographed sporting greats such as Tony Parker, Roger Federer and Magic Johnson, as well as cinematic legends such as Spike Lee and Michel Gondry. He has also photographed the youth of the Parisian region, as shown in his book les Jeunes Parisiens (Parisian Youth).

He is also the creator of the successful web series “Barber Show“, which documents the African community in Paris and offers a rare insight into a close-knit community rich in culture. Here is a glimpse of one episode of the show via Instagram (the caption of the video reads: “You've either got swag with the ladies or you haven't”):


A video posted by Lawson-body (@hugueslawsonbody) on

Global Voices spoke with this modern and cosmopolitan artist.

Global Voices (GV): You have had an unusual career path. You were born in Togo and grew up in Paris, where you developed your ‘perspective’. Your career and work show an ability to transgress different social circles. How would you describe yourself in just two sentences?

Hugues Lawson-Body (HLB): Le mot clé est l’adaptation ! Je pars sans aucun a priori. J’aime les gens, et j’adore discuter avec des inconnus. Mon métier me le rend du coup tellement bien. Il colle à ma personnalité ou l’inverse !

Hugues Lawson-Body (HLB): The key word is adaptation! I start without any preconceptions. I like people and I love chatting to strangers. My job lets me do this as I see fit. Therefore, It has become part of my personality — or perhaps the other way around!

GV: What are the elements of a successful photo?

HLB: Tout dépend du style de la photo, mais si on ambitionne de faire du portrait il ne faut pas craindre de “rencontrer” les gens ! De les diriger et surtout il faut OSER ! Oser créer des émotions, des accidents, des photos ratés, au début du moins ! Et surtout il faut s’entrainer pour être toujours meilleur la fois suivante.

HLB: It all depends on the style of photo, but if you are trying to take portraits then you can't be scared to “meet” people! To direct them and above all to DARE! Dare to create emotions, accidents, failed photos, at least at the beginning! And above all you have to practice so that you will always be better next time.

GV: You have photographed big stars like Spike Lee, Gary Kasparov, Michel Gondry, Roger Federer. Do you have an anecdote that has particularly struck you about them? A quality that you find amongst most of them?

HLB:  J’ai eu la chance d’avoir la confiance des gens qui m’engageait pour réaliser ces portraits et de me trouver souvent au bon endroit !
Les 4 personnalités que vous m’avez cites sont finalement très différentes les unes des autres. Elles sont motivées par des objectifs différents, mais elles n’ont pas peur du boulot ! C’est cela selon moi leur point commun ; Le travail, le travail et pour finir le travail. Même si ces personnalités semblent être de véritables génies et donnent l’impression d’avoir une facilité naturelle à pratiquer leur profession. Le talent ne suffit pas : Ceux sont des grands bosseurs !

HLB: I've been lucky to have the trust of the people who enlisted me to take these portraits and to find myself in the right place at the right time! The four names that you have mentioned are all very different from one another. They are driven by different goals, but they are not scared of hard work! In my opinion, that's what they have in common; Work, work and more work. Even if these celebrities seem to be complete geniuses and give the impression of having a natural ability to do their job. Talent alone is not enough: these guys are hard workers!

GV: Headlines the world over are becoming dominated by the rise of the extremes: Donald Trump in the USA, Le Pen (who you have also photographed) in France and the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe. How do you explain this phenomenon and how can we stop it?

HLB: L’arrêter je ne sais sincèrement pas mais je crois que les gens souffrent et que la facilité surtout en période de crise est de trouver des boucs émissaires. On a tous peur de perdre nos avantages, notre vie tranquille. Les Le Pen en ont fait leur fond de commerce, de père en fille. Même si je suis persuadé qu’ils croient à 90 % à leur histoire, c’est surtout une affaire de business. Le pouvoir est un sacré fuel également.
Je crois que changer les mentalités prend du temps, de l’éducation et beaucoup de patience. L’homme adore reproduire ses erreurs ou l’histoire bégaye, au choix.

HLB: I really don't know how we can stop it but I think that people are suffering and it's easy to look for scapegoats, especially in times of crisis. We are all scared of losing our benefits, our quiet life. The Le Pen family have made their wealth in that trade of fear, from the father to his daughter (editor's note: Marine Le Pen, daughter of Mr Le Pen, is currently the leader of the far right party in France). Even if I do subscribe to the idea that they believe 90% of their rhetoric, it's first a business affair before anything else for them and power is a great catalyst for business.

I think it takes time to change mentalities, education and lots of patience. We love to make the same mistakes over and over.

GV: Do you miss Togo? Do you go back often?

HLB:  Le Togo de mon enfance me manque, cela fait longtemps que je n’ai pas eu l’occasion d’y retourner. J’en garde des souvenirs forts. Je pense que je vais le redécouvrir. Même si je me sens en lien permanent avec ma culture togolaise. C’est d’autant plus important pour moi aujourd’hui car j’ai 2 filles à qui je dois transmettre cette culture qui est aussi leur héritage.

HLB:  I miss the Togo of my childhood, it's been a long time since I've had the opportunity to go back. I hold strong memories of it. I think that I'm going to rediscover it. Even if I feel a permanent link with my Togolese culture. It's even more important for me today because I have to share this culture with my two daughters — it's their heritage as well.

GV: One of your favourite themes is urban youth; however, it seems to be poorly received. What do you try to show through your portraits and why is it misunderstood?

HLB:  Je traite la jeunesse dans sa globalité. Je me vois dans l’obligation de l’illustrer dans toute sa diversité : loin des clichés, juste la réalité. J’essaie de prendre des photos des jeunes tels qu’ils sont. La jeunesse a tout autant de valeur que le monde adulte. Elle souffre d’être négligée et a besoin d’être inspiré. Nous, adultes, devons entendre l’espoir de cette jeunesse et lui répondre en tenant nos promesses et nos engagements. Si nous continuons à prétendre que les jeunes sont transparents, nous allons créer une rupture. Des jeunes gens frustrés en quête de reconnaissance et d’existence qui risquent de s’exprimer dans la violence ! Notre responsabilité d’adulte doit passer par le dialogue, de découvrir cette jeunesse et d’embrasser sa diversité et sa singularité.

HLB: I deal with youth in its entirety. I feel obliged to portray it in all its diversity: far from clichés, just the reality. I try to photograph young people just as they are. They are just as important as the adult generation, yet they suffer from neglect and need to be inspired. We adults must understand the hopes of the youth and respond to them by keeping our promises and commitments. If we continue to claim that they are transparent, we are going to create a rupture. These are frustrated young people seeking recognition and purpose, who risk expressing themselves through violence! Our responsibility as adults should take place through dialogue, learning about this generation and embracing its diversity and singularity.

GV: A message that you want to share with the readers of Global Voices?

HLB:  Rien ni personne ne doit entraver notre liberté, ne cédons pas à la peur !

HLB:  Nothing or no one can come in the way of our freedom. We won't give in to fear!

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