Found on Flickr: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

This is another installment in our continuing series where we talk to photographers whose work we’ve appreciated on Flickr.   

This week we feature Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

cinemafia: I believe, right away, most people would look at your photography and compare it to cinema. Not just films in general, but passionate art house, perhaps even noir cinema. There is a lot going on in your photographs that communicates this kind of intangible feeling, be it the rule-of-thirds composition, the available (often low-key) lighting, the telecine-like vignette. And, your images, especially those of people, always seem to tell a dramatic story – without words. Perhaps it’s the mood or expression of a single person, or the “slice of life” scenes you often encounter. Do you take any specific steps to evoke this kind of experience? Do you ever do any pre-visualization, often used in film production, before photographing your subjects?

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan: The films of Wong Kar-Wai have undoubtedly been the biggest influence on my visual style. I first discovered them when I was 15 – not long after I started to take photographs – and, although at that time I lacked the emotional intelligence to understand or appreciate their stories and characters, I fell in love with the images. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I discovered the photography of Eric Hands, which, although generally very different in style and content from my own work, brought the everyday alive for me and made me realize that the images I found beautiful, in Wong Kar-Wai and in general, were not just found in cinema but in the world around me, and that I could capture these. That said, I don’t take any steps to evoke or force them: I prefer to observe rather than direct, take pictures rather than make them. Pre-visualization, then, is something that I’ve never done either. I prefer my approach, anyway: It means that, unlike other, more imaginative creative pursuits like writing, I don’t satisfy my passion alone in a room, but am forced to throw myself into real life and the things that happen around me if I am to take the photos that please me. 

cinemafia: I know there are a few particular directors of photography whose work you follow. Could you tell us some of them, and what influence they may have had on your own work?

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan: The films of Michael Mann have been another important influence on my work, both in their visual style and in the depth of their characters. I once read somewhere that Mann doesn’t make films very often because he spends so much time researching and developing the characters. In my case the “characters” are real people, not fictional creations, but I hope that my photographs suggest all the same – a narrative, a psychological complexity, what a remarkable thing it is to be a human being. Although I can’t speak for Mann’s reasons for doing so, this is why I like to shoot at night: not only is it more visually interesting in its light and colour, people are different at night. During the day there is work to be done, but it is when the skies are dark that people become themselves. When the work is done, the self – what is going on in one’s heart and mind – is not so easily escaped or avoided.

cinemafia: On your website you note that your life with photography began and reached a critical level between the ages of 14 and 17. Having gone so far in such a short time, and at a such a young age, what are your feelings about having been able to tell these stories and share the ideas you have with so many people?

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan: In William McIlvanney’s novel Laidlaw, Detective Jack Laidlaw says (if memory serves, I’ve lost my copy) that there are two kinds of professionals: the first is the person who makes a career out of something and is competent enough at doing it that he gets by. The second has so much passion for what he does that a career in it came as a byproduct. I certainly belong to the second category. Before I started working as a photographer, it was more than a hobby, but a passion, even an obsession, and so it became inevitable that everyone thought of me as “the guy with the camera” which, at least from a professional point of view, was and is very beneficial. As for sharing my ideas and telling my stories with and to other people, I love it. I think that, while to create may fulfill some need in the artist, art is primarily created to be shown and shared. For me, at least, when I share a piece of art with somebody (not necessarily something I’ve made myself) it is to say “Do you understand me? Do you get me? Does this move you in the same way as it moves me?”

cinemafia: How did your work in photography affect your outside life with family and friends, your schooling? What were your experiences meeting other professional photographers, most of whom must have been much your senior?

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan: How has photography affected my outside life? I have struggled with this question. Although, as I’ve written, it means I throw myself into things more, do things I wouldn’t normally do, and it encourages me to embrace any new experience that comes my way, when I read in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda the line “This was his great strength. It was his great weakness, too, an excess of detachment from his own life,” it resonated with me, and I considered that perhaps photography was detrimental in that it detached me from reality, prevented me from making a real connection with the events that were happening around me, made me a spectator rather than a participant. I began to wonder whether people invited me to parties because they really wanted me there, or because they wanted me to take photographs. But I know who my real friends are, and, on the other hand, I’ve met so many wonderful people and seen and done so many interesting things because I am a photographer. And to be able to make a living out of this, I consider myself very lucky indeed.

cinemafia: One of the elements in your work I pick up on right away, and you even make a declaration of it in your Flickr profile, is your propensity for truth, observation, documentation. Your images certainly bring this sense of the real, the world as-is, held up for all to regard. Do you feel that, as a photographer, you have an obligation to tell your stories from life, uncolored? Is there any instance where you believe your own personal bias or attitude may have changed the way you photographed a subject, or how you presented those photographs?

