His life’s work needs no introduction. David LaChapelle has photographed countless celebrities, models and athletes, published dozens of beautiful coffee table books, and inspired generations of young photographers all over the world. Guys like LaChapelle, they’re the original influencers. Long before the term influencer was coined, heck long before the smart phone came about, LaChapelle was already creating photographs that were a source of fantasy and escapism one couldn’t possibly find in the mainstream media.
Indeed, they were fantastical, often bizarre, and sometimes grotesque. Well, guess what? Even LaChapelle himself couldn’t tell you how he came up with these ideas. He just did, and that kind of fearlessness right there is why Cartier wanted LaChapelle to be a part of the Cartier Social Lab. With Esquire Singapore, he talks about his new life after celebrity photography—he now lives between Los Angeles and a quiet little farm in Maui—and what keeps him going after more than 30 years behind the lens.
ESQ: Let’s talk about making bold connections. What is your ethos when it comes to communicating with your audience?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I’ve always been a big believer in communication and being clear and having clarity in my photographs so that I would connect with people, and they would understand what I was communicating to them without words but just through the power of the image. Clarity of the concept, the idea I’m trying to share, and the execution of it through the photographic medium to touch people, touch their hearts, touch them the way music touches people. To move them. That has always been my goal. We all have music that has touched our hearts and we feel was written for us. I want to take photographs that make people feel I was inside their heads and feel they have a strong connection with it.
ESQ: Your photographs are extraordinary to say the least. Has it always been easy for you to get what you want out of your subjects?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: Every photo is different and every photo has a different reason, just like every person I photograph is different, so I’m not going to approach each one in a standard way. I’m looking for the beautiful, the heroic, the aspirational, the otherworldly, the magical. In that realm, I search for creation and collaboration when I photograph, whether it's a portrait or the work I do for museums and galleries. I want to live in the world that occupies my senses and creates these scenarios, these tableaus, that are fantasy but actually are reality because once you create them and put them in the world, they’re real. This place is a magical place, anything can happen, but it’s always of the light, not of the darkness, it’s always of the light. I believe in it, I believe in staying in the light, and letting the light be my guide and tell me what to create. I don’t go searching for inspiration, inspiration comes to me. Not from me, I’m just a conduit.
"I want to take photographs that make people feel I was inside their heads and feel they have a strong connection with it."
ESQ: So you’re all about staying positive?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I don’t know what staying positive means because I hear people say it all the time, stay positive, I just don’t know what it means. And then I get very sad and worried and anxious about the world. Then I have to go to nature and go to God, and pray and get out of it, or other ways through some sort of chemical relief, through drugs or something. But there’s always this anxiety and there’s darkness right outside the door. So I won’t create anything if I think it’s dark. I understand the world between light and dark. There’s enough darkness already and I’ve been a captive of that darkness. I don’t want to create more of it. I want to only create things that are of the light and I’m an artist, I have a choice. It’s a privilege and I have a choice to create whatever I want. So I choose light, I choose beauty, I choose empathy, I choose compassion, I choose to make images that will touch people, maybe just make them laugh, maybe just make them escape for three minutes. But there’s always beauty.
ESQ: And you think that there’s just too much darkness around us?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I don’t know how people who make horror films and all these video games, the violence, I don’t know how they sleep at night. I don’t know what kind of mind they have that would consciously use their talents that God had given them to create things so horrific, and there’s so much of it. We have so much of it already in real life. It shows on the news, and why would you want to create more? This is the sad depiction of our society and you can see our society depicted in the artwork. Make no mistake, in the movies and TV and video games, this is the culture. It's not in the museums and galleries. It’s what people are actually looking at and consuming, and until that hunger for violence and cruelty and bloodshed disappears, there’ll be people creating it.
ESQ: What can be done though? It is what it is.
