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Documenting the digital: five essential lessons we can learn from Jérôme Gence

From digital nomads to online divas, the award-winning photographer's fascinating photo stories shine a light on our obsession with tech. Here he shares his five tips for aspiring photojournalists.
A group of casually dressed young people lie around and in a pool, some on inflatable pink flamingoes. Almost all of them are looking at phones or laptops.

An image from documentary photographer Jérôme Gence's Telework series. These remote workers can share tips and professional opportunities while enjoying the comforts of life in a Balinese villa. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 24mm, 1/80 sec, f/4 and ISO320. © Jérôme Gence

Collecting and analysing data for international brands might seem an unlikely background for a documentary photographer, but Canon Ambassador Jérôme Gence has found surprising parallels between his two very different careers.

"Unconsciously, I learned storytelling from working with figures," he explains. "Once you collect the data you have to tell the story. Your client has a very short time to listen to the results of the analysis, so you have to get straight to the point."

Jérôme is fascinated by the impact technology is having on all our lives, and his photography shines a light on how the internet, and new ways of digital communication, have changed the way we work and relate to each other. His documentary projects, mainly based in Asia, have focused on subjects including selfie culture, livestreaming, the obsession with virtual singers and the lives of digital nomads.

Jérôme's skills in producing original, tech-related stories on how we live today have helped him stand out in the competitive world of photojournalism. His work has been published in high-profile magazines including Le Figaro, Stern, Spiegel, Le Monde and on the National Geographic website. His latest series on remote workers, Telework, was selected for the 2021 Visa pour l'Image festival of photojournalism.

Jérôme has learned some valuable lessons on his professional journey and here he offers five tips for aspiring documentary photographers, based on his experiences.
Hear more of the conversation in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:
A man sits in his bedroom, looking at his phone and smiling. The room's walls are covered in images of female celebrities.

To make his series on livestreamers, Jérôme had to gain the trust of both livestreamers and fans. This image shows 32-year-old Kongto, a devotee of livestreamer Yutong, watching one of her livestreaming sessions. His idol's photos, posters and memorabilia are displayed on the walls of his room. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 17mm, 1/25 sec, f/4 and ISO2000. © Jérôme Gence

1. Tell your subjects' stories

Jérôme began taking photographs in 2013, to document a year-long journey from his home in Paris to the Himalayas. "For me, the Himalayas were like a dreamland and I wanted to make pictures of my dream," he says. "It was mainly about the people – I found the people there unique." When this project was exhibited, he met French photographer Éric Valli, who gave him the key advice that helped him develop his work.

"Éric said taking a single portrait of someone may not be enough. If you want to keep photographing people, you have to tell their story," Jérôme remembers. "He explained to me how to document a topic by photographing different aspects of people's lives. Now the reason I photograph people is to tell their stories.
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"It's also really important to do good research and find the best people for your story. You don't need so many people, but good ones. There will be some who are like a guide and they will show you the main point of your story."

Jerome usually finds his subjects via social media, with help from an assistant from the country where the story is based and who knows the culture and language well. However, he says social media was not the best way to find subjects for his Telework series. "For this project I went to stay in Bali, subscribing myself as a member of a co-working space," he says. "Gradually I got to meet people who introduced me to others and I became part of the community."
A young woman sits on a white bed, holding a long selfie stick with her phone on the end. There is a large display of two red hearts behind her.

For his Livestreamers series, Jérôme photographed 35-year-old Lala, a famous livestreamer in Taiwan. "In addition to livestreaming sessions, Lala uses her popularity and image for partnerships with companies, brands or associations," says Jérôme. "A smartphone is all you need. But no matter the device, the job is the same: selling unattainable dreams to lonely fans." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM at 35mm, 1/10 sec at f/4.5 and ISO2000. © Jérôme Gence

2. Make notes about your subjects

An important part of Jérôme's work is documenting his subjects in words as well as images. "Today, it's really hard for one single shot to amaze people because we are so used to seeing beautiful pictures," Jérôme explains. "In my work I have access to people who have something to tell me, and I want to learn from them and understand what's happening in their lives.

"The big mistake I made when I went on my journey to the Himalayas was that I didn't write anything in a notebook. I was young and thought I would not forget anything about the people I met, but when you get older you realise your memory can't store everything.

"Making notes is a crucial part of my work and I have a notebook and pen with me all the time now, or sometimes I record what my subjects say on my phone. Sometimes just one really strong sentence echoes all the way through the story and brings something new that you can’t see in the picture."

For Jérôme's images of fans of virtual singers or followers of livestreamers, for example, making notes to be used as captions helps illuminate their little-known personal lives. "If you photograph people and don't record what they say, your story will not be as powerful as it could be," he continues. "My advice is to take notes as much as to photograph, and to find an explanation for why you want to photograph this person or place."
A man sits at a desk with a raised tray full of burgers in front of him. Also on the desk are two monitors, a laptop and several phones.

Jérôme's series Mukbangs focused on livestreamers who eat large amounts of food on camera for their fans. In this image, taken in Seoul, South Korea, Huh Mino is set up in one of the rooms of his apartment which he has turned into a livestreaming studio. He's getting ready to eat 10 burgers in 10 minutes and earns from 400 to 800 euros per session. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 18mm, 1/100 sec, f/4 and ISO1600. © Jérôme Gence

3. Capture emotion in your images

From his earliest projects, Jérôme has been aware of the importance of capturing people's feelings in his work. "Emotions such as sadness and happiness are common things we share as human beings, so it's really important to get them into your images," he says. "A lot of young photographers ask me how to capture those emotions and for me, it is the way you approach people, the time you spend and the trust you develop that makes the difference."

