Interview with Photographer Kenn Tam

Kenn Tam’s pictures tell a story with each one of his shoots different from the next. I enjoy the variety of his subjects, his work is never stagnant, with him fully aware of the elements that make a vibrant and interesting photo. He walks the streets with his camera, never knowing what and when something will arouse his interest. His work inspires others to want be a creative force in front of his lens, to be a contribution to his outward expression, point of view and art. Kenn is fun, fresh, real and he’s one of my favourite photographers living in Vancouver today.

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CG: When did your love of photography start?

KT: It happened in 1992 when I got my first “real” camera. I always had little cameras growing up. Like, a Kodak Instamatic or one of those cool disk film cameras but it wasn’t until I got my first SLR camera that I started taking photography seriously. It was a Pentax K1000 which was considered to be a super rugged workhorse (for the record I managed to destroy two of them). It was my graduation year and I had just lost the Student Council Presidency by one vote. So, instead of ruling over my school with an iron fist, I decided to lick my wounds from behind the scenes and appointed myself Chief Photographer for the Yearbook Committee. Which everyone was cool with cause I had a shiny new 35mm.

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Up until then I had only been taking what I thought where “artistic” style photos. Coke can on a fence post, dead porcupine on the side of the road kind of things. By this time I had moved to dozens of different schools as my mother and I started hitchhiking when I was 5-years old and never really stopped. So, it was hard for me to make close human attachments in school. But when I started shooting for the yearbook, it meant I had to start photographing people and that is when it happened. Specifically when I got a roll of film back and I saw this one frame I took of a Cynthia Conrad as she turned her head from the seat in front of me. I felt like I was connected. Like the photo allowed me to stop moving for once and actually see people. That is when I started to love photography. It probably didn’t hurt that I was crushing on Cindi pretty hard. She’s not going to read this is she?

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Cindi

CG: How long have you been a professional photographer?

KT: Being a photographer seemed too much like wanting to be a movie star or the lead singer in a band or a ninja. It was one of those kick ass careers that was just too hard to “make it” in. So after graduating from high school I went to University. Then I got a job, and then another, and another, and another… I tried just about everything at one time or another, all the while I had been shooting small jobs throughout the years. In 2004 I married a girl the day I met her, we moved to Japan and after a particularly annoying day on job, she asked me, “What have you always wanted to do?”… So, I quit my job and started my career in photography. By this time the digital camera age was well on it’s way, which made the plunge a lot easier. So, full-time since 2004.

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CG: What type of cameras do you shoot with?

KT: That depends. At the moment my favorite kicking around camera is the Fuji X100T but in a pinch my iPhone gets the job done. My favorite 35mm is the Cannon EOS 1V HS (the shutter actuation’s are almost orgasmic). My favorite instant camera is the Polaroid SX-70 Sonar. And my favorite work camera is the Canon 5D Mark III soon to be the Canon 5DS.

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CG: What piece of equipment would you most like to get but don’t have yet?

KT: The gear in this industry is constantly improving so what I’m lusting after changes almost daily. If I had to list a couple things I’d say I’d love to get my hands on one of those $6000, Inspire 1 Raw drones. And while I’m on the subject of baller gear, a Wacom Cintiq 27QHD would be pretty keen for post production. Total overkill though. For more down-to-earth gear, I’m still rocking an iPhone 5 so I’m definitely ready for a new iPhone. The cameras have gotten so good that when ever someone asked me which compact travel camera to get I tell them to just upgrade to an iPhone 6s. But I’m holding out for the 7.

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CG: Favourite subjects to shoot?

KT: I really dig shooting people. Whether it’s studio portraits, on the street candid moments or editorials with a narrative. Products, landscapes, architectural, etc, are fun and all but in the end, for me, it’s all about the people. For the record, I consider pets to be people too so don’t call me out on my seemingly cat obsessed Instagram stream.

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CG: What has been some of your most memorable assignments and why?

KT: Everyone once and a while I’m lucky enough to land street photography assignments. Most notably, shooting the neighborhoods section for Airbnb in New York City and Boston. These kinds of assignments are definitely my most memorable because they forced me to slow down and look up from my feet. When walking from point A to point B, I tend to put my headphones in, my shades on, and my head down. But when I have a camera in my hands I become hyper aware of my surroundings. I watch people as they move through their story. I try to process their motivations. I look at architecture and the design of things and try to understand their form and function. I become aware of neighborhoods, classes, boarders, how our society is segregated and intertwined.  I’ve giggled, wept, raged, fought, danced, hungered, loved and educated myself, all while photographing the streets.

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KT: It’s hard for me to draw a line between my personal life and my work life because for the most part they are one and the same. Although I may occasionally find inspiration in various random things or people through out the day, my primary drive comes from photography itself. When I have a shoot it really fires me up and gets me thinking about how to execute it while looking for ways to make it cool and beautiful and fun.

I also edit and write for Fstoppers.com and the people I’ve met in that community are some of my closest, most respected and valued friends. Whenever I find it hard to motivate myself I can always look at what they are doing and become reinvigorated by their commitment, passion, genius and hard work.

CG: What advice do you have for photographers just starting out?

KT: There are a shit ton of people out there with shiny new professional grade cameras so if you don’t actually love photography, if you’re not willing to make it a life style, then you’re likely not going to get very far. You need a real passion for photography. You got to be willing to give it all you can even if it means not making a dime.

My more practical advice is this: Educate yourself. Know your gear. Learn the principles of photography. Learn the physics of light. Always try to make your next photograph better than your last one. Shoot. Shoot often. Shoot always. Shoot with intention. Shoot with enthusiasm.

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CG: If not a photographer you would have been?

KT: Well I’ve been a dental student, an engineering student, a chef, a karate instructor, a landscaper, an English teacher, a body guard, a waiter, a quality control manger, a security guard, a nanny, a painter, a police cadet, a fisherman, a hotel manager, a graveyard grounds keeper, a construction worker, a cover band singer, a manufacturer, a survival instructor, a human resources administrator, a bouncer, a safety inspector and a bunch of other things I’m sure I’ve forgotten. So, I would imagine I would have just kept on moving from one job to the next indefinitely. But if I had a chance to do it all over again, and had to choose a career other than photography, I would choose to be a dancer.

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