On this episode of What Makes You Click, Kelvin welcomes Carmen Chan, an editorial and commercial photographer who has taken a unique and unconventional route to the photography industry.
Carmen and Kelvin discuss why she pivoted from the taxing industry of film production, after learning how to use a point and shoot camera, to a more liberating career in photography. She sheds light on the highs and lows of pursuing a creative career, the uncertainty of the photography industry, and what keeps her motivated and dedicated to her art.
Carmen talks about her immigrant parents’ thoughts on her career path, how she transitioned from assisting in LA to working full-time in China, and what it’s like to land jobs and build a professional network in a country you just moved to. Kelvin and Carmen also share their thoughts on how race and gender have impacted their growth and their journeys in the photography industry.
Curious what it’s like to be represented by an agency?
Carmen shares what it’s really like to work with an agency as a photographer, when the right time to be represented by an agency is, and why she chose to work with Redeye Reps.
“I think the expectation is like, “When I get an agent, I’m gonna get all these jobs,” but it’s actually the opposite. You need to be getting enough jobs, you need to be getting your own jobs, building up your portfolio, working on bigger and bigger jobs, and then bring that to an agent to prove to them what you’re able to do on your own and what you’re capable of.” - Carmen Chan
Tune in to learn Carmen’s experience with imposter syndrome as a growing photographer and what she does to help relieve the feelings of imposter syndrome.
About the Guest:
Carmen Chan is a Los Angeles-based photographer and director who is passionate about supporting talent from underrepresented communities in art, culture, and design.
Connect with Carmen Chan:
Visit her website: www.carmen-chan.com
Follow her on Instagram: www.instagram.com/carmenchan
Her book, Exposure: www.carmen-chan.com/books
Connect with What Makes You Click:
Visit our website: www.whatmakesyouclick.com
Follow us on Instagram: www.instagram.com/whatmakesyouclickpodcast
Connect with us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/whatmakesyouclick
People + Resources Mentioned:
Diversify Photo: www.diversify.photo
Colette de Barros: www.colettedebarros.com
Erik Asla: www.instagram.com/erikasla
Herb Ritts: www.herbritts.com
Redeye Reps: www.redeyereps.com
[00:00:00-00:00:59]- Episode Introduction
[00:00:59-00:01:59]- Guest Introduction
[00:01:59-00:03:24]- Zoom Bombers
[00:03:24 -00:06:21]- Carmen Chan’s Childhood Background
[00:14:23-00:17:25]- Life Graduation | Working in Production
[00:17:25-00:19:23]- Getting into Photography
[00:19:23-00:25:36]- The Grind of Pursing Photography in LA
[00:25:36-00:28:17]- Immigrant Family Expectation
[00:28:17-00:36:50]- Pursing Photography in Hong Kong
[00:36:50-00:38:52]- Photography Influence
[00:38:52-00:43:01]- Back to LA
[00:43:01-00:46:28]- Redeye Agency
[00:46:28-00:50:36]- The Business Side of The House
[00:50:36-00:56:34]- How Race and Gender Affect Opportunity
[00:56:34-00:59:38]- Imposter Syndrome
[00:59:38-01:00:22]- Show Outro | How to Stay Connected
What Makes You Click – With Guest Carmen Chan
Kelvin Bulluck: Hello, and welcome to another episode of what makes you click. I am your host Kelvin Bulluck. And on today's show, we have a guest who has taken an unconventional route to the photography industry, but her story is amazing, nonetheless.
She is an editorial and commercial photographer with clients, including the New York times wall street journal magazine, GQ Japan, the Washington post, Burberry, beats by Dre, Phillips, Samsung, Tom Ford, and many more. Without further ado, let us take a listen to what makes Ms. Carmen Chan click.
[Intro Music Playing]
Carmen Chan, Hey, I appreciate you for hopping on this call and agreeing to have this conversation with me. It is a pleasure to have you.
Carmen Chan: Yeah, I am so excited. Thank you so much for having me. I am excited to chat with you.
Kelvin Bulluck: Definitely. Definitely. And I got to start off by saying that I first became aware of you, I do not know if that was the last month or the month before last, when Photoville and diversify photo had a webinar and you were one of the featured speakers and you were talking about cost or price estimating and negotiating for jobs and things of that nature. Man, that information that you provided was like dope. All the resources. For those of us who are not, agency represented, you gave a lot of great information and you gave a lot of great resources that will help us in this journey, because it is not an easy thing, but when we have the right tools at our disposal, it makes things a little bit easier.
Kelvin Bulluck: One thing that I also wanted to point out because you handled it so well is, in this pandemic world, we are operating a lot on zoom now. That experience where I was listening to your webinar and then suddenly, zoom bombers came in and straight just wrecked, the whole scene, but you handled it. You were so professional. I would have been like 21 hots, but you were just cool as a fan. I said, okay, this Carmen Chan, she knows what is up, man. She knows how to hold her own. Just wanted to acknowledge you there because you clearly, you. Keep it cool. Calm and collect.
Carmen Chan: Thank you. Yeah. I am so happy to hear that you, received like resourceful information that was helpful for you and hopefully helpful for everyone else.
I went into it like, I have 15 minutes to provide as much information as possible, but if it were me, if I knew nothing. What tools, what resources can I take away to help me on my journey that are like super practical, tactical things? Yeah. Zoom bomb.
Honestly, everyone was like, you handled it so well. When it first happened, I was like, I tried to play it off, because I did not know what was happening. And then after that I honestly was flabbergasted. I did not even know. I was like shell shocked.
