Commitment, passion, and the ability to face personal challenges were some of the key drivers of Sebastian Kim‘s career success. In this interview, we talk about portraiture, his experience, and perspectives for the future.
For the past 44 years of existence, the Brooklyn-based photographer Sebastian Kim has seen a lot of life. Born in Vietnam, fleeing from the war, and being forced to move around from one country to the next did not keep him from following his passion for photography and pursuing the art professionally.
After having learned from the best and years of hustling his way up to the top, today Sebastian is one of the leading go-to names for house-hold establishments such as Vanity Fair, American Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar, to name a few. We talked to him about his photography journey, his years of assisting Richard Avedon and Steven Meisel, his thoughts on how to put yourself out there nowadays, and how challenging it can actually be to get a good portrait.
Who is Sebastian Kim? Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m 44 years old and I live in Brooklyn. I’m half Korean and half Chinese, but I was born in Vietnam and grew up in California, France, and Iran, so I moved a little bit all around. I’ve been in New York for 22 years now.
Me and my parents moved a lot. After I was born, we fled from the Vietnam War and landed in Iran in ’75. Then we fled Iran in ’79, after the fall of the Shah, and moved to France until I was 10, before coming to the States. So we moved around not due to the best circumstances— fleeing war and political reasons. But I moved to New York after college to get started on photography and to pursue the wish of being a photographer.
How did you first get into photography?
I started when I was 15 years old. My mother gave me a camera and that was my introduction to photography. I studied it in high school and then pursued it in college, at Brooks Institute of Photography, which is a photo school in Santa Barbara. I started working for Richard Avedon in ’96, which I did for four years, and then I went working with Steven Meisel for seven years. After that, I broke out on my own.
What did you learn from those experiences and how did it influence you regarding what you do today?
It obviously influenced me tremendously. Working for Richard Avedon was a very traditional studio experience. I started working for him as a fourth assistant and worked my way up to be his first assistant, which meant learning the road from darkroom to lighting to camera work.
But I think probably I learned the most just from watching two masters and how dedicated and passionate they were about what they were doing. It takes a lot of dedication and work to get to where they were. I probably learned more from working for them than at school, that’s for sure! Having to be involved in all those projects, working in all the levels of the production and with different people. It was just an overall positive experience!
Why fashion and portraiture?
I feel like those two kinds really balance each other. Fashion is very aspirational, very collaborative, sort of multi-layered, and you work with different types of people throughout the whole process. Whereas portraiture becomes much more intimate and personal. It’s basically capturing the subject matter stripped down to a lot of things that would be involved with fashion, which are the people, the clothing, and the environment. You have less to work with, but you have to really connect with the individual.
I actually enjoy the two equally. I can get excited about doing fashion, editorial, and the travelings, but I can also get very excited about shooting portraits of people that I admire and getting an opportunity to step into their world.
Portraiture gives me the chance to meet and photograph some of my heroes. We all get inspired by what some people do and are fascinated to see how they got there. Portraiture opens me a door to learning about them and that’s what I enjoy – the intimacy of it.
What are the things that you like to do to help the models communicate with the camera?
I think the process is different for everybody. Usually, it helps when I talk to them before the shoot and try to connect, but at times I don’t have time. There are people that just come in and I have to photograph them, making it really hard to connect.
The times I have time to sit down and talk a little bit it usually evolves into letting go and gaining mutual trust. The more trust you have with one another, the more you can work with each other to create something. It’s a two ways street between the sitter and the photographer. But sometimes you don’t have the opportunity to get to know them and that’s the challenge, you know? Using the much time you have to connect and give them trust. That’s the approach I try to follow.
But in the end, it’s always unexpected, no one really knows. Everybody is different.
Is there such a thing as photogenic people or just really good portrait photographers?
I think there’s both. But there is such a thing as photogenic people, either by the way they appear or by their expression.
I photograph a lot of celebrities and you would think they are photogenic, but they can also make it very difficult and challenging if they don’t want to give very much. Those who may not look so interesting but have a lot of personality, are playful and want to try different things allow much better results. Being expressive is definitely a good way to be photogenic!
Being a good portraitist is really being able to connect with people. I would say I haven’t always been good at it. I’m quite quiet by nature and doing portraiture has actually forced me to put myself out there. It can be good to overcome certain boundaries you have for yourself, but it’s very hard! It’s really my personal challenge to come out there and get to know people. It’s still an ongoing process, but it’s a great way to work on yourself as well.
You mentioned before that you photographed some of your heroes and idols. Is there a difference in portraying them compared to other people?
I follow what I’ve seen from Richard Avedon and how he would do on his settings and the way he made a connection with people. He photographed a lot of peers in the 60s and 70s and a lot were people that he admired. It was very inspiring to see how he found inspiration through his peers.
Now it’s a different time, but I similarly get inspired by photographing my peers or young people doing things. That’s probably the secret, finding inspiration in the subject matter that you are photographing.
What are the key aspects to consider in order to get a good portrait?
Connection and trust. I feel once they trust you, you can do a lot. I’ve been in both situations where I’ve been given a lot of trusts and where I haven’t. Those times where I haven’t, I struggled. Once people let go you can try different things and that’s when the magic will happen in portraiture.
You have an impressive portfolio and well-known clients. What do you think were the crucial steps you took to get where you are today?
Honestly, there are no right steps or the right process to really get you to where you want to be. Especially at this stage where things move really fast through the internet and social media. I think now as long as you have a different point of view and are able to do something very different, you will get noticed. You have the opportunity and the platforms to differentiate one photographer from another and to get noticed by relevant people directly. The most important is to do it and put yourself out there, more important than the conventional way.
For me, the key was to put enough time and commitment. Work for your mentors, assist and learn all the roads. I took that long path of learning from the masters. I didn’t exactly start to be a photographer two years after I left college, it was a lot about being committed. I studied, assisted for 11 years and then I started out on my own. Those were the steps that I’ve taken and where I’ve always worked hard.
What would you say was your best portrait of all time? Or do you have any favorites?
I was probably most excited to photograph Giorgio Moroder. He is an Italo musician of the 80s and I was a big fan of Italo disco. When disco went electronic he was the godfather of all of that sort of movement. He did a lot of music composing, like Top Gun and “I Feel Love”. I had the opportunity to photograph him for Interview magazine, he came to my studio and it was probably one of the most exciting portrait commissions that I’ve done.
What are your plans for the future?
To be more inspired and to rediscover. I’ve been doing it for 10 years now and I feel I’m in my comfort zone at the moment. So in the future, I want to come out of my comfort zone and get myself to do things differently.