Whether you know it or not, you’ve most likely seen a Yoni Lappin film. The London-based photographer and director has worked with some of music’s biggest names—Mura Masa, A$AP Rocky, Post Malone—with a portfolio that includes one of the best music videos of 2019, featuring a continuous shot of UK rapper slowthai running in slow motion through a Belgrade neighbourhood, capturing his manic personality in all its glory. Whether it’s short films documenting youth at the fringes of society in Israel, or raw portraits of his adopted hometown London for big name brands, Yoni’s work oozes authenticity and style every time. Let’s meet him.
Yoni, thanks so much for the time. How’s life in London been for you lately?
I’ve been making the most of the time off, to be honest. Doing all the things that I haven’t had time to do during normal life, self-improvement basically.
What have you been doing?
I started exercising, finally. First time in my adult life I started a routine, started eating healthy. Mostly just living well. Also started writing and the long-form projects that I’ve been putting off for a while. I’ve been able to refocus on what’s important so it’s been a blessing for me. But yeah, it’s been nice. Been having a new romance as well, started seeing someone just before the lockdown. So it’s been a very interesting way to get to know someone.
And you’ve been getting out running, haven’t you? Do you feel like it’s been interesting for you to see people and culture from that perspective, moving through different worlds?
Unfortunately, I’m not good enough yet to have the composure. I’m trying not to die, as long as I’m like, conscious at the end of it. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, 5 kilometres basically on average every time. You feel amazing at the end and it’s beautiful. But I have been going on walks, I have been doing a little quarantine series on my film cameras. Every time I go out, I’ll take my camera on the walk and I’ll snap a few shots. From the photography side, it’s always something that I’ve wanted to focus on. I want to take it more seriously, it’s very hard to juggle the directing thing with photography I find.
Both require such determination. And the way you sell yourself in as a director is very different from being the kind of photographer that I would want to be. I’ve piggybacked off directing but with personal stuff, nowhere near what I want to do. So I’ve been able to focus on that a bit in lockdown and do a portfolio, which helped me look at all my photos from the last few years and be like, ‘okay, so this is where I’m at’. I’ve always felt like photography is innately in me, but looking at the last few years is the reality of knowing what I need to do to take it seriously.
What do you enjoy shooting stills on?
Easiest one is the Contax T2, then I don’t have to worry about anything, just turn and shoot. But if I have more time I like the Mamiya 7 or a Hasselblad, you know, those kinds of mediums. Mamiya is more like an analogue, medium format version of the Contax, like more detail, it’s a range finder, so it’s perfect for run and gun, exterior street photography. And then the Hasselblad is really great for portraiture and shooting models and that kind of thing. You can get a lot closer and you know, it just has that intimate feel. So yeah, I’m a film guy. I’ll shoot digital when I have to, I’m still figuring that out. Like, I had to shoot stills on the Post Malone shoot I did, the sunglasses for Arnette, and it’s very difficult when you’re directing and then quickly you get your stills camera out while you’re shooting. But that’s one of the few times where I actually saw the benefit of digital because you could see what you were getting, which can have its advantage. I always think film ultimately looks better and has more feeling, but I don’t hate digital. I see value in it, you know.
Talk to me about shooting motion on film and why it’s important to you?
I think naturally, I’m a film guy. I always will be. I’m in that in-between era where I still grew up on film and that was subconsciously ingrained in me. And on top of that, I’m extremely aesthetically minded and I just think the colours and the look you get from film are great. But I think it’s very interesting because I’ve seen a lot of older people, legends in the game like Roger Deakins, say that they don’t give a shit about film anymore, and they think that anything you can do on film, you can do now on digital.
Whereas a lot of the younger people who never grew up on film younger than me, they are compelled to film and they often romanticise it. And I’m in between, I don’t romanticize it to that extent. I would never try and take digital and make it look like film, it’s kind of a cheap thing to do. I think you can take digital and make it beautiful, so I’m not a film purist, but I do feel that you get something that digital can’t imitate. And like, for example, The Last Dance documentary that everyone just watched. I had friends who had nothing to do with film and not particularly aesthetically minded say to me, ‘What did they shoot that on, the footage from 1997? Can you shoot that on now?’ So they just gravitate to it. And to me, that’s the most pure way to hear that something’s missing from digital today… a certain feel to it’s almost impossible to explain. You just feel it when you watch that shit. And then you watch the modern kind of documentary footage and it’s still cool because it’s Michael Jordan, but it just feels lame in comparison. Because you’re shooting on 16mm stock like that, you naturally get such a human quality. You just feel it, you know, the colours and everything. I like the idea shooting one 16mm and the next one will be 35mm and then Alexa or Venice. I think part of being creative, is how can I take a medium and make it interesting?
