Olivier Le Blanc: I Think That Kyrgyz Republic Is One of the World’s Best Kept Secrets
Meet Olivier Le Blanc. He is an international development and humanitarian affairs expert from Montreal, who has worked with a number of NGOs, UN agencies and development organisations, now living in Bishkek. Olivier is also a professional photographer and was on top 10 photographers of Kyrgyz nature list we made earlier. You can have a look at his truly amazing works on his website.
How did you learn about Kyrgyz Republic and how did you get here?
My wife works for USAID and she was assigned here to Bishkek for the next two years.
We met in Tanzania in 2006 and have been living and working abroad ever since. Her first assignment with USAID was Almaty in Kazakhstan back in 2009. Back then we did a few trips to Kyrgyz Republic and very much enjoyed it.
After Kazakhstan we lived in Pakistan, Thailand, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last summer, as our tour in the Democratic Republic of Congo was coming to an end, the list of available positions at USAID was published and we saw that Bishkek was available. We indicated to the agency that the Kyrgyz Republic was by far our first choice and our absolute favorite option. I cannot tell you how happy we were to find out that we were moving to Bishkek!
After spending a good amount of time in fairly intense places we really missed Central Asia’s wide open spaces, friendly people, amazing nature, the variety of its seasons, and laid back feel. Moving to Bishkek felt a little bit like returning home after a long and hard journey.
Please tell us about yourself and what you're currently concentrated on in KR?
I am from Montreal, the main city of the province of Quebec where French is the main language, which explains my French name. I have lived, studied, traveled and worked in well over 50 countries and I plan to continue exploring the world as long as I can. Therefore for more than a decade now I’ve been pursuing career paths that allow me to keep traveling all over the world. Most of my experience is in the area of international development and humanitarian affairs. I’ve worked for various UN agencies, donors, and diplomatic missions.
I am also very interested in communication and content creation, the other two sectors in which I have sought to develop experience and skills. I believe that in today’s world, it is very useful and actually important to be able to combine skill sets — the days of just doing one thing all your life seem to be fading and the future is bright for people who are active, energetic, curious, entrepreneurial and can bring knowledge and expertise from seemingly eclectic fields in packages of new and different talents.
I started producing content as a film and video producer a few years ago, but video is a definitely an area where you have to work in teams to be efficient. Because I move all the time, I found it hard to always start new teams that I knew well enough for producing content in a fast and efficient manner, so I gradually transitioned to photography where I can produce quality content while working as a one-man crew.
Before moving to Kinshasa in the DRC about three years ago, I invested in significantly upgrading my photography equipment with quality lenses and camera bodies. It is in the DRC that my photography skills reached a professional level and it is also where I found the style of work that I prefer. My strength is portrait, landscape, street photography, and astronomical photography, but I specialize in what I call field photography. One could also describe my work as documentary, photo-reportage, or journalistic.
At the moment I am looking for work opportunities in Bishkek. This could be classic project management, donor coordination, communication or external relations employment; however I am keen in finding a way to offer my communication and content creation & distribution skills to international organization trying to tell their stories.
What did you love most about the country? What annoyed you most?
Bishkek in Kyrgyz Republic is quite possibly one of my favorite places in the world to live. Of course it is not perfect, and nowhere is, but for me it’s just great. In a world saturated with commercial and mass tourism, I think that Kyrgyz Republic is one of the world’s best kept secrets.
My first and biggest impressions were the country’s geography and its people. The landscape here is extremely varied and beautiful. There are countless beautiful lakes, mountains, valleys, meadows, glaciers, forests, canyons, rivers, etc. I love the outdoors so the country is like a little paradise.
The people living in Kyrgyz Republic are truly fascinating to me. The nation compromises many different ethnic groups from quite exceptional backgrounds, and for the most part they live peacefully in what is a diverse and complex society. The people here are strikingly and uniquely friendly, genuine, and curious. Although most of the world does not know about Kyrgyz Republic, it is always impressive to me to see how much people living in Kyrgyz Republic know about the world. I was also struck by the fact that there is a thriving and fascinating nomadic lifestyle that lives on in the country. I was really amazed when I saw my first yurt!
Did you have a chance to travel around the country?
We arrived in the middle of the summer and we spent the months of July and August settling in the city. These were busy days and we did not have many opportunities to visit the country, but we hope to take some time next summer to travel. We did visit the north shore of Issyk-Kul, and I did a number of hikes and camping trips in the Ala-Archa National Park, but that’s about it.
How did you end up with the idea of '40 portraits in 40 days' challenge?
After arriving in Bishkek, I wanted to rapidly achieve a few objectives: acquire Kyrgyz content for my portfolio, build a network in the city, understand the market of professional photography here, fine tune my portrait photography skills, increase local visibility of my work, and build a local following on my social media accounts. Creating and posting the portrait of a person in Bishkek on a daily basis felt like the right approach for that.
My camera equipment arrived around mid September. Because I like to take photos outside using natural light, I thought of doing the project until the weather was too cold and trees would have lost most of their leaves. That meant I could shoot until early November, so I calculated 40 days between the time I could launch the project and autumn being too advanced to have favorable photography conditions.
What are your plans for the nearest future?
I am continuously thinking about how best to market my skills in a way that would make professional photography a sustainable line of work in Kyrgyz Republic. There are a lot of talented photographers already working in the country and I just need to find my place here by offering something different. I am thinking of offering large organizations a suite of services that would include content creation, communication services, external relations support, digital storytelling / publication solutions, and social media account growth and management.
I am learning Russian and hope to be able to continue at a steady pace: every morning, I spend 2 or 3 hours studying the language. It is not easy, but it is slowly coming along.
I also hope to find some time to go through the thousands of photos I have created in Africa and put together a selection for a possible exhibit in Bishkek. Beyond selecting the photos, a lot of works and money goes into such project (only the cost of printing and framing is quite steep) but if all goes well sometime in the winter of 2017 I should be able to pull it off.
I also want to enjoy what the country has to offer as much as possible. I am a keen skier and snowboarder and I enjoy ski base riding or the wide range of back country options available just outside of Bishkek. I have joined a group of ice hockey players and we play twice a week – a great source of joy for the Canadian in me!