How did you get started in photography and learn the skills necessary for your practice? I started in photography when I was in high school. I remember being immersed in all creative art classes such as drawing, painting and sculpture but black-and-white photography was what I was immediately the most drawn to and what I wanted to pursue the most. I began learning everything I could about photography in my high school class at sixteen years old, and the learning has only continued since then. The learning is never ending.
After high school, I continued my photo and art education at University of California, Los Angeles, where I received my BFA in design media arts. Then, I later moved to pursue an MFA in photography, video and related media at the School of Visual Arts.
What inspired you to focus on portraiture? Did anyone’s work influence you, and if so, how? I can’t say exactly what it was that steered me toward portraiture, but I do remember the first time I set up studio lights in photo class with the intention of photographing one of my classmates. The assignment was to take a studio portrait, and the moment I started, I felt like portraiture simply had my attention. There is something about photographing a person, capturing them at their most honest and true moments, that just inspires me. Maybe it’s the connection I make with my subject. Maybe it is the challenge of it that excites me. Maybe it’s both.
Some of my earliest influences were photographers like Diane Arbus, Katy Grannan, Dorothea Lange, Annie Leibovitz and Cindy Sherman. These women were inspiring and made epic work—and some still do. I would say that Katy and Cindy were the two who really informed my style. The rawness of their work. The emotionality of their subjects. Those things attracted me and made me want to make work like that.
Tell me about some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on recently. What did you learn about photography from them? Most recently, I have been working on a series of self-portraits—something I have never done the way I currently am. As I have allowed myself to loosely create pictures of myself, I have been able to let myself go back to a time when making pictures didn’t have to have any rules, limits or expectations. I have wanted to embrace the childlike curiosity that comes with being creative, the voice inside my head that tells me: “Don’t think! Just make the picture!”
One thing I have learned through this process is to silence the outside voices that tell me what kind of work I should be making as an artist, the voices that tell me what rules I have to follow in order to make valuable work. The truth is, from my own experience and understanding, you have to listen to your internal voice, that creative, limitless child who began creating things out of necessity and imagination rather than society’s expectations or what “they” say will sell or be on trend. The work has to come from the heart. I’ve realized that sometimes it is inevitable to put limits on our own creativity, but we give ourselves too many boxes to fit into rather than letting ourselves breathe in the vastness of creative possibility. I am happy to be able to let that go.
You’ve worked on multiple projects taking portraits of transgender and queer people, such as The Book of Skin: Shangrila and Work in Progress. How do these works humanize them at a time when their lives are so abstracted and politicized? In my opinion, the trans experience has always been about the human experience. The blossoming that comes with the trans and queer experience physically, emotionally and mentally is not unlike the experiences we al have as human beings who, at some point, discover who we are and what our identities are, and then hopefully blossom into the true selves we were always meant to be. The trans and queer person’s experience has the power to teach us so much about our own powers of transformation. It has the power to teach us about our own identities and challenges us to question whether we are living our truth.
These projects, in particular, put the viewer face to face with people who may or may not have a perceived physical difference from the cis-heteronormative world we live in. But their experiences are not unlike everyone in the world who somehow has to come to terms with parts of who they are and how their identities are defined. In my opinion, the trans and queer experience in part teaches us about honesty and authenticity. They have one of the most human experiences there is, and I have always had the intention to reveal this in my work through sensitivity, care and honesty.
You’ve photographed for the New York Times, Paper magazine and The New Yorker, and for clients in the arenas of entertainment and fashion as well. How did working on these assignments feel different from your usual work? In some ways it is different and in most ways it is not. I am lucky enough to be given assignments that usually align with my voice as an artist, and I typically embrace them as much as I do my personal work. I am lucky in this way, but because I also get hired to create work that aligns with my style and the emotionality I elicit through my own work, it also limits the type of assignments I do receive! Sometimes, when your voice as an artist is clear, you only get work that directly correlates to your style or mood of work, which can be a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. Sometimes, this can get you pigeonholed into only getting certain kinds of work when you know you can be doing all kinds of work.
Quite recently, I’ve started to get still-life assignments, which is something I never thought I would do as I am a true portrait photographer. But in working on still lifes, I’ve realized that it is not so different from portraiture. The way I approach a still life is very similar to how I would approach a portrait, except it is a bit less challenging because I don’t have to emotionally connect with my subject. I’m a bit more detached with an assignment like this, and then it becomes about making the objects look good rather than emotionally connecting and creating an evocative portrait.
How do you push your work to evolve? I’ve realized that, for me, I cannot push myself to do anything creative or push my work to evolve—at least, not in the literal sense. I’ve learned to let things evolve naturally. I’ve learned to listen to my internal voice and to let things ebb and flow. It’s only natural that over time and by making work that it evolves. The evolution is actually in creating work. The more work you make, the more you will evolve over time. That isn’t something I can push. Yes, it is challenging to make work at times, but that’s where the childlike curiosity comes into play. That’s where you let yourself just make anything.
When I am feeling frustrated because I am not evolving or because I don’t know what meaningful thing to do next, I let myself be. I let myself think and feel and observe myself and the world around me. It’s hard to be in this state at first because it can be quite frustrating not to know what’s next. One can feel idle, but you just force yourself to do it without judgment or guilt because it is a part of the process. In this state, you allow yourself to have faith that it will come. At the right time, it will come. And through the sitting, you get a little deeper. In that depth, you will find inspiration, and within that inspiration, it is inevitable that you and your work will evolve.
Aside from your camera and lighting, what item could you not work without? That is all I need. I am a minimalist in many ways, and that applies to my work as well. All I ask for is an operating camera and some good light.
What are some challenges facing the photography industry today? I would say that the industry is challenged by oversaturation, especially with the internet and social media. The opportunity for good artists to actually make a living in the worlds of commercial photography, editorials and galleries has become a novel and very luck-oriented idea. The industry is tightly gated by editors, photo directors, art buyers and agencies who are afraid to hire voices that are unconventional, but rather choose to work with people who are on trend or just simply palatable to the general public. There is a whole politic to it where you have to know the right people, but the right people are very hard to know. And even if you do reach them, there is no guarantee that the right people will work with you—even if your work is spectacular. It’s sad in a way, and it is hard, but it is reality. I’d say that for me, trying to forge a career as an artist and photographer is a lifetime of hard work and stamina. It takes a lot of perseverance.
Is there anybody or anything you would love to photograph? Why? I think I would say no. At this moment in time, there isn’t any one person or thing I would love to photograph. I love to photograph anyone who has a story to tell me. Anyone who is willing to sit with me and let me see them, even if just a little bit. The human condition and the human experience are what I love to photograph. I am always ready to do that with any subject, anywhere.
Do you have any advice for photographers just getting started today? My first advice would be make sure you love what you are doing and that you love it for the right reasons. If it’s about anything other than that you cannot imagine doing anything other than being an artist, then it’s not a good enough reason. The hunger has to be there, the drive has to be there and the passion, but it has to be because you can’t imagine living a good life without it.
Then I would say to just make work. No matter what you do, just keep on making things and don’t stop. The work is the most important thing. Whether you’re getting hired or not, the work will always be the most important thing. ca