Zach Leon knows that nothing is infinite. Disillusioned with ephemeral likes and elusive followers, he took to the road, camera in hand, to remind himself of what's really important – beautiful places, wonderful people and fearless creativity. He founded The Finite Project, a colorful mix of incredible imagery, enchanting stories and mini motion pictures; all tales of adventure in the far-flung corners of the globe.
Hello, Zach (The Finite Project)! Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What got you into photography?
Hello! Firstly, thank you so much for having me. I’m a big fan, so I’m pretty excited about this. My name is Zach Leon, and I’m a traveling photographer, filmmaker, and sometimes-writer. I’m from the United States, currently traveling Europe month by month. Photography didn’t become a passion of mine until four years ago. My dad sent my wife and I a DSLR as a wedding gift, and it blossomed from there. I’ve been involved in different creative pursuits all my life, but that was the first time I paid any attention to photography for the sake of photography.
Can you tell us about the origins of The Finite Project? How did it come about, and what do you hope to do with the project?
The Finite Project was largely born out of my displeasure with the current state of the creative world. We value never-ending consistency over creative vision, and that’s a good way to replace passionate artists with marketing specialists. At a certain point, when likes and comments push their way to the front of the line, the love for creation dissipates. When I noticed my own work slipping into that abyss, I had to remind myself that none of this is infinite; I am not infinite. I only have so much time to do what I need to do. If my work suffers while I’m gathering attention for it, I’m building a dangerous machine. Because of the mentality I had when starting this project, my hope is that some of my favorite works will be made within it.
The blog posts that accompany your images really bring them to life – we get such a vivid sense of what it was like to be in that place at that time. What made you decide to start blogging?
Thank you so much! The written portion of the project is something I value for myself most of all; I often hate the process, but I always appreciate the outcome. I think the writing brings context. Whether I’m talking about a place, how it made me feel, or something entirely unrelated, it (hopefully) gives the readers some insight into who I was when I wrote it. I am by no means a writer, but if this project can help me more eloquently transcribe what’s in my head, that’s all I could ever hope for.
We love the little films that accompany your posts! They’re the perfect insight your adventures. Can you tell us about the process of putting the video together?
Those little films are such a labor of love for me. They’re a tiny piece of the project, but I think they make nice teasers for each volume; at least that’s how I see them. Funny enough, filmmaking was interesting to me long before photography ever was. By the time I shot my first bad pictures with that DSLR, I’d already made hundreds of bad videos with a Handycam, haha. I’m slowly starting to learn how to better create what I see in my head, and that fulfills me like nothing else. There’s just so much to learn with video. As far as the process is concerned, it varies wildly. Some videos take a week or two to shoot, others might take an afternoon. It all depends on what I’m trying to make.
You’ve taken some beautiful snapshots of people around the world. What is it that draws you to a particular person; that makes you want to take their photograph?
People are the element I try my best always to include in my photography. They bring scale, they bring relatability, and they can bring story to a blank wall or a barren land. When it comes to street photography, I want to capture a scene. That’s what makes street photography so exciting for me. I’m walking into a million different paintings all at once, and it’s up to me to pick the ones worth documenting. With that mentality, it’s often impossible for me not to include people. Without them, I’m left with ghost towns (admittedly also pretty neat). As far as portraits are concerned, I find it immeasurably rewarding, albeit terrifying. Strangers are almost always hesitant at best, freaked out at worst, and that makes for tough work when I want their eyes staring through the lens. Picking out people for portraits is left up to intuition, but I’ll rarely ask if the lighting or setting is inadequate. People – hell yes.
You’ve visited some incredible places. Where has been your favourite so far? Where do you hope to go next?
My rating scale has gone haywire since starting all of this, so whenever people (my mom) ask, I never know how to answer. My wife and I often rate places based on long-term livability, so my brain always points to London, however boring that might sound. We both just feel at home there. Honorable mentions go to Mexico City and Tallinn, Estonia. As for where I hope to go next, Argentina all the way.
Do you have a favourite picture that you’ve taken on your adventures? Could you tell us a little bit about the story behind it, and why you like it so much?
My favorite photo is one that’s about to be two years old, and it’s a portrait I made in Havana, Cuba.
We’d just returned to the city from Viñales, and we didn’t have a key to the place we were supposed to be staying. During our incessant knocking, a man from the next apartment walked up and started banging on the door with us. When it became obvious no one was home, the man led us into his living room to wait for our host. We walked through his open front door and sat on the couch. He sat on a stool in the middle of the room, his mother to the left, his brother to the right. We didn’t speak enough Spanish to hold a conversation, and they spoke even less English. Finding no issue with such a tall barrier, the mother talked our ears off, flipping through photo albums and passports, laughing and smiling the whole way through. The brother was silent, slyly glancing back and forth from the mother to us, obviously amused by our confusion. He looked way too cool for me not to photograph, so I grabbed my camera, made a weird gesture that he thankfully understood, and I took the shot. Then we shared a bottle rum with them until our host found us.
No road trip is complete without an excellent playlist. What do you listen to when you’re chasing the pavements?
Oh boy, I’m such a music-listening snob. I really enjoy listening to albums, so I don’t think I’ve ever even made a playlist, haha. As for artists, I like Silent Planet, TTNG, Tom Misch, Pinegrove, The Contortionist, and Agnes Obel. I’ve been flying around Europe this year, so it’s actually been a while since I’ve had a solid road trip. Maybe we’ll change that soon.
What’s next for The Finite Project? Where are you headed on your never-ending road trip?
I’m working on Volume 11 right now, and I can’t tell you anything about it, because I don’t really know anything about it yet. In the meantime, definitely check out the latest volume, “In A Baltic Light – it’s my favorite. After Italy, we’re headed to Thailand to play with elephants and get fat on all the street food. I’ve never been to Asia, so I’m looking forward to experiencing a new part of the world. Meet me there?
To see more of Zach Leon's work, check out The Finite Project.