All images used with permission, lead image by Andrew Kung.
In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we spoke with five of the top photographers of APA descent working in the industry today. Their specialties range from automotive, commercial, documentary, lifestyle, music, and weddings. We asked them one simple question, “How far have you come as an artist since you first began your journey as a photographer?” Here are their stories:
If you’re a car enthusiast, chances are you may already be familiar with Larry’s work. Based in Los Angeles, Larry Chen is one of the leading automotive photographers working today. His work can be seen on the covers of top car magazines as well as online car culture outlets like Hoonigan, Speedhunters, and The Drive. To top it all off, Larry also serves as one of Canon’s Explorers of Light.
I got into photography initially because of the love I have for all things cars. I loved the culture, I loved the racing, and the beauty of these metal and plastic machines. Over the years I’ve pushed my craft as an automotive photographer to my absolute limits. I sacrificed everything for my job, for the art, but I loved every moment of it.
As an artist, I think it’s my duty to try to show this type of culture in the best light possible. Which is why I constantly push myself to shoot more, stay later, and hike further when I am out in the field. This is also why I try my best to be an early adopter of new technology. Everytime I get a chance to learn a new technique or use new equipment. If it could potentially give us an edge over the competition, then I’m all for it. Hopefully many years down the road when people look back at car culture, I’ve done a good job with documenting it for the masses in the most artistic way possible.
Based in California, Zabrina Deng is the soul of JeZa Photography and travels the world shooting weddings, engagements, and portraits. She is one of Sony’s Artisans of Imagery and a WPPI Master Photographer with over 60 international award-winning photos. In addition to her numerous accolades, Zabrina’s work has been published internationally in Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan Bride China, Elle Hong Kong, and Town & Country Thailand, to name a few. When not busy shooting, Zabrina can be found speaking at major photographic conferences across America and Asia.
I started photographing people on 4/25/2009, at first for friends & people within my circle. Then a little over a year later, I became a professional photographer. My ongoing desire to connect with people from all walks of life & delivering romance and the joy of relationships helped turn this passion into a full-time career.
As a first-generation Asian American immigrant living in California, I too fit into the typical norm of having a stable 9-5 job which paid the bill for almost a decade before discovering my love for photography. The turning point was attending Scott Robert Lim’s world tour workshop in China in October 2009. Even though I was too shy to take photos at the workshop (I took mostly BTS shots only), I got to live, breathe, & thrive as a destination wedding & portrait photographer for the week. I was hooked and I knew this is what I wanted to do as a career. Hence the switch from a stable paying job to a constantly changing source of income living as a full-time photographer. I felt like I have to hustle all the time, and there is is no turning back. I didn’t give up my well-paying job for nothing. I can only keep moving forward, on every photo assignment I was hired to do, big or small, I’ve treated it as my last. Every round of competition I can be enrolled in during 2010-2013, I’ve entered, earning the Master Photographer title with WPPI. Fast forward to today, with over 70 awards and publications on many international magazines, I am grateful for the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, and the food that I’ve eaten.
In light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Zabrina had the following to add:
We are living in a very strange time and it really is a test of what we are made of. Many of us, myself included, have had jobs canceled indefinitely. How long is this passion-fueled career gonna last when the money doesn’t come? This is the most unsettled I’ve felt in my entire life. Perhaps to not give up is the hardest thing to do and this is a process of filtering the strongest and toughest – to see which of us are resilient til the end. Although I haven’t figured out how yet, I know that I MUST SURVIVE this.
Andrew Kung is a Brooklyn-based commercial/editorial photographer with San Franciscan roots. In his own words, Andrew aims “to create a utopia where Asian American beauty is a normalized beauty.” The invisibility and masculinity of Asian American men is the subject of Andrew’s first fashion narrative photo book, “The All-American.” It’s been featured on i-D, Dazed, CNN Style, Paper, Milk, Ignant, and It’s Nice That. Prior to pursuing a full-time career in photography, Andrew attended UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and worked at LinkedIn.
When I first started taking photos, I was enamored by the beauty of landscapes in my hometown of San Francisco, CA. I’d go out every day and weekend after work to explore places I never knew existed in my own city.
