Interview with Johan Lolos

Johan Lolos is a self-taught travel photographer and adventurer from Belgium. After graduating in Public Relations in 2013, Johan traveled to Australia and began documenting his experience. His work was published by National Geographic, Buzzfeed and DailyMail, it was then he decided to go full time as an outdoor photographer. This also triggered his popularity on Instagram, labeling him one of the first trailblazers for travel photography on Instagram.

Johan Lolos’ Website
Johan Lolos’ Instagram

Copyright Johan Lolos

Hi Johan! You were one of the first Instagram trailblazers, what was your path like getting here?

When I graduated six years ago I began traveling. Not as a photographer but as a backpacker. I booked a one-way ticket to Australia and spent a whole year traveling around. I taught myself photography so I had some background already when I started posting on Instagram. I used specific hashtags and since Instagram wasn’t as big as it is today… I guess you can say I was in the right place at the right time. This allowed me to switch over to full-time photography in just a year!

And how would you say you’ve evolved over the last six years?

My career’s progress is still a continuous evolution. When I started to travel six years ago, I posted, what I would call, blog-like photography. It was about all my experiences as a traveler. I would take photos while on a travel tour or road trips and share everything I experienced as a traveler on Instagram. That was the year in Australia.

A year later, I arrived in New Zealand and settled down in a place called Wanaka on the South Island. That’s where I really discovered my love for the wilderness, the mountains and anything related to hiking and the outdoors. My style kind of evolved while there, it became more about landscapes, vast wildernesses, mountains, and deserts.

So you are traveling a lot. Where are you coming from right now, where are you going next?

I have a few projects lining up. But right now I’m focusing on all the parts of the planet I haven’t visited yet or haven’t spent much time. South America, Africa, and Asia are what triggers me as a creative photographer and what I want to focus on. I’m thinking for this year I’ll go to India or southern Africa. South America is also high up on my list.

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Who are your typical clients?

It can be anything really. In the last few years, most of my clients were tourism boards and anything travel business related. But I’m leaning towards a more commercial kind of photography more and more. One example would be Toyota. They are one of my biggest clients and I work with them a lot. On the other hand, I have magazines as clients. They license my photos or sometimes send me on assignment somewhere to shoot a story.

When a new client approaches me and it’s not someone I usually work for I always ask myself, “Is it going to be fun or is the job going to be worth it?” I try to consider multiple things/aspects.

So what would your dream assignment look like if you could be your own client?

I guess it would be long missions, documenting places that haven’t been documented yet. Either something about a local community or something related to sustainability. I want to tell stories through my photography that matter while making a living out of it. Which would be difficult, because it’s not what pays the best but speaks most to me at this point in my career.

Goals are very essential in anyone’s career.

What makes you good at what you do and do you think you’ve made it?

I don’t think anyone has “made” it at any point of their career. I’m always looking to get better. I’m good at what I’ve done so far, but my personal and professional goals are always evolving. For example, the documentary approach is new to me. So, I would definitely not say that I’m good at it.

But I understand the key to getting good at it is being a good storyteller. I think that it’s good that I’ve studied PR where storytelling was also a part of my studies. My book is about storytelling and I’ve received a lot of good feedback about that. But as a proper documentary photographer, where I’m trying to get… I haven’t made it yet, not at all. I’m in the process.

Also, how do you know that you’re actually on top? If you’re on top, I guess that means that you’re fulfilled, you’re satisfied in life. But then what else? “Okay, I’m at the top. I’m the best photographer.” So should I stop taking photos? You know, it doesn’t make any sense to me. So even if I get to the top and become the best photographer on Earth, which I doubt will happen, I’m 100% sure that I’d want to have new goals. Goals are very essential in anyone’s career. And I’m not just talking about photographers.

For me, it’s essential that I give myself new goals every month, every year, or whatever, just to keep being creative and actually keep enjoying what I do. If you don’t have any goals your job just becomes a new routine and it gets less exciting and you get bored.

 

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It’s part of being a photographer to always compare yourself to other ones in the business.

The best picture of your career?

That’s a question I get asked a lot and I can’t really answer that. I would say my favorite photo is the one I just took or the one I haven’t taken yet. I’m continuously in search of capturing the best photo, my favorite photo.

And of course, there are photos I took in the past I’m really proud of and that I’m really happy with. But I think it’s part of being a photographer to always compare yourself to other ones in the business. You can be the happiest person about a photo you took. And then you’re just going to stumble upon another photographer’s work and say “Wow, this photo is actually much better than mine.” Then you set a new goal and try to get a better photo. Of course, there are photos I took which I really, really, really like. But I wouldn’t say they’re my favorite photos, because I don’t think I’ve ever taken a perfect photo so far.

I hate that photo so much!

