Every once in a while something truly special happens. It can be an encounter with an old friend, a chat with your special loved one, or perhaps meeting someone new. Well, I had such a moment a few months ago when I discovered the work of Zun Lee over on Flickr. I’ve perused a multitude of streams and some have left me in awe but yet others have left an indelible impression on me — such is the power behind the images of Zun Lee. Folks, today Tog Series is proud to inaugurate with an amazing street photographer — Zun Lee.
Jorge Ledesma: Photojournalism and Street Photography live side by side in your body of work. Your images are soulful, alive, enigmatic, and most importantly powerful. Can you tell me how the love for this craft began?
Zun Lee: Jorge, first off, thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation with you and thank you also for your observations. I’m relatively new to photography; started getting into it seriously about three years ago, and into street photography about two years ago. I used to paint when I was younger but haven’t done so in a long time. Photography became a medium that allowed me to express myself visually in the way I wanted; street photography in particular was something that aligned with my love for the “story behind the story”. For me, telling that story from my vantage point is key, and as such I’m not bound in any way to particular photographic genres or schools of thought.
Jorge Ledesma: That’s excellent Zun, being free from any particular genre and just going with the ambience, the mood, whichever, is certainly an honorable way. Sometimes young photographer get caught up following a particular genre because they admire one of the many greats of photography and in that path, they simply get lost trying or forcing themselves to be something which they’re not or just not necessarily have that inclination. I can certainly relate.
Studying and perusing your Flickr stream I came upon something very interesting, a quote you wrote where you said “photography forces me to be and stay in the moment. It helps me keep my sanity.” This is a profound philosophical statement which has made me think and question things myself and my own approach. Could you elaborate on this?
There are just some folks who have this gregarious, expansive energy about them. I had seen him a few times all over downtown but it had never been the right moment – until our paths crossed this Spring in Kensington Market. The portrait of Malcolm, sorry, “Sir” Malcolm (as he insisted).
Zun Lee: Oh wow, you’ve certainly dug deeper into my flickr stream than I assumed!
One the surface, the statement I made was about the fact that I have a hectic daily routine that is dominated by my day job and very frequent business travel. As a result, my mind is always racing, I constantly think about the next step and rarely have time to enjoy just being in the moment. Being in the streets with my camera is an antidote to that – I can turn my mind off anything left-brained and simply attune to the energy of what is unfolding before me, not think about the past or the future. That helps me settle down and decompress for a while.
On a deeper level, it’s about seeking a genuine connection with a total stranger on the street, whether that happens for a split second or as a result of engaging someone in a conversation. My objective is never just to get a picture of someone interesting, but there’s immense power in sharing a moment where both you and your subject allow for some vulnerability. It’s not just about pressing the shutter at the right time, but about the photographer wanting to give as much to the subject as the subject is willing to give to you.
Re. seeking inspiration from all the greats of street photography, there’s nothing wrong with it if that helps establish one’s own vision or point of view. Or, as the saying goes, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” What inspires me personally when looking at the works of all the legends in this genre is the fact that each of them not only had their own vision, but that their vision was consistent and complete. And getting to that completeness of vision is what motivates me, not copying someone else’s style.
Jorge Ledesma: Ah the famous saying “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” so true indeed. Which of the great ones do you like to flatter?
Zun Lee: … there are many people I could name, but two that particularly resonate with me are Helen Levitt and Roy DeCarava. On flickr, again, there are so many people I admire – if I had to name two, it would have to be Joe Wigfall and Rui Palha.
In general, my main inspiration comes not so much from photographers, but from painters: Off the cuff, I’m partial to Romare Bearden, Modigliani, Aaron Douglas, and Max Beckmann. Among contemporaries, I like Tim Okamura’s urban portraits a lot.
Jorge Ledesma: That’s quite an interesting list Zun. Two names jump right out at me Joe WigFall and Tim Okamura. Tell me about Joe? In the short time that I’ve followed his stream I can’t help but notice how the rawness of his imagery just shine – its truly brilliant. And In relation to Tim Okamura’s body of work, I think I can draw a certain parallel to yours if I may so. Had you noticed that yourself?