I am glad it appeared like I was composed! [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: It did! I am assuming you are a good poker player as well, because your cards were close to your chest on that.
Carmen Chan’s Childhood Background
Kelvin Bulluck: I just, I like to start these conversations by going back in history a little bit and getting a little bit of background information on who the artist or the creative is, before they were the artist. Where did you grow up? Where are you from originally?
Carmen Chan: I will start from the very beginning. I was born in Vegas. My parents are immigrants. They immigrated from Hong Kong and China. And they started in the Bay area and they ended up in Vegas and then I was born there and yeah, that is where I grew up until I was eight. Then we moved back to Hong Kong. Our whole family moved back to Hong Kong when I was eight. Then I was there till I was sixteen, and then I finished high school in the Bay area, went to college in San Diego and then started working in LA.
Kelvin Bulluck: Your parents were doing all of that, moving back and forth, what were their professions? What were they doing for a living?
Carmen Chan: In Vegas, my mom started out as actually a dealer. Actually. I have extended family there and they are all work on the casino floor. Like all my aunts and uncles are dealers of some kind, a card game dealer. [Laughter]
My mom started out doing that and my dad has pretty much been a serial entrepreneur. When he got to Vegas, he started, Chinese restaurant there with two business partners. At the time, I do not know if you have been recently, but there is a whole Chinatown now in Vegas.
It is very developed. There are grocery stores and everything, but back then, there were not a lot of Chinese restaurants. There were no Chinese supermarkets. My dad's restaurant was named. The Best Dim Sum in Vegas, because back then, I am sure it was the only dim sum in Vegas, back in the day.
My dad was a restaurant owner, and my mom, she had an administrative job after her, after she stopped working at the casino.
Kelvin Bulluck: When you were, experiencing all of this in the, the back in the fourth, you said Vegas, and then you were back in Hong Kong and you said you were around eight years old when that was going on correct?
Carmen Chan When the move happened from Vegas to Hong Kong, when I was eight, and then in Hong Kong, my dad started another business, in the restaurant industry. My mom worked as a, like a secretary at Phillips, the electronics company in corporate.
Kelvin Bulluck: What was eight-year-old Carmen, like during that time? Did you know at that point that you were creative, that you liked either art or, creating anything or were you just the normal eight-year-old, just running around Hong Kong, living her best life?
Carmen Chan: Yeah, I think the latter. My parents, as far as I know, they had never really had any inclination towards creativity. I feel like that might be like an immigrant thing. When I was eight, I think I was into the typical things. I went to the arcade with my friends after school, hung out at the food court.
I was not really into any art things. I listened to music, but I was into like boy bands, [Laughter] like anything out of the ordinary that was particularly creative or artistic, I would say.
Carmen Chan’s Education Path
Kelvin Bulluck: When you start growing up a little bit, let us talk about when you are around high school age, what did you think that you were going to be going to school for?
Why were you choosing that path?
Carmen Chan: As far as in high school and then going on to college?
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah, time went on and then, when we are in our formative high school years, everybody is forcing us to start deciding about what we are going to be doing with our lives.
What did that look like for you?
Carmen Chan: I finished high school in the Bay area junior, senior year, and I think that was when I was a little bit more exposed to, I would say art.
I remember enjoying art class for those two years that I had it. I do not really recall the art program being incredibly significant at the school I went to in Hong Kong.
I enjoyed art; it was not something that I considered pursuing by any means. It is just something that I enjoyed. I remember having some interest in sketching, but it was not something that I was obsessed with. I remember sketching up portrait of one of the boy band members. It was like one of the proudest sketches for me. Your typical teenage girl.
Senior year when we must choose majors, I did not know, what I wanted to do. I feel like it is a lot of pressure to choose. I did not have any specific interests at the time. I liked watching TV and movies, so I picked communication with a minor in film and video.
I figured it was some of the most like wide open major, you could hopefully go in many different directions with it. I went with communication.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is funny! You were talking about not necessarily being too, interested in art early on, as you got older, you got into to, a bit of art and some sketching, that is the same thing that I was into.
I got into sketching just because a friend of mine was like good at it, and I was like, oh man, let me see what I can do. Then I found that what I would do is I would take, VHS’s has been big back then, before DVDs came out. I remember it clearly, it was, the movie Desperado with, Antonio Banderas. We had the VHS of that, and he was holding these two guns and pointing them at the, at the camera. I ended up drawing like a sketch of that, and I was like, oh man, this is dope!
That did make me excited about it, but I ended up as well, going into a little bit of a Communications. I got my undergrad degree was in psychology with a minor in public communication.
I was really into film and TV as well, but I grew up in Alabama and that was not really like a real option. I was like, you know what, let me go the psychology route.
What kind of movies did you find yourself interested in that like really made you think, okay, maybe I should go into this communications situation?
Carmen Chan: I have a question for you since you, your undergrad was in psychology. Do you feel like that plays into it? What you do now?
Kelvin Bulluck: It is funny. I feel like everything that I have done leading up to this moment has prepared me for what I do now. Yes, regarding psychology, the main reason why, I wanted to major in it is because my friends at the time, in high school would always come to me with their problems and wanting to, overshare, to the point where I knew more about them than they knew about me. I think that was also just because I was very curious, and I always ask questions.
When I learned that, psychology might be something that I want to, get into. I looked at it and, the college that I got accepted into, they had a good psychology program. That is what I ended up doing.
I feel like now, even though I did not pursue it any further than undergrad, I am able to utilize my listening skills and helping people get more comfortable, because that's kind of like our, one of our jobs is to help people, get comfortable enough to be real in front of the camera.
