Olivier Yoan has a job many of us dream about: traveling the world as an international fashion photographer. Shooting in Hong Kong, Thailand, London, and around the globe, Olivier captures photos that go beyond the commercial and into the realm of art. He has been published by and worked for clients such as Calvin Klein, Mr. Porter, Marc Antoine Barrois, Esquire Hong Kong , Men’s Uno China, Tatler Hong Kong, Tatler Philippines, Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam, Elle Vietnam, L’Optimum Thailand, Client Magazine, and many others. We caught up with Olivier in the midst of his travels to get a taste of his life as a fashion photographer, explore his art, and discover his advice for others looking to break into the photography industry.
When you’re at a cocktail party and someone asks you, “What do you do?” how do you respond?
Well I just say, “I’m a photographer.” And then they ask, “Oh, a fashion photographer?” and I say “Yes, I make a living with fashion but I also love all types of photography.”
You were a model before you were a photographer, right?
Yes, I did modeling for many years. I’m glad I’m done with it but I don’t regret it either.
How did you start modeling?
I was scouted on the Internet. I had some pictures of me and my friends, like, you know, back in the MySpace days. One guy told me, “If you come to Paris you can be a model and travel the world.” I was a bit depressed at the time, because I was going through my first real breakup and I was not in the mood to go to school at all, so I was like “Fuck it all!” and I moved to Paris with 200 euros in my pocket. I was really crazy [laugh].
…in some ways I see modelling more as a social elevator.
Wow, that is a crazy story. What happened next?
I got signed to an agency, but I had no idea how modeling worked, I did not know anything about fashion, I didn’t even know who Galliano was. I started going to castings, but frankly it was difficult, because nobody, even at the agency, told me how to actually do things at a casting in Paris, and nobody taught me how to do a catwalk (it’s harder than it seems! [laugh]) or about the different types of poses and moods. I really had no idea what I was doing. So it took me a little time before I got into it, but when I did, I think I was not bad at all. At the beginning I was pretty much just crashing at people’s places. I had a few tough times, because I didn’t know many people in Paris and I was kind of a countryside boy. But some people really helped me out and I am forever grateful that they helped me out, even though I had nothing to give in return.
A lot of people think of modeling as a glamorous job that will make you rich, but you just mentioned some hardships you faced as a model. Is there a big difference between how people perceive models and what the life of a model is really like?
Well, depends which kind of modeling. Some people get discovered and they just directly get lucky and have a huge money job and instant success, but that’s not even one percent. I do think it can be harsh to do modeling. But in some ways I see modeling more as a social elevator. It’s not always glamorous, yes, but let’s not go there as other documentaries do it very well…
I think a lot of models don’t take the opportunity to use their position as a model to achieve something else.
When you model you are invited to all those parties and it can help you get an incredible network if you have some business idea for the future. Plus it can help you travel, which is what I did, and although I did not get very rich, I had the most amazing experiences and now, the most amazing memories from it.
That’s really true. Where did you travel as a model?
While I was modeling I went to a lot of places in Europe: Italy, Germany, Portugal, England. I also modeled in Asia in places such as South Korea, Japan, China, Thailand, Hong Kong, and I went to the U.S. as well… Well, many places.
I think being in Europe was fun but I started really loving life when I came to Asia. I went to Japan first and that was nice, but when I got to South Korea, my life became really amazing, I was so happy, made many friends and I just loved being in Asia learning and living in different cultures. I think the fact that I always loved having local friends made my experience different than a lot of models who just hang out with models or with “modelisers.”
So how do you get sent abroad as a model? How do you find modeling jobs? How does the whole process work?
Basically you have a mother agency (a main agent) that takes care of your career and sends you all around the world where other agencies want to bring you in.
Very often, especially in Asia, the contracts are of two or three months. So you live in apartments, often with models from all around the world, you go to castings, and with a bit of luck you make some money. Most of the time, I made sure I’d have one or two weeks of holidays after each contract so I could explore the country.[Note from Alex: In return for sending you around the world the mother agency generally takes 10% of a model’s earnings, while the local agency generally takes 30% or more. Models also generally have to pay back the costs for flight tickets and apartment rents, making it difficult for some models to make a living.]
How did you decide to go from being a model to being a photographer?
Before I started modeling, when I was going to school, my dream was more to be a scientist, like a marine biologist or veterinarian. But things kind of changed when I decided to do modeling, as I started before finishing high school, so no long studies for me.
Both my parents always enjoyed photography and they liked art in general. I grew up with photos of my mom nude and pregnant, shot by my dad, and things like that. And my mom just loved taking photos of me and my sister and she had a dark room until I was about 7 years old, where she would develop photos by herself, and I would help her sometimes. I remember also spending evenings with them when they were choosing photos for different projects they were doing, and I enjoyed that.
So when I was modeling I knew it probably wouldn’t last forever and I always kind of had photography in the back of my mind. Because I thought, it’s creative, I can still travel and meet a lot of people with it. I just thought, that’s a cool job!