That passion quickly evolved when I met a close friend while working at LinkedIn – also a part time model – and we’d sneak out during lunch to take portraits. He, along with his girlfriend, introduced me to other photographers and showed me that it was possible to become a photographer full time. As a business school kid working at a tech company, I never knew a career in the arts was tangible.
I moved to NYC through LinkedIn, and quickly started building a community and building a new body of work; my goal was clear: shoot for large commercial companies because that’s what defined stability and success in my eyes. Once I accomplished a few of these shoots, I wanted to pursue more personal work. I then worked on a documentary project with a friend about a small Chinese population along the Mississippi Delta; we went down there, met 10+ folks, photographed them, and learned about the history of the Chinese in the deep rural south.
That experience changed me because it opened my eyes up to the diverse experiences of Asian Americans in the US – and as a result, became much more curious about my own identity as an Asian American. I read more novels by Asian American authors, asked my parents more questions about their experiences immigrating to the US, and became much more involved with community groups in NYC.
I stumbled across a book, “Big Little Man,” by Alex Tizon, that delved into his experience as a Filipino American man in the US; this book became the inspiration for my next fashion, fine art series that explored the masculinity and invisibility of Asian American men. I wanted to redefine what it meant to be masculinie and explore the physical spaces in which the Asian American community has felt largely invisible. And as a result, the reception of both my Mississippi Delta Chinese project and The All-American reminded me of my mission statement and power as a photographer: to represent invisible communities and provide a voice and platform for my own community.
All that to say – I’ve come a long way since I first started photography. But that’s the beauty of pursuing any artistic craft – we all experience our own journey at different paces; it’s quite the opposite of a linear corporate career, and that’s the beauty of it. I’ve learned to embrace the ambiguity, trust my instincts, and fall in love with the process of growing into my own skin as a photographer.
Todd Owyoung is a music photographer based in NYC specializing in celebrity portraits and concert photography. Todd’s images have been featured in Rolling Stone, Billboard, the New York Times, and others. He is a Nikon USA Ambassador and his clients include brands like iHeartRadio, Live Nation, Instagram, and Red Bull.
I’m so tremendously grateful for the experiences I’ve had as a music photographer. In 2006, I started out my journey as a fan with a camera, photographing local bands in smoky basement dives in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. In the years since, music photography has given me so many amazing experiences, from traveling across the US covering shows and shooting international festivals to connecting with people all over the world that share the same passion. I’m also really thankful to have had the opportunity to share what I’ve learned about photography along the way through my blog www.ishootshows.com and help inspire a new generation of concert photographers.
In 2018, I was invited to become a Nikon Ambassador for Nikon USA which has been such an amazing and humbling experience. I’ve been a Nikon shooter since day one, and it’s really the honor of a lifetime to be able to represent music photography alongside so many of the world’s most inspiring visual storytellers. Highlights of working with Nikon include contributing to the launch campaigns for the Nikon D500 in 2015 and the Nikon Z 7 mirrorless camera. These are truly dream jobs for me and it’s been such a thrill to have these opportunities.
Last year, I partnered with Creative Live and Red Bull Photography on a music photography class. This was really a bucket list item for me and just an incredible experience to film a workshop on shooting live music, band portraits, and more.
I’m so thankful for the career I’ve had so far, from working with amazing brands like Red Bull and iHeartRadio to doing tour photography for artists now who I photographed as just an editorial photographer years ago.
I got into music photography because I took my camera to a concert on a whim. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine where my camera would take me.
Based in New York City and San Francisco, Kien Quan is a commercial/lifestyle photographer who specializes in capturing dance and movement. With over 10 years of experience in dance, he seeks to elevate the imagery of the art form through visual storytelling.
I see photography as a long term relationship that has evolved over the years in countless shapes and forms. It began as a hobby that piqued my interests and I enjoyed it as much as every other beginner. It became a means to connect with friends and people around the world. It has taken me on trips to places that I could not have imagined. It has paid my bills. It has disappointed me. It has burned me out. And now I’m back at square one–rediscovering the inspiration that originally gave me so much joy as a beginner. Through the thick and thin, photography has made me a better person.