Carmen Chan: For sure. That is cool. I forgot the question that you had asked.
Kelvin Bulluck: What were some of your favorite TV and movies that were influential in making you think. Okay, maybe I should investigate this as possible profession?
Carmen Chan: I would not say there were movies that I saw, and I was like, Oh, this makes me want to, get into filmmaking.
Back then, I would say some of my favorite movies were like Gattaca, the, before sunrise, sunset. I do not feel like, maybe in hindsight now that I think about it, like those are such, intimate and detailed focused films. I feel like I see that in my work. I would not say any of the films that I saw or the TV shows that I saw were the aha moment, this is what I want to do.
Kelvin Bulluck: Then you graduate from high school and then you ended up going where? For college?
Carmen Chan: UC San Diego.
Kelvin Bulluck: UC San Diego, and then you majored in the communications. Did you have a minor?
Carmen Chan: Yeah, film and video.
Kelvin Bulluck: Film and video, you did say that? Yes. Okay.
Kelvin Bulluck: You graduate, and everything went well. Your digit thing, I am assuming. If you minored in film and video, did you have to do any special video projects, in your minor and what those end up looking?
Carmen Chan: The program is not really known for them film program they are known for their art program and they are like biochem. The minor was very theory based and it was not, practical, technical. It was very theory based. It ended up being, I think I am, and he was only five classes, fulfilled the minor. I want to say, three of them are like film analysis classes where, you watch two minutes of film and write a 10-page paper about it. In hindsight now I am like super particular about every little thing in my image, that plays a part. Understanding the intention behind, everything that is in your image.
Then the technical practical part was. Learning how to use iMovie and then taking a few photos, recording some voiceover, putting that together into a two-minute short movie want to say, that was the only, output, film thing that I created out of that minor. I had a bunch of papers and I had this little film, and it was called The Little Chicken.
I think I bought one of those, either metallic or those vinyl, farm animals that kids play with, you get like the old McDonald's set or something, the farmer set, the Fisher Price. Those like little cartoon animals. I just had this chicken, and it was basically a stop motion story about this chicken.
I photograph the chicken from different angles on some grass and did this voiceover story about this chicken.
Kelvin Bulluck: What was the premise?
Carmen Chan: I do not remember. I wish I could find it. I do not remember by some journey about this chicken. I do not know.
Life Graduation | Working in Production
Kelvin Bulluck: You graduated from college and did you start working immediately in, production or what did it look once, you graduated?
Carmen Chan: Fortunately, I did some internships and my senior year, which were extremely helpful in helping me figure out what I liked. Steering me in the direction of what I liked and confirming what I did not like.
I did a broad, news broadcast television internship, where I worked on the morning show, and helped, research programming.
That is like a whole, broadcast news television. That is a whole other industry, like helped work on the morning show. Was not really interested in that.
Then I got an internship with a scripted series working on that production, and I enjoyed scripted more than like news broadcast.
When I graduated, I ended up working as a PA on a scripted TV series that was being produced in San Diego.
Kelvin Bulluck: At that point, what were you thinking was going to be your long-term career path?
Carmen Chan: At that point, it was a Production Assistant. My job was to run errands, make copies, and that was pretty much it. My path was, the ladder was PA Production, Secretary Assistant Production Coordinator, Line Producer, and then Producer.
My goal was to become a Line Producer or Producer, either in television or film. It did not work out that way obviously.
Kelvin Bulluck: For the better it appears. I guess when you realized that okay, I am doing this PA work, I am doing basically the nuts and bolts of what keep productions going, but when did you feel that you needed to express yourself in another way?
Carmen Chan: I had been working in and scripted TV and film for, I think it was about three years. Towards the end of that, I had gotten to the point of assistant production coordinator. I was in a union. I had worked on a scripted TV show at that point. I had also moved to LA, so I was working on projects. In LA in Hollywood, I felt like I had made it because I worked at the studio that, had a view of the Hollywood sign.
I got to the point where I worked on the show and I saw it is just, very taxing, like the hours. They are like 12-to-14-hour days. I saw, the people who I aspire, the people whose positioned by aspire to have their lifestyle was on any better than mine. Not only did they have 12-to-14-hour days, but they also, if they were doing night shoots, they had to be, on-call or onset during those shoots. They had to sacrifice a lot as far as family time.
Getting into Photography
Carmen Chan: While noticing that, I also saw some photos that our friend had taken and posted on his flicker and his Facebook friend from high school. It was a combination of seeing his photos, which I thought were amazing. Being, discontent with my current situation and being like, I do not know if this is what I want, so I hit him up and I said, Hey, your photos are amazing. Can you teach me how to take photos? Did you want to use a camera? Cause at that point, I had a point and shoot. I feel like everybody had digital camera at that point in time, but I was not trying to make photos. I was trying to take photos of my friend’s parties and stuff.
He taught me how to use a camera on manual mode, and I really loved it and he let me borrow his camera. I would bring it to the office, take portraits of people or like dog in the office or flowers. Your typical, I just got a camera. I take pictures of everything. That is, how it started.
Kelvin Bulluck: It is funny, I know a lot of Self-taught photographers who that is, that tends to be their story is Hey, I was doing this thing.
Then I got a camera, and it was, I had found, my soulmate that has been missing from my life the whole time. It was a similar story for me. I had a little, what was it, a Canon power shot. Somebody gave it to me as a gift and I would take that things like everywhere.
