Born in Lyon, France, Riboud went to high school there and made his first picture in 1937. He was active in the French Resistance from 1943 to 1945, then studied engineering at the Ecole Centrale from1945 to 1948. Until 1951 Riboud worked as an engineer in Lyons factories, then became a freelance photographer and in 1952 moved to Paris to meet Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, the founders of Magnum Photos. His ability to capture fleeting moments in life through powerful compositions was already apparent, and this skill was to serve him well for decades to come.
In 1957 he was one of the first European photographers to go to China, and In 1968, 1972 and 1976, Riboud made several reportages on North Vietnam and later traveled all over the world, but mostly in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and Japan.
Riboud's photographs have appeared in numerous magazines, including Life, Géo, National Geographic, Paris-Match, Stern. He twice won the Overseas Press Club Award, and has had major retrospective exhibitions at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the International Center of Photography, New York.
One of Riboud's best known images is Eiffel Tower Painter, taken in Paris in 1953. It depicts a man painting the famous structure. He is posed as if a dancer, perched between the metal armature of the tower, below which the city of Paris emerges out of the photographic haze.
Riboud has been witness to the atrocities of war (photographing from both the Vietnam and the American sides of the Vietnam War), and the apparent degradation of a culture repressed from within (China during the years of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution). In contrast, he has captured the graces of daily life, set in sun-drenched facets of the globe, and the lyricism of child's play in everyday Paris.