How to Create a Successful Photo Career with Social Impact

The Luupe speaks with photographer and activist Carmen Chan about her bi-coastal photography career and the importance of mentorship and creative transparency.

Carmen Chan has dedicated her career to building an inclusive future for underrepresented photographers and communities. Starting in Los Angeles, then moving to Hong Kong, New York, and recently returning to Los Angeles, Chan has a rich experience photographing for brands like Puma, Tom Ford, J. Crew. She also regularly works with editorial clients like Wallpaper, Monocle, WWD, and the New York Times.

Chan’s unrestrained, casual approach to photographing people and interiors helps her clients maintain a sense of authenticity. She’s a master of making light, whether it’s natural, or photographed in a studio with strobes, look like it barely exists. Earlier this year, she created fckgatekeping, a new platform that helps remove the mystery of success for up-and-coming photographers through mentorships and other helpful tools.

We speak with Chan to learn more about her work, her activism, and her dedication to helping artists build an equitable future.

Meet Carmen

The Luupe: You have years of experience building a career on both coasts. Have you noticed any key differences in the photo world in each place you’ve lived?

Carmen Chan: Definitely the overall pace of the two cities. To me, NYC has unmatchable energy that flows through each and every person, no matter what you do. I’m not saying I don’t feel this in LA, but not on the broad everyday level that I did in NYC. More specifically, within the photo industry, LA has a smaller scene – less competition but also fewer options for crew. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other for my career, it was more of a personal lifestyle choice.

Yuna. © Carmen Chan for Banana Magazine

The Luupe: What was your biggest challenge when you returned to LA?

Chan: The biggest challenge returning to LA was establishing a new client base and building a local crew. Since starting my career I’ve moved three times, and I can say it’s required a lot of effort and courage each time.

The Luupe: How about your biggest “success?”

Chan: Honestly, the biggest success is to still be able to pursue photography full-time. Part of that is because I signed with my agent (REDEYE) a year after moving to LA. It’s been so helpful to have their support and work on bigger jobs together with clients like Herman Miller. Personally, finding the confidence to create work tied to my identity that also brings attention to meaningful causes has been something I’m really proud of.

© Carmen Chan for Herman Miller

The Luupe: Congrats on launching F*ck Gatekeeping. What inspired the project? 

Chan: Thank you! It all started when I wanted to mentor underrepresented photographers after noticing the lack of diversity in our industry. I posted on Instagram offering hour-long mentorship sessions. Jared Soares and Emiliano Granado saw the post and generously offered the same to their communities.

When we checked in with each other, we learned that we were being asked some of the same questions and realized we could help more people if we shared this information publicly. It would also allow us to spend one-on-one sessions answering more specific questions. So we decided to create the site as a knowledge base for our mentees, hoping that it’ll help others as well.

The Luupe: What’s the response been so far?

Chan: The response has been really positive – people have said how amazing it is to find all this information in one place and how much something like this is needed. Others said they wish they had this resource when they first started. I wish I did, too! Producers, art buyers, editors, and other photographers have offered to contribute, and brands have reached out asking how they can support us.

The Luupe:  Were gatekeepers an obstacle to your own practice in your early days?

Chan: My first experience in the industry was a six-month unpaid, studio assistant internship in LA. Luckily, I was able to collect unemployment because without that experience, I don’t know if I could’ve gotten hired as an assistant. Once I moved to Hong Kong, where I started shooting, I experienced less gatekeeping because the creative community there is really supportive.

Sarah Silverman © Carmen Chan for The Washington Post

The Luupe: Mentoring is such a big piece of this project. Can you talk a bit about the importance of mentors? Did you have any mentors in your early days? 

Chan: I think finding mentors is important – having the encouragement and guidance of people who have been through similar situations has helped me throughout my career. One of my first assisting jobs was with Colette de Barros who I ended up working with for two years. She’s given me a lot to help my career grow – she showed me how to create a mood board when I was first starting and more recently she gave me advice on what to look for in a photo agent.

Danny Ramirez © Carmen Chan for InStyle Magazine

The Luupe: What has been the biggest learning in your own experience mentoring photographers

Chan: The biggest lesson I’ve learned when mentoring photographers is that the talent is there, but the common barriers to success are access and knowledge. There is so much involved with maintaining a sustainable practice, having a great portfolio is only part of it.

The Luupe: You are incredibly prolific in your commercial and personal projects. Do you see an interchange between the two?

Chan: Thank you for saying that, it doesn’t always feel that way so it’s a reassuring thing to hear. My personal projects come from the desire to make work that I want to see in the world. I think those projects definitely play a part in helping clients see what skills or style I can bring to the table. There have been times when I get hired to do exactly what I’ve done in my personal work, but in a different context; those are my dream clients!

Carmen Chan’s new book “Chinese Food”

The Luupe: There’s a quote in your new book “Chinese Food” that we can’t help but draw parallels to your creative process and career: “When my father immigrated to the US, he worked as a busboy, dishwasher, electrician, butcher, and server before he gained the knowledge and network to start his own business.” Do you see a relationship between this idea and your own practice?

Chan: My dad recently reminded me that I didn’t know anything about photography before I started interning, so the process of starting from scratch resonates. I switched to a career in photography after working as a production coordinator in TV and film. Those skills helped me produce my own shoots at the beginning of my career.

I learned all the skills that I didn’t already have through interning and assisting. So, similar to my dad, everything I’ve learned and experienced, and all the people who have referred me or hired me have helped me get to where I am today.

A spread from Carmen Chan’s new book “Chinese Food”

The Luupe: One thing that stands out across all of your work, is the clean consistency and almost “invisible”-ness of your lighting. This speaks to its effectiveness in communicating ideas and narratives. Can you talk a bit about your philosophy on lighting/ approach, etc?

Chan: Thank you for that compliment, I love that you can’t tell the difference between what is and isn’t lit. My philosophy on lighting is that it feels natural to the situation on a sunny day while flattering the subject. I’m also drawn to how cast shadows can be the subject or add texture to an image.

Practically, I’m lighting in a way that mimics the existing light to increase power, so I don’t have to shoot at a higher ISO or restrict myself to a tripod, or supplementing existing light with fill. It can also mean I’m using a hard key light shooting through something or flagging it to create those long shadows. I’m always looking for light or recreating a quality of light I’ve seen in real life.

© Carmen Chan for Harper Wilde

The Luupe: You’ve been doing a lot of video work recently. What’s the transition from photo to video been like for you?

Chan: Working with video has been exciting and fun. My mind was used to capturing still images and transitioning to video has had its challenges. As a narrative tool, video opens up a lot of creative choices and lets me tell a more immersive story. However, there are more things to consider like sound design, camera movement, and cuts/transitions.

Rachel Trachtenberg © Carmen Chan for MISSBISH

The Luupe: In addition to being part of The Luupe’s community, you’re an active member of DiversifyPhoto and Authority Collective. What draws you to working with these photo communities? 

Chan: The biggest draw for me to these communities is the people. I love what they stand for and that they’re doing things to improve the photo industry in a tangible way. They’ve created a safe space for me to learn and ask for contacts. Most significantly, having my name on the Diversify Photo database and The Lit List has helped clients find me and my work.

© Carmen Chan for Harper Wild

The Luupe: Much of your work and activism within photography addresses reclaiming power, sharing knowledge, and shifting representation. What do you think are the biggest obstacles right now? And what moments of progress are you most excited about seeing so far?

Chan: Anyone who has the knowledge is in the position to hire, or can share a referral has the power to shift representation in our industry. So, I think the biggest obstacle is that everyone has implicit biases and not everyone has an incentive to make a choice that is equitable, which means the systemic issues continue to exist. It comes down to the reflection and action of individuals.

Bondi Icebergs Club © Carmen Chan for Cereal Magazine

The Luupe: What moments of progress are you most excited about seeing so far?

Chan: It’s exciting to see more women and BIPOC photographers being hired for high-profile projects. There also seems to be a greater awareness of who is getting to tell stories and how the photographer’s background can influence the way stories are being told. A beautiful example of this is Hannah Yoon’s work for The Washington Post Another thing I’m excited about is something I already see happening – working on sets that reflect the diversity in our lives – not just in casting but also on the crew, creative, and client-side.