It is funny how when you get it. If it is really for you, it really connects on the level in which you do not even expect it to. It sounds like that was the case, with you.
I guess when it started to become a situation where you were like, I am getting good at this and my friends are referring me and you might even be getting some jobs from, random people who are reaching out because they have seen your work.
When did it start to become a little bit more real for you that this is something that you might want to pursue?
The Grind of Pursing Photography in LA
Carmen Chan: I would say from the point that I learn how to use the camera to the point where I was getting jobs took about…. the full-time transition?
Kelvin Bulluck: Even on the full-time, you are still doing the production work and then at one point you just decide, okay?
Carmen Chan: The production had come to an end, it forced me to take a break from production, because that is freelanced. You where you jump from project to project, you follow, a few coordinators around with their projects.
That project had come to an end, and then towards the end of that, I was doing everything I could outside of those hours. I took night classes at the, at the community college. I took a dark room class at the local high school. I was in, I was totally in it all my time. Reading blogs, reading books, and like you said, I just totally fell in love with it.
Then I started to think, what does a career in photography even look like? I did not know anything about the industry.
A blog that I was following at the time she posted that she was hiring an intern. There were not that many blogs back then, but I went ahead and applied for the internship and I got it.
That job ended. I got the internship. I went on unemployment during that time. While I did the internship at 24, I learned a ton with her because she did not have an agent. I was supposed to intern with her and her agent. Her agent, the week before I was supposed to start with her, she ended up going to rehab.
I became a Studio Manager, and I was helping her with what her agent would do for her. Cold calling editors, emailing editors and potential clients, to pitch her work.
Her boyfriend at the time was retouching for her, so, then I would learn retouching from him while I would be at her place, doing all the marketing stuff.
I learned a ton during those six months, and then she was not able to bring me on full-time. Then I reached out to some photographers whose work I loved and offered to assist for them. Then pretty much, started there where I started assisting them more regularly, but I also worked at a bar in the evenings to make rent, because I was not doing it regularly enough.
Kelvin Bulluck: I am sorry I just wanted to interject for just a quick second because you are dropping a ton of gems, and I feel a lot of what you are saying really speaks to the struggle of the creative and how, there is a lot of people who might not necessarily want to take those steps, but they want to, make it to higher levels.
Not realizing that, you got to get down in the dirt sometimes. Like you said, you went on unemployment. That is not, in the moment, anything that you really want to like brag about, but clearly, it is one of those moments in your life that has built character and allowed you to see, what the lows look like, so it can help you even appreciate the high.
I just want to acknowledge the fact that you are like a go getter and you are not afraid to get dirty and that is clear in just your path. Just wanted to say that. I am sorry. I did not mean to cut you off.
Carmen Chan: No need to apologize. Thank you for saying that. I think sometimes I forget about what I had to go through to get here, and how hard it was.
I do remember one night; it was either before or after the community college class. I was sitting in my car listening to like kid Cuddy on the pursuit of happiness song, like crying behind my steering wheel. What am I doing? I did not know if it were viable at the time when I was doing everything I could to, try to make it happen.
At the time I thought, am I just like wasting my education these four years and getting this far in the industry. In hindsight, just like you said, every experience that I had prior to that totally helps me.
Now, I am like an amazing producer for my own shoots and I can make sure nothing gets missed when it comes to production on shoots.
Kelvin Bulluck: what was it in that moment when you are, you are in the car and you are listening to pursuit of happiness and you are crying, what is it that allows you to press on.
Carmen Chan: That is a great question. When I chose a major communication, the only thing I knew and part of the reason why I picked it, because I did not want to sit in a cubicle every day, and I did not want to do the same thing repeatedly every day.
That is one thing I knew for sure. I did not know what that would look like, so I think realizing that I was not content in the film and TV industry and working there. I do not know what I am going to do instead of that, but this could be a possibility. I guess I do not know how that is going to manifests itself, or even if it is going to become a reality or be a possibility.
I am starting from scratch, do not know anyone. I do not know anything. I think it was for me, this is something else I can try. Let us just see what can come out of it, if I put my all into it, if I can.
Honestly, look in the mirror and admit to myself that I am doing everything I can, and if it does not work out, then fine.
Until that point, I want to give it a chance because I do not want to end up in a cubicle.
Kelvin Bulluck:No, that is real. It is almost like there is, there is no choice, but to succeed is what it sounds like. It is I have got to do this. There is no other way if or, but about it.
I think that is amazing. I think I have heard it called, stick to toughness where you are just like, I am just going to stick it, and grit.
I think there was a book written about grit and just like grinding it out no matter what. I think that is, I am a firm believer that success leaves clues and I am seeing all types of clues, that you are dropping behind you, like breadcrumbs. Like I feel like Hansel and Gretel right now, trying to catch up on these.
Immigrant Family Expectation
Kelvin Bulluck: This also makes me think about the fact that you said that your parents were immigrants, and we know some of the typical, ideas that, the immigrant families want their children to really succeed in a couple of keys, professions.
How did they feel about your pursuits and were they supportive or not so much, or?
Carmen Chan: I am lucky in that I have two older brothers, and my oldest brother took the brunt of the immigrant parent expectations. He was the first to go to college. My parents did not go to college, so they wanted him to become a doctor. He studied biochemistry and or bioengineering or something, and he did not end up doing anything related to what he studied. I think after him, my parents told my second oldest brother and I do whatever makes you guys happy. [Laughter] Luckily, I was not the eldest child.
Once I was showing success in doing film and TV and then telling them that I was switching over, I do not really remember hearing an opinion about when I decided to switch over and when I was assisting for those two years in LA.