So you were born in Israel, then moved to New York, now London. Tell me a bit about that journey?
Yeah, I moved from Israel when I was three years old to New York, then I moved when I was eight to London. I do feel quite global, I guess maybe because of my upbringing and the world we live in today. London’s my home in a way more than anything because I’ve grown up here. I have a strong connection being born in Israel and having roots there, but it’s something that I’m still kind of tangling with and exploring. I did the documentary for Nowness, that was an opportunity. That was something I wanted to do for a long time, was to go back there and explore it as almost an outsider. I knew things, but I didn’t really know anything. So the idea for that documentary was to go in with a completely blank slate and find things in youth culture that were interesting. And that’s kind of how the idea was born. To find as many different people in Israel and what they’re doing, from the Arab rappers to the female skaters. Even my brother who lives there was like, ‘I didn’t know all this was going on,’ because it wasn’t mainstream Israeli society in that documentary. What I’m interested across the board is fringe culture. I just took that to Israel.
From a travel and cultural perspective, any places or people that you’re particularly keen to explore in the future?
Before lockdown, I’d planned this year was going to be the year that I finally visited Asia. I’ve never been to that part of the world. I’m seeing someone from China, so we were possibly going to China and onto Japan and Korea. There’s this tattoo artist—I don’t have any tattoos, I only want one—from Korea that I found on Instagram who I just love. The style is almost like a cartoon, but she has a way of doing it that is just spot on and she’s in Seoul. So I really wanted to go to Asia, I also really want to go to Africa. I also really want to go to South America, I haven’t been to Australia, so there’s a lot of places I haven’t been that I really, I want to go. My problem is, I want to see it all.
I guess it’s a pretty incredible opportunity, you know, being a filmmaker and someone who documents the world to look forward at potential prospects, but also back on the experiences you’ve had. Have you had a greater appreciation for those things?
Yeah, totally. The lockdown made me appreciative of life in general and it’s just centred me in a way that I wasn’t centred before. I just wasn’t balanced. I finally started to do transcendental meditation after my last commercial. I think it was something that was lurking subconsciously again, but I saw a YouTube video on transcendental meditation, and David Lynch was talking about it. And Seinfeld was talking about it. And I was like, all right, I’m sold. So when I went back, within walking distance from my flat in Hackney, and did a course while everyone was celebrating Christmas. I just had the downtime to do it, it was beautiful. So I started meditation and then that carried on into lockdown. It was a real opportunity for me to distress myself.
How did that change in perspective affect you, particularly as a filmmaker?
Well, it’s funny because I’m somebody that’s allergic to bullshit. I think that there are people in that world that I wouldn’t normally take at face value, I’d be questioning them. But because I went into it after watching a lot to the explanations on YouTube from people I trust from a distance, their opinions and all of those filmmakers that are doing it, I already have a positive view of it. So I went in wanting this to work, you know, I already decided in a way that this was the one for me. I’m always cautious that something isn’t a cult, right? But for transcendental, I trust this as a method. You can just take the tool that it gives you and get a lot out of it.
So honestly, from the first lesson, it was a game-changer. Just so simple, and I love simple things. I’m obsessed with simplicity. That can be the most powerful thing because my mind is always racing. Even when I seem chill, I know that my mind isn’t, and this immediately just softened my mind. At first that was quite overwhelming because I’d never done it before, there was just so much coming in.
But what happened was for the first few times, I had closed-eye hallucinations, without any attempt… it just happened, insane. I haven’t done acid, I’ve done a bit of mushrooms, but not much psychedelics at all. But this is what I imagined—I could see the light and it just was overwhelming in a way, I was telling the teacher and she was laughing. I had a very, very lovely teacher who I just trusted and she just took me through it. There was meant to be a whole class and it ended up just being me and this one other woman, so it was very intimate and full devotion from the teacher. And it was us three just doing it together, it was fantastic. I always come out of it feeling better. For me, my relationship with it now is so neutral, you know, there’s no religion attached to it. There’s no ideology and that’s actually one of the main reasons that I chose it.
It was interesting seeing some of the Buddhists talk about mindfulness and it was really cool, it seemed to make a lot of sense in the documentary I watched. There’s like a really good analogy about when you’re being attacked, you’re faced with anxiety and you’re like a turtle—instead of running away, you just stop where you are and you go into your shell. So that the anxiety, you know, you come face to face with it and there’s nothing you can do, you just go into your shell and you’re protected. It’s been really cool to explore that in this time, and something I’ll carry on.