Vincent Laforet: On leaning out of helicopters for the perfect shot

Updated 23rd September 2016
Vincent Laforet: On leaning out of helicopters for the perfect shot
This feature is part of Pixel, a series that turns the lens on some of the most inspiring photographers from around the world. See more here.
On a crisp January day in 2000, Vincent Laforet climbed the Empire State Building. Not that uncommon an endeavor -- people race up the skyscraper, after all. But then Laforet kept going, all the way to the summit of the needle.
One thousand, four hundred and seventy-five feet below, Manhattan swayed as the building moved in the wind. The photographer fixed his lens on two engineers beneath him, changing the antenna's light bulb. Atop the three-foot-wide crow's nest, Laforet began to think a harness would have been good idea.
"It was kind of terrifying," he remembers. "It was windy and there was 14 million watts of frequency coming off the antenna... I had a pager back then. It was going off nonstop, like a Geiger counter."
"I think I shot five to seven frames on film -- one of the last film assignments I ever did. And to this day, it's still one of the most memorable experiences in my career."
Since then Laforet has swapped one gravity-defying antic for another, and picked up a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the aftermath of 9/11.

Taking to the skies

Laforet's 2015 series "AIR," shot out the side of helicopters, has breathed new life into aerial photography, capturing changing cityscapes and bathing them in trails of neon color.
"The first thing I thought of were brain synapses and computer chips, or motherboards," says Laforet. "I said to myself 'You know what, from a high altitude, I bet you that the streets of New York look like a computer chip.'"
"Luckily, it turned out to be something pretty spectacular, something I'd never seen before with my own eyes, let alone photographed. And then it turned into a year-long series across ten cities around the world."
The spread of LED lights has brought new colors to city streets with their blue tones -- a sight that could only be captured by the latest camera technology.
"I never really meant to be an aerial photographer," Laforet admits. "I think it happened naturally."
It's unsurprising, however, given the photographer's drive to shoot never-before-seen perspectives.
"My rule has always been to never take a photograph that I've seen before, let alone made before myself," he says. "At the end of the day, every story's been told 1,000 times. The way you tell it, or the way you capture it, is what makes you as a photographer unique."
Video by Mimi Schiffman