Leon Art Koopman contacted me a few months ago for a special photography interview for the newest issue of Soul of Street, an online and print German language photo magazine.What caught my attention was Soul of Street’s tagline–“Photography & Philosophy”–a subject I’m super passionate about! Below is my interview with Leon in English.
German readers, if you would like to purchase and support Soul of Street, pick up their latest issue! If you would like to pick up my latest limited edition hardcover photobook SUITS, there are only 6 remaining.
Hey Eric, first off all, thank you for giving us this interview. Since mostly everybody in the Streetphotography Community knows who you are, I would like you to give an introduction about yourself, so that those who don’t know you do get a first impression.
Hey Leon, thanks for having me!
A quick intro to me:
My name is Eric Kim, and I’m a 30-year old Korean-American. Fun fact: I’m a Boy Scouts Eagle Scout, and my passion is education.
I find my personal interests at the intersection of philosophy, photography, art, and empowerment. I studied Sociology as an undergraduate at UCLA, and I see street photography as applied street photography (visual sociology); using the camera as a research tool to analyze and understand society.
When and how did you discover photography for yourself and what kept you doing it? Did you start off with street photography and stuck to it or was it more of a natural development and if so what made you become a Street Photographer?
When I was 18 years old, I asked my mom to buy me a digital camera as my high school graduation present. I still remember vividly– it was a Canon Powershot SD 600 (around 1.3 megapixels). I was amazed that it had an LCD screen! I could instantly see the photos! It was pure magic.
In pre-social media days, I still remember– the first month I literally took near 1,000 photos a day. I took photos of my friends, food; whatever!
That summer, I went to Seoul, Korea to teach English as a summer job before I went to college. When I was submersed in the urban environment of Seoul, taking photos of people on the street seemed natural to me. And when I started, I was scared to death to shoot street photography– but there was still something about the beauty of human beings in society which appealed to me.
What is more important to you– the picture being something that documents society or to create an esthetic experience for the people that do look at the photos? Or do you think these aspects are linked directly?
Really good question Leon. For myself, I think the emotional response you get from the photo is the most important. For example, I desire to make photos that critiques and documents society– then I hope that these photos either upsets people, or gives people a feeling of gratitude in their heart. Overall, I want my photos to evoke something in the soul of my viewer– to act in a certain way!
And of course the esthetic experience is important as well. To me, the aesthetics of a photograph is important. A gritty black and white photograph will evoke a different emotion than a saturated color photograph. But ultimately to me, the aesthetic must be a tool to better convey an emotion or a feeling to the viewer.
Even though you do a lot of composition reviews and perfected the analytical and geometrical rules of composition you say that there also is a need of breaking them. Perfecting the rules to break them purposely and thereby creating something that sticks with the recipient is something like a golden rule in many forms of art and artistic craftsmanship. Can you give us an example what a good rule breaking would be, and how intentionally rules can be broken or is it more of a thing that one finds out about a picture in the post.
Another really good question Leon. When I started with photography, I was actually more interested in composition than documenting people. I started off shooting landscapes, urban landscapes, architecture, etc– and was always curious and asked myself:
> “How can I best compose this photograph in the most beautiful or interesting way possible?”
At the moment, this is my theory on composition: composition isn’t just lines and geometric forms– composition also includes the content (what is happening in the photograph).
I think of the word “composition” in a science-frame. When you ask about the composition of Water — you will break it down into the “composition” of Hydrogen and Oxygen.
Photography is the same. When we think of the “composition” of a photograph– we break it down into the geometric shapes, the exposure-light-contrast, the diagonals/lines/curves in the photograph, and the subject-matter (the person or subject in the photograph).
When I really philosophize about composition, the most important thing is for the photograph to have dynamism and soul. From an aesthetic perspective, I believe in this “simple and elegant” concept. A great composition is simple (no distractions in the background, and might just focus on one or a few subjects), and a great composition is also elegant (having lots of curved lines, arabesques [squiggly lines], hand gestures, movement, and dynamism!)
Those who have seen videos of you doing street photography do know that you are the complete opposite of a silent observer who waits for a situation and then takes the shot. I remember you telling or nearly ordering people to walk down the street together as if they were friends since it would make a great picture. How long did it take you to build up that kind of self-esteem and strong will? And how often do you get negative reactions?
I am a promiscuous street photographer, I do all sorts of approaches in street photography. I ask for permission, I shoot candidly, and I often instruct my subjects.
To be honest, I think street photography is 90% guts. Even today, I still feel some fear when I see something or a person I want to photograph. But what I try to do is this– I try to *channel* the fear into making the photograph. Which means, whenever I see something that scares me, I tell myself:
> “Eric, the reason why you’re afraid is because you want to photograph that; and it might be a good photo!”
With my self-esteem, will, and confidence– it mostly came through my “hard knock” upbringing as a middle-school and high school student. In middle school, a lot of my friends were drug dealers and gang-affiliated. I went through a lot of shit as a kid, which forces you to grow a thick skin (or else you wouldn’t survive).
