Interview | Jeffrey Chan

Toronto based photographer Jeffrey Chan talks to Wicked Game about photography, inspiration, his love for natural locations and a lot more.

Describe Jeffrey with 3 words.

I’d describe myself as someone who does what he says (no bullshit), is dedicated and is always dreaming.

What one little-known fact about you would perhaps come as the biggest surprise to people who think they know you well?  

A little known fact about me is that I have a Bachelor’s of Applied Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, class of 2001.

What TV show/cast would you like to join for a day?

I’d love to be on-set on a travel documentary TV show like Anthony Bourdain’s (RIP) Parts Unknown or a car show like The Grand Tour or Top Gear.

Early bird or night owl?

I’m definitely a night owl.  I’m not a morning person at all.  I hit my stride later in the day.  I’m up late at night working on projects.  I get too distracted during the day.  I also find morning shoots to be awkward.

How would you define beauty?

Beauty is all about being all-natural.  It’s about showing one’s true self, a beautiful smile, and self-confidence.

Do you ever get disappointed with your photography?

I wouldn’t say I get disappointed with my photography but sometimes I get unhappy with it, feeling like it could be better or I could be better.  I think it’s part of being a better photographer, always striving to improve one’s art.  I believe to be the best you can be as an artist, you should always practice continuous self-improvement.  The downside is that you’re often unsatisfied with your work, which can really get you down, but then you get re-inspired and then you get excited again to create some new work.

People in the creative industries can usually recall the moment it became clear that they want to be occupied with what they do. Was there such a defining moment for you?

Before I quit my last day job back in 2010, I had begun to take photography more seriously and considered making it more than a passionate hobby.  I was becoming very unsatisfied with my job and was looking for a way out.  I had begun assisting some photographers and really began to think I could turn the hobby into a career.  I knew it would take hard work and dedication, but it would be way better than what I was doing for work at the time.  My desk job paid well but was very unfulfilling.  It was purely a paycheque.  There was no future.  I really wanted to do something that meant more to me.

What advice do you have for somebody who wants to pursue photography as a career?

Pursuing photography as a career is an immense challenge.  We’re naturally creatures of habit and becoming a full-time photographer brings with it a lot of unknowns and instability.  You have to learn to become uncomfortable with the unpredictability of it, but the lack of routine makes things more exciting.  It drives you to keep hustling, not just to put food on the table but to ensure that there’s a drive to keep improving your skills to keep up or stay ahead of the industry.  And creating art is different from doing work.  When you work paid jobs, they rarely ever fulfil you creatively, but joy can be found in any job.  It just depends on your perspective.  The way I’ve found to survive a career in photography is to be as versatile as possible and have a range of photographic skills to shoot a variety of niches, from fashion and commercial/lifestyle to food and weddings.  

What do you do in your downtime? Any particular interests?

Downtime when I’m not shooting: driving my classic car, watching movies & documentaries, traveling the world, and cheering on my favourite ice hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

What are your thoughts on Instagram and in general the visual culture of social media when it comes to the creative arts?

Social media and Instagram in particular can be very useful and productive tools but they have to be used in a certain way or be understood that they have particular usefulness.  If you become consumed by social media and give in to one’s ego and narcissism, it can become a black hole that you’re constantly chasing for self-approval.  Social media is great for self-promotion and showing off one’s work.  I’ve seen some photographers who only have an Instagram profile and no website, and it still allows them to get plenty of work.  When it comes to filters, be it either to make one’s photos look ‘awesome’ or to change one’s appearance, there’s a lack of authenticity.  There’s always beauty in the natural and again, it always comes down to perspective.  ‘Likes’ are related.  They generate approval and a sense of self-worth.  I understand why Instagram chose to hide the number of likes, so people don’t get caught up in it.

What have you discovered about yourself being in this business?

Being a full-time photographer over the past 10 years, I’ve learned that I place a priority on work-life balance.  I could never go back to a desk job.  I truly cherish my creative freedom and the flexible schedule photography provides so I can dedicate time to personal projects, and take time off for a few months every year to travel.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Are there particular artists or works of art that have shaped you? 

Moreover, regarding social media – I really make use of Instagram for inspiration.  There is so much wonderful and amazing content out there, as there are so many great content creators.  Perusing my Instagram feed on a daily basis provides me with plenty of inspiration.  I save several images per day to add to my various mood boards for photoshoots.  I follow several photographers, and interestingly many of them are purely film photographers these days.  I mainly shoot digital, especially for my professional work, but I really love the film aesthetic.  I’m a big fan of Purienne, Cameron Hammond and other similar photographers.  But beyond other artists, I do draw much inspiration from the surrounding environment.  When I’m traveling or location scouting, and you come across an amazing setting, you instantly begin envisioning a photoshoot or a story based around it.  A beautiful beach, building or landscape can be very powerful for inspiration.

How do you see competition in the industry currently?

Everyone wants to be a photographer and thinks they can be a photographer, but real talent and taste are difficult to come by.

A strong preference for locations, instead of the usual studio setting, can be seen in your work. What attracts you to it and what do you look for in a location when scouting?

I am definitely much more drawn to shooting on-location, rather than shooting in-studio.  A studio is uninspiring as it’s a blank slate.  A white seamless backdrop is featureless and doesn’t naturally generate a narrative.  A beautiful location writes its own story and as a photographer, it’s your role to add to that story or make the story your own.  I tend to look for more dramatic backdrops for my locations, as much as possible.  I like texture, depth and contrast, so I look for locations, be it a desert or beach, with interesting rock formations or trees.  The way the light falls during the day creates beautiful complimentary shadows that add to shape and form.  When it comes to buildings and architecture, more of the same can be said.  Lines and shadows, but also colour and texture.  Instinct also plays a role in location scouting.  A great location also has a certain vibe and energy, where all the elements of the location come together to form something great or has potential to be great.

Favourite model to shoot, from past or present.

Favourite models – it’s difficult to mention just one.  Victoria Germyn is a legend, a true professional who always gets the shot, is full of range and up for anything.  Hannah Glasby is of the same vein.  And Victoria Britt has that addictive energy I look for in a model, who just goes with it and has a million-dollar smile.

Name five things you can’t live without.

Things I can’t live without… my phone, my computer, discovering unspoiled travel destinations, my camera and my dreams (always need a dream or aspiration).

What is the trait you dislike the most in others?

I dislike fake people, and people who don’t do what they say.

What would you ask for, if you knew the answer was yes?

What would I ask for if I knew the answer would be yes?  hahaha, I always ask questions when I know the answer will be no.

What’s the best advice ever someone else gave to you?

The best advice I’ve been given is if you want something done right, do it yourself.  My brother told me that when I was a kid.

If you were 10 years younger but with the knowledge, you have now, what would you have done differently?

If I was 10 years younger with the knowledge I have today, I would have pushed harder to fulfil my goals.  Maybe I’d be living in LA already by now.  But life is what you make of it and external forces out of your control have influence on the outcomes.  Life experience shapes the person you are today, for better or worse.

What should we expect to see in the future?

I’m planning to do more fly-away test shoots like the one I did in La Digue, Seychelles in 2018.  That shoot has inspired me to shoot more of those.  I’d love to shoot in Milos (Greece), Fernando de Noronha (Brazil), Oaxaca (Mexico), and Formentera & Lanzarote (Spain).  I’m also putting together a YouTube channel focusing on restored and modified classic cars.