Good Chat: Vivian Kim
Vivian Kim is a photographer and director, but she also regards herself as an optimist and extrovert. We consider Vivian all of the above as well as being an incredibly decent human being. Hustling between LA and NYC, Kim has carved out her own fly-on-the-wall aesthetic and has shot both commercial and editorial for an array of brands including Adidas, Interscope Records and Wrangler.
We first met Viv when she was down in Aus and swung past the Monster Children HQ. From a coffee in the park to a friendship that endured different time zones, we’ve admired Viv for her creative style and infectious vibes.
There’s something intrinsically raw and voyeuristic at the heart of Kim’s work with a focus on youth culture and as she calls it, the ‘in-between’ bits. The fleeting moments that pass us by - the happy guy on the subway, the palpable beat of a cityscape. And much like the charged gaze between two strangers, no words are needed. Vivian’s art speaks for itself.
Viv attributes her inclination to capture the quotidian to her love of nature and its imperfectness. “I truly do strive to capture things in an authentic way -- as they are. As the best versions of what they are” says Vivian. “I’ve always wished to show viewers of my photography how beautiful (not perfect) life can be.”
We sat down with Viv to talk about her Californian roots, her journey as a creator and the source of that unwavering optimism.
What’s a good day in the life of Vivian?
Well, I’ll wake up and try to move my body -- usually, that’s going for a walk, but on more motivated days, it might be running, surfing, boxing, etc. I drink a few coffees, and eat a lot of food. As much as I want to be conveyed as a cool, mysterious artist, I’m a huge extrovert, so I rarely have a day where I don’t see at least one friend. I carry my camera with me, and try to document my life. I play with my dog, Brixton, answer some emails. Prep for the next shoot, if I’m not shooting.
What is inspiring you right now? What gets you excited to pull your camera and take a photo out in 2022?
I love youth culture, coming of age stories. I love interesting people, and capturing fleeting interactions.
Ok, if you could shoot one person for the cover of one magazine / publication? Who would you shoot and what would be the publication?
I would love to shoot either A$AP Rocky for Dazed Korea...
I like that Duo.
A very random pairing, but I love his vibe and music, and I think that Korean publications have been shooting some beautiful editorials.
When did you first pick up a camera?
So, beyond just messing around, I intentionally picked up my best friend’s AE-1 back in high school. He had inherited it from his grandfather, and we were so intrigued by this camera. We were very much into the mechanics of older items, so the film process appealed to us. I already saw life in frames and became obsessed with the art of photography.
If you could go back in time and photograph any period or moment, where would you go and what / who would you be shooting?
I would have loved to capture the youth from all over the world, especially in the 90s. There was a freedom, an edge, at the time, that was sexy yet still so classic.
I get a feel for that 90's vibes in your work and the scenes depicted in your photos always feel authentic and effortless. In some instances, it feels like you’re not even present in the moment...
Wow, thank you. That is a great compliment and means a lot to me.
Is there a certain energy or feeling you wish to provoke through your photography?
I truly do strive to capture things in an authentic way -- as they are. As the best versions of what they are. I’ve always wished to show the viewers of my photography how beautiful (not perfect) life can be. I grew up strangely, with lots of gratitude and positivity in my heart. I’ve always wanted to share those feelings with the people around me. I’ve always wanted to encourage people to look around and notice the small things.
There's much pleasure to be found in the little things and our day-to-day, if you're open to noticing it...
Humans are intelligent beings; and though we can’t control what happens to us, we can control what we decide to focus on. I want to help people focus on and be reminded of the good in life, even just for a brief moment.
Nice. Is there something you say or do with your subjects that puts them at ease, allowing you to capture authentic moments?
I find myself getting inspired by the way people and things naturally are, so if necessary, I will direct my subjects to go through that motion again.
"I would have loved to capture the youth from all over the world, especially in the 90s. There was a freedom, an edge, at the time, that was sexy yet still so classic."
Why did you choose to pursue a career as a photographer?
I was actually working towards a career in sports medicine / neuroscience. I remember being in the clinic, looking out over our ocean view… and thinking ‘I want to be at the ocean, not looking at it.’ At that moment, I realized that me being who I am, and needing fresh air as much as I do, I would not survive being stuck indoors for the majority of my life.
