Words Stefania Tejada
During your 20’s, how did you find a connection towards photography?
I have been asked this question too many times in the past three years since I began taking pictures. The answer was always something like “wanting to meet new people”, “go on fun adventures and document my youth”, or “being influenced by my father taking portraits when I was younger”. Looking back now, in all honesty, I think I really did it because I was genuinely depressed and had a desperate need to relate to other people my age. It’s been therapeutic to just leave my house and go outside, meet up with a complete stranger off the Internet, and at the end of the shoot, find validation in the mutual comfort in knowing that we’re all going through the same bullshit in life, one step at a time. Because when we’re taking these pictures at these beautiful places, it’s almost like we forget about all that. It’s just right here, right now. There’s no tomorrow. Fuck your past and your current problems. We chase sunsets like it was the last one and we lived as present as can be. What I’m trying to say is that photography was initially my release for my confusion and my self-consciousness. It’s evolved to be my self-expression and learning to love the world through the unconditional love for the people who live on it.
How would you describe your aesthetics?
Like a dream; strange, but familiar enough you’re curious enough to explore deeper. In a dream you can't make mistakes. In dream you can be...whatever you want. You don't need anything. You're free.
Where do your influences originate?
My influences will always originate from my undying passion for the cinema.
But in the beginning, I was taking influence from anything I could grab onto; movies, photography books, paintings, museum visits. Because that’s what all new artists do, right? They develop their taste and worked off that inspiration to create something unique. Half a year ago, I’ve given serious thought where my influences were coming from after going on Instagram. Photographer Henrik Purienne, who I’m a fan of, took a portrait of a young women laying topless at a beach over a towel with a blue book opened and covering her breasts on a sunny day while her hand gently rested on top of her head. It was such a beautiful shot. Two weeks later, I see 30 horrible imitations of it all over Instagram. Everything’s just becoming a copy of a copy without any actual effort and it really irritates me how people buy into that shit. Some friends tell me that no idea is ever completely new and I have to deal with it. But I refused to believe in a world where everything’s already been expressed and completely thought out. I sat and looked over my work with brutal honesty and found myself guilty of being influenced by other photographers too. So I immediately stopped following what other people were doing. I haven’t a clue when friends mention other photographer’s names to me.
I want to strive to create original work that people will look up at and go “Whoa, I have never seen that before. This is different. It makes me feel, something new inside me”. I don’t want, five years down the road, some person saying “Yeah I know Sam Livm! He makes images just like this guy, this girl, and that guy!” My latest influences have been originating from myself. I close my eyes and I think about my life experiences and earlier memories. Why I’m the person I am today. I hope people can see my new work and know that it’s mine, and no one else’s.
What do you intend to communicate through your work?
It’s ever-changing. But the last three years has been about the nostalgia for youth through nature, nudity, and chasing sunsets. Next year it’s going in a different direction focusing on self-indulgence, neon lighting, and beauty of darkness.
Do you partake in any other forms of art besides photography?
I love to write short stories. I’m also slowly making the transition to get back into filmmaking, my true love and passion.
How does living in cities like Bolton and New York help you develop your own style within photography?
I don’t think cities particularly had as much of impact influencing my style of photography as opposed to how I was particularly raised. I spent most of my entire childhood observing my family’s antics that I couldn’t fully understand what was going on at the time. For example, I remember one time in New York, I was ten when my father took me down a dark cellar in Chinatown and kneeled down before a metal gate and said to my face “Don’t ever tell Mom about this.” He banged the door and a slit on the door would open and there would be a pair of eyes glaring, literally like a cliché movie. I remembered the door opening, the biggest, fattest, most thug looking Triad holding down the fort, and in the middle of the giant basement, there was my grandfather hustling the shit out of these middle aged Chinese gangsters playing Mahjong. My father’s younger brother was passed out from smoking something, which I’ve come to realize, was maybe opium. In Bolton, my mother would bring me along a two-hour bus ride to Manchester where she and her brother worked at. I had always loved looking outside the window and going through small towns. I would watch them run around the kitchen while they cooked. On the weekends, when my mother was still working, my uncle dragged me to his favorite casino spot where I waited outside for hours, looking at people passing by. It was hard to understand at the time what my family did to make it in England and America as I was easily exposed to but also sheltered away from this adult lifestyle.
What role does music plays in the world of photography?
For my creative process, I believe music is vital in bringing everyone to the same wavelength of emotions. When the subject and I are synchronized by what we feel in the present, we don’t even have to talk to communicate, we’re just moving. It’s almost like dancing. I think it definitely shows in the photographs.
What are some of the tunes you listen to while you are on set?
The first five songs on my current playlist for my upcoming shoots are:
Strangers by The Kinks
New Person, Same Old Mistakes by Tame Impala
He’s Gone by The Chantels
Deep Purple by Billy Ward And His Dominoes
Come Live With Me by Dorothy Ashby
What do you believe in?
Myself. I have to. It’s nervous to try to be an artist that’s not copying other people’s recipe for success, I have to believe in myself, that all this, creating entirely new images and ideas, in the end is worth all the doubt, anxiety, and paranoia of wishing I took the easy route in life.
Looking back at your first work, how would you explain your transition and growth as a photographer?
I think I understand more clearly now with what I want to show and talk about. I think when I first started I was a little all over the place, trying anything out. I think my growth as a photographer has mostly been about having a focus and bringing clarity to it.
How do you select the person you want to photograph and what do you intent to capture from each person?