After assisting for two years, I decided to move back to Hong Kong to spend time with my parents. After I had moved back in with them and was pursuing photography in Hong Kong, I think maybe six months to a year had gone by. Then my mom said to me, Hey, so when are you going to decide to stop playing around and get a real job. I was like, that is what I have been trying to do this whole time. I am not messing around. I am not just like trying to have fun here. I am trying to make this a viable career.
I think with them, when other, children of immigrants asked me, I think it is just like a lack of, information, on the parents' part of knowing that this can be a viable career because they want the best for you, and they care. They are just worried that if you pursue this path, it is not as a typically successful, lucrative path for some.
Kelvin Bulluck: I think they are afraid of that lack of consistency in that stream of income, and I get that. I totally get it. They are just looking out for your best interests, but not understanding that this world we grew up in is not the world that they grew up in. They are comparing it to what they knew, just like what my parents did.
Pursuing Photography in Hong Kong
Kelvin Bulluck: I totally get that. You said something that was key. You said, after a couple of years, you ended up moving back to Hong Kong. I believe, in my research, I saw that is where you caught a couple of lucky breaks and you were working for a publication that was the equivalent of the New York times before Hong Kong.
How did that work even come about? What was that transition like?
That is like picking up and going to an entirely different place, you have got no contacts. Maybe you have got some friends and family, so you do have contacts, but within the industry, you might not have the contacts that you had, in LA.
What was that process like? Were there some systems that you put in place that made you go out and get it, or be a little bit more strategic in how you went out and got it?
Carmen Chan: When I moved back, I had my parents. I moved back in with them, so I lived with them. So that it was helpful in that I did not have a ton of pressure to make money right away.
I did end up paying rent to them, but I think it is helpful if you are not taking a super high financial risk, I did not go like the starving artist route, I am not about that life. I think make calculated decisions as far as risk is concerned, but I moved back in with them and I had not lived in Hong Kong at that point for eight years, and I only kept in touch with a few friends from high school and none of them were in the industry.
When I moved there, I did not know anyone in the photo industry, so by then, Instagram had just started. I hopped on Twitter and I just try to network, meet people on Twitter. Who are the people doing things in Hong Kong that are on Twitter?
There is a big, ex-pat community, like an English-speaking community, people that move from other countries and live in Hong Kong, so, I felt that community was on Twitter. They were active on Twitter, so that is how I started getting people. Then I also did a bunch of research on who, were the creative agencies in Hong Kong are the design agencies, and I would cold email them. That is how I got that job with the, the newspaper is through cold emailing.
One of the design agencies and the founder of that agency was from New York. We connected that way, and she was like, come in for a meeting, show me your portfolio, and then she was like, your work is nice. I will introduce you to my friend. She is an editor at the South China morning post.
The cool thing about Hong Kong, is it is a metropolitan city, but it is a small community. It is as if the way I describe it, as if you are in New York, and everybody is there; or everyone hangs out in Soho.
There are no other neighborhoods and there is only a small creative community. You are one degree away from everybody in the creative community, in Hong Kong. Then when you meet people and they say that they are going to connect you with someone or refer you to someone, they do it like the same day or the next day.
There is none of that, let us connect and it does not happen, and they say it, so they do not have to say no or something. It is like an incredibly supportive community.
That is how I switched from assisting in a way to becoming a full-time photographer in Hong Kong.
I had a friend Sean Mark Lee, who is a successful photographer based in Taiwan. He is from California and he was familiar with the Asian market. He was like, I have friends that moved from the US to Asia, and they put themselves out there and said that they were photographers. They did not tell people that they were assistants even though they had come from assisting.
I said, are you sure? My portfolio was, test shoots and the only job I had done prior to having that portfolio was, a prom dress catalog on white seamless, and a fashion lookbook featuring a Blogger.
I did not have a substantial portfolio and I said, are you sure I cannot claim that I am a photographer? He said yeah just do it trust me, so I did it and then she referred me to her friend at the newspaper. Then the newspaper ended up hiring me for a weekly feature.
That was, photographing portraits of people in their homes, which is like my jam, it is environmental photo portraits. Getting to photograph key players in Hong Kong in their homes, portraits every week for over a year. Being able to build my network that way and then the community is small.
I show my book for maybe three months while I was in Hong Kong, and I never took it out of my closet for four years. All the jobs came from referrals.
Kelvin Bulluck: Wow! This is beautiful. What you are saying affirms everything that I already know, but people are always asking me questions, and at the end of the day it comes down to your ability to build and maintain relationships and do your job. Be good at what you do but be just as good with building relationships connecting with people and being a value.
That sounds like exactly what you did, in addition to what you said about your friends moving to these other places and saying, hey, I am a photographer and not using the lack of images in there. Even like you said, you are not using the lack of images in your book as a crutch or an excuse to say I cannot do it because of this. This goes back to your grit and there is something to you that makes you keep going and thinking outside of the box.
If I am thinking about what you said about your dad being an entrepreneur and your mom being a dealer and being in administration, it seems like they have instilled some ways to think about life, that have allowed you to not be burdened by some of the things that people use as excuses to not succeed. I wanted to acknowledge the fact that you are hitting a lot of the major points that I love to discuss.
You did not pull the book out for a couple of years and you were working in Hong Kong doing your thing, you landed some major commercial gigs.
You landed Adidas while you were out there as, well right? Was it Adidas?