I 100% agree. To me, the nine to five on someone else's watch is a dream killer.
Everyone operates differently, and some people can tolerate, or even find joy in, their office work, but I personally need to be outside to thrive. I told myself that I would work hard to secure a retainer of $2000 (which at that time just covered my rent and basic necessities), then quit my job -- and spend the rest of my days trying to better my craft and secure more work. I met my goal within the following few weeks, quit my job, drove straight to Big Sur, and I guess I’ve been on this crazy whirlwind since then.
Yes, I love the hustle to get that first retainer to then quit your job. What was it like growing up in California?
Growing up in California was the dream! And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it was quite a privilege. We had perfect, sunny weather most of the time. We were influenced by some of the great artists, musicians, athletes in the world -- and this made my dreams feel achievable. There was always something to do, and I was rarely bored. I had friends from all different backgrounds. Most importantly, growing up in California fostered my deep love and appreciation for nature. I need the ocean and the mountains to feel centred, and my rare moments of solitude were always spent in nature.
You’ve worked with an impressive roster of clients from Adidas to Interscope Records. What has been the defining job in your working career?
My favorite job was working with Wrangler Australia in Portugal. I got to work with one of my favorite teams, and made some great friends. We ate such amazing food, and genuinely just enjoyed each other’s company.
A good team always makes those bigger jobs a breeze. What's been the worst job?
To be honest, I’ve been lucky enough to have enjoyed nearly all of my shoots. I genuinely love being on set, meeting new people, collaborating with a creative team to produce a campaign we’re proud of. However, the few jobs I’ve really not enjoyed, have been due to someone on set being a diva, or extremely negative, and bringing down the vibe of the whole crew.
What can you not work without?
Coffee and chocolate.
Did you ever give up (or want to give up) on being a photographer? What were the circumstances?
I doubted myself one major time, and never seriously beyond that one time. It was during my first year of shooting full-time, and I began to worry about what would happen if I couldn’t make it work. I soon reminded myself that if I don’t believe in myself, nobody will. I have to be my biggest supporter. Since then, I’ve applied the mindset that I can truly do anything I set my mind to, and that failure isn’t an option. Success isn’t always an easy road, and sometimes there are many pit stops and turns and detours along the way. As long as we keep on the road, though, we will find our way.
"Success isn’t always an easy road, and sometimes there are many pit stops and turns and detours along the way. As long as we keep on the road, though, we will find our way."
I was once told, don’t do what you love for money. As a working photographer, how do you stay inspired or express yourself creatively outside of work?
I have to take breaks. I don’t want to be worked like a machine, because I love being human. I love getting to inhabit this planet, and love to take advantage of the fact that I can spend my time any way I please. I am in no way an expert at any of the following hobbies, but I love playing music with my friends, throwing clay, going on camping trips, surfing, practising all the languages I want to be fluent in, etc.
What gear are you shooting with at the moment?
As far as film bodies go, I have a few Mamiya medium format cameras, a few Contax + Canon 35mm cameras that I switch among. For digital, I shoot with a Canon 1DX.
Favourite film stock?
My favorite film stock is Portra 160, and I really enjoy Cinestill as well.
Ok, film vs digital, who would win a bar fight, and why?
Obviously, I want to say film, but I bet digital would win. Digital can just handle way more. Film is beautiful but temperamental. And strangely, when I think of film in this context, I think of hipsters with their film point and shoots, and, well, you know -- they’re not exactly the type of guys you’d expect to be winning bar fights.
Before we go, any last-minute words of advice for the budding young photographers wanting to make a career out of taking pictures?!
Don’t follow trends. Have a finger on the pulse of current events, and today’s culture, but do not try to shoot for anyone else but yourself. There are lots of great photographers. You will likely not stand out for your technical skills. However, you will stand out for having a unique voice and style. I once heard a quote, “No one is you, and that is your power.” Really believe that, and trust your eye. Shoot as much as you can, ideally every day. Study the greats, but don’t lose yourself in comparison and doubt. Spend that time more wisely -- by getting outside, meeting new people, practising your craft.
Check out more of Vivian's work HERE and follow her on Instagram @viviankimx