The Girl Behind the Lens | Photographer MISSBISH Carmen Chan
DateMarch 12, 2015
Selfless, fearless and incredibly talented are words that come to mind when we think of Carmen Chan. She’s the type of girl that will do anything to help a friend in need, she isn’t afraid to take risks, and she inspires the people around her to be the best versions of themselves. Hailing from Las Vegas, Carmen Chandiego moved back and forth between Hong Kong and Los Angeles, and now resides in New York City conquering the world of photography. She went from 0 to 100 real quick, working as a photography assistant for Hedi Slimane, French photographer and Creative Director of Saint Laurent Paris. Since then, Carmen’s developed quite an extensive portfolio working for the likes of adidas Originals, Teen Vogue, and Monocle Magazine. She’s even been up close and personal photographing Alexander Wang, Chitose Abe, Diane von Fürstenberg amongst others. Amazing photographer aside, Carmen in an unbelievable friend, mentor and has been immensely supportive of the MISSBISH movement since day one.
How did your passion for photography begin?
I was inspired by seeing my friend Ken Wu’s photography! Once he taught me how to use an SLR I fell in love with shooting.
Do you remember your first time using a camera?
My first time using an SLR was in Oct 2008.
What was your journey like leading up to making photography your full time job?
I was in Los Angeles working as a freelance Assistant Production Coordinator for a TV show but I enjoyed photography more than production work so I thought about the possibility of pursuing a photography career. I was trying to learn as much as possible through books and blogs. Fortuitously, one of the fashion photography blog’s I was following posted that she was looking for an intern – no experience necessary. I got the internship, definitely not for my photography skills (my flickr portfolio had photos of dogs and flowers) but for my admin skills from production work. I worked with her for 6 months at which time she didn’t have an agent so I learned about every aspect of the business – estimates, marketing, billing, retouching, production, client interaction. Afterwards, I photo assisted with a handful of photographers for 2 years while building a portfolio through test shoots and then moved to Hong Kong to shoot full time. The career change was risky and for a second I felt like my college degree and production experience was wasted but it all helps me do my job today.
“The only way to get better is to keep practicing and shooting. I hated this advice when I received it because it’s impractical and doesn’t give immediate results.”
What is your most memorable photography experience?
Shooting part of the adidas Originals FW’15 China campaign was an amazing experience. I worked with a awesome production team, and a crazy talented creative team from NeochaEDGE. Part of the fun was scouting epic abandoned locations around Hong Kong and Taipei, climbing everywhere – sometimes trespassing, and eating beef noodles. The actual shoots were exciting because of the talent, and seeing the imagery roll out in-stores across several months was really cool. It was a dream job – the style and vibe was aligned with my strengths and the crew’s professionalism made my job a lot easier. Another would be shooting social content for Burberry‘s Art of the Trench Campaign in Hong Kong because the only gear I needed for that job was an iPhone5 and some scraps to create bokeh in the foreground.
You spend most of your time between Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and New York. What made you recently decide to make New York your home base?
If I hadn’t moved to HK from LA, I would have moved to NY. It’s something I always wanted to do after interning here for 3 months during college. I was really excited about the portfolio I had built in HK – some of the clients I worked with in HK are based in NY (J.Crew, Teen Vogue). A lot of the work and brands that inspire me are from NY and I knew I’d be challenged to grow and improve my skills and be able to work with a greater variety of clients, so it felt like a natural next step.
We love your ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ photography theme and how you combine tattoos and identity into one photo. What is the meaning behind this? How did this idea start up?
Thanks! I’ve always been fascinated with tattoos – the permanence, the meaning associated with the pieces, the different styles, the art, and the opinions that people form when they see tattoos. I shot it on polaroid film on a medium format camera so the process is slow but it was pretty special to spend that time with each subject and for them to be patient and willing to share something of meaning with me and to see the results together. The double exposure was an experiment to see how the additional layer might create added meaning to the portrait. Do you notice someones face first, or their tattoos? It Doesn’t Matter is what one of the tattoos said, but it was fitting as a title to the series since, I feel like the portrayal of each person is honest and the phrase can apply to assumptions or ideas that people have about each other’s appearances.