So then I bought my first camera, it was a little Nikon D40, just so I could take pictures of my travels. And then in Thailand I started to take photos of my friends, so things kind of unfolded naturally.
And, since your friends were all models, you must have had a great opportunity to have a professional portfolio quickly, right?
Well, not all my friends were models, as I said, I like to have local friends yeah… But it was easier because I could ask my friends to pose for me. It was great, I think it trained my eye. I think photography is a very subconscious kind of thing and it’s not like math, you can’t just learn it by heart. You need to train your brain more and more and after a while, compositions and ideas come naturally.
…they often just think you only need to take pretty pictures. It’s not just that.
Now, I’ve seen the photos on your website and they are amazing. How long did it take you to get that good?[Laughter] Thanks. Let’s just say years. But I think I still need to improve a lot more. One thing I know is that the more I shoot the better I become. Like when I see what I could do 3 years ago and what I can do now, there is a whole world of difference, but I think it’s also mostly my vision, as I now understand photography differently and I see it more as a way to express myself. But still, there is big room for improvement on my side.
From when you first got that D40, how long did it take you to get your first photography job?
Like, two and a half years. I got my first job because I had a Facebook page where I was putting my work and some designers and people in the industry saw it as I was tagging the models. It’s all about social media nowadays ain’t it? [laugh]
Ah, interesting. What was the first job?
The first things that were paid were test shoots–agencies paying me to build the portfolio of models. And then the first job for a client was a designer I still work for nowadays. I did an outdoor shoot which is what I love to do, and we got some pretty pictures–and it’s really nice to see that we are still collaborating.
How long did it take you to be able to make a living as a photographer? Is it harder to make a living as a photographer or as a model?
It took me a few years to make a living out of it fully, I can say now that about 3 years ago I started to make my living more from photography than modeling and two-and-a-half years ago I stopped modeling completely to focus on photography. But it’s a fuzzy line.
I think it depends on so many factors when it comes to the difference between modeling and photography. The thing that is good about photography is that it’s not only mostly genetics that matter, but how much you work on it and train.
A lot of models want to become photographers. They think it’s easy and they are just used to being pretty and having the work done for them. For that reason a lot of them give up very quickly, because it takes a lot of work and many skills not linked directly to photography—but they often just think you only need to take pretty pictures. It’s not just that.
What is the hardest thing to learn about photography?
It depends what your predispositions are. For some people, the technical parts are difficult to learn. For example, I remember a documentary where Helmut Newton was saying he doesn’t know and can’t learn anything about artificial lighting, and that’s why he uses natural light all the time, or really simple lighting. But I think for a lot of people the hard thing to learn is the vision. But then again it depends on what kind of photography. Because in fashion photography, you not only need to have a strong aesthetic of your own, but also you must understand how to sell a product through it, to satisfy the client. There are so many things that matter, and each person has their own strengths and weaknesses so I couldn’t generalize.
Models have agents, but as a photographer, are you a freelancer? Or do they have agents too?
There are freelance photographers and there are also agents and agencies. But for now I’m working freelance. I might go with an agency some time though. I’m not a person who loves to do business and talk about numbers so that’s a bit of an annoying part for me. If I had an agency, I wouldn’t have to deal with the trouble of doing all the deals by myself.
How do you get most of your jobs these days? From connections, or another ways?
Some people see my work in magazines and such, find my website, and contact me. But it’s mostly word of mouth.
What inspires you as a photographer?
I am inspired all the time. Pretty much anything can be a source of inspiration when it comes to a story to shoot or a way to use lighting… But there are recurrent patterns that inspire me.
The first thing I think is my childhood, as I grew up in the mountains of the south of France where my parents had a property and we had a lot of animals, horses, dogs, cats, and chickens. It was not always very nice at home so I learned how to escape the arguments of my parents and of the house’s staff by escaping in nature.
I would walk for hours in the forest, to the waterfalls, which have always been a favorite. There, I knew that nobody would disturb me and I had all the time I needed to dream, to think about my future amazing life, and all the traveling I wanted to do.
One important fact of my childhood as well is that I was homeschooled. I did not have that many friends and I would spend a lot of time with animals. I was also passionate about reptiles and aquariums. I had a lot of them at home.
Those are recurrent themes you can constantly see in my work, that connection to nature and animals. It’s very easy for me to shoot in nature because it’s part of me, I understand the shapes and the shadows and the energy of it.
Of course I am also deeply influenced by some other photographers.
My icons are those who are about storytelling and portraitures… I love so much the works of Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh, Matthew Brookes for the fashion photographers, and on a more arty side I am crazy about the works of Sally Mann and Jock Sturges. And I am so inspired by the documentary work of Steve McCurry. The way he captures the essence of a person, a story, his compositions and the colours coming with it… All of his work is a masterpiece.
When it comes to painters I feel extremely close to the work of Hernan Bas, a painter originally from Florida. I discovered his work in 2011 when I was in Florida with my mum. She brought me to a modern art museum there and I just fell in love with his work; I felt I were the boy represented in his photos.
And then there is music.
I spend hours looking for new music, all the time… It really transports me. I have a very wide range when it comes to my music taste, but I think that my great favorites are Bjork for her music’s creativity and the uniqueness, and Philip Glass’ contemporary classical for making me cry every time I hear the soundtrack of ” The Hours”.
In terms of happy, commercial music, I have been dancing to Kylie Minogue since I was 11 years old in my bedroom. I listen to a lot of indie as well, Bon Iver, Local Natives, James Vincent McMorrow. Movies also always bring me new ideas and visions for photoshoots.
There are a lot more things I could talk about that inspire me, such as people I love, artists… but it would take days to go through it all.
I think the last thing that would be important to say: the things that inspire me keep me from doing things I don’t believe in.
These are my values, and they play a very big role on what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. I think a lot of people in fashion have a hard time understanding why I can get so emotional about not doing certain projects and why I want certain projects to be done in a certain way.
Being a peace activist at heart, and really looking for environmental consciousness to arise in society, I try to put this in my work whenever I can, and it comes through telling stories of people who might share this.
It sounds like you view your photography as more than just a job. It’s art.
Well, to define something as art is always kind of funny so I don’t know exactly how to define what that I do is art and what isn’t, but there is also a commercial side of things that I do almost on a daily basis, and that, my friend, I can tell you, is not art [laugh]. It pays the bills and enables me to do art.
As you can see in the history of humanity, a lot of artists were able to do their art because of commissioned work–look at all the painters from the renaissance and such—so it’s really about making money when I can on one side, to be able to do what really moves me on the other.
Clothes are like language, you can tell a lot of things with them but you can also lie—with nudity, there has to be truth.
What are some projects that have moved you, and what do you want to achieve in the future?
One project I’ve done that I really loved was a fashion story for Elsewhere Magazine which I named “Boyhood.”
And I was in this series of photos talking about my childhood and my love for nature. When I did this shoot I really felt complete, and that I did something meaningful. That’s the best feeling.
Also, I love doing nude photos in nature- to me it’s absolute truth. Nude and in nature, we cannot lie in an image. Clothes are like language, you can tell a lot of things with them, but you can also lie—with nudity, there has to be truth.
Being an international photographer is a dream job for many people–but what are some challenges you face?
It is a dream job, I have to say, and I’m loving it—but there are some down times.
When too many jobs come at the same time and I cannot reschedule them, I spend some sleepless nights on the post prods and that kind of thing… It can be really exhausting.
I think one other thing that people don’t always understand about being a fashion photographer is that it has to do with a lot more than just taking pretty pictures.
When you work for a client you need to understand their vision, make an image that can sell their product, and still try to keep an element of your own personality. That can be difficult.
Team work is a big challenge as well, it’s a tough call to always make everyone happy, and there are always a lot of people: clients, editors, hair and make up artists, models, and then also the advertising department, sales departments, and on and on.
I love it because I enjoy meeting new people, and teamwork is exciting, but it can get be a pain in the ass as well sometimes, haha.
In movies and popular culture, models have a reputation for being difficult to work with– is this true, and if so, does your background as a model make it easier to deal with it?
Well, it really depends on the models. I think a lot of models who do well do so not only because they have the right appearance demanded by the market but also because they are nice to work with.
The fact that I modeled before helps me a lot in dealing with models, because I know where to stand, I know how hard it can be, but I also don’t take any bullshit from them… It’s like, “Darling, I’ve been there before you and I made it, so there is no reason we’ll let you have a break every ten minutes because you feel a bit hot.”
There are some really awesome models and some very not awesome ones [laugh]. I think girls tend to be a bit more bitchy sometimes, but also because they are facing bigger pressure in the industry and more competition.
What is your goal for the future, and what would your dream shoot be?
I have a lot of dream shoots and a lot of goals. There are some icons I would really like to shoot and to work with. I really want to take photos of some people that have inspired me in my life. From actors and singers to heroes of our modern times such as Jane Goodall, Captain Paul Watson…. I want to take photos of people who really are working on making a change in the world.
Also I am very interested on gender fluidity and I would like to do a project on the diversity of sexual identity and the beauty of it. When it comes to fashion, there are some stylists such as Grace Coddington, Emmanuel Alt, and Katy Grand who I would love to work with and photograph their vision.
I also would love to expose some of the art nudes I am doing but I want to wait until I have the perfect collection.
What advice do you have to someone who dreams of a career similar to yours?
Work hard, stay inspired, know your weaknesses so you can strategically work with people who will balance them. Never deny your weaknesses, and be real. Nobody wants to deal with someone who’s trying to be someone else.
If you were starting your career now with no connections, what would you do?
If I wanted to be a fashion photographer with no connections, I would start taking photos of my “pretty” friends, do a little portfolio, then go to a model agency and ask to do test shoots for their models, and then, you already have a connection to the fashion world. If the agents and models like you, you can start to meet everyone else through them.[Note: Olivier’s beautiful photographs are displayed here with his permission. These took countless hours of hard work and dedication to his craft. Please respect his art and do not reproduce or re-use them for any other purpose.]