Hmmm. I think others would think differently. That picture you took of the starry night feel in Norway or was it a New Zealand ski slope that was pretty close to perfect.

Yes indeed. That’s a funny example actually. I took that photo in 2015 and instantly loved it. I was like, “Wow, this is actually crazy” and I knew it was going to do so well on Instagram at the time. It was something that hasn’t been seen yet. I posted it on Instagram and it instantly became my most liked photo for at least one or two years. I was like, “Wow, I’m so happy”. Now, three, four years later I hate that photo so much!

Really?

Yes, because I think it’s imperfect in all kinds of ways. Technically, in terms of composition, the light. I hate everything about this photo. Many people just keep telling me about how much they like it. But I personally don’t like it at all. From my first exhibition three years ago, it’s the only photograph I don’t like anymore. Photography is a very subjective topic, it’s really about personal sensitivity and how anyone will just get feelings out of a photograph. But I can’t judge you for liking it.

What’s your favorite piece of gear in your camera bag?

Well, I guess that would be my camera. I have a Nikon D850. Actually, I shoot with two of them. I’ve been doing that for three or four years now. It’s easier because I don’t have to switch lenses too often. I can be lazy when I’m on shoots. The lens I use the most is the 24-70mm f/2.8. It’s on my body 99% of the time. It’s so versatile. Although I absolutely love shooting with a 35mm or a 70-200. It depends on the subject and the situation.

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Let’s talk about your sponsorships, do you think you’re at the point of your career that you can be more selective about the companies you work with because you’ve come so far? Or do you feel obligated to consider sponsorship for a half decent equipment or lighting company because they’re willing to pay more?

Not anymore, for sure. That happened once, four years ago. It was a drone company and drones were just starting to get big. I was contacted by a company and I’ve never flown a drone before, so I was like “Oh, yeah, cool!”. I was really excited so let’s do it. They sent me a drone and paid me to be an ambassador for the brand. But the gear was crap and so was the quality of the drone and the photos. I wasn’t excited about it but I signed a contract.

Nowadays I’m very selective with clients and only work with brands I really believe in and whose gear is good enough. I’ve had a partnership with Nikon for the past two years, so I have my gear from them. I’m probably, and sadly, not going to renew with them because of administrative and contractual things. It has nothing to do with the gear. I’ve been shooting Nikon since I was 20, before the whole Instagram thing. So, Nikon was always part of my life anyway.

To be totally honest, I don’t think in 2019 there’s a camera company that is worse than others. They all produce different types of cameras of course. There are Fuji and Olympus who make 4:3 microsensors and you have the manufacturers who do the full frame, but at the end of the day it’s just so much better than what it used to be like five or ten years ago.

I follow photographers who are ambassadors for Olympus, for Lumix, or for Canon and Sony. I wouldn’t be able to tell which brand they use, because the photos are so good anyway. At this stage, technology is getting so, so good. It’s just for gear nerds basically, this battle between brands. So, if a camera company would reach out to me and say, “We’d like to work with you” and I don’t have a contract with Nikon, I don’t see why I would say no. Except maybe for the fact that it would take me six months to a year to get used to. (laughs)

Best piece of advice received?

Usually, people ask me what’s the best advice I can give, so I was ready to give that answer. (laughs) I’ve never been asked before. I’ve received a lot of advice. Something I’ve been told a lot throughout my whole life was to be humble. In your private life, in your professional life, with people, you meet and travel with. With everything. And that’s the best advice I can give and try to be as much as possible. I think it’s important because I hate people who aren’t humble.

Are there any photographers, you think we should be watching, like up and coming or maybe someone who’s your favorite?

All my favorites are classic photographers. So I’m sure you’ve seen them already. Steve McCurry or Sebastião Salgado. Or really any big photographer with a legendary name. I did stumble across a few new photographers that I’ve never heard before and that’s usually in magazines.

Although there is one guy that I stumbled upon recently you might actually have heard of him because he’s getting very big on Instagram. He doesn’t shoot documentary photography, doesn’t shoot travel, he just shoots portraits. Most are women. His name is Alessio Albi, he’s an Italian photographer. There’s just so much poetry in his work. It’s just beautiful portraits of women, sometimes men. He plays with the light and with composition and he’s really, really, really good. So, I just discovered him a month ago, reading a magazine and he instantly became one of my favorite portrait photographers.

Copyright Johan Lolos

I think Instagram has become a huge mess of non-creativity

You mentioned in an article that Jordan was a source of inspiration for you. How do you seek inspiration for your work?

Jordan really was a source of inspiration. I went there four years ago, and I’d love to go back. It was the very first time in my life that I shot a portrait of someone I didn’t know. Someone I just saw in the street. That was very intimidating. I was actually very shy and embarrassed. But I instantly knew that I just loved taking photos of people I didn’t know and people that inspire me during my travels in a certain way. You see an interesting face while walking the streets of a random city and then you just want to take a photo of that person.

