Interview – In Conversation: Ying Ang and Jeff Hahn
Ying Ang: Hey
Jeff Hahn: Hey! Yay we’re finally online together, haha. Okay gimme a minute, just going to make a cup of tea
YA: Noooo problem, me too
JH: Okay done!
YA: Jeff… is your name Jeffrey?
JH: Yes, but don’t tell anyone, haha
YA: hahaha, does anyone call you that?
JH: My mother when she’s upset and the occasional random
YA: Oh that’s sweet. I would call you Jeffrey if we were real life friends, so you would listen to me and be obedient
JH: I might let you, haha. You sound dominant
YA: hahaha, wellllll
YA: I wouldn’t say dominant… maybe alpha
JH: Just as good. So I’m trying to remember how I even ‘met’ you
YA: So Jeff, I have a question
YA: HOW DO WE KNOW EACH OTHER
JH: YES, haha good one. I think I may have discovered your work through Dominic Nahr? Or online somewhere and then added you on Facebook out of pure admiration
YA: How do you know Dominic?
JH: We went to school together. He used to use the darkroom there and then it was untouched for like 6 years and then I opened it, felt like the Chamber of Secrets haha. Also our parents knew each other… from the Swiss community in Hong Kong
YA: You went to GSIS?
JH: Indeed. Where did you study?
YA: I studied in Singapore and Australia but one of my oldest and closest friends went to GSIS, that’s how I met Dominic. I remember being at her place one day and she was on Facebook going through people she used to go to school with and seeing what they were like as “grown-ups”. She says to me “oh hey, one of them is a photographer.” I responded by rolling my eyes and saying, “isn’t everyone these days?” Then I saw his work and had to eat my words
JH: HAHA. I remember he was always photographing through high school anyway and he had a really cool blog that made me want his life and friends. Who was your friend who went to GSIS?
YA: Her name is Bianca Reichle. So are you Chinese?
JH: Don’t remember her name, but then again I am basically a foetus so it’s understandable, haha. I’m half Swiss half Chinese
YA: Were you photographing in high school as well?
JH: I got into photography when I was like 13.. a few people in the years above were into Lomography and used to snap pictures of each other with the Colorsplash camera or the Supersampler camera if you know what those are.. It looked so fun and exciting as opposed to the photography I was used to. So I got one for my birthday and snapped all my friends for years after. Which ones did you have? And how did you get into photography?
YA: I think nearly all of them, but I have also broken ALL of them, except the Holga
JH: I definitely *wont* be lending you any of my cameras haha
JH: Well not the 5D
YA: Not my fault they are so plasticky and rickety
JH: I made so many modifications to them that didn’t turn out so well
YA: So you only shoot with the 5D now?
JH: Well that, and a Mamiya 7 I borrow from my friend cos my rb67 broke, as well as a few film SLRs, but I’ve left behind lomography. It was cute and fun and such a good community! I was so involved with it they gave me so much free stuff and I met soo many amazing people from it
YA: How are you finding your new community and what is that exactly? Fashion? Art?
JH: I guess I’m 90% a fashion photographer these days. I just graduated in July (2012) and am freelancing now so mostly it’s fashion that I do
YA: Do you define yourself as that based on interest or based on paid work?
JH: On both, but I do think of myself more as a photographer; I care more about the picture than the clothes
YA: I think that you are an amazingly talented photographer and that classifying yourself doesn’t do your work justice and who knows, you might change your mind later and decide to do something different. What draws you to fashion?
JH: I find it especially flattering when it comes from someone who doesn’t do fashion. What would you say you’re primarily interested in, documentary?
YA: You tell me first
JH: I guess it’s about capturing the perfect moment, the perfect photograph, and for me the intensity of documentary photography and trying to capture something that you don’t have control over is too much; I need to stage it all so that I can play, and photograph, and get exactly what I want. Work with the light, get the hair the way I want it, get the model or the subject posed how I like…. in an environment that works well with what they’re wearing…. it just so happens that I can do that all with fashion. Also, getting to photograph some of the most insanely beautiful / interesting faces is so great, I still enjoy doing portraiture and other forms of photography but practice fashion much more
YA: Do you have a kind of muse that you project with your models? A certain archetype of female? I’m assuming you shoot women much more than men
JH: I think I shoot 50% women / men.. and enjoy them at that ratio as well. I don’t know though, do you think I have a certain type of female / male?
