Photojournalist, documentarian and Marine, Reynaldo Leal, brings an eye for compassion to his photographs both on and off the battlefield. Leal’s images often bear witness to the best of the human spirit in both conflict zones and daily life. His love of people drives his work, as well as a healthy respect for the discipline of twentieth century photographers and the rigors of film photography. Read on to find out more about Reynaldo’s work and inspiration.
You got your first camera at twelve, and have never looked back; was there a turning point when your passion became your profession?
I think the turning point for me was returning from my second deployment to Iraq with the Marine Corps. I came back with some images that for some reason people liked. That was the first time I considered what I did – documenting everyday life – as art. My work was published and featured in exhibits for the first time. Moving forward, I may not be a full time photographer, but my goal is to continue to travel and photograph people in their environment. Photography is what I want to base my legacy on. Images will be the only thing I leave behind, so I want there to be a lot of them!
As a documentary photographer / photojournalist, how has seeing war up close and personal effected your worldview?
I’ve experienced war as both a combatant in Iraq and a freelancer in Syria. As a photographer, I always want to capture images that let people shine. During war, when the worst in people can come out, this means letting the human spirit surface in the face of extreme adversity – whether it’s a photo of a Marine showing a friendly face to the children in a village after a day-long patrol or a Free Syrian Army fighter playing soccer with his friends after sitting in a sniper hide for hours in Aleppo.
The thing about experiencing life this way is that you tend to find the similarities between people. You find, at a basic level, that you have more in common with the average person in Aleppo than you think. All of us want a safe place for ourselves and our families, and a government that lets us reach the goals we work so hard to make a reality. Once you put yourself in others shoes, you don’t question their intentions when they decide to fight back or escape for a better life. You don’t have to go to war to see this. It’s just easier to see when you strip away everything we take for granted and get down to what’s really important to people.
You recently donated proceeds from sales of your photograph, “Witness to War” to TentED.org, can you tell us a bit about that decision?
Witness to War is a special photo to me because it highlights those who are deeply affected by the violence of war: women and children. There are so many children being displaced by the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS, and I believe we have an obligation to help those in need when we can. TentEd was founded to help these children by helping their communities reestablish the importance of an education. This isn’t easy when you start to think about life and the things that become more and more important in a refugee camp. I applaud TentEd for everything they do. It was an easy choice for me to donate proceeds from this particular image and I hope people will support the cause and consider buying the image. It’s an important topic.
What type(s) of camera(s) do you use? Do you still shoot with film, or are you primarily digital? Do you prefer one more than the other?
I now use a Sony mirrorless camera because I can walk around a new city without bringing too much attention to my camera. I really do think it’s a perfect travel camera, and it helped me get some good shots during my last trip to Vietnam. I learned photography with film, and I still like shooting with it. I think in an age when we can fill a 128GB card with image after image, it’s important to have shot discipline with a roll of 24 frames.
Your black and white images are stunning. When and why do you choose to make an image black and white?
I think it’s mostly about feel for me. I grew up reading as many photo books as I could get my hands on. I always tried to mimic the photos I saw, and that’s how I learned the settings on my camera. Some of my favorite books were the TIME Life books on war – especially WWII and Vietnam. Most of the images were black and white, so I’m just drawn to the way a photo looks when it doesn’t have the distraction of color.
Lastly, photographing people and daily life around the world seems to be one of your main interests, is their anything most of your subjects have in common?
I think people are beautiful, and the daily struggle of living life is inspirational. I’m not much of a landscape or wildlife photographer – mostly because I don’t have the patience for it – but humans and their stories always pique my interest. Finding the thread that brings us together as people is what I look for, and I love that I get to meet people when I travel. What my subjects have most in common is that they are “normal.” Their experience and environment may not be normal, but they are really just humans grinding it out every day. I love that.