Carmen Chan: I landed I Southeast Asia Adidas originals campaign, and that was one of my biggest jobs when I was out there, and that job traveled me too……. It was a campaign with four celebrities across Asia and one of them was in Taiwan….one of them was in Shanghai, and then two of them were in Hong Kong. That was amazing!
That job I got because a friend was producing it, a friend from church, she was producing it. She brought me on to shoot behind the scenes. Then the agency liked my images that they ask if I wanted to be the photographer for the campaign, the following season? Hong Kong was wild.
Another thing I wanted to mention was, when I left LA and I moved to Hong Kong, I vividly remembered one of the phenomenally successful stylists who worked with the photographer that I assisted frequently. When I told them that I was moving to Hong Kong he said, Carmen what are you doing? Hong Kong is such a small market. You have created your network in LA, you are already creating work here, you are getting hired for stuff you are assisting regularly, moving to Hong Kong would be career suicide. I was like OK, great, thanks. Thanks for the encouragement.
I moved to Hong Kong with some fear because when I looked at the word being created in that market, no one creates work like I do. Is there even going to be a demand for my style? Everything is super heavily retouched in super commercial; nothing is really styled there.
I was worried, but I ended up being because no one else was creating work like that. I was the only person in the market that could create work like that.
I ended up working with a lot of clients that were not Hong Kong based, but they were like Monaco serial magazine, Burberry, J. Crew, brands that I never would have imagined working for being a three-year photographer in LA or New York but getting to work with those brands in Hong Kong was incredible.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is amazing. You said something that made me think, you said nobody had your style of shooting. What was influencing your own aesthetic? what were some things that you put into your work that you were drawing from yes? What do you draw from?
Carmen Chan: I do not and have an art background at all, and I did not have a traditional photo education, so it was not like I was inspired by the great photographers of, whatever, I cannot even name them all. I had only known what I had been exposed to.
Looking at my work now, it is heavily influenced by the photographers that I assisted, whose work I was just naturally drawn to, for reasons I could not explain at the time. Everybody has their preferences. It is a combination of both of their styles, with a little bit of like my own, vibe, mixed into that.
The two photographers that I assisted the most frequently during those two years in LA was Colette de Barros. she is a successful, fashion, lifestyle photographer, and her stuff feels very candid and eerie and fashiony at the same time, like lifestyle, but not cheesy, just looks very effortless.
Then another photographer was Erik Asla and he photographed portraits and fashion and he used to assist [herb Brits]. His work is like painterly and the way that he directed people was so precise, and I feel like I am like that now.
I highly recommend…. I feel like nowadays people can become, successful photographers without assisting, but I gained so much from assisting. Whether it was learning how to light, learning, how to direct, how to interact with clients and models. Obviously, I absorbed their style too.
Back To LA
Kelvin Bulluck: You did your thing in Hong Kong; everything was going well. Then what happened? Clearly, you are in LA now, so how did you make your way back?
Carmen Chan: I moved to Hong Kong, under the premise that, okay, let us just see what happens in six months. If it is a bomb, then I can always go back, no loss.
At least I got to spend those six months with my parents. My reason for going back was to just spend more time with them, because I moved away from home when I was 16. I moved to the Bay, and I live with my aunt. I felt bad about it, and so I wanted to, go back, and spend more time with my parents.
Then, so four years went by and my mom said, if you were to meet somebody here and they did not want to move back to the U S would you be willing to stay in Hong Kong for the rest of your life? I was like, No, I would not, and she was like, then you should leave.
I was like, Oh, so you are, giving me, permission? I feel like that might be another immigrant parent thing where you want their blessing, and you want to feel like. You have honored them and the time you spent with them.
When she said that, I was like alright? The summer following, I bounced, I was like, all right, I am out, and I moved to New York.
My oldest brother lives in New York. So, I moved in with him, another less risky move, where I had someone to stay with, temporarily until I could find my own place.
The first year that I moved to New York…. first, I felt ready because of the client list that I had built in Hong Kong, and I had gained a lot of skill and confidence and, refine my style a little bit more. The first year that I was in New York, I was still back and forth Hong Kong because of the reputation that I had established in Hong Kong.
I was still getting emails every week from clients asking me if I was available and hitting me up. I was like, Whoa! It was a little bit backwards where I, I think I went back to Hong Kong, like six times that year, and I was like basically working in Hong Kong to be able to afford to live in New York.
That also caused me to sacrifice, time I could have spent in New York, investing in moving my career forward locally. There is a little bit of a slow start in New York, but I was there for two and a half years, and then I met someone in New York, and we decided to move to LA.
Now I am back in LA!
Kelvin Bulluck: You are like a nomad. You are just, I am going to go here. Okay. Let me go over there. Clearly, you have got great tastes in the places that you tend to move.
You moved to LA or back to LA, were you able to pick up where you left off or was there like a period where it was hard to start getting work out there again?
Carmen Chan: It was hard. It took over a year. I have been back now for two and a half years. New York, I think is the fastest paced city. It is the pinnacle of the industry, it is fashion, it is news, it is, editorial, commercial. It is all. I feel like the density of opportunity, there is so high that it is just non-stop. Even moving to LA, the pace is much slower. The response rate is much slower, and I started to pick up momentum in New York, and then I left.
Moving back to LA, having not lived here for six or seven years, it was just like moving back to Hong Kong. Like I pretty much had lost all my connections. I reconnected with Collette who I assisted, prior to moving to Hong Kong.
When I was living in LA, I was assisting, so it was not like I had clients that I could reconnect with, so started over, scheduling meetings, showing my portfolio, keeping in touch with the New York clients, occasionally flying back to New York for jobs.
