On taking pictures: I take pictures out of respect, awe, curiosity and love. If I take a picture of you it is because there is something about you that I admire, and I want to remember it, commemorate it and/or show everybody else. It always starts with respect, and the thing is it’s scary. It’s scary to take pictures because the act of raising the camera up to your eye is a signal that you are opening your heart and admitting that there is a part of you deep down inside that admires this person, respects this person and loves this person. It’s even scarier because you can fail. The pictures may come out like shit regardless of the intention and the people you photograph can reject you for life. It’s terrifying and paralyzing but I hope that regardless of who I photograph, they remember that I do it out of respect and love.
On cameras: Photography has made me a much more conscious person. It has made me much more aware, and it’s not just within the visual medium. It informs my entire life and how I live. It has allowed me to live consciously, to be present, to value, be grateful, and appreciate everything about life. It teaches me to slow down, to think a bit differently, to approach life with an open heart, to be patient and to be open to what life has to offer. Something that began as a physical object somehow slowly started to change the way I see, then the way I think, and ultimately the way I live. This is rather peculiar and I never expected for this to happen but I am very glad it did. Every time I have my camera in hand, I feel truly alive and reborn again.
On editing: I’m a terrible editor when it comes to my own work. I always was, and sadly, I might always will be. See, there is a personal bias you must combat when you edit your own work. The bias tells you that if you didn’t like this image, you wouldn’t have taken it in the first place. Or even more simply, it’s good because you made it, which is not always true. A great photographer can appear shitty due to poor editing. A shitty photographer can seem amazing with great editing. Point being – get yourself the best editor you can find.
On sharing your work: Sharing your work is tough because your choice to photograph someone can make them feel special and happy, but your choice to not display these photos can cause absolute hatred and jealousy. Why did you show his picture and not mine in the album? Why is his picture on the cover and not mine? Why was I shown last? It’s never-ending, and in a way, paralyzing. I’m sure it’s not unlike my fear of throwing birthday parties for fear of the fact that I might forget someone. Then again, the reality is that some people will have to feel left out. It starts as soon as I decide on who to photograph, and it gets deeper with editing, and finally with sequencing and showing my work to the world. People just need to be left out. It isn’t personal. Really.
On film versus digital: Forget the technical aspects of it – they are both strong in their own ways, but that shouldn’t be the point. Choosing between the two is about deciding the process in which you shoot. Different processes lead to different results. Having said that, I always shoot better photos with film. It just happens that way. I know, one can argue that you can get the same process by taping the back of your digital camera, but I would argue otherwise. The knowledge that you can peel the tape back and still get a peek changes your mentality, and thus the process. I love digital but lately I’ve been finding myself falling in love with film more and more.
On inspiration: Everything inspires me. My entire life inspires me, even the boring bits. Sometimes I don’t have any inspiration. I’ve learned now that I’ve gotten older to not go out and search for it, and definitely to not force myself. Inspiration will never come when I want it to. I don’t sit down and say to myself, “OK, time to come up with ideas.” I’ve tried. It doesn’t work. Inspiration will come whenever it wants. It is my job to simply be aware.
On getting published: Getting published is not the point, and it never was. While it is great and I would love for my work to be shared with as many people as possible, that is not the point. If you are constantly upset because your work is not published, perhaps you need to ask yourself why you take pictures in the first place because obsessing over this minor step is a straight shot to artistic suicide. The point is to create and to express yourself. At least, that is enough for me. I’ve also found that doing so allows you to be more honest, and when you are more honest, your work becomes stronger and in some weird way, your work has a higher chance of getting published. So far, I’ve been published in San Francisco Magazine and the New York Times and, while that may not be the pinnacle of a photographer’s career, both of them came when I least expected it. I did the work because I wanted to express myself. For me, that was enough.
On honesty: You need to be honest with yourself before you even pick up the camera because truth be told, people can tell when your picture isn’t true. At least I can. And I think that’s the problem with digital and the Internet nowadays because everybody wants everything so damn fast but sometimes there just isn’t a picture for you to take. At least not one that is true and honest. If you are not sure if you are being honest with yourself, just take notice of how you shoot. If you are taking a million pictures just for the sake of having a photo to work with, upload, get likes and followers, then you are being dishonest. Stop lying to yourself and stop lying to me. This gets so tiring.
On personal projects: Everybody needs to work on a personal project and it’s best if it’s a long-term project. Even better if it’s a lifetime project. I have a few lifetime projects. They’re entitled “My friends,” “Home,” and “Lion dancers.” I’m very honest when I take these photos and I don’t rush. I shoot film because they deserve it, and if there are no pictures to take that day, then I won’t take any. So be it. You need personal projects because they serve as an opportunity to express who you really are and what you’re really about. Commercial work is great and it pays the bills but a strong photographer to me is not one who has graced the most magazine covers, not the one who’s had million-dollar advertisements shown all over Times Square; it is the one who is able to face the world with an open heart and show us what they are really made of, good and bad. It is the one who expresses his or her true self. It is the one who is the most honest.
by Jason Lam