Every photographer has their preferred camera. What is yours and why?
I use a full frame Nikon for most work, Sony RX100 for travel. If I could have it my way, I’d shoot medium format film or 35mm on the Mamiya RZ67 or Pentax K1000. Something about the depth, tones, grain, and lack of perfection appeals to me.
“In the beginning you will think your work isn’t good enough. Keep shooting, it’ll get better. It’s worth sharing, even if YOU don’t think it’s good enough… someone will appreciate it and it’ll inspire someone.”
Can you walk us through a typical photography shoot? What needs to be prepared? What equipment do you require?
Every shoot is unique and that’s what makes the job so fun. It usually starts with an email from the client and then communicating to find out exactly what they want to visually achieve – the message they’re trying to communicate. Once we are on the same page, I propose the logistic elements involved to realize the idea (casting, hair, makeup, wardrobe styling, prop styling, set building, studio rental, locations, etc.). If it’s a larger production we’ll bring in a producer. The hardest part is negotiating, communicating clearly, and managing expectations so that at the end of the day, you’re protected, and the client is happy with the results. The equipment is dependent on the lighting condition of the location and the results I’m trying to achieve – this could mean large frames of fabric to block the sun and reflectors or portable strobes (lights), or one or two off-camera speedlights, or sometimes no lighting at all. I’ll always bring my laptop (and a cable if the client needs me to be tethered while shooting) so I can download and back up files while I shoot.
Did you have a mentor guiding you through this journey?
In the beginning Ken was super helpful, and then it was Melissa Rodwell who I interned for, but the most influential person who I’ve learned the most from and who has been generous with her resources is Colette de Barros. She’s a really successful photographer based in LA and we still keep in touch.
Do you feel that there are trends within the photography industry? i.e. how one takes a photo.
I think there are trends in photography styles (ie. on IG – minimalism/diverging lines, in commercial work – high contrast on camera flash) but if you shoot based on trends and don’t have a strong style/vision/reason/story then when the trend fades (which all eventually do), where does your work stand? It’s great to identify and adapt to trends, but it’s crucial to maintain a uniqueness.
Do you have any advice for those who aspire to be a photographer?
The only way to get better is to keep practicing and shooting. I hated this advice when I received it because it’s impractical and doesn’t give immediate results. I was impatient and wanted to know what to do so that I could start shooting for whatever magazine/brand I loved. The entire “becoming a professional photographer” is a huge learning process – you’re running your own small business, you’re building your technical and creative skill – find a mentor if possible. In the beginning you will think your work isn’t good enough, that’s fine, just keep shooting, it’ll get better. It’s worth sharing, even if YOU don’t think it’s good enough… someone will appreciate it and it’ll inspire someone. Some problems can only be solved by time and perseverance. The passion you have gives you opportunities to give something to/help people, you decide how to use it and how it’ll affect people.
“Some problems can only be solved by time and perseverance. The passion you have gives you opportunities to give something to/help people, you decide how to use it and how it’ll affect people.”
With all these awesome camera phones and editing apps, do you feel that this takes a toll on photographers? Or does it create a positive change to photography?
I think it’s positive. I wouldn’t dismiss someone as a photographer if they only shot with an iPhone. If someone starts out in mobile photography but it inspires them to pursue a photography career then that’s great. Being able to see beautiful images the VSCO grid and Instagram from every corner of the earth shot by people who aren’t photographers by trade is so inspiring.
What do you do when you’re not behind the lens?
Other business related tasks, spending quality time (over good food) with friends and family, reading and learning more about non-photography things, traveling, calligraphy, interval training.
What are 3 hidden gems in Hong Kong?
1. Common Ground (coffee shop tucked away, get ready to work your quads on the way up, amazing burgers)
2. Tfvsjs Café
3. AO: The bookstore (the biggest selection of photo books in HK that aren’t all vacuum sealed so you can actually browse through the books)
What does MISSBISH mean to you?
A woman who is confident in her pursuits, her abilities, her style, and her beliefs. A badass bish who takes time to take care of herself and those she loves. A group of women who as individuals are making waves in the circles they’re a part of.
Photography: Alex Maeland