Then I think a year after moving back to LA, I signed with redeye.
Kelvin Bulluck: You brought up red eye and shout out to Marin Levinson. I had a conversation with her. She was on the show, about a week and a half ago, or we have recorded our episode about a week and a half ago, two weeks, and she is amazing. I just love her energy and her vibe. I am sure that probably had a little bit to do with it.
How did you know that you were ready to be agency represented and then why a red eye? Versus some of the others?
Carmen Chan: I knew that I was ready. I started shopping around for agents when I was in New York. One thing that when I talk to younger photographers, there is an assumption that, and I am sure I had these same thoughts when I first started out, oh cool, I have a portfolio or a website. I can shoot. I am not getting an agent, or I need an agent. That is the next step.
I think the expectation is like, when I get an agent, I am going to get all these jobs, but it is the opposite. It is you need to be getting enough jobs. You need to be getting your own jobs, building up your portfolio, working on bigger and bigger jobs, and then you bring that to an agent to prove to them that you can do on your own and what you are capable of.
Then they will want to keep in touch with you and track your work and keep an eye on you to see how you grow, in the next six months to a year if you are showing progress and they like your work and you are moving in a positive direction.
Then there is all these other, variables, they have room on their roster, your style is different from everyone else on their roster, you bring something else to the table that fills a gap, and you are a good match personality wise. Then you signed with the agent. Many factors. and they take a commission.
So, with my gin, it is 25%, and in typical industries, I want to say 20 to 30, more like 25 to 30. If the jobs that you are taking now if the rates are, or if you cannot afford to give 25%, if you think about that, if you cannot afford to give 25% of your fees right now, then you are not ready.
As far as how I decided on red eye, before moving to LA I did my research and I looked through all the rosters of all the agents in LA, I think just like who I wanted to be positioned next to like the company that I wanted to sit with, there were not that many, agencies that I think it is thinking about what level I was in my career. I was not a veteran photographer and I was not working on like celebrity jobs.
I think it is thinking about what kind of jobs is that agency getting their photographers, and then what is the style of those photographers, on that roster? Would you be proud to be positioned and next to them? Do they elevate your work? Hopefully, the agent also thinks that your work elevates the agency's brand.
Kelvin Bulluck: I liked that using that as a metric, and in addition to everything else that you say, but that whole idea of looking at who else is on the roster and seeing if it is complimentary or if you guys can elevate each other. I feel like that is an interesting way to look at it. I do not think I have heard, and it makes perfect sense. That seems to be going well for you.
The Business Side of The House
Kelvin Bulluck: It seems like before you got representation, you had some good, systems in place, to handle your business, because I do understand that in addition to all the things that an agency does, they do also help you manage the, some of the business side of the house. It sounds like you had a good grasp on how you ran your business. Did you pick that up from some of the interning that you did? how did you create some of those systems that you put into place?
As creatives, we can be good at the creative part, but the business side of the house is lacking. How did you bridge that gap?
Carmen Chan: That is one of the biggest things I tell people and, what advice do you have for someone wants to get into photography. The biggest piece of advice is you are a business owner, so be ready for that.
I think the hard thing is just like you said, we are photographers, so our strength is making photos. It is not running a business; it is not marketing. It is none of the stuff that makes a successful business. It is what we do is what makes a nice portfolio, but half of our job is to run a business.
As far as systems, it is still an ongoing struggle to maintain a CRM system, as in maintaining your client list and maintaining contact with them, and ensuring that you are continuously, marketing your work and people are seeing you at different touch points, so that they are reminded of you and your work. That they think of you and a project comes along admittedly like that is just an ongoing struggle.
I think it is setting up the simplest thing is a spreadsheet with names, last contact date, what the interaction was. Then assign yourself time, make that time to regularly reach out to them, or at the very least send out a newsletter.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is good that the newsletter idea, but are you also sending out like mailers and promos or are you straying from that? I know people have a different idea of what they want to do or how they feel about that, but what are your thoughts?
Carmen Chan: My printed promo was the last touch points for Redeye to reach out to me, so I had been in touch with them before, but not super actively. Kate, one of the other agents at Redeye, I think she saw my work in a magazine and then she got my newsletter, then she got my printed promo, and then she emailed me.
I suspect that is what happens on the client side as well, they need to see your work multiple times. I do try to send out at least, it is hard to juggle all these things. You are shooting your mark. You are emailing people, you are producing you are retouching, and then on top of that, you got to coordinate the production of a printed promo piece and mail it out. It is a lot; I try to do one a year. I have had success in the past.
I hired a designer to help me with it because as much as I can try to design, I cannot design as well as a professional designer, so I have invested the money into hiring a designer and it has paid off because their results are amazing, and I have gotten amazing feedback.
One of my previous printed promos was, selected as one of the PDN best printed promo pieces.
This PA 2020, instead of doing a printed promo, I decided to shoot, photograph a personal project about female artists and make that into a soft cover bound book and mail that out. Obviously, that is more expensive, but it is something that is longer lasting, and it is beautifully designed, a foil printed, a stamped cover, something that will last that people will hold on to. Just another reminder of your work and what you are about, like a postcard.
How Race and Gender Affects Opportunity
Kelvin Bulluck: That is amazing! I have got two more questions and then I will let you go. I know you have got other things to do, and this touches on that project that you talked about. You said, you were doing a project with featuring, female artists.
How do you feel…. there is a lot of talk right now with, gender and race and, the inequalities and systemic racism that industries across the board, are dealing with.
