Zun Lee is a documentary photographer and a doctor. You can find some of his work also on this Flickr page. Zun was recently interviewed by New York Times about his project documenting African-American fathers and their relationships with their children. Check it out! Follow Zun on Twitter too!
1) You say this in your bio: ” I was trained in a profession in which humans at their most vulnerable grant permission to a stranger to invade their privacy. As a result, I have always had an intense interest in the dynamics of power, trust and control when it comes to human interaction.” What profession is that? Are you referring to photography? Is this sense of vulnerability in the back of your mind every time you photograph someone – stranger or friend?
Being a physician definitely plays a part in how I go about interacting with people on the street. I’m not referring primarily to photography. For me, being a photographer is not something you “do”, it’s who you “are” as an artist and as a human being. So, yes, this notion of interaction and exploring aspects of vulnerability is constantly in the back of my mind.
When I refer to interaction between the photographer and the subject, I don’t necessary mean actual verbal communication taking place between two human beings. Even in street scenes or portraits featuring a single human being, the “subject” isn’t necessarily that human being. Our thoughts and behaviors are affected by how we move through the world, so the environment and how one relates to it at any given moment in time also play a part in that interaction.
Of course, the kind of interaction I seek on the street can take the form of actual verbal exchanges, and it is often the case for me. Sometimes, it’s subtler – a nod, a glance. But most of it happens invisibly – A feeling, emotion or state of mind you may become aware of in a particular moment and that you project into the world: in some cases, curiosity, empathy, love, optimism. In other cases discomfort, fear, doubt. Folks that know me personally often hear me talk about “energy”, something you intuitively feel in your gut as you survey your environment for picture-making opportunities.
Photographing people on the street, no matter how “interesting” or “beautiful” the subject, that alone doesn’t do it for me. I would like for the viewer to be able to discern what kinds of thoughts or emotions were involved when I pressed the shutter. Or at the very least, make up their own story about what is unfolding.
2) How do you approach strangers? What do you say to them? Or, do you simply watch, capture and move on like Bresson did? Indeed, I am curious to know how you operate. Tell us.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. It all depends on who or what I see, and what that particular interaction may yield. Sometimes, it happens in a fraction of second – I snap and move on. Sometimes, it can take several minutes of striking up a conversation and then catching the individual in certain moments in which they share a part about themselves that wouldn’t have been easily evident otherwise.
“… Can I take your picture” is rarely a conversation starter. Getting creative is key. The subject also has to get interested in you – it works both ways. Humor helps a great deal. Being honest and upfront about who you are and why you’re doing this works most of the time. Rehearse your lines in front of the mirror or with friends – if they’re not buying it, you’re likely going to be in trouble.
Something that almost never works is being sneaky. Keep it natural and always be prepared to deal with rejection. And be courteous and thank them, even after a “no”. That’s the best policy.
3) What you and I share is this – and I hope I am on the right track about this – that there is innate beauty in everyday life that goes without being photographed or is not noticed by most. Do you agree?
Completely agree with you. I’m a strong advocate of finding beauty in the mundane, everyday scenes that unfold before us. That said, “beauty” doesn’t mean “beautiful”. I’m referring mostly to scenes or moments that remind us of how precious life is in all its facets – the good, bad and the ugly. And again, I think the best way to go about it is to approach the streets with a sense of wonderment and openness to its possibilities. Or, as one of my mentors once said to me, “Shoot with love, and you will shoot with purpose”.
4) Why is that we don’t celebrate those moments where people reveal a little bit more about themselves for that split second? What causes us to cover ourselves up? Is it simply fear of being judged?
I think overall, vulnerability is seen as a weakness in our culture and surely, nobody wants to be judged as weak. We don’t publicly show and tell, we don’t give broadside. Also, I think life itself has gotten a lot tougher for most people in North America in the last few years – people generally have very little to smile about and lives have become increasingly hectic. When we get up and get dressed every morning and leave our homes to go to work or to run errands etc., the last thing on our mind is to reveal who we are and how we feel. We’re constantly stressed, have very little downtime, try to get from point A to point B quickly. We don’t stop to smell the roses, we have our game face on. We put forth this impenetrable façade to prevent us from sensory overload and avoid engaging with the outside world at any cost. Headphones on, eyes on our smartphones. Minds on our own business.