But where I find my inspiration today is mostly in magazines and photo books of, again, legendary names like Steve McCurry, and all those guys. All these Magnum photographers who were so good at telling stories through their photos. This is really where I try to find my inspiration today, and less and less on Instagram and social media.

I think Instagram has become a huge mess of non-creativity, where people just reproduce what they’ve seen before. I don’t even think there’s a single authentic travel experience left on Instagram today because all these influencers that travel. The first and only thing they want to do is to get to that classic, famous spot to get a photo for their Instagram and get likes. They don’t experience proper travel anymore. I used to do that as well, of course. But that’s really what I’m trying to step away from more and more. Every month, every year. So, my inspiration is definitely not on social media anymore. It’s mostly in magazines and books or even websites about photography in general or exhibitions. Just stepping away from the digital world and getting more to the real photography world where it all began.

The authenticity of what we are seeing on social media today is just gone. Because it’s easy.

That’s interesting you mention that. Just by looking back at your history your Instagram is highlighted by many because of the locations you’ve shot. You’re transparent about the obstacles you had before capturing that perfect image like camping out at the bottom of the base before climbing a mountain or waiting for the sunrise. It’s refreshing to know that there was a lot of preparation and work behind these images and that it wasn’t just a photo you snapped while happening to walk by, which is what most influencers want us to think.

That’s exactly what I’m trying to say. The authenticity of what we are seeing on social media today is just gone. Because it’s easy. You see a beautiful spot and you know that it’s a perfect sunset opportunity. Instead of just trying to find a new cool spot, people just go there, take photos for 10 minutes and then go to the next spot. Some might call it to travel but I don’t think it’s travel at all. It’s just making money out of being an influencer. They just need to produce content for those jobs. It’s work, basically. They are on a production shoot to create content for their media, which is their Instagram and that’s the only thing they do. I might be wrong but that’s just how I feel and I’m just getting bored of all these games. That’s what I’m trying to step away from.

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If you had to choose between “photographer” and “influencer” as a title for the rest of your career… what would you choose?

That’s an easy one because I don’t consider myself an influencer. Of course, people and clients do. Being an influencer pays much more than being a photographer. At least for those who don’t have their names out there like some legends. If I had to choose 100%, I would go with being a photographer because that’s what my passion is. I love to take photos. It’s a part of me. If you tell me Instagram dies today, I wouldn’t care but two years ago, I would have. My job is being a photographer and I’m trying to make a living out of my photography and if I will earn less money in the next years because of the influencer marketing drying up, then that’s just the way it goes. I know for sure that I won’t be an influencer for my whole life but I hope I will be a photographer for the rest of my life.

Do you feel like you need to be actively engaged and upload the latest projects you’re working on so sponsors can see it or are you more focused on developing your digital portfolio?

I’m actually in the process of rebuilding my website because it hasn’t been updated in four years. I posted on Instagram two weeks ago after a six-month hiatus. Since May 2018 I posted maybe 10 or 20 photos, apart from a road trip to Spain last summer. So I really just don’t care anymore. I still have clients for which I have to post on Instagram. I had this campaign for a client in Switzerland last month and I had to post last week. So, I did that of course because that was an assignment.

I want to use Instagram as a digital portfolio and post more about documentary photography. In one of my posts, I explain my new process, my new approach as a photographer. So, if you read that, you’ll have a better idea of how I feel and what I want to do. Today, I just want to use Instagram as a platform where I can share in a way that really matters for me.

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Training, studying, assisting or starting vertically?

I’ve never assisted anyone, so I can’t really say anything about it. Although I’m sure it really helps, for me the key is to practice. Practice a lot, as much as you can. Spend a lot of time with other photographers and take photos of your friends. It’s really hard. I got better at what I did when I was living in New Zealand. That’s really where my style developed a lot, by spending a lot of time with friends. Hiking in the mountains and taking photos of each other and just getting better. So, the real key for me is to practice a lot.

How much time are you spending on post-production?

That depends on the projects. For big projects, like publishing a book, it was a good four or five months just for the post-production of 200 photos. For Instagram, I don’t know. It can be anything from five minutes to 30 minutes per photo. Sometimes I just use one of the presets that I use for my stories a lot. So that’s just 10 seconds.

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Do you have a favorite part of the whole process? Whether it be coming up with the concept, the idea or the research of where to go and then actually getting there shooting and then doing the post stuff?

The post-production is what I like the least. For sure being behind a computer. What I really hate is the selection process. Going through all the photos and selecting the best. Because I just shoot so much… too much. I end up with thousands of photos. It’s just a pain to go through all of them.

What I love the most, of course, is just being on the ground, in the field and shooting and capturing the story I want to tell. That’s for sure my favorite part of the job.