I think sometimes people message me with the intent to shoot but don’t completely understand what they’re signing up for. When you shoot with me, you wake up way earlier than want to, drive to a location that’s four hours away. When we get there, we do a two-hour hike to the top of a mountain cliff while the sun beats down over you. At the actual location, you’ll climb to the top of these rocks covered in slippery moss, which if you slipped, you would definitely break a bone or something. I’ll force you get out of your comfort zone by making you throw away all your generic poses and overdone looks you’ve given to every photographer in the past.
The whole journey is almost like breaking down these social walls of ourselves, that when we get to the actual place, everyone is too drained from maintaining this image of their perfect selves they present to strangers. To me, the nuances of someone become more visually apparent, and that’s what I try to capture. I think we appreciate the location more too when we sacrifice energy to get out there, as opposed to simply arriving at the destination with ease and comfort. There’s less gratification to the process there. I want to earn my satisfaction.
My shoots in nature are physically and mentally demanding and I don’t think I could get the photographs I want without someone who’s really committed to the whole experience. Some people will never want to shoot with me again. That’s completely okay. I get it. But the people who ask me to shoot again are those who are willing to go all the way. It’s worth it to them. Because of that, I give them all my unconditional love to find the best representation of who they were at that moment, and everything we had to do to get to that particular moment.
Tell us about your creative process.
My creative process begins with something like meditating. I’ll put some music on, lay down and get comfortable. I’ll close my eyes and clear my mind of immediate thoughts, like weekend plans or things I have to do. If I start thinking too hard, it goes away and I have to start all over again. But once I clear my mind and it’s completely blank of thoughts, vague images start to form, almost like distorted waves. When I’m done, I’ll try my best to describe the images down before I forget. From there, the subject and I reinterpret the emotions of what I imagined. Usually before a shoot, I’ll send music to the subject to listen too, and right before we shoot, I ask them how they currently feel.
What are some of the photographers that have really inspired you?
I would say Cody Cobb for his dreamy landscapes, Tamara Lichtenstein for her delicate awe for wonder, and Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin for their studio portrait work. There’s so many more. Lately, it’s been my friend Jen Senn, who I love how she photographs women. It’s sensual in her own unique way. I also love how her highlights look like crystals.
How does photography make you feel?
What has been the most significant achievement you have accomplished so far?
I honestly… don’t know. I’ve sat on this couch and gave it some thought as I’m typing this but I still can’t come up with anything. It’s still only three years since I’ve started. My mind is almost always thinking about what’s next for me to explore and create. I think if you ask me again in a few years and I’ll have a better answer for you. I feel like I’m still in the phase, and not completely out of it just yet.
Do you believe in failure?
I believe failure is a test of if you are willing to get back up, learn from your mistakes, and love it enough to try again. I think all artists should starve, or fail a lot. They need to. They have to. It is a test of their love. Because if this fear of not becoming successful eats away at them, then they should quit while they're ahead. And for those who are willing to risk everything, I think the starvation only becomes this hunger that really feeds their obsession for their art. It's a separation of the fake artists and the real ones.
What do you see in the body of women?
Sensuality and sensitivity.
What do you find in nudity and what do you intend to transmit with it?
I think with nudity there’s no date you can really stamp onto a picture, that it can almost be primeval. I think sometimes clothes can be a distraction, like people would judge a person, put them into a category of what kind of person they could be just by what they wear. I wanted to get ride of that. There’s a beauty in just letting the human body speak for itself when in nature and I think to bare all takes a lot of confidence, to knowingly let people judge them and be okay with that.
What was the last book you read?
National Geographic: Around the World in 125 Years. The last thing that really moved me.
And the last exhibition you attended?
My girlfriend just had her first group show of NYC nighttime landscape photography last week. She’s a hobbyist but she sold the only print while everyone else involved did photography for a living. I’m stoked for her!
What are some of the secret places you have found in NYC?
I try to keep the locations I shoot at secret! But, Floyd Bennett Field is a wonderful place.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to face in pursuing your dreams?
The hardest challenge I’ve faced and gotten better at is, being patient with myself and other people. I’m a very emotional person and sometimes very irrational, and I like to have things now, immediately, and have it my way. It’s me learning to be a better listener, to not act with selfish intent, and to be okay with not having as much of something in my life like money or success, but making the most of my situation.
What does your life look like these days?
I’m very optimistic and excited. The next two weeks I’m shooting in nature. Then I’m on the road for two weeks with my girlfriend to parts of Quebec. We’re going to visit Acadia National Park too. When we come back, it’s going to be cold, and I’ll be focusing on shooting indoors at the studio.
What do you see next for your career?
I’ll be working on creating my style in studio photography and getting my short film made. With studio photography, I’m working on designing lights that are responsive to the stimulation to the environment they are placed in. For example, a tempo of the song being played in the space can dictate how it fluctuates in hue and intensity. It’s the idea that light can be alive and conscious of the decisions it makes. I’m also working on finding materials that can be used to guide natural light and distort it, like crystals in specific shapes or sequins that are different shapes or placed in a unique pattern. It’s a lot of exciting stuff and I don’t want to spoil too much of the surprise but I’m stoked to share with people very soon.
Why did you study Film Theory and how did you end up doing photography instead?
I wanted a greater understanding of how things worked in creating a film and how a stream of auditory and visual cues shapes an audience’s consciousness. I ended up shooting more photographs because it was an easier and cheaper way to express some of the ideas I had.
Where are you traveling this weekend?
I’m actually traveling with Jen Senn for a little more than a week in nature. It’s probably the last week or two to shoot in nature before it gets too cold here in NYC.