If you think about the implications of that, today’s widespread notion of “candid photography” is really a misnomer. Think about the very definition of the word “candid” – frank, open, honest, transparent. Given what I just said above, people are anything BUT candid in public. Is taking pictures of people in that state of hurried indifference, without their knowledge and/or consent and without the subject looking into the camera really “candid”, then?
For me, candid means breaking through that emotional fortress and finding some kind of truth underneath that. Some wait for these decisive emotional moments. Others surprise and startle their subjects. I’m usually more about some kind of subtle interaction.
When time or the nature of the exchange permits, I show the pictures to the people I just photographed. Sometimes, I get “I didn’t know I look like this” or “Did I really make this face” as a positive reaction, which tells me I was on to something.
5) Your opening image in your “Street Portraits” portfolio is of a woman deep in thought, but there is a reflective, double-image of her. The image is rich with complementary colors and your use of a very shallow depth of field forces us to “stare” back at this woman. It’s an arresting image. Do you know who she is? Do you engage with people once you photograph them? How aware was she that you were photographing her?
Thank you for the love and appreciation, Seshu. I was spending a day with fellow street shooters Ourit Ben-Haim, Rena Ginzburg, and Michael Martin in Midtown Manhattan (group walks are usually not my favorite thing to do but it works with certain shooters). We all saw this lady in Midtown Manhattan and were drawn to her immediately. She was VERY aware of our attempts to photograph her and she definitely did not appreciate it. The situation could have gone wrong easily, and somehow I managed to explain why we found her intriguing and why we wanted to take her picture. She eventually relaxed and allowed us to do our work. This particular shot took a while to get, as I wanted her to be a little more settled down and find an angle that gives me more context in terms of color and texture. I gave her my card and obtained her email address, and sent her the picture a few days later.
I think the latter is always a good practice – to return some of the goodwill by sending people the pictures you took, especially if you engaged them in a longer conversation. Or if email is not an option, make prints and mail them, or keep them with you as you roam the streets, ready to hand them out if you happen to run into the same individuals again. It happens more often than not.
… All the time! People routinely yell and scream, sometimes fists get swung my way, and I’ve been stopped and detained by cops who were not aware of the legality of what I’m doing. And even without those moments, you have to be prepared for a lot of rejection. It’s not a relaxing pastime.
I’m actually quite shy and conflict-averse, so shooting street is definitely nerve-wrecking to begin with. I can’t tell you how many times I missed a shot by passing by a person or scene I really wanted to photograph but couldn’t muster the courage to do so. I’ve gotten better at standing my ground and negotiating with people to get what I want, but in the end you don’t want to manipulate them or cause unnecessary conflict. So if the answer remains no, you got to move on.
In general, I’d say pick and choose your battles. Over time, you develop a pretty good sense of which individuals you can push beyond the initial “no” and which ones are best left alone. Familiarity with a certain neighborhood also plays a role. When the locals see you coming back time and time again, it establishes a certain level of trust. By that token, it also helps sometimes to stay put in a certain spot for a while and interact with the people in the area until they relax and won’t notice you anymore.
7) The human face is perhaps the most interesting thing to photograph. What got you started on this mission to photograph people on the street? What drives you personally to observe and then to photograph these human interactions?
Agreed, for me it’s all about the face and the eyes. I think everyone has a story to tell, and that story often manifests in the face and eyes. I just have this desire to get in on that story, to uncover at least an aspect of it. But in the end, it isn’t really about “their” story. I think of my street photos as mirrors to my soul – they often reveal more about me and my state of mind than about what’s happening in front of me. Going back to the idea of “energy”, I often gravitate toward individuals that mirror my own realities back to me. It’s very unnerving to put that out there with certain frames, but it can also be liberating.
I first ventured into the streets about 4 years ago and was just happy to experiment, get to know my gear. I didn’t even know much about street photography then, had no idea who Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand, or Klein were. I went shooting every day after work, and on most weekends, more or less. At first, it was without much of a plan other than having an interest in photographing strangers, except I didn’t really know how to go about that. As mentioned, I’m quite shy, so the whole experience was terrifying. I just had a desire to learn how to do that, so I kept practicing. I tried with longer lenses at first and quickly realized that approach doesn’t work for me. The physical distance also creates emotional distance, and it was not a satisfactory experience at all.
