How a Photographer with No Social Media Became a Canon Ambassador

Jerome Gence is a Paris-based photographer who has been published in National Geographic, Le Monde, and other magazines. He is also a Canon Ambassador but, surprisingly, does not have an Instagram or Facebook page because he dislikes (no pun intended) all social media.

Gence grew up on the small Indian Ocean island of Reunion, 500 miles east of Madagascar, an overseas department of France with a population of less than one million. When at school, a visiting lecturer showed them photos of the Himalayas, his first experience with the outside world growing up.

The next step was graduate school in Paris followed by a comfortable life as a data analyst. One Sunday, he was watching a documentary about a Toy Train (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway) in India. He saw the story of a woman who carried visitors’ luggage to provide an education for her five children.

He told his girlfriend, “I’m gonna take three weeks of holiday and go to that city and try to meet her.”

Gence did end up meeting her and taking photos in India with a Canon 5D Mark II and 24-105mm f/4, but when he returned, he decided to go back and do more photography. He quit his job, left his life in Paris, and embarked on a two-year overland journey to Nepal via Italy, Iran, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Central Asia, Mongolia, China, Thailand, and Myanmar, with other stops along the way. The travel mode, with a tent in accompaniment, was hitchhiking, or whatever was available.

The day after he arrived in Nepal in 2015, a strong earthquake killed 9,000 people, and he still wonders how and why he escaped. By coincidence, he met French photographer Eric Valli, who gave him photography direction by telling him: “you have ‘amazing eyes,’ but that is not enough – you must tell a story.” This statement has completely guided Gence in his photographic career.

“On my island, I did not have National Geographic magazine,” Gence tells PetaPixel. “It [National Geographic] did not exist. I did not know about photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado, Steve McCurry, Marc Riboud, Martin Parr and Pascal Maitre.

“And I had no idea how to tell a story, so Eric gave me a lot of photo books to show me how. He told me to find a topic as there are so many photographers who go to war, to environmental or social issues to try to find a niche that would get them spotted by an editor…”

“One day, while I was traveling in China, I discovered by chance the concept of live streamers,” says the itinerant photographer.

“The big difference between these live streamers and bloggers in the US and Europe is that the live streaming showgirls [not sexual] are paid by the fans who send them emojis. A single emoji can be up to €5,000-10,000 [euros and dollars are approximately equal value] and the streamer can earn up to €50,000 per month.

Gence immediately spotted his next assignment, a kitschy, colorful (literally and figuratively) world full of lighting/video effects that are used to attract bored young men — Livestreamers: The Geishas of the Internet. He traveled for 8-9 months through China, Korea, and Japan to document this business that preys on people’s loneliness.

Next, Gence went to Visa Pour L’Image in 2019, a well-known photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France, where he showed it to a photo editor. Soon it was in Le Figaro, Stern [Germany], and National Geographic.

“Actually, I don’t have Instagram or Facebook, and I don’t want to put my work on social media,” says the photographer. “So, the only way to put my work in front of an editor was to attend Visa Pour L’Image [500 miles to the south from Paris].

“Anyone can attend a portfolio review by filling out a form. My last review was with Sarah Leen, the director of photography for National Geographic, and I thought I had no chance here. Why should my story even interest her?  She started with, ‘You have 15 minutes to show me your work.’

“She stood up after 15 minutes, stretched out her hand in congratulations, and gave me her email. Two months later, I received a message from National Geographic, and at first, I thought it was spam. But it was an actual invitation from National Geographic Storytellers Summit in Washington, DC.”

“After I presented at the Nat Geo Summit, Canon selected me as an Ambassador in 2020,” the photographer continues.

“Soon after, Google asked me to give a talk on Connected World For Disconnected People,” Gence says.

Another of Gence’s big features was the Mukbangs: Food Delivery at Screen, a type of online eating show popular in South Korea in which a host consumes various quantities of food while interacting with the audience.

A third story was about a Japanese virtual singer, which is actually a hologram — Virtual Singer: I Love a Hologram. Hatsune Miku is a Vocaloid software voicebank and its official anthropomorphic mascot character, a 16-year-old girl with longhaired, turquoise twin tails. Fans who fill entire stadiums during their concert get so crazy with Miku’s character that one of them even had an expensive marriage ceremony that Gence recorded.

All three stories are well known in Asia, but they got a lot of play in publications, as Gence showed them for almost the first time to European audiences. Also, as his mentors had advised, he spent 7-8 months on each story, during which he won the trust of his subjects and could thereby gain intimate portrayals.

Not Liking Instagram and Social Media

“I learned to make stories in the old school way by dedicating time and more time on the subject,” says the French photographer. “The problem with social media is that you are only dedicated to yourself, and when you spend more time, you want to have more and more likes.

“I don’t think giving all your work and life and what animates you to these platforms is a good strategy. If one day, they decide to stop it [the social media service], what then?”

Gence meets photographers who ask him how they can be published. Now, if you put all your photos online, there’s no surprise anymore, as editors see thousands of photos daily. Why would they select your work from Instagram? He believes you must create a surprise — like I have some things you have not seen before.

Monjie, a young livestreamer is getting out from a convenience store after work.

“The thing on the Internet is that people want you to believe that they can be everything they want to be,” says the storyteller. “Everyone can be a photographer; everyone can be a videographer; everyone can be a writer, everyone can be … as long as you want to be. This is not true.

“I was one of them. My dream was to be a classical guitarist. You cannot imagine how much money I invested, changed many guitars, and told myself that by buying a new guitar [I could be better]. ‘I want another camera,’ say young photographers, ‘and I will take better photographs,’ which is not true. At some point, I would say you need to have the courage to say that maybe this is not for you, and you have to express yourself in another way. Photography was not my passion. It came into my life by accident.

“When I am home, my cameras are in the cabinet, and I don’t take photos. Instead, I take the time to search for stories. I’m a Canon ambassador and have a box of the new gear but am happy with my Canon R5 and older Canon 5D Mk IV and even Mk II. I mostly use the Canon RF 15-35mm along with the Canon 24-70 f/2.8, which is my favorite.

“It is strange because I’m now a Canon Ambassador, I work for many magazines, and I don’t have social media. So, I have to explain [when hiring an assistant] and justify myself for not being online. Yes, something really, really surprising to me.

A few months ago, I proposed to the newspaper Le Monde, a photo story about the Ukrainian refugees who work in the palaces of the French Riviera. Right after the report was published, a TV channel and a real-time news site went on the same subject by interviewing the exact same people. We live in the “Copy and Paste” society.

“I never had the idea of becoming a well know photographer,” says Gence. “I have never been passionate about photography. What excites me the most is the sound of preparing my things the day before I leave home. From this moment I start to imagine and doubt everything at the same time.

“What excites me is to go in search of a story that I would never imagine existed. I also like the risk of coming home without having found anything. I need to be surprised. It is something more and more difficult in a world where we are harassed by content and notifications.”

Gence does not want to become a full-time professional photographer.

“Never, never,” he repeats vehemently. “I’m happy to return to my everyday life as a web analyst when I’m back home.  I admire photographers who are full-time photographers. I don’t have enough creativity for that. When I finish a project of several months, I have several weeks of editing left. After that, I have to meet the editors to show it to them. When all this is over, my cameras are put away. I resume a normal life until the day when a new idea occurs to me.”

About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.

Image credits: All photos courtesy Jerome Gence.