Documenting people who spend most of their time looking at computer screens means Jérôme has to work hard to find ways of telling a visually varied story. "It's a big challenge every time, because you want to capture people's emotions, but having them in front of computers is not so emotional," he says.
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"I try to capture some photos of them like this, but afterwards I pay a lot of attention to what those people do when they are not on screens, when they do normal things and become human beings again. In that way I can capture the emotion I need, and when I mix the photos together it makes a story."

To help gain his subjects' trust, he always carries a copy of a magazine featuring his work. "Everyone can have their pictures online, so it doesn't mean so much anymore, but if a respected magazine prints your story it gives your work some credit," he says.
A large curving table fills most of a room, covered in green plants in plant pots, with people sitting working on laptops around the plants.

In another image from Jérôme's Telework series, remote workers are shown at Second Home, one of the most popular co-working spaces in Lisbon, Portugal. On the right is Vincent, a French software developer, who moved to Portugal for its relatively low rates of Covid-19, low cost of living and attractive climate. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 16mm, 1/40 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Jérôme Gence

4. Take advantage of technical innovations

Jérôme says that technical improvements, even during the past three years, have made a big difference to his work. "My project on livestreamers was made in 2018, when I was using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV," he says. "It is a great camera, but when I took an image, it made a click and the fans I photographed asked me to make less noise because they couldn't enjoy the livestreaming session.

"Now I use the Canon EOS R5, which is a game-changer because it's so quiet you can photograph everything you want for your story without disturbing people. It's also not so big, so people can be natural in front of the camera. The Eye AF and the autofocus speed is amazing. I don't waste any time now, because it's so fast and accurate – I'm more focused on the people I'm photographing, and more productive."

As Jérôme is often working in small rooms when photographing his subjects, he mainly uses one lens – the Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM. "Keeping your gear to a minimum makes it easier to carry and helps you concentrate on your subjects, rather than thinking about the lens you're going to use," he says.
A queue of people stand at a bus stop, holding shopping. They are all wearing masks and looking at their phones.

Jérôme made creative use of technology to shoot his series on Taiwan during the coronavirus pandemic: his assistant visited locations in Taiwan with her camera attached to her smartphone, while Jérôme directed her remotely from his Paris home. He would control which subject was chosen and how the image was framed, then ask her to fire the shutter. He also interviewed his subjects via the phone. Taken on a Canon EOS 70D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 18mm, 1/125 sec, f/4 and ISO3200. © Jérôme Gence

5. Find new ways of working

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Jérôme had a planned flight to Taiwan cancelled and had to remain in Paris during lockdown. However, he realised he could make use of technology to keep telling stories. His assistant, Summer Lin, was in Taiwan where Covid cases were very low and there was no lockdown. He asked her to attach her Canon EOS 70D to her smartphone and go to different locations on the island.

"Using the phone on live, I could see through the camera and asked her to move so I could frame what I wanted to photograph, then she would just press the shutter," he says. "We also did livestreaming and interviews. At the beginning, I wondered if magazines would be interested in this story, but, day by day, I realised we had a good story and the way we did it represented the situation well."

Jérôme emailed the director of photography at French newspaper Le Monde, who later published the story. "My advice from this experience is, don't tell yourself your story won't interest an editor. Magazines and newspapers want to be the first to publish something made with a new kind of technology.

"Printed magazines also have social media channels and they are looking for different ways of storytelling including video. Even if they might not be interested in your story this time, maybe for the next time they will remember you did something original, interesting and out of the box."

Skrevet av David Clark


Jérôme Gence's kitbag

The key kit that a documentary photographer uses to take their photographs

Jérôme Gence's kitbag

Cameras

Canon EOS R5

A professional full-frame mirrorless flagship camera offering photographers and filmmakers high-resolution stills and 8K video. "When you photograph a portrait, the face can change so quickly, so I love really fast autofocus," says Jérôme. "The speed of the EOS R5's AF is just crazy."

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

A beautifully engineered and thoroughly accomplished all-rounder that captures every nuance, every colour and every detail. Jérôme says: "The EOS 5D Mark II was my first professional camera. I used it on my Himalayas trip, and it changed my life. I upgraded to the Mark IV because the frame rate is much better. The improved high ISO performance is also an advantage when I'm working indoors, because I never use artificial light."

Canon PowerShot G5 X Mark II

The latest version of the camera Jérôme uses is a premium compact camera with a high-quality 5x zoom for superb results whatever you're photographing. "I always make sure I put the Canon PowerShot G5 X in my bag," says Jérôme. "It's the model I use to photograph things I want to remember while I'm travelling. The compact size, combined with the great specs, mean it's the perfect camera for approaching people."

Lenses

Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM

An ultra-wide and super sharp lens, thanks to L-series optical quality and 5-stop image stabilisation for dynamic angles even in tight spaces. "I use an ultra-wide-angle lens when I'm shooting in people's homes, because often the rooms are small," says Jérôme. "It also helps to capture many details in a single frame."

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

A professional-quality standard zoom that offers outstanding image quality and a fast f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range. "This is an amazing lens. To me it's the best lens for storytelling because I stay close to people when I photograph them," says Jérôme.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM

The latest version of the lens Jérôme uses is a high quality zoom with innovative lens display and Nano USM. "I really love the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM and used it a lot when I was travelling in the Himalayas. It offers a great all-purpose zoom in a compact size," says Jérôme.

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