Zun Lee: Joe has been a true inspiration for me, and I can safely say that I wouldn’t be engaged in this genre were it not for his work. What is important to me is the psychology of human emotion and human interaction, and in that regard there is a distinct flow and rawness to Joe’s work. In his best moments, it is clearly evident that he shoots with heart and soul, and the immediacy of that impact is so powerful.
Re. Tim Okamura’s work, I think I wrote somewhere on my flickr stream that I feel a certain kinship to his approach and his philosophy. I share his love for New York City, the hip-hop groove that is evident in his compositional flow and context, and his ability to capture a certain “realness” – a truth behind the surface that makes us connect to the people he portrays and inspires us to develop our own take on the story he shares.
Jorge Ledesma: Powerful statements indeed on Joe and Tim.Their work is certainly an inspiration to many out there. I can only describe them as raw, pure rawness. Zun, let’s switch modes and talk about gear. Street photography is infamous for its quick spontaneous imagery. Which cameras these days are permitting you to do this kind off work. Do you have a favorite lens? You know, what’s in the gear bag, walk me through it please.
Zun Lee: The short answer is, whatever camera is on me, which more often than not happens to be the Ricoh GRD3. It’s always in my pocket or hand when I walk the streets. I’d say I shoot with it 80% of the time now.
There’s still room for the “big” DSLR gear, my current favorite is the Nikon D700, and I use it with the “holy trinity” of Nikkor lenses (14-24mm f2.8/24-70mm f2.8/70-200mm f2.8). I love to shoot wide and close (24-35mm range), so the 14-24 and 24-70 get a lot of play. If I decide to specifically go after street portraits on a given day, the 24mm f1.4 prime is great, too. In general, going out to shoot with the D700 takes a lot of upfront resolve; I have to make a conscious decision to use that gear, because regardless of your approach, you’re going to draw attention and I’m not always in the frame of mind to deal with that. I often start the day with the Ricoh until I get into a groove, then take out the big cam. It all depends on how I feel at that time.
Jorge Ledesma: A true Nikon love affair indeed but with a little Ricoh love as well, that’s excellent. You seem to have the best of both worlds. Brace yourself because this question is going to be tough. I’d like to know which is your favorite image taken with the Ricoh and likewise with the D700 and please explain what’s the story behind, if there is one, or why you made it your top pick. I know its tough and decisions must be made. I’ll tell you what on the Nikon pick two, I think the “holy trinity” of lens deserves it.
Zun Lee: wow, that is indeed a tough one, for two reasons:
1. I think we all ascribe a lot of personal meaning to the special circumstances of a street encounter (e.g. perhaps we were fascinated by the personality of an individual, or we remember how tough it was to “get” that shot, etc.), but it doesn’t necessarily translate into the quality of the image itself.
2. I always think the next shot is the best shot, so in a way, I haven’t taken my most favorite shot yet.
OK, decisions, decisions…with the D700
This the story from my flickr post: “That’s an expensive-looking camera you got there” is normally NOT a conversation-starter in a seedy part of town. But even though homeless, Marty quickly revealed himself as a photographer who knows his stuff. He’s a fellow Nikonian, too and gave me much solid advice re. street photography. He’s going through some rough times and we agreed to keep in touch. I will mail him his pics to his shelter address, he’s going to send me some of his past work. I captured several of Marty. He liked this one the most. This encounter was special to me because I was reminded that what we do on the street is a give and take. That moment was a bit of an ice breaker in that I realized that, for me, it’s not about “stealing souls” or stealing candid moments, but I’m at my most inspired when I shoot with love.
The second D700 favorite:
Bruce was definitely a favorite of the day. His swagger and style attracted us from the other side of the street and he obliged to our advances under two conditions: (a) that we make him look beautiful and (b) that we connect him to Hollywood. I gave him my card and trust he will email us so we can make good on the latter. If not, I hope he finds us on here! I like this one because it was a rare moment where everything came together: I was “in the zone” and ready for anything, the subject had great energy and the environment and light were perfect for street shooting. It just felt 100% right, and I rarely feel that way.