Ironically, I think my shyness actually led to this desire to be as close as possible with people – by being in the same space, eventually people will let you into their world, their lives, their story. And being so close, it forces you to do the same – you also share a piece of who you are to enable the picture that you seek to make. It’s not about “stealing souls” or being an unobtrusive fly on the wall. To me, photography is about creating a relationship, whether for a split second or for a longer period of time, and whether it’s with people, animals, or inanimate objects. Your visceral reaction to a given moment – it matters as much as what you see in front of you. There’s a brief but powerful moment of someone expressing the notion of “I don’t know who you are but I trust you”, and that is a real privilege to be granted. I think being part of that “give-and-take” can be exhilarating, even addictive.
8) On a technical side, I see you use a Nikon D700. Do you switch around with different lenses? Which ones and why?
I use the D700 and the Ricoh GRD (GRDIV at the moment). As mentioned, I used telezooms initially, and now use them very rarely. 35mm or wider is my comfort zone, and my favorite Nikkor glass is the 14-24mm f2.8. The Ricoh is my always-on-me camera, 28mm is a perfect all-around focal length for me. It’s how I see the world, and the ergonomics of the camera suit my style of shooting. I’ve also begun using the Olympus OM-D (also with lenses 35mm or wider), which offers a great balance in terms of portability and image quality.
9) Your post-production is realistic. Colors pop and black & white images are some of the best I have seen online. Do you do your own post-processing? Is much of that learned on the job or did you go to school for it?
Thanks for the compliment, Seshu. I used to paint, so perhaps that background helps in the way I approach processing. I do my own post-processing, and it is all self-taught, lots of trial and error. I definitely am not very knowledgeable as a user of imaging software and you’d be appalled at some of my workflows! In terms of processing, I’m primarily driven by the desire to make an image look and feel like what I actually saw, as closely as possible. I definitely have a penchant for dramatic processing at times, but I never want it to look surreal or over-processed. Sometimes achieving the look I want takes just a few minutes; sometimes it can take up to an hour per frame.
10) I am always curious about how anyone can make a living as a street photographer. There are all kinds of copyright and model release issues that one has to deal with now. What are you doing to overcome all those challenges when marketing your work? Or, is your work simply a way to get your foot in the door for corporate work that calls for a “street vibe”? Tell us more about your plans to be represented. How do you make a living as a photographer?
That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? The whole industry is in flux, traditional business models are collapsing and entire job categories disappearing. Honestly, I haven’t really been in this field long enough to move it from a serious hobby into a full-time lifestyle, much less a life-sustaining one. There are no formulas, or transparent roadmaps. A huge part of being a creative visual professional nowadays will have to revolve around how to forge your own creative career path, and I am still in the process of figuring that out for myself.
Copyright and model release issues – that’s definitely an ongoing challenge to deal with. Luckily for most street work, I find I don’t explicitly need releases to publish or exhibit the work. Making money from prints and books is a bit of a grey area but so far it’s not been a huge problem for me because I don’t do stock or commercial photography. I haven’t actively sought any commercial work, even though I’ve been approached to use my street shots for ad campaigns or shoot commercial projects with a “street” vibe. For my long-term documentary work, I definitely make sure model releases are signed.
What’s next for me? I know I want to continue to tell interesting stories and bring them to people’s attention. I don’t think I’m interested in being an assignment photographer per se; I have to really be personally connected to the work I’m doing or it becomes just another chore. I’m really drawn to photodocumentary and photojournalistic work – unfortunately, this kind of work is recognized less and less, and commercially not very viable on its own. So, I will definitely not quit my day job anytime soon to do this full-time. That said, I’ve embarked on some long-term projects, for which I’ve already received some great recognition by the photo industry and major publications, so it’s encouraging to know that I’m on the right path.
My immediate goal is to complete these projects, get them published, maybe do a few exhibitions, and continue building my name in the field, both as a photodocumentarian and as a street photographer. Then we’ll see where it goes. I’m still paying my dues, so I’m focusing on producing more work and getting better at it. Being able to join a photo collective with a social or humanitarian mandate would be an amazing opportunity. Gallery representation would be a great experience at some point. But most of all, I want to continue to enjoy making pictures and engaging people in the process. That is the main reward for me; any potential money and recognition is secondary.
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