Do you feel like your race and your gender have either positively or negatively impacted your growth or your journey in this?
Do you feel like there has been times where you might not have gotten a job because of those factors?
Carmen Chan: I do not know for sure whether my race or my gender has affected, that choice, unless the hiring person hiring, has said it specifically, which I have not experienced. I think the only thing is, when I was in Hong Kong and I would be on set the guy that was my first assistant, he is significantly older than me, so oftentimes we would be on set and people would assume that he is a photographer. I am like a 5’1’’, I look young. I look like an assistant more than a photographer. If you, typically think about what a photographer would look like, I suppose in Hong Kong, at least. I guess in Hong Kong it would be gender discrimination.
I think in the U.S., I was thinking maybe it affects like being a female affects my rate, but I would not know either, whether I am bidding lower than a male photographer is bidding, and as far as whether I get selected for a job based on my race, I do not know that it is affected decisions.
It just seems like the decisions are being based on my work and then the final bid. This would be a super interesting question. I do not know if you had asked this to Marin.
Kelvin Bulluck: Marin had some remarkably interesting things, to say, even regarding some of the initiatives that they must help give a leg up to, creators of color BiPAP, creatives of color.
I was telling her that, throughout the summer of 2020, this pandemic, the social unrest, civil unrest, I have myself seen an uptick in, jobs and photo editors reaching out to me who, prior to, I might have sent them an email or something and never heard back.
I get it, it can be a time where this is the end thing to do when everything has cycles and seasons. I feel like, for me, if it is a situation where I can get some business and, build a relationship, I am not necessarily going to, mind so much why they are looking at me, unless I feel like I am being exploited, and I have not had that feeling.
Being a black man in America and then in this industry, and seeing some of the milestones that, like we are seeing first black photographer to shoot such and such on this cover and that, and I am like, it is 2020 man. At the time 2019, like this is ridiculous.
It is clear to me like even the way my portfolio is, when you go on my website, it is a little bit more diverse, but on my Instagram, it is primarily black beauty and that is something that I am passionate about. I feel like growing up, I did not see a lot of that, and so I want to, use my skills to, shape that narrative a little bit more from my perspective.
I have had people tell me, Kelvin, you got to put more white people in your book, you need more white women and men, if you are trying to get some of these jobs. That is real, this happens. These are things that people have said to me.
On the other hand, I have, some of my black, photographer, friends who specifically do not even show pictures of themselves, and they will let their portfolios speak. There has been people that I have followed and then, come to find out, this is a black person. I had no idea. I was just assuming that it was a white person because their book was full of white people.
It is a thing we are making progress, but there's still more progress to be made.
Carmen Chan: That blows my mind, to have to know that so many, like black talent has been featured on the cover, but then none of them were photographed by black photographers, there is no excuse. There are so many talented black photographers out there. It is just it is not an excuse to not be able to find one.
Kelvin Bulluck: Not even just us, just multiple there is more than just the run of the mill and I am not hating anybody who is getting their work in and doing it, kudos to anybody who is shooting the cover, no matter their race.
I feel like, here is such a great pool of talent, why limit yourself to these perspectives? Photography is about, telling, all types of stories and sharing and seeing all types of perspectives, but we have been, here in America, relegated to a couple of, perspectives. Going a whole soap box about that, so, I am not going to bore you with that.
Kelvin Bulluck: The very last question that I wanted to touch on. I wanted to ask you this because your journey is so unique in that you did not start off on this path, but then you found yourself on this path and you are making a ton of leeway.
Getting that big deal with Adidas and then some of the other major clientele that you have gotten over the years, do you ever deal with, imposter syndrome? I am not even really supposed to be here or is it that grit in you, that is like, I am supposed to be here?
I deserve to be here happened in your mind when you get some of these larger gigs?
Carmen Chan: I think I am better with it now. I think in the very beginning it was exciting. It was like, people want to pay me to take photos, this is amazing! I think there are certain moments where I am like, this is an excessively big production, and I have never photographed such a large group of talent before. There is a first time for everything, so here we go.
I think it helps to have, my agents, they have way more experience than I do. They have seen all types of jobs worked with all sorts of people and having them on my team to give me the support that I need.
Then knowing that, I have done everything I can, as far as, preproduction, communicating with the clients, hiring the people that I need to support me while I am on set, I think that helps lessen the imposter syndrome. I feel it. Less and less. I think that it comes with time or at least it did with me.
I think the lessening of the imposter syndrome also gives me confidence in like the value that I bring and a reminder of the skill that I have, that I have acquired and what I can bring to the table that is unique.
Being able to look back on my work in the last ten years and seeing how far I have come stylistically, the types of jobs, if that answered the question.
Kelvin Bulluck: No, you nailed it. Again, you are an amazing artist. Your work is beautiful. Your story is one, that is inspiring. I feel like anybody listening to this should hear it and know that there is no excuse for them to not get out there and be amazing.
It is just a matter of taking the steps, one step at a time. Whether that is, sending an email or moving across the country, extremes, but there are things that people can be doing, and you are a great example of that.
I appreciate you for taking the time to chat with me. I wish you continued success and I will be keeping an eye out for the things that you are doing. I see you are getting into directing. Maybe there is a feature film year down the road who knows? All I am saying is I am here for it and, thank you.
Carmen Chan: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
Thank you for all your thoughtful questions. It was such an amazing conversation.
Show Outro | How to Stay Connected
Kelvin Bulluck: All right! That is the show with Ms. Carmen Chan. I hope you enjoyed it!
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