You are not only one of the best-known contemporary street photographers but you also offer workshops for other people all over the globe. What made you offering workshops in the first place?
Thank you for the compliment Leon!
A little background about workshops: I discovered it by accident, or more specifically– a great opportunity from Loryne Atoui from Beirut, Lebanon. I wrote a blog post in around 2010 titled: “100 lessons I’ve learned from street photography”, which went viral. She then emailed me and offered me to teach a workshop in Beirut, Lebanon.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic! I had never traveled outside the states (besides Korea), and it sounded like a phenomenal opportunity. Except the problem was I couldn’t afford the flight. From fundraising on my blog and a HUGE grant from Thomas Leuthard (thank you Thomas and everyone else), I did the trip and taught the workshop.
To prepare the workshop, I didn’t first know it was possible to “teach” street photography (especially in a workshop format). But while I was a senior at UCLA as an undergraduate, I was part of this special program that allowed undergraduates to teach 1-unit seminars, and I learned from Kumiko Haas (my pedagogy professor) on how to best teach or “facilitate” classes/courses. For those curious, the course was titled: “Sociology of Facebook and Online Social Networks”, and you can see the course here: https://sociologyoffacebook.
Anyways, I put together a powerpoint on compositional techniques and tips in street photography, and hit the streets and guided the students! It was (still) one of my best experiences in my life– I love Beirut, Lebanon with a passion. I cannot wait until I go back and eat some “Bar Bar” (the local falafel stand).
I’ve been invited to a Streetphotography workshop by a global camera brand a few years ago and kind of felt bad for the people who paid for it. It was set up in a very top-down teacher to student relationship and the teacher that did not seemed interested in what he does at all. Since you have enormous success with your workshops – how do you handle the relationship with the attendants? And how much do you learn yourself by giving the workshops?
Sorry to hear about your experience!
My suggestion is this: put your heart and soul into your teaching. In the words of philosopher Nassim, one must have “skin in the game”.
It is hard to please/entertain everyone in a workshop, but this is generally my approach: I try to teach a workshop or lead a seminar/talk like I were a participant.
Personally, I hate sitting down and just listening to teachers talk. It is boring. I like being engaged– asking questions, and I like “live action!”
So in my workshops, I like to ask people in the crowd to interact, and often call them to the stage to demonstrate techniques. I also try to keep it super simple– to teach about 3-5 principles in street photography (but not more). Like Horace said, “If you give advice, be brief.” Based on my experience, giving too much advice is bad– the participants end up leaving not remembering anything.
Also another tip– it is good to allow students to record the lecture or take pictures of the slides! I also offer the slides after my talk on my blog for free.
It is also tough — many photographer are not great public speakers or workshop teachers. Perhaps one day I will teach a workshop on how photographers can teach more engaging workshops.
Apart from the Workshops, one thing that many of us are waiting for is when will you publish a photobook? Are you planning on one, and if not – why?
Yes! It is currently available on hapticindustries.com— my SUITS hardcover book! You can also search “Eric Kim Suits Book” on Amazon. We’ve also published several limited edition art prints that you can find in the shop too.
Since we are talking about presenting your own work, you deleted your Instagram years ago. What made you come up with that decision? And, are you using other publishing networks?
I deleted my Instagram for many reasons– but the main reason was this:
> I didn’t want to build my empire on quicksand, or to become a “digital share-cropper.”
The irony is that the early days of my success in photography was because of social media– my Facebook fan page, my YouTube, my Twitter, and Flickr. But when I really really thought about it– 90% of my traffic came from my blog, via Google search results!
I then thought to myself:
> “Why am I wasting all this time, energy, and focus on social media– when I should put *more* effort into my blog?”
I deleted Instagram about a year and a half ago, and I haven’t used it since. And it has been phenomenal– I have made so much personal growth in terms of my personal innovations in photography (doing more slideshows on YouTube, making my own beats, and also paving new grounds in composition analyses). Also I’ve been doing more video and cinema.
A quick tip to anyone reading– I would encourage everyone to start their own WordPress blog instead of building their Instagram. You can build a free one on wordpress.comand later upgrade to get your own domain, or you can setup your own “open source” blog by using bluehost.comand wordpress.org.
What future projects are you working on right now and what can we expect from you in 2019?
Wow, 2019 — just around the corner!
I’m currently watching a lot of old-school cinema– a lot of Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, and I just watched the super old-school Russian film, “Battleship Potemkin” and am super-inspired.
I’m not sure yet– but perhaps my next evolution as a visual artist is getting more into film and cinema. I picked up a Lumix G9 recently and I love the 4k video shot in 24p. I also thank my father for getting me into avant-garde cinema at a young age (I remember watching Schindler’s List at around age 9 and it left a strong impression on me).
So perhaps my next step is film directing — or perhaps doing some “video street photography”.
Thank you very much for answering the questions and I wish you all the best for your future and good luck in pursuing your dreams.
I like your last point– we all need to continue to dream of new dreams, have new goals, and to always push ourselves to evolve further than we think is possible! I think the future is bright for all of us :)
Thank you so much Leon.