With the Ricoh GRD3:
That was truly a situation of [luck = opportunity meets preparation]. I was in NYC on my way to the Easter Parade and just had a feeling the energy of the moment was going to lead to something special. It was pretty subtle but specific. And these are the moments I’m after.
Jorge Ledesma: Zun, those are indeed powerful images, I must say the dapper fellow has some 70’s funk thing going on which is very visually alluring, but your stream is such a gold mine of images, if you could oblige, I’m going to pick some of my favorites and perhaps you can share the thought process in these.
Zun Lee: For “This Time, I’ll Tell Him” – I admit it was really just a moment on a busy NYC street corner where nothing obvious was going on. When this subject came into the frame, she had a very hesitant, ponderous expression and body stance for a brief moment. Not sure what crossed her mind, maybe she was trying to hail a cab or cross the street. But for this brief moment, she allowed an alternate story to be told. To me, it’s an example of the fact that photography can never be “objective” – when we take a snapshot, we invariably create our own story, which isn’t necessarily what really unfolded.
Zun Lee: For the rodent image, I spent a night at Penn Station in NYC, which is a place that harkens back to some of Manhattan’s seedier days, before its “Disneyfication”. That night in particular, I was drawn to a group of homeless street kids. AJ and April were a couple that somehow successfully trained pet rats – they really had a family bond. I was waiting for an opportunity to show that special bond.
Zun Lee: Malcom Drake is one of those colorful characters I tend to run into in my favorite neighborhood in San Francisco, the Tenderloin. I saw him leave a bar and had actually already passed him by. His larger-than-life energy was so striking that I made a 180 and simply had to ask for a portrait. Him being an artist and performer, I didn’t have to tell him how to pose to bring out his true self, I just needed to find a background that would be the appropriate frame for his expansive aura. One of those moments where I was happy to have my point & shoot with me.
Thanks for bringing back some of my favorite memories!
Jorge Ledesma: Zun, incredible stories behind all your images. I can’t thank you enough for participating and inaugurating Togs Series, its been my pleasure to learn more about your photography philosophy, your shooting style, and getting to know a few of your images more in depth. Thank you once again.
Zun, to finalize, one last question. I think its fair to say you’ve been around the block a few times and your solid stream of images is a testament to the dedication and love you have towards photography. What advice would you give new street photographers coming to this medium, if you had to reduce all the pertinent advice to the utmost quintessential truth of street photography, what would such advice be?
Zun Lee: Jorge, you’re welcome and thank you kindly for the opportunity to share my thoughts re. our passion for street photography. The interactive format was a real pleasure and I hope others will choose the same. Truly humbling that you’re kicking off your Togs series with my work.
I’m a bit reluctant to give advice, mainly because I’ve only been shooting street for about two years, and I think of me as a beginner myself. But if it came down to one thing, I’d say – really spend your time honing your individual artistic vision.
I’m saying that because I see a lot of discussion centered around rules and dogma. I also notice a fixation on the “right” equipment and processing. All these things are important but in the end, it’s not about technique and there’s no single objective truth in this genre. I believe people can grow a lot faster if they articulate their personal vision, even before they fine-tune the technical aspects of photography. In my case, my vision informs what I want to shoot and how, but I also know there’s still a huge gap between my vision and the final shot. Trying to close that gap is what keeps me hungry enough to keep improving.
Jorge Ledesma: Zun, you’ve been a gracious interviewee and I want to thank you once again. You’re a truly inspirational photographer with a keen eye on humanity with images that tell the story. Such inspiration even got me to acquire my own Ricoh GRD III in hopes to do some street togging down here(Miami) as well. For everything, thank you. It was awesome to learn more about your photography, style, and images and, I’m just happy to be able to share this with readers and photographers alike. Thank you Zun.
Well, there you have it folks, Zun Lee, an incredible photographer with a pure street tog vision. Below are two Flickr galleries of Zun’s work with the Nikon D700 and another one with the Ricoh GRD III. Zun’s work can be seen via his Flickr stream located here and also his upcoming website coming towards the end of July or beginning of August at zunlee.com.