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I’m waiting for the enlightenment, I’m waiting for the renaissance, but I’m not only waiting for it, I’m creating a renaissance of my own. I see others doing it, other artists and musicians, people who are in the light are creating works of art that are made of light and people are being attracted to that. They’ve had enough of the darkness, the violence, they don’t need to see more of it. And that darkness, it’s not edgy, please, it’s not shocking. It’s banal, it’s suburban, it’s last generation. It’s not the new generation, it’s not the future, it’s the past. In the future we want to go into a better place. There are people gravitating towards that. They’re starving for that, you see it. You see the artists creating this work and people are running towards it because we’re all starving for beauty and light. When we hear that song and see that work of art made from this place, this well of goodness, we all feel it and we all recognise it, and that lasts. The dark stuff falls away.
"I won’t create anything if I think it’s dark. There’s enough darkness already and I’ve been a captive of that darkness. I don’t want to create more of it."
ESQ: Are you… quite religious?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I’m… spiritual. I’m a pluralist, I believe all religions are valid, all are rivers of truths leading to the same ocean. Spiritual is the word I’d rather use because religion has a set of rules and rituals and institutions, and I think there’s beauty and truth to be found there, but I don’t want to align myself with religious people because they have so much baggage with that word. In America, the religious right aligns itself with the Republican party and became politicised and uses God’s work to be politicised, you know, to hold down women and gay people and to make them feel ashamed for who they are; to use it as a tool or weapon. Religion is not a weapon. Buddha and Jesus, these are enlightened people who are teaching us rules to live by and it’s all about love and forgiveness and giving to the poor and not materialism. It’s not what they’re about. It’s okay to have good food and wear nice clothes, but not when you let it become all-consuming.
When you subtract God from your life and subtract all ideas of our ancestry, to suddenly subtract that from our modern lives, it leaves a hole. We’re going to fill it with materialism, promiscuous sex, or drugs… But those holes will never be filled, you’ll never get enough, it’ll always feel empty. See the truth in the teachings because there’s beauty there to be found, and poetry and artistry. The poets and artists and prophets have the answers. Buddha was a prophet and a teacher. Jesus was a prophet and a teacher. This is more relevant than ever. Stevie Wonder was a prophet and a teacher, and Michael Jackson. You can find it with the artists.
Tears in my eyes after hearing the story behind this piece of art. All in memory of the great #michaeljackson by #davidlachapelle All about yesterdays meet&great w/ @david_lachapelle at @groningermuseum w/ @martinus.xxl and @eden_s._garden. Wow! Very inspiring and what a humble man he is. Come and see his great exposition at @groningermuseum #davidlachapellephotography #davidlachapelle #groningen #photography #art #colourful #special #pop-art #thenetherlands #love #inspiration #andywarhol #marilynmonroe #lookalike
ESQ: Have you photographed many politicians? How do you feel about them in general?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: Our system is really broken. To be a politician today in America, to be president of the United States, to be a senator, you have to sell your soul a little because you have to get votes. Special interest gives you money, the NRA gives politicians money, and you have to do things your conscience doesn’t believe in. But they bargain with their beliefs because still there’s the hope that once elected they’ll do some good, but by then they’ve given so much away. I believe Hillary Clinton started with big ideals. But to be a politician and successful in America you have to sell your soul. It’s the same with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. If your eye is not just on profits, if you care about people, you won’t be CEO, you won’t make it. If you have empathy for humanity you won’t make it. If you care about the environment, in a free market system the environment comes second. In the free market system, someone is going to make it for less because dumping toxins in river and not disposing properly is cheaper. That’s what the free market does.
The democratic system is flawed. It’s better than communism in essence, as Martin Luther King said, but it’s still deeply flawed. Now we’re seeing the real flaws because the rampant greed in a free market society is really showing us what happens. Now we’re in a precarious time, when our very existence is at stake. People have asked me, “In hundred years what do you want your legacy to be?” Are you f**king kidding me? In a hundred years? If people are thinking about my little photographs in a hundred years, then let’s have a party. Are we even going to make it in 10 years? What’s 20 years going to be like? When I was born there was less than half the people on the planet. Now it’s more than doubled. There are so many people. Consumption is out of control. Be vegan. It’s one thing we can all do for the planet. And stay in the light. I'm a vegan and I’ve tried to stay in the light my whole life. Sometimes I’d gone into the dark and fallen off the path but I get myself back on the path and back into the light. It’s a much better place to be.
