What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what is the primary inspiration for you to keep working in this field?
I wish I could tell you a story of how a family member gave me a brownie camera for my birthday when I was 5 and I haven't been able to stop taking pictures since. Instead this is a story of contest of will and of sheer stubbornness.
The first thing I remembered wanting to be when I was little was an artist. At the time I was too young to understand the concept of medium and as an artist you had to work in at least one particular medium. At one point I remember telling my mom that I wanted to be a fashion designer in part inspired by her interest in fashion (she had attended a fashion institute and made a lot of my clothes and her own when I was young). I remember my inspiration was not well received. To be exact, "NO!" was the answer. Much of the first 11 years of my childhood was in search of an artistic medium that would not be rejected by my parents, anything from drawing to calligraphy to writing stories.
Then came adolescence. I moved from Taipei to Los Angeles and spent the next couple of years learning English and adjusting to a new world. Before long, I was back in search of an artistic medium that would win the approving nod of my parents. Theater was medium that occupied every bit of my time and energy from age 15-22. I loved all the different design elements and the narrative structure. I loved composing a visual scene with the actors and utilizing the designs to relay the subtext. Without surprise, pursuing a life in theater caused as much objection as the desire to be a fashion designer. But as time went on I became less and less concerned with winning the illusive approving nod.
I picked up the camera on a whim the summer between high school and college. I had the summer off and I thought that I needed a hobby. My grandfather is an amateur photographer and I grew up watching him photographing and working in the darkroom.
I spend the summer of 1997 with a private photography teacher who was once a student of Ansel Adams. One faithful sunny Southern California afternoon, he pulled out his Rollei Twin Lens Reflex and handed it to me. I looked down through the ground glass and I fell. Down the rabbit hole I fell and I was in love. Magic happened when I looked through the ground glass. I saw a different world. I still get the same feeling every time I look through the view finder of my Hasselblad or the ground glass of a large format camera.
Photography ended up being the perfect medium.
Some times I don't know if I have finally found the perfect medium or if all the different art forms before were in preparation for it. Did it find me or did I find it? Perhaps a little bit of both. Photography combines the compositional elements of stage direction, different aspects of design and contains the potential of story telling. I love it for so many different reasons and most of all because it is a synthesis of seemingly contradictory elements. It is technical (left brained) yet you must incorporate the artistic, give into the moment (right brain) in order to capture the decisive moment. It requires a lot of control from the artist yet the art demands an equal part of surrender as well. It is perceived to be the medium of TRUTH. What is photographed is real therefor true. Yet the moment captured is an edit of a scene, an edit of time, an edit of the total shoot. It is true and it is a lie. It can be the summation of a complicated story and yet it is only a part of the whole. To achieve mastery you must find the synthesis between opposing concepts. These are just some of the reasons why I love photography. Plus, I am also highly impatient and photography offers (nearly) instant gratification.
In your opinion and experience, how can emerging photographers evaluate themselves as ready to start promoting their works and seek broader exposure for their photographs? What is one vital action you would recommend photographers undertake to find their audience, be included in exhibitions, and gain professional representation?
I feel the most important thing an emerging photographer can do is be very critical in editing their work. Shoot a lot and then edit, edit, walk away, have a drink and edit some more. It is important to develop a personal style and an artistic voice and that is much easier to achieve if you have a very clear idea of what is you are trying to communicate. How do you see the world? How is that particular vision articulated? I see the world with equal measure of irony, sarcasm, delight and compassion. It is apparent in all of my work, both commercial and fine art.
For a commercial photography career, I think it is wiser to show a portfolio that is diverse but driven by the same style. For a fine art photography presentation I think a very concise single body of work is more advisable.
One of the best career advise I had ever received is to never over invest in equipment. Your work is not your gear. Money is always better spend on creating new work and or promoting the work. The newest and latest gear will not make you a better photographer. Running more film through the camera or creating opportunities to shoot will.
I believe it is important to have a good understanding of the business aspect of the profession, whether be the commercial photography world or the fine art world. Aside from the act of creating something excellent there is a business and marketing reality to the life of an artist that I think is often neglected and always an after thought. Its great to create breath taking work. This amazing work that you create will do you and world at large no good unless it gets seen. To do that, you need to learn about marketing, branding and business practice in the arts in general. Artists needs to be able to develop the language to discuss their work. I don't believe it is enough to trust for the work to speak for itself. Help people understand the work you create and why it is worth their time.
If there is one vital thing that I could suggest for emerging photographers is to know your BIG picture goal. Where do you want to be and what kind of work do you want to do. To love the work you do, always ask how you can do it better but also check in and make sure that the work still brings you joy. There is 7 foot limited edition print of mine from an exhibit in my bedroom (Buying Chicken, Guangzhou, China, 2006 from Wok the Dog series). I look at it everyday and ask myself if I still think the image is good, if the work still brings me joy and how can I improve. Be true to yourself but never stop challenging yourself.
How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer? What steps were involved in reaching your level of success?
Success is a funny concept. I think everyone has a different definition of it. It comes slowly for some and all at once for others. There is no road map and a lot of conventions are being challenged as we speak. Only you can define what success is for yourself. I cannot say that I fully understand all that has occurred that has gotten me to where I am now. What I am sure of is the passion I have for the work. The sense of certainty I have. I read a lot about business and marketing. I am obsessive about my work and so I spend a lot of time thinking about it, researching different opportunities and finding ways around existing conventions. I don't take no for an answer and I simply try try and try again. Sometimes I think success can be as simple as having the sheer human stubbornness to keep on showing up.
Never underestimate the power your passion has to inspire other people, move mountains and create amazing things.
One Part Passion + One Part Certainty + Armful of Ever Expanding Knowledge + A Dash of Stubbornness = Where I am Today