Jean-Pierre Laffont has been nominated to the grade of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, the ceremony took place at the French Consulate in New York on November 13th. Here is the speech of Jean-François Leroy followed by thanks from Jean-Pierre.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,
I am very moved to be with you this evening, in a place as prestigious as the French consulate in New York. I’m going to be a little long. But it’s not every day I’m asked to give a distinction to one of my friends… Dear Jean-Pierre, I know you hate it when people talk about you, but here, you don’t have a choice, you’ll have to listen to me for a few minutes…
I would first like to thank Mr. Jeremie Roberts, the consul general and Mr. Damien Laban, the deputy consul general for making their premises available to us to honor Jean-Pierre Laffont.
If someone had told me that one day I would be to New York to present the Legion of Honor at this French consulate, I would never have believed it!
So, I was asked to honor Jean-Pierre… It’s not easy! But, of course, to talk about Jean-Pierre, I will have to talk about Eliane. One doesn’t go without the other.
First I need to take a little step back. It was December 1988. My friend Yann Arthus-Bertrand called me, really angry. The reason? He had just learned that photographers Rick Smolan and David Cohen planned to continue their “A Day In the Life” series of images in France.
Yann tells me that it’s not possible to let two Americans do that. France offered photography to the world, through Louis Arago. But the “A day in the Life” brand is protected. So we planned to do “3 days in France”! With Yann, we contacted 100 Photographers. I only knew Jean-Pierre through his extraordinary photos and especially his unforgettable project on children at work.
At that point, I had never met him before. At the time, there were drinks every Friday evening at the Sygma agency, I was introduced to Jean-Pierre and Eliane. Obviously, Jean-Pierre had to be a part of our project. We discussed it with passion and enthusiasm. Half an hour later, we were having dinner in a brasserie next to the agency. I left there thinking that I had two new friends! You sometimes have this feeling, but it is rarely confirmed… Well that evening, my feeling was good! Yes, I had two friends. And they never left me!
A year later, I came in New York, knowing almost no one. I had just created Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan. Jean-Pierre and Eliane welcomed me into their home for more than three weeks, and introduced me to all the important people in the profession. Can you imagine, three weeks for a heavy smoker like me who was not allowed to smoke in their apartment? But I will never forget what it meant for the recognition of the festival that I had just launched.
But I want to reveal something to you. A really very intimate story. For those who had the privilege of being invited to Jean-Pierre and Eliane’s house, they will all have noted that Eliane is not allowed to set foot in the kitchen, except to take a bottle of mineral water from the refrigerator… I was told that during one of the first breakfasts in their relationship, Jean-Pierre was taking a shower and had asked Eliane to make him some eggs. When he got out of the shower, he heard a strange noise. Eliane had put the eggs in the pan, without breaking them. Since then Jean-Pierre has banned her from the kitchen!
I’m not going to redo Laffont’s Wikipedia page for you. I have already mentioned some of his work. I could also tell you about his international scoop, when he found the rugby team that had crashed in the Andes, and which had, to survive, eaten victims’ bodies.
But, we should talk about all the photos he took of the United States which made him the most American of French photographers. They are in his book “Tumultuous America, a Photographer’s Paradise”. Unforgettable. Essential ! His photos of street gangs, of the match with Mohamed Ali that inspired the film American Gangster, that’s him too! His photos of minorities, the street kids, the peasants, the scenes of daily life, you all need this book, it’s required reading!
In 1996, I offered Jean-Pierre a retrospective of his work at Visa pour l’Image. I had fallen in love with the photo of a child soldier in Angola. I told him that I want to make it the festival’s poster that year… I had expected him to thank me, but not at all! I learned later, that the original negative had been lost. So we had to scan one of his prints. This poster was one of the most successful in Visa’s history! With all his humbleness, Jean-Pierre never told me he was proud of it! But I know he was. Jean-Pierre, and his humility…
Another year, we wanted to show the work that Jean-Pierre had done during his stay in Algeria, where he had launched a school. I had hired a Belgian presenter to translate the text that came with the work. When I wrote that Jean-Pierre had been a committed soldier, she had transformed it to say that Jean-Pierre had been a committed member of a militia! Needless to say, she was let go. We had come close to disaster…
There is another story that I cannot resist telling you. Jean-Pierre is a maniac, by that, I mean he is very precise… He knows everything, not about everything, but about a lot of things
One year, Eliane had to go to Hong Kong. Jean-Pierre gave her an address where she could find him batteries that were absolutely impossible to find elsewhere. He told her, “you take the boat, you cross the port. You take the second street on the left, the third on the right, you go to this very particular store, and you ask for the XZWZ43 battery. The owner will give you one. That’s not the one I’m looking for. Instead, you show him the model I gave you.” That’s exactly what happened… Eliane said to the owner: “No, that’s not what I’m looking for! » And the seller answer: “Ah, you are Jean-Pierre Laffont’s wife? “. I swear, it’s a true story!
When Jean-Pierre was hospitalized at Annecy hospital because a nerve condition, I went to join Éliane. The doctors told me it was best to say my goodbyes. Jean-Pierre could recognize me, but heremembered me for our battles in Aures in Algeria. There, I told myself that Jean-Pierre had gone a bit too far back in the past.
The bottles of cognac that we drank with Eliane were enough to show our concern for him.
Then there were the Apple Mac years. Jean-Pierre would call me each time he discovered a new tool on his computer. We spent hours and hours exchanging our thoughts about this or that new computer system.
Another time, Jean-Pierre came in France. He’s at the airport, and the airline had misplaced one of his bags. He came to the house and started calling the luggage service in a panic . He needed to be at his brother’s in Savoie. So he asked me to collect. In my naivety, I thought it would a normal bag. The next day a huge bag that weighed 100 pounds was delivered to me. You should know that Jean-Pierre travels with all his essential. He can dismantle or reassemble a tank, repair a stove or a car, install a water heater, unclog a toilet. Nothing escapes him! He can do anything with his equipment.
Jean~Pierre and Eliane always encouraged me. They have a lot to do with Visa’s success…
Let me tell you a story that has nothing to do with Jean-Pierre but which has to do with Eliane. She had just obtained her American nationality, and therefore, she didn’t have a passport for several months. Jean-Pierre had an exhibition in China and he absolutely needed to be there. Eliane told me about it so I wrote a letter, sorry Monsieur Le Consul, in which I said that Eliane had to be in Paris for one of my meetings as a special consultant for the United States… she got her passport, and she was able to be with Jean-Pierre in China.
Sorry, sir, I deliberately lied to the French authorities. I hope you won’t mind!
And then, oh it’s not very mean, but I have to admit to you, with Eliane, from time to time, we like to bitch about people. When we do, Jean-Pierre systematically leaves the room because he doesn’t like to say anything bad about anyone. He’s just that kind.
In short, Jean-Pierre, you are my friend, you are my brother, you will never truly know how much I love you and I admire you… So, in the name of the President of the Republic and by virtue of the powers conferred in me, I make you a knight of the Legion of Honor.
You can’t imagine the pride I have in giving you this decoration! It’s my privilege, and for that too, I thank you. And I love you!
Jean-François Leroy, NYC, le 13 novembre 2023
Translation by Olivier Laurent
Mr Consul, Ladies and Gentlemen, friends,
I would like to send my sincere thanks to Jérémie Robert, our French Consul in New York. Jean-François, my dear friend who for almost 40 years has been my support. To Olivier Laurent for the translation of the text by Jean Francois. To my daughter Stephanie and to Eliane my wife, my partner, my rock to whom this medal belongs.
Jean-Pierre Laffont, NYC, November 13, 2023