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan: I love nature, being in nature: beaches, forests, hills and mountains, watching a sunset. But I’ve never been interested in photographs of these things. All art, whether a photograph, painting, novel or film, speaks to me primarily because it gets the human condition. Art is a human endeavor, and the art that gets me most concerns itself with what human beings do, what we have done and, as is especially important to science fiction and fantasy, what we could do.

“Obligation to tell your stories from life, uncoloured.” Obligation seems like too strong a word, but perhaps it is the right one. I think we as human beings have an obligation to be truthful to others and perhaps even more importantly to ourselves. This doesn’t necessarily have to manifest itself in our art – that’s a very personal thing – but in my case, yes, photography has been profoundly helpful to me in discovering the truth about myself and how I feel about the things that happen around me. To photograph a person is, for me, to consider more than light and lines, but the expressions on their faces and the way they think and feel. To photograph a person, and then to look at that photograph afterwards, is for me to think very hard about them, and about myself. But of course there is personal bias: cameras may be objective, but people aren’t, and it is a person who decides what is included in the frame and what is excluded, and the moment at which the shutter is pressed. The subjects of my photographs are often described as pensive, reflective, melancholy. A friend once told me I had a very romanticized view of life and the world. I’m not sure if he meant it with a capital R or not, but I think I know what he means, and perhaps that’s my bias, perhaps the old chestnut about the image revealing as much of the photographer as the subject is, in my case, true.

cinemafia: In your commercial work, there must be some sense of direction – of obtaining a certain result. Do you do any negotiating between those goals and your own? Or do you simply give the client what they want?

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan: When it comes to professional work, you must give the client what they want. If there is time, then I give them what I want, too. I learned a lot about this from my friend Ian Gavan, who I worked with shooting a conference in Las Vegas. It was the biggest job I’d ever worked on at that time, and he told me that all the client wanted was fast food, to save the gourmet shots for myself if there’s time. And this is common in corporate work, where I’m often asked for “nothing too arty.” Outside of corporate work, I’m lucky in that a lot of the work I do and the people I work with are other creative people who are happy to give me creative control, who hire me on the basis of my previous work and want me simply to do what I do. 

cinemafia: As a working photographer, you must have some feelings about the way the industry is changing. Photojournalists are being laid off in scores, and those left with jobs are asked to take on dual roles as videographers. Commercial photography is evolving into a world steeped in digital manipulation,where tweaked subjects are placed into artificial scenes and landscapes. What are your thoughts about this new process of image-making and story-telling, and how do you see yourself fitting into (or breaking away from) it?

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan: Hmm, this is a tricky one. Actually, I haven’t much experience of being asked to do anything I didn’t particularly want to do. My abilities at digital manipulation are poor, and usually I explain this to a client at the outset. If it ever comes to the point where I have to learn to do it in order to continue to make a living, then I suppose I will, but I think it’s a sad state of affairs, and I hope there will always be people who appreciate the kind of work I like to do. My main gripe with the way the industry is changing relates to the value of photography as a profession. There are more and more talented amateurs than ever, and companies are ready to take advantage of them, offering “you will be credited” as payment for the use of an image that 10 years ago could have cost them hundreds of dollars. It’s an insult to the amateurs, who should charge anyone who wants to use their work for a commercial purpose, and an insult to professionals struggling to make a living, and it devalues the profession as a whole. 

cinemafia: Finally, I’d like to know what are some of your words of advice for beginning photographers, especially those in their teen years. What is the most important thing for them to do when they go out into the world to take photographs? 

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan: To quote Ian Gavan again, “Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent…persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” In business, in the world of jobs, careers and money, hard work is far more important than talent. But, don’t rush. And, as the other cliché goes (but no less true for being one), it’s who you know, not what you know. Make an effort to meet people, to keep in touch with them, shamelessly harass them if you have to. A degree in Business and Management would have been more helpful to me than a degree in Photography (which I don’t have, anyway). I come from a working-class background and became the first person in my family to go to university for generations: that opened so many doors for me. I studied English Literature – unrelated, at least practically, to photography – but the value of a university education was not for me in the piece of paper received at the end of it, but in the people and experiences that I met throughout.

cinemafia: What things can they do now to help pave the way for a career in photography – should they choose to pursue one?

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan: My main advice for young photographers is simply to do it: If you have the passion, then embrace it. Don’t be paralyzed by fear: fear for the safety of your equipment, fear that you’re not good enough, fear of the opinions of others (“Poor Tommy’s 30 now and still doesn’t own a car or have a mortgage…”). If you have the passion, making piles of money won’t matter. If you don’t have the passion, don’t make a career in photography. Find something that you do have the passion for, and try to make your career in that instead.

To see more of Tommy Ga-Ken Wan’s work, go here.

Interview by cinemafia.

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