YA: I think that your men are vulnerable
JH: I wish they were. I think my women are strong
YA: They are… I have a theory; I think all photographers intrinsically operate at a very psychological level, fashion photographers included. Straight female photographers will photograph what they long for within themselves and what they value within themselves; gay female photographers will photograph who they are attracted to; straight men tend to photograph sex incarnate – open leg poses, etc, and gay men will photograph women in a way that seems like they are these strong archetypes… a fraction untouchable. It’s all a huge generalisation, but I’ve found it common in a lot of work
JH: Yeah definitely, definitely agree. I mean, the amount of gay men who worship Beyonce and other power females… I grew up basically loving TV shows where women were supernatural or better, like Charmed, Dark Angel, Buffy….
YA: hahahaha!!! amazing
JH: I still watch those shows to this day haha
YA: I began my work in fashion photography. I did it for about 5 years. In fact, when I met Dominic I was still shooting fashion, but moving away from it
JH: That’s quite an interesting Ying Ang fact, is any of that work still online anywhere?
YA: Maybe somewhere in the deep recesses of Facebook. Fashion was an accident for me. I didn’t love it the way some of my friends loved it, I did it because it was easy. That’s why I’m curious about your desire for it. Photographers are key communicators and I think that we choose what we do based on the experience as well as what comes out of it… as in what we say with it. Documentary photographers like the experience of discovery, opening closed doors and being lost somewhere in the big wide world.
JH: So you didn’t enjoy it at all? I’d love to see some of it! I think it’s so easy to lose yourself in fashion photography, there are too many people to please. The make-up artist wants a beauty shot, the stylist needs full length shots to get all the credits in, otherwise the PR will be annoyed, the model agency needs good face shots, the editor will axe them all anyway
YA: How do you deal with all that?
JH: At the end of the day you are basically a service, and I think the challenge is keeping your identity whilst still serving the purpose. When I shoot someone I’ve usually cast them myself so I love their face / body and that’s always my priority, the model… at the end of the day, I don’t care too much about the clothes; by trying to work out a narrative, story or mood, it helps to somehow still make it me. Did you keep a documentary element to your fashion photography?
YA: I began with very posed, stylised work and then it became more and more free. The more I realised that photography (especially fashion) can be whatever the f*** you want it to be… that’s when it became “better”, closer to a specific style anyway and I learnt a lot of things…. like my way or the highway and always cast your model
JH: YES, that’s the problem, it’s the photographers opinion that should always be the most important when it comes to casting
YA: I like to tell my clients that i’m not a magician… I can’t make beauty if there’s no beauty to be had. So let me have my girl and preferably an amazing team and you’ll get great photographs
JH: Especially with editorial, most of it in London is free, there’s hardly a budget, so if you aren’t going to get your way, or most of it, there’s really no point cos you’re working for free / spending money on something you’re not going to love HAHHA can i steal that line from you? Can we talk more about you please. Tell me what you’re working on at the moment. Why / what were you doing in NY and why are you in Melbourne now? What are all these amazing trips you go on? What are you working on? You were (and are) a huge inspiration for my degree project, that polaroid series you did with your voice-over… killed me, so beautiful. I’m soo happy you wrote the foreword to my book but anyway stop straying, answers please.
YA: I love your work, it was a pleasure. Let’s see… I went to New York because I realised a few things about fashion photography that made me think I needed a change.
1. I don’t like working in a team. 2. If you condensed all my images into a sentence, they all said the same thing and that is “you should probably lose some weight and buy this look so people will think you’re more attractive”… So I enrolled into ICP and did the documentary program because I was entirely self-taught, there were a few holes in my education that needed filling. My previous post-grad was in political science and documentary/socially concerned photography seemed to be a good fit. After graduation from ICP, the progress I was seeing from being in a photographic community in New York made me set up a part-time base camp there. Melbourne is my “home” in the sense that my family is here, the majority of my wardrobe is here and I’m an Australian. My history is around these part, but i’m trying to divide my time between the two places….
JH: So you’re spending more time in Australia now? How about all these trips you’re doing, are you working on a bigger project at the moment, or what are you working on?
YA: Not more time exactly. I’m trying to make it 4 months in Australia, 4 months in NY and allowing myself 4 months on the road per year. I’m always working a few projects at a time and stagger them in terms of progress… so while i’m shooting one, i’m researching another and perhaps putting together a publication of another; it keeps me fresh and interested in the work, which can feel naturally stale if they are long-term projects. Your turn! Why london? Are you between london and HK, or have you completely forsaken Asia?
