Olivier Yoan was born in the South of France, and he grew up there as well as in Quebec near Montreal. He was home-schooled most of the time until high school, when he moved to Marseille. But he soon after moved to Paris to start modeling when he was discovered by a scout on the internet.
From there, he started traveling the world as a model, and though that experience he became interested in photography. So he started to take pictures of his friends. Years later, he is now living in Hong Kong and travels the world as a professional photographer.
You started your career as a model. What have you learned from this experience?
I’ve learned that being a pretty face to make money is a good way to have very low self esteem, and that I am much happier when I have more control over my career and that I can improve it by training my brain rather than my muscles.
I also learned everything I know about fashion. I learned how to behave in an environment I was unfamiliar with. I also discovered the world and learned about many cultures as I was traveling for work and having different contracts around.
And I learned how to love people very quickly and how to appreciate the moment as things go so fast. I’ve learned how to be a good party animal as well, with all the free drinks and party invites I received (laugh).
I had an awesome time. I have to say that my life really started to feel drastically different when I went to South Korea for the first time. I found that people there were very much there for eachother and having fun together. I felt very accepted in an environment for the first time. That was amazing, and after 8 years I am still very close to the friends I made during that trip. Two of them just visited me in Hong Kong last week….wonderful people.
At the time I started modeling I had a very tiny point and shoot camera, but I was just using it in parties and stuff — it was a present from my mom. But my first DSLR was a Nikon D40 and no, I don’t use it at all anymore. I gave it to a friend 🙂
It seems like you had a good time. Was it always easy?
If it was always easy ? No, not really. I am someone who questions himself a lot, and I often had a hard time comparing myself with other people. Also, I never felt like I could be at the top of the game as I always saw other models that were much better than me.
So I was often frustrated. That’s what pushed me to get into photography and push for another job, even if my modeling career was not going bad at all when I started to move away from it. And also I have to say it was hard to get so close to some people during a contract. Sometimes you are together everyday for three months, and then you never see them again. Being pretty sensitive and loving people alot, I felt hurt.
But overall I had an amazing time. I got to see so many amazing sunsets, landscapes and cultures… I can’t even begin!
You’re a self-taught photographer. Was it easy to make a name for yourself? What qualities do you think helped you?
I think it’s always a challenge to find your place in this industry, which can be quite competitive. But I think it’s just about working a lot, challenging yourself, and also trying to show a part of you in your photos. The rest follows naturally. It’s not easy, but it’s feasible. I still need to improve a lot and there is so much more I want to explore when it comes to photography. I don’t feel like I have achieved anything yet at all.
What differentiates me from everyone else ? It’s really hard to say. I believe every human being has unique qualities, and I think maybe what differentiates me is that I’ve always been kind of an alien whenever I was somewhere. I grew up in a pretty alternative environment and culture. Even being in France, my mom was Belgian and both my parents had — let’s call it an alternative view on the world. Even my sisters were very alternative and they were listening to all these specific types of electronic music or foreign fashions, while at the time I was very willing to be more integrated into a more mainstream way of life. I was a fan of the Spice Girls and I wanted to be fashionable. But when I was with more mainstream and fashionable people I was always a bit weird from being home-schooled and not exactly like them. So everywhere I was considered a bit different. Then when I started modeling after a while I became a popular kid, which is kind of what I wanted, and now I’m at the point where I feel I have a strong understanding of what makes people be accepted or not in different situations. It helps me have a specific vision of myself… I don’t know if you see what I mean, ha ha.
Have you ever met someone that inspired you? How did that go?
Well, I met Matthew Brookes, one of my favorite photographers, when I was about 18 years old. I was modeling in Paris at the time. I remember finding him really interesting and had an awesome conversation with him, and at the time I did not know much about photography and I think the photographers whom I found cool were the very colourful ones like David Lachapelle and Mert and Marcus.
Along with Matthew Brookes, Peter Lindbergh and Bruce Weber are more realistic and “story telling” types of photographers. I feel much closer to them now, and I remember at the time Matthew telling me: “Oh I don’t really like fashion. I like people. “
I did not really understand that at the time, but now I can so relate to that. With my knowledge of photography growing, I realized that I was a lot more touched by stories and people, and so the fashion photography that I love looks a bit more like portraits and movies than just a fashion ad.
And recently he liked some of my pictures on Facebook and also told me he liked them….I was very touched! He also gives me some advice sometimes. There are many other photographers I would really like to meet… I love Peter Lindbergh, Webber, Sally Mann, Jock Sturges, Boo George, David Sims, Ryan Mcginley…. Many wonderful eyes on this planet with whom I would like to share and ask questions
But there are also a lot of people that don’t have much to do with fashion or photography that are big inspirations that I’d like to meet.
Regarding your work, what are you trying to express through your photography?
When I do a personal work, or an editorial on which I have some freedom, there are many things I am trying to express. It really depends of my state of mind and when I am doing the art direction.
I have for a long time been wanting to express my feelings, my story, the way I see the world… but right now more than ever before I want to put more in my pictures.
In the sense that when I see the state of the world: full of violence, environmental crises, economical problems, racism… you know it’s kinda fucked up. So I feel like as an individual, a human on this planet, I have a duty to try to make this planet a better place.
It’s not so easy as a fashion photographer, but showing people in harmony with both nature and themselves is already a great first step. I’m not one of those photographers who is trying to shock people and to be very eccentric. We already have many of those already anyways.
In the Maitri Buddhist meditation, you must wish for all living beings to “be healthy, be happy, and be at ease”. I’m hoping I can contribute to that with my photos in some way. But of course I’ll express it in many different ways, and sometimes I do have to express some feelings of sadness or even anger through them….photography really is a language to me.
You’ve spent your life traveling. What advice would you give to someone who is trying to explore the world?
I’d say take your time. Sit down, make friends with the locals, open your heart. Read the writings of the philosophers of the place you are visiting while you are in a beautiful place; Your energy will change. Try to be a local for a little bit.
Who should we interview next?
You could interview my sister, Isabelle Buyse. She is an artist. She is super cool and much wiser than I am!