INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER ALKAN EMIN
Born in Canada and raised in Cyprus, Australia, and Canada, Alkan Emin studied English, Art History, and theatre before becoming a fashion photographer. Alkan lived in Beijing and Hong Kong before settling back in Toronto, where he keeps a busy schedule shooting for his North American, European, and Asian editorial and advertising clients. His work has been published in many national and international publications. He has also been nominated for a National Magazine Award in Canada for Cover of the Year. In this exclusive interview with HUF Magazine, Alkan tells us how he went from being in front of the camera to behind it. He also tells us how he feels about the photography industry in the West and the East.
I currently live and work in Toronto, Canada. For me, it’s okay, but it’s never been the creative center I see for myself long term. It’s so commercial here, and I feel like genuinely profound art somehow gets lost in the mix or just overlooked period. We are one of the only countries that don’t have a Vogue magazine.
My career as a photographer was an accidental choice for me. I was actually an actor, and I had just finished theatre school and started working in Toronto in film and TV, and it was very cool, but I was so inspired by what the camera people were doing. I found myself on set always watching the feedback on the cameras and thinking, “this is where the real magic is.” I asked a friend to lend me his camera and the rest is history. I don’t regret it at all. It has helped me work through so much and heal as a human.
I kind of did study photography academically. I took a few lighting courses at Ryerson University after I graduated with a degree in English and theatre because I thought I might be interested in photography. Sadly I didn’t like the instructor’s visions at all. They spent a lot of time pulling my creativity back. I taught myself to take risks, and I always thought that they are welcome to live in their safe spaces, but it wasn’t for me. I also vowed I would never knock another artist that way. We all have our own vision. It’s better to let people have wings and not limit them.
My style of photography has been described as somewhere between Paolo Roversi and Richard Avedon. I’m obsessed with portraiture. I really like to think outside the box and be thought-provoking. The beautiful gift about us humans, we all have something different to contribute.
I remember my first paid assignment was an agency that paid me $100 to do a testing shoot. It meant the world to me because I was actually working in a field that I had chosen, and someone acknowledged it. Today, I shot the eyewear campaign with marketing genius Arlene Dickinson. How do I feel? It feels like a natural progression, I guess. The truth is, it’s all a dream come true. I’m so happy I get to wake up and do what I love. I wish everyone could say this.
I used to be repped by agencies. It wasn’t for me. A lot of times, I was just giving away my clients and not getting anything back. I’m always on the hunt for a manager or agent that wants to push things to the next level. Art is always my primary motivator, not money.
As far as challenges go as a creative individual, I’m hypersensitive. I think all artists are. It’s always easier to create for a personal project. Then only you can criticize yourself, and there’s no outside noise blocking your vision. That being said, I have worked with tremendous art directors that have a huge vision. They have taught me so much.
I’ve lived and worked in China for three years. I loved my time there. They allowed me to be the creative director of almost every project I shot, including my work at Harper’s Bazaar, Men’s Health, Cosmo and Marie Claire magazine. It felt a lot more collaborative to me in Asia. Clients were willing to bend and let you think out loud. In North American, art directors and editors just hire their friends over and over again. It’s hard to penetrate these relationships sometimes. Every job I got in China was actually based on the body of work in my portfolio. I miss those days. I learned a lot about lighting. Everyone was so free to show you their techniques. I find in North America, we just hide things away like squirrels and try to keep these secrets buried. I’ll always help and show anything to anyone that reaches out.
You know it is still so surprising to see my work displayed to the public. I always have to take a moment to congratulate myself. There’s that moment where I can’t believe that I did that (if I like it LOL). It does influence the way I plan my next creative assignment because I’m hypercritical of it. I always find myself saying I wish I could have done this instead. I wish I weren’t like that. My New Year’s resolution is to change this immediately.
When it comes to criticism, I usually just shut down. No artist ever wants to be criticized.
Outside of work, I always try to be kind and take notice of what’s happening in the world. I don’t text and walk around. You’ll miss such beauty in the world this way. My partner and I recently opened up a placement agency for models. He inspires me, and we are kicking ass actually. It is my new hobby now. Check us out on Instagram at me.modelmanagement. We are cultivating such incredible talent.
My favorite project so far, I think, is one that I currently am working on. It is a portrait series called “scars”. It teaches me to go in deep and explore people in a different way. I usually cry after each session. These people are so brave, and they are my heroes.
If I could change one thing about the modern-day creative community, it would be to hire artists based on their work in portfolios. Don’t just hire friends. Actually seek out and help cultivate talent. Stop playing so fucking safe. It benefits no one. Also, I feel like so many photographers are ruining it now for us. Everyone is discounting their rates. