Norman Jean Roy
Photo by Norman Jean Roy

Norman Jean Roy: “The camera used to carry this mystique”

Short Profile

Name: Norman Jean Roy
DOB: 19 August 1969
Place of birth: Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada
Occupation: Photographer

Mr. Roy, for over a decade your images have graced the pages and covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair. How would you describe your relationship with fashion and portrait photography?

I certainly wouldn't dare call myself a fashion photographer. Never have, never will be. I got into photography largely because I've had and still do have this long-standing fascination with the human condition. So I'm just genuinely interested in people and finding these moments of vulnerability that allows me to mirror back and make sense of my own experience. So as a portrait photographer, what's interesting is finding these glimpses that everyone reveals subconsciously, and being tuned into that reflection and grabbing it so that you have something to look at and subconsciously study.

And fashion?

Fashion, to me, was always a vehicle for access to a particular segment of my experience; to elevate the narrative that I was trying to experience, and then relate back. Fashion always gave me this space where I could communicate something... Whereas commercially speaking, you obviously have an obligation to your client, you have an obligation to the parameters that are put in place. I take that very seriously. If someone has something in mind, my job is to solve it for them. They're spending the money that day, your job is to say, "You've got it." And I find a real, deep satisfying pleasure in that. I really do. Now if I do four advertising campaigns a year, it's fun. I get really excited. You're literally getting the best of me. So my personal relationship and love for photography is still intact. That has never changed. That will never change. I love it just as much. But photography as medium has changed a lot.

“It’s a lot easier for people to make an aesthetically pleasing photo, but it’s still just as hard to make a great photo.”

Because of the digitization of photography?

I think it's digital photography as a bigger conversation: the cell phone destroyed photography. I challenge anyone to discern between any of my photographs that are shot on film and digital, and you won't be able to tell. So that's not the issue for me as much as, and it took me a long time to finally realize, actually, it's not the instrument, it's our relationship with it. It's our exposure to it. And it's the overwhelming saturation of the content that ultimately made the viewer unable to discern between quality and crap. And even if they see something good, they no longer have the attention span required to digest that sort of thing.

Which resulted also in the quality of magazine content decreasing.

I think much of what you see in magazines now is a bit boring. And I don't think it's the fault of anyone other than the condition of where we are as a society. We're just so saturated that our brains literally cannot process it, and as a result, we're seeing what that looks like now. It's a lot easier for people to make an aesthetically pleasing photo, but it's still just as hard to make a great photo.

That is somewhat evident in magazines coming out now which include homemade photoshoots taken during isolation.

Exactly. They're not bad photos per se, like technically, but they don't have what a real portrait is supposed to have. I categorize anything photographic as a photograph, and a picture. And they're two very different things. If you want to make pictures for a living, there's nothing wrong with this. Anyone who does what they want to do is wonderful. But for me, the parameter has always been: I am only interested in making photographs. If I'm not able to make a photograph, I'm not interested in showing up.

What does a photograph require in your opinion?

A photograph requires much more than just taking something pleasing. When a photograph is successful, you kind of get transported to that moment. And if you do your job correctly, you remove yourself from that transaction, and all you're left with is the viewer and the subject. When you remove yourself as the photographer, we all collectively make sense of this moment. If I don't feel you, if I don't feel the romance, if I'm not lost in your image, it's not a good image.

I imagine that oversaturation has also changed the way people feel about being photographed, no?

When I first started, I can reflect back to 30 years ago, we had a very different relationship with what that camera was. The camera itself used to carry this mystique, this very magical thing. When I started, digital photography didn't exist, cell phones barely made calls, and so people were present. It really didn't matter who you were photographing, everyone kind of showed up. If you said to someone, "Let me take a picture of you", they stopped and let you take a picture of them. Whereas today, it's kind of like click, click, click, click, click, click. I certainly noticed in the last decade in my photo career, how different the interaction was with my subjects compared to what it was 20 years ago. Huge difference.

“The idea is you should be able to walk away so that, God forbid, should something happen to you, what you left behind is what you wanted to say.”

Do you feel like your approach to photography also changed over the last few decades?

I could look at my work from my first week of working to my last week, and it was the same guy. It’s the same guy trying to make sense of things. What changed was the sophistication, the eye, the maturity, the vernacular changes… I know who I am as a photographer, I know exactly what I do, I know what I love because it's what I've always loved. The idea is you should be able to walk away so that, God forbid, should something happen to you, what you left behind is what you wanted to say.

Do you think about your own legacy very much?

I don't think about legacy, no. I don't think about how people perceive something. The only time I have exercised judgment in how someone's going to perceive is if I felt that my opinion of someone could potentially influence the way someone sees them in a negative way. It's not my job to opine. As a photographer, as long as I remain truthful with myself in the transaction, as long as I maintain a level of empathy for my humanity in that process, then what is being translated back is honest and the transaction is not objectified. I can literally take my entire archive, shred it all, and walk away from it. I have zero attachment to anything because... Well, it's not what it's about.

What kind of photos are you taking these days that reflect the kind of humanity you are so interested in?

I still take pictures almost every day — of my kids! Like, I did portraits of the graduating class where my daughters go to school. And I get a big kick out of doing that because it's like, “Oh, if you only knew.” There's no question in my mind, that if we could rewind the clock and go back to 20 years ago and bring that sort of model to today, I'd be in the game, I would be at the top. No question about it. Because that's what I fell in love with. It's just that that model, the romance, the relationship with the medium is gone. It's gone to a place where I am actually not sure that if I was 20 years old today, whether I would even become a photographer.

So what else are you doing these days?

For the last year and a half, I've been building a bakery, which is actually where I'm speaking to you from right now! I’ve even got a post-production office here, so I can bake and then go upstairs and work. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away, I don't see a day that I won't be a photographer… But I’m just of a different mindset now.