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“It’s past midnight. Silence reigns in the nighttime chill. Or nearly. Just inland from the beaches, gentoo and rockhopper penguins sing their greetings in a continuous uproar, beaks pointed at the sky, as they return from the sea to their colony. Meanwhile, cormorants surrender to the darkness without a sound. However, this apparent nocturnal calm is nothing but an illusion. Beneath the cliffs, under the gaze of a solitary bird, the sea’s powerful rush and retreat never ceases, while the menacing shadow of the Falkland skua glides silently over the sleeping islands.”
By Stanley Leroux, extract from the book “Furious Fifties”
Stanley, you’re well known for your work in Motocross Grand Prix, but every now and then you come up with a personal project and leave everyone speechless. An example of this is your latest book, Furious Fifties, with a print run of 1,300 copies, that sold out eight months after being released. Tell us more about this project. What is it that you like about motocross? How did you start shooting and how do your personal projects fit the big picture?
I’ve been covering the Motocross World Championship for sixteen years and this is a sport I love because it’s extreme, very visual, and it takes place in a natural setting. Half a decade ago I started to work on some personal projects alongside my jobs on assignment in the sports industry. I’m fortunate enough that nowadays those personal projects take most of my time. It’s a bit of a dream come true to be able to spend so much time developing a story over many years of research and travel.
"Land of the storms"
Why the Falkland Islands? How did you get the idea?
I knew I wanted to get out in the wild, but I didn’t know where. I tried Kenya, on a safari, which was a great experience, but sitting in a car is a no no for me. I needed more freedom. Then I found out about the Falkland Islands, at the edge of South America, in a Lonely Planet article. It was just five lines about the thousands of penguins. I had never heard of those. Was it because almost nobody goes there or because there’s nothing to photograph there? I had no clue, so I decided to find out for myself. Little did I know that it would become my second home.
On my first trip, I travelled over two months to various places in Latin America, but the Falklands stole the show. I’ve been returning every year since then and do have a personal attachment to those islands and those people who live so far from everything. I mean, an Amazon delivery takes months to get here, this is how remote it is.
"Twenty thousand leagues under the waves"
Your book gives me the impression that I’m looking at images from another planet. With the pure white sand on one hand, the yellowish scenery with the gorgeous sunset on the other, and then add the big stormy ocean in the mix … It looks unreal. Tell us more about the place. Is it really like that, and what was it that you wanted to show the world with the images in your book?
Each of those photographs reflects an emotion. My shots aren’t a record of what I saw, but an expression of what I felt. Let’s imagine a stormy day. There you are at nightfall, next to a group of king penguins, under a lowering sky that threatens to dissolve into tears. You are patient, huddled on the ground, waiting for the moment that will transform this very ordinary scene into a photograph that is anything but ordinary. You don’t see the furious and glacial wind in the camera viewfinder, yet after a couple of hours immobile in the cold, you start to feel its freezing grip in your very core. This is the kind of experience I’ve sought to express in my photographic work, and in my book, earning it the title Furious Fifties. Some of them do have an unrealistic look on purpose. The goal through those pictures was to emphasize the dramatic weather conditions those birds face on a daily basis.
You are known to achieve those results in the field, without post-processing. That led you to earn many awards and nominations, such as Wildlife Photographer of the Year. What techniques were you using? Those must be technically challenging pictures to make.
To be honest, most of my pictures are actually quite easy to achieve. They rely solely on a careful observation of our environment, together – when needed – with the use of neutral grad and ND filters that were of great help to being creative in the field. I’ve been depicting only ordinary life scenes, so there was a repeatable pattern that allowed me a lot of time to try different techniques. On Predator I used a grad filter to darken an already very stormy sky, just to enhance the dramatic effect. On Lonely I was playing around with long exposures during daytime to make the waves look like a painting. Some of those pictures, such as Kings into the dark, could only be made at high tide when the beach was pristine clear, while some others, such as Ocean ghosts, needed the dirty atmosphere of a beach at low tide. Those two pictures were actually shot on the same day at the same place. It was interesting to take advantage of the changing conditions of one single place. My picture Twenty thousand leagues under the waves is probably the easiest one to achieve, it’s just about finding the right part of the cliff where the wave can reach high enough to splash in front of you, thus creating this optical effect.
