Focus on Street Photographer Eric Kim ~ In your face with a smile!
If you shoot street photography, you have most likely heard of California based photographer Eric Kim. He is so active in the social media and blogging world that it is virtually impossible to miss him and his big grin. Who is the person behind the Leica? I had the pleasure to ask him a few questions for the dPS readers recently and, without further ado, I am pleased to introduce you to the work of street photographer Eric Kim.
When did you start doing street photography and why?
When I first started shooting photography, I had a difficult time figuring out what type of photography I enjoyed the most. I tried everything—landscape, wedding, portraiture, macro, you name it.
However my defining moment was a day in which I was waiting at a bus stop. I saw a young man with horn-rimmed glasses reading a book while leaning on a pole. I felt the moment was so pure and genuine, and I felt the urge to take his photograph. Then the questions came to mind—should I ask for permission and was this “right?” Regardless I went with my guts and attempted to take his photograph (without his permission). My heart was pumping and adrenaline flowing, and I brought up my camera to snap a photograph. The second my shutter was about to go off, he stared right at me and I took the photo. I have been hooked ever since.
What is it about street photography that appeals to you the most?
What I love most about street photography is that it is extremely challenging—both in creating an image that is visually appealing and emotionally appealing. I am also as interested in the approach of street photography. After all, who takes a photograph of a stranger without his/her permission? But it is through this candor that you can get a sense of who that person truly is and what is going on in their mind – without asking for permission.
What gear do you use and why?
I currently shoot with Leica cameras for my street photography, as I prefer the small body, how quiet it is, and unthreatening it looks. For my digital work, I shoot with a Leica M9—but recently I have been shooting quite a bit of film on my Leica M6. However one thing I would like to urge to the readers of DPS is to not get too caught up in the gear. Although I do shoot with one of the most expensive cameras out there, there is no reason you can’t take a great image with what you have—and even an iPhone! Having said that, generally the smaller your camera is, the less scary it is to the average person and more suitable for street photography.
How often do you get out and shoot?
I shoot everyday. When I am out traveling I probably shoot close to five hours a day. When I am back home and resting, probably less—around two hours a day or so. The most important thing is that I always have my camera with me, and try to make the time to shoot whenever possible.
What are your favorite subjects and locations?
When I was an undergraduate in my university, I studied sociology and I consider myself first a sociologist and second a photographer. Therefore, in my photography, I am particularly interested in capturing the beauty and ills of society through my lens. Some themes in particular which interest me are the role of the presentation of self, gluttony (not just food but general excess), and the negative effects of wealth and capitalism. Therefore the areas I like to shoot in are generally urban and highly-industrialized areas. Some of my favorite places to shoot include Downtown LA, Tokyo, and Seoul.
Which were your best moments and your scariest ones, if any?
Whenever I am out shooting, I always shoot with a smile on my face. The response I generally get from my subjects while shooting is positive. Although I don’t ask for permission when I’m out shooting, I generally chat with my subjects after taking photographs of them. I compliment them on what I find beautiful or interesting about them—whether it be their smile, their flamboyant hat, colorful outfit, or the way that they walk with authority. After taking people’s photographs, it always makes me happy when I hear people say to their friends: “Oh my god, he took a photograph of me—he must think I am someone famous!” The best, is just a simple smile back.
My style of photography is much more aggressive and in-your-face than other street photographers out there- so I have run into a few negative incidents. However they are still few.
In Downtown LA I had an incident in which someone threatened to break my camera, and tried to grab my camera by pulling at my camera strap. I apologized and chatted with him afterwards, which helped him calm down.
Another incident in Toronto, I took a photograph of what appeared to be a male aspiring Asian pop-star wearing nothing but skin-tight leather leggings and a leather vest. I took his photograph and kept on walking, and he turned around and asked me if I took his photograph. I told him I did, and he told me to delete the image. I looked at the image and thought it was quite interesting, so I refused. He then started getting violent and started shoving me in the chest, spitting while he was talking, and threatening to call the cops. I stood my ground and told him to go ahead and call the cops—as I was doing nothing wrong by shooting in public. He pretended to call the cops, and then stormed off afterwards.
The most physical incident I have gotten into involved when I was taking photographs in Tokyo. I saw a guy who was around 6 feet 3 inches (I am around 6 feet tall) who was wearing a face mask yet smoking a cigarette. He looked pretty sketchy (he wore a doo-rag, had a menacing face, and a patch on the right side of his face) but I decided to take a photograph anyway. I then kept on walking, and then he ran after me, kicked me in the back of my camera bag. I was holding my off-camera flash in my left hand, and the force sent the flash flying to a wall opposite of us. The flash hit the wall, broke into a thousand pieces—batteries flying everywhere. He then gazed at me with menacing eyes, and I quickly bowed and apologized—and walked off quickly.
I don’t want to scare anyone from shooting street photography from the negative experiences I had. I have probably taken at least 300,000 street photographs—and these were probably the 3 worst experiences I encountered. 3/300,000 is a .001% percent of a truly negative reaction. You are probably more likely to get into a car accident. Regardless, it is important to always be prepared – because you can never predict with 100% accuracy what can happen on the streets. This comes with experience—but know when it is the best to stick around with an upset person and explain why you are shooting street photography and how to apologize. In other cases when people might not react well to what you have to say, quickly apologize and just move on.
Have you learned something interesting about human behavior from your street photography?
The first thing that always concerns people is the risk of getting yelled at or beaten up for shooting street photography. As a sociologist, I am particularly interested in the approach of street photography—and how people truly react when you take their photograph (without their permission).
The common understanding is that people absolutely hate it when you take their photograph without permission and will become aggressive. However in my experience, 99% of the people you take photographs of generally don’t react much or don’t mind when you take their photograph. In today’s society, people are generally non-confrontational and won’t react very much when you take their photograph.
What tips would you give someone who is just starting to experiment with street photography?
I would say the most important thing is to carry your camera with you everywhere you go. The best shots are in the places you least likely expect, and as Wayne Gretsky said, “You miss a 100% of the shots you don’t take.
Secondly, don’t be sneaky when you shoot street photography. Don’t shoot with a 200mm lens and shoot from a block away. Rather, use a wide-angle prime lens (35mm or 28mm on a full-frame equivalent) and get close to your subjects. If you get close to your subjects when you are shooting, it makes the viewer feel like a participant (rather than a voyeur simply looking in). I also feel with physical proximity comes emotional proximity with the people you are taking photographs of.
Lastly, shoot with the heart. Street photography (like other forms of photography) should be well-composed and framed. However in the end, a great street photograph needs soul—it should say something about humanity or challenge the viewer to see his/her life in a different way.
To connect with Eric on FB, Twitter, G+, etc. and learn about his upcoming projects and street photography workshops click here.