We both had expectations, so the goal was to meet halfway.

You just published your book “Peaks of Europe”! Can you tell me how you went about curating it and what motivated you do it?

From 2017 on, I was going more for a documentary approach and shooting more about the human aspect. I went on a five-month-long road trip all across Europe. The project was called “Peaks of Europe”. I published the book last year. It’s about my experience as a traveler, meeting new people and cultures.

I worked with a publisher and it was a mutual project. We both had expectations, so the goal was to meet halfway. They wanted a book mostly about landscapes and I wanted a book with a mix of both portraits as well as any kind of storytelling photographs, not just beautiful images. So that’s what we did and now it’s a book with 200 photos.

The selection process was a big job but the publisher really trusted me so it was easy. I didn’t just select the best photos. The goal was to tell the story of a photographer on a road trip through Europe. I basically selected the kind of photos you can find in magazines when there’s a reportage somewhere about a travel experience. That’s actually what I call my book. It’s more like an illustrated travel diary rather than a photobook/ coffee table book.

“Peaks of Europe” book cover, Copyright Johan Lolos

Did the publisher approach you or the other way around?

The idea came from my followers on Instagram who really pushed me to create a book after they’ve been following my journey on a daily basis for five months. I thought about self-publishing but then thought I can reach out to publishers as well. A few were interested and I signed with an independent Belgian publisher.

The good thing was they have a big, worldwide distributor. So, the book was a big success. It was also published in English and then they sold the rights to three other publishers for translations in French, German and Italian.

I do feel the responsibility every time I post about a place not because I don’t want people to know about it, but I fear the place will become overcrowded.

You share the GPS coordinates for every picture in the book. Do you feel you have a responsibility of posting or sometimes not posting a place on Instagram so it won’t be flooded by other photographers?

The GPS coordinates were done by my publisher. I don’t know if they are super specific or just indicate the region. But in the book, there is no place that’s really unknown. There are a few classic spots like in the Dolomites of course, where the GPS coordinates don’t really matter.

I remember a specific location in Greece that I had found just randomly driving around. I remember saying on Instagram that I didn’t want to share the location, because it was such a magical experience, being there with just three or four local families. Not that this place was particularly beautiful. Just that the whole experience was. It was my little paradise that I found and I remember not telling people on Instagram about the location because I didn’t want the place to become overcrowded with tourists. Although it’s just literally right next to a village full of tourists.

I do feel the responsibility every time I post about a place not because I don’t want people to know about it, but I fear the place will become overcrowded. But who am I to decide?

I experienced that with a few places that I loved when I used to live in New Zealand. There was this nice, now super famous hike called Roys Peak. Back in 2015, it wasn’t popular at all. You’d find 20 or 30 hikers a day and today there are hundreds and hundreds of hikers. When I was living there in Wanaka, I collaborated with a tourism board and we organized a big Insta-Meet-Up, inviting people like Chris Burkard and Hello Emilie. These guys were huge already at the time and when Chris posted a photo of the place and it just exploded on Instagram.

From that moment everyone wanted to do that sunset or sunrise shoot at Roys Peak. It’s just becoming a huge mess now. I went back to Wanaka a year or two later after that and I could see how bad it had become and I was just so sad because I know we have a responsibility for that. So sometimes I do try to keep things for myself when I think there’s a risk but otherwise, not really.

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But you obviously did a good job now that there are hundreds of visitors…that was the point right? Hiring you on was to generate more tourism to this part of town.

Of course, the tourism board is amazed by the results. Just the locals and the farmers are not. Of course, it generates more business opportunities for the locals and for the tourism board it’s amazing. But from an ecological point of view, is it good? No. They had to increase the parking lot, they probably will have to put all sorts of facilities throughout the hike with toilets and bins. These are not supposed to be in the mountains. But they are necessary today because of the number of people hiking there every day. So, where’s the bad and where’s the good in that? I’m not judging. I’m just establishing the facts.

Have you also been an outdoor guy before Instagram or was Instagram the driving force for you to get out in nature?

Yes and no. When I was a teenager, I was a boy scout. We used to go outdoors a lot, but that was in Belgium. I was never in the mountains, mainly just in the woods and playing outdoors. But I just loved it so much. I would say that’s where I started becoming an outdoor guy when I was twelve. When I was a student between 18 and 25, I was not at all. I was living in Brussels and I was just a city boy. So, I was definitely not into the outdoors at all. During my time as a student, I remember being inspired so much by these National Geographic photographers and I felt the need for traveling. I just couldn’t, because I was studying.

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Beaches or Mountains?

Mountains for sure. 100%. I am a skier, but a very bad one. I learned when I was 20 years old, so very late. I go skiing once a year. It’s not enough to get better. (laughs)

Thank You so much for your time. We greatly appreciate it.

My pleasure.