In the end, it’s only a matter of observing nature and having ideas that will define your pictures. There’s a big difference between going from place to place and striving to do the best pictures, and going where you think there’s a good picture to make and wait to make it happen. You probably visit much fewer places in the second scenario; however, your mind is more active and this is what helps tell your own story in your own photographic language.
There was a lot to absorb before I was able to have those ideas. Those are definitely not pictures I could have done on the first trip. It’s like a loving couple: you fell in love with your wife for many reasons, and after ten years all those reasons are probably still relevant; however, you probably got to know her better and found other, deeper things that you love about her that you didn’t see at first glance. It’s the same with nature. I’m an advocate of returning repeatedly to the same places again and again rather than rushing the world, because that is the only way to have a chance to see things more deeply.
How do you choose your photographic subjects in the field? What were your sources of inspiration for this project?
I looked at many pictures from Andy Rouse before my first trip, he spent a lot of time there and made great pictures. This was a source of inspiration, although in the end our pictures are quite different because we do have different styles.
In the field, you have many possible subjects in the Falklands, usually at the same time. It’s great, but actually the difficult part is to leave behind many of those to better focus on a few chosen ones. Paul Nicklen wrote a lot about this and it is very interesting to read. You have to make choices. You won’t be able to shoot everything that is on offer, and as frustrating as it sounds, it is actually one of the keys. I’ve chosen to focus on those ordinary life scenes mainly shot with a wide-angle lens to let the landscape speak in the pictures, and I’ve left behind many spectacular close-up shots.
What f-stop gear were you using in the field?
I like to travel light and I’m a big fan of the Loka UL and of the Lotus. I usually put a rain cover on the pack, not for the rain, as it’s actually pretty dry down there, but because it allows me to put my backpack on the ground everywhere without worrying about bringing it back dirty. The f-stop rear access design means the gear is still accessible with the rain cover on, which is a game changer for me. Those little details help to get the job done.
I switch between large and medium ICUs, depending on what gear I bring on the trip. I usually prefer to keep things simple. I usually travel with only two lenses, one Canon 16-35mm and one 70-200mm + extender, when needed.
"Silver and Gold"
Don’t you feel constrained sometimes with so little gear with you to get the job done?
The less you think about gear, the more time you have to think about your composition and your light. At first, this way of doing things was driven by budget – or the lack of budget. Then I realized that it could become an asset, so this is now driven by personal choice.
I know it would sound way cooler to explain that all I do is so complicated, but the truth is that my way of working is dead simple and that my main working tool are my eyes. We all can step up our game just by learning from our environment and cultures from around the world. That doesn’t cost a penny, and if that can encourage only one photographer to do so, then I’ll be happy.
"Kings into the dark"
Logistics, the part that can’t be avoided. You mentioned it took you four years for the project to be complete. Taking into consideration that we’re talking about “The Edge of the World”, the preparations must be a big part in all of this. Tell us about the logistics. How did you organize everything?
There was a lot of research ahead of the first trip to figure out where to go. There are 600 islands in that archipelago. That gives you quite a few options! It took me a full year to set up all the logistics: which islands to visit, booking the government-operated flights, etc. The book Furious Fifties is the result of this four-year project that has literally changed my life and my way of seeing the world. I’m a city guy and I’ve been blessed to spend so much time in one of the last preserved wild environments. Since then I’ve moved from downtown Paris to the edge of a forest. I now want to live closer to nature.
"We own the night"
With the images of the Furious Fifties, Stanley won several awards, including the Zoom Paris-Japan Award, two gold medals from the French Fine Arts National Society, and earned a Wildlife Photographer of the Year nomination. His work has been exhibited in various countries, from France to Japan. His latest show brought his fine art prints to the Salon des Beaux Arts, held at the doorstep of Le Louvre museum under the high patronage of the President of the Republic of France.
He is currently traveling in Chile to complete his next personal project, to be released later this year.