JH: Okay, but only after you answer. Are you more interested in exploring, travelling and documenting the people in the areas you’re visiting, or documenting the journeys you’re going on by focusing on the journey, or both? Are you still doing portraits of your friends?
YA: I made a pretty important discovery recently. I realised that my path with photography dictates that I must have a deep and personal relationship with my “work”. That means it’s a part of my life, whether I mean it to be or not. THAT means I must live what I shoot…. which brings me to 4 months on the road. If I’m going to photograph something about self-imposed exiles in northern California, I must go and stay there. So yes, it is about friendship and the journey and social musings, all in one, I suppose. The polaroid project you talk about is a mix of my friends and a project that I was working on about men who moonlight as women. I began photographing it as an interesting documentary and it turned into something that I was far more interested in…. which basically came down to how trapped we are in the bodies we were given at birth and the continual struggle to transcend that with how we feel about ourselves. Something that we all deal with – men, women, transgender, accountants. Now your turn. The work that I wrote the foreword on… was personal and awesome. Is this something you are going to do more of, or does commercial work satisfy your photographic hunger?
JH: I guess as you have the flexibility to be able to embark on 4 month trips, that sounds like absolute heaven. To experience something and make it part of your life… kind of funny how the need to photograph dictates your life in a way; to embarking on these trips, so the photograph can initiate it, but then you have to live it to make your photographs too.
Well, commercial work satisfies my hunger, literally. I love it and there will always be a part of me that does, I think. There’s nothing more flattering than someone wanting to pay you to do what you love doing; obviously there are usually boundaries but that’s the nature of it. It allows me to have the money to fund my own personal projects but it’s definitely not what fuels me. Doing that book was really important for me, I was getting into a rut just shooting ‘fashion’ really clean, really boring. I think it’s important for people to relate in a way.. to the images. Too many fashion images are unattainable, I don’t know anyone in my circle of friends that can feel like they relate to them. I mean, obviously I don’t circulate with the kind of clientele that shop in Burberry, so it would be hard to relate. I like a certain sense of unattainbility but there also has to be an element that captures you and what you want, and can sort of relate to… but I guess in photographic theory, ‘the punctum’ is what i want..
The book was great because it allowed me to shift my work back towards the style I wanted to… I sent it out to lots of the magazines here and stylists that I work with. After that everyone wanted me to make more work like that, which was a challenge. I think half of what makes those pictures so intimate is either a) because they were / are, and b) the nudity or lack of clothes helps too. So to then try to apply that to a fashion shoot, that was quite hard… but the book taught me a lot about what I’m interested in as a photographer. It was also my degree project and I remember everyone struggling to come up with amazing artist statements.. maybe you knew a few people in college who did that too, who felt a need to make up a tonne of contextual shit they didn’t really mean, but I had this amazing tutor (and equally amazing artist Esther Teichmann) who told us to look at all the work that inspires us and all the work that we made and to find the common denominators; that’s what our work is about, that’s what interest us and that we are all interested in something.
YA: What you said about the common denominator is totally key!! Across all photographic practise at the early stage; it’s finding what visually “obsesses” you and just going with it
JH: Yes definitely! It’s so simple and so obvious but sometimes so easy to forget.
YA: People try to get really fancy about it; at the end of the day, it’s what turns you on. If you can’t figure that out, you’re not going to be able to turn anyone else on with your work. Are you working on another personal project at the moment? I love that both kinds of work feed into each other. By the way, the book itself is a beautiful object, you have a real talent for that kind of publishing also. Is it something you want to explore further?
JH: I would love to work on another book, but it has to be right I think, and it has to expand on what existed before and not just be the same. I’m at the beginning of working on a collaborative book with this leather bondage design duo (Fleet Ilya) who I’ve worked with before, which I think will be perfect for me – to fuse fashion with portraiture; I think visually it’ll be quite amazing. So that’s really exciting – approaching it as a personal project but also with a fashion element, I think it’ll be the perfect balance between the two fields that I’m interested in and trying to link.