"People have asked me, 'In hundred years what do you want your legacy to be?' Are you f**king kidding me? In a hundred years?"
ESQ: Earlier on you talked about how music touches people's hearts. What are you listening to these days?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: Stevie Wonder, Songs In The Key Of Life. Roberta Flack’s Quiet Fire. Chance the Rapper, the first track of Life of Pablo, Ultralight Being, with Kanye West. I’m listening to Franck Ocean, Moon River, constantly on a loop.
ESQ: How do you approach setbacks and failure in general?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: We have little failures every day and we have to forgive ourselves and move on. The big failures are where we don’t follow our heart, where we make life-changing decisions that are so important like what am I going to do now, out of fear, fear of failure, fear of not being relevant as an artist… So then what? I’ll go and take the same picture as I took in 1995? No! Take the same picture as 2010? No! I have to keep moving and being true to what I believe now. Not being true to yourself, that’s a big failure. Not listening to your inner voice. We all have the answers inside of ourselves, we all have our own moral compass. It can get clouded, drugs would cloud it, block us from our moral compass, letting materialism rule your life and greed, those things will cloud us from our higher good, from our inner knowledge of what is right and wrong and then we’ll make bad decisions.
ESQ: How bad did it ever get?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I had moments where people told me I was finished, washed up, but you just keep doing, keep working, believe in yourself, keep moving forward, just have faith, that’s what faith is. What people keep telling you, it’s the opposite. You just have faith in yourself, have faith to take that next step forward. Just focus on the next hour if you can’t focus on the next day. The sun will come out again, the light will shine again. All you have to do is turn within. We have to turn within. When we’re stuck we make bad decisions, get addicted to drugs, go to the dark place, but there are ways to get out. Usually we’re humbled and we turn to the light, to God, to within. Sometimes we have to be humbled, brought to our knees, to realise there’s something bigger than us.
ESQ: Has social media influenced the way you work in any way?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I use social media but I’m not addicted to it. I want to see pictures big, in books and in museums, not in phones. Phones are made for texting and talking, not for looking at art. We have a nice relationship, myself and social media. But I’m an adult so I can control how I use it. If I was a young kid and I want to have sex with everyone, have every drug, every sensation, then I would have been addicted to social media. That would have f**ked up my life. Adults have self-control but kids don’t. It’s like candy and I’m the kid who wants to eat all that sugar. I want to dance all night. I’ve stayed up all night, let me stay for two nights, and then maybe three nights. What are my limits? I let social media serve me. When I read comments from young people who read about my work, that touches me very deeply because of the sincerity. That’s been a big surprise to me, I’m very new to social media. Only in November last year I started an Instagram account. Before that I thought it was just people’s selfies and food. I didn’t know you can have a meaningful conversation or dialogue. So let the device make you free, not a captive.
ESQ: That’s a problem for many, unfortunately.
DAVID LACHAPELLE: They’re mostly young people. I get it, I’ve been there. I’m older now so I can control it. I have more control over my life now. When I was young, I really wanted to have sex with the whole world. I was mad that people were having sex without me. I wanted to do everything. Now you’re older and wiser. You'd say, “I don’t need to go to this party, I’d rather sleep tonight.” Whereas I could never miss a party when I was in New York in the 80s. You’re young, and hung and full of… (laughs)
"Sometimes we have to be humbled, brought to our knees, to realise there’s something bigger than us"
ESQ: What would you say to your 20-year-ago self?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I would say “Ok slow down b*tch, you’re going too fast, you need to slow down. Slow your roll.” I would tell myself to take it easier a little bit, enjoy it. Enjoy the ride because it’s going to go by quicker than you think, you’re going to lose people along the way, everything will happen faster than you think it will. Be grateful. And I did have a good time doing the work and living that crazy life, flying all over the world, doing different jobs, living in the fast lane. But I would also say, “You’re not going to die if the picture doesn’t come out.” I put so much pressure on myself to make everything come out perfectly. “It’s ok you’re not going to lose everything if you don’t make everything perfect the way you need it to be. You’ll survive. And you will go on.” I used to think my life will be over if I didn’t have every single pictures perfect. Every single picture had to be a knock out. It had to be the most incredible thing.