I guess I’m also trying to hone in on my fashion editorial work and make it as perfect as possible. I’m really interested in trying to make images now that wouldn’t look out of place in a gallery or a fashion magazine – that’s the goal and also thank you! There’s something soo great about the physical object – as it goes without saying, but we live in such a digital age, half my jpegs are hardly ever printed, it’s nice to share something like that. Also on that topic, you seem to have read loads of amazing books about photography, about people etc.. do you want to share a few that are must-reads in your opinion? Your blog is always a PLEASURE to look at and after doing a fine art photography degree which drained me completely, you present photography and photographic theory in such a consumable way, I just want more …!
YA: Ha!!!! photographic theory is a stretch
JH: I remember you posted an exerpt from one of Miranda July‘s books which I bought and is now my favourite book!
YA: Oh shit, yeah that book is great
JH: SHE is great! A genius, actually
YA: I would recommend less reading books ABOUT photography… and more just books that fire your heart and imagination…. you learn the technique, fine and then it comes down to creation and whatever lights that spark; poetry, short stories, long epic adventures
JH: What lights your spark?
YA: The human struggle, I read a lot about battles, medieval style and I cry sometimes when I read these scenes!! Question what the hell am I’m crying for
JH: I love how big a part words / text / poetry / books plays in your work and I think you’re equally amazing at both, they feed each other in perfect harmony, honestly.. #FanGirl
YA: It’s because words conjure imagery in my head. then I take the template already in my head and search the world for its real-life equivalent. Photographers are weird; non-photogs reading this are going to be totally wierded out, sorry guys!
JH: Haha, well everyone has to find their inspiration from somewhere and sometimes its the most random places
YA: But it’s also an easy way out of plagiarism; instead of being inspired by something visual that has come before, being inspired by words forces you to make something visually more original. You read some dark poetry about Sylvia Plath, you take that mood, you take her and you look for her in a picture… or you make her in a picture. Instead of seeing a shoot and thinking, ‘oh yeah, i like that look’ and doing something same same but different… that’s one of my biggest problems with photojournalists… they all begin to look the same after a while and it’s because the only things they are being “inspired” by are each other’s photographs. What about reading a novel about the place they are shooting in? Reading a well-written memoir… who are your biggest influences? Who or what?
JH: Yeah that’s true, very true. I definitely need to get back into reading… I don’t think I really have any influences to be honest.. I really hate being asked what inspires me, it’s usually the person I’m photographing I guess. Intimacy inspires me… mood.. places, colours… I mean Miranda July is one of my favourite artists, I think she is pure genius, her thoughts, the way she sometimes deals with the most obvious things that people are afraid to talk about – to question, or they just accept, and she puts it out there… she’s so perfectly odd, she’s great in Me and You and Everyone We Know, that is so brilliant. Her little project book “No One Belongs Here More Than You ” (is that what it’s called?) was amazing. I remember she asked people to make inspiring banners and someone did a text banner that said “You Have A Spine”; I had that as my desktop background for ages… so simple and so amazing.
A lot of fine art photographers inspire me, but I’ve also adapted to the digital age and spent time scouring Tumblr and just retumbling what I like… and some films, but I hardly watch films. Lana Del Rey’s music is what my photographs would be if they were music, haha don’t laugh!
YA: HAHAHA!!!!! Amazing, i’m not being disparaging, I like Lana Del Ray! I also like Grimes
JH: I love that you use that word, that’s what John Cage ‘the biscuit’ always uses in Ally McBeal. I love Grimessssss and I still love Lykke Li… “and for you I keep my legs apart, forget about my tainted heart”
YA: Yessss hahahaha awesome
Based between Melbourne, Singapore and New York, Ying Ang has exhibited internationally in group and solo shows, in addition to working for clients such as the Wall Street Journal, The Fader, and Das Magazin, amongst others. She graduated as valedictorian for the 2009-10 class of Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at the ICP and has garnered a wide range of international awards as well as currently participating in the Reflexions Masterclass of 2011-2013. A member of the MJR photo collective, Ying also devotes her time to book producing and project managing at the Renegade Media Laboratory.
Jeff Hahn is a Swiss/Chinese photographer based in London. He has shot for various magazines and clients including Dazed & Confused, Hero, Hussein Chalayan, Nylon, Tatler (Asia), Versace and Wonderland, with publications like i-D and the British Journal of Photography featuring his work. Aside from partaking in group shows in Hong Kong, New York and London, he has recently pursued new creative avenues, resulting in his creation of bespoke accessories and headpieces for editorials in Italian Vogue, Dansk and Numero magazine. Hahn is represented by The Book Agency in London, and God & Man in New York.
Edited by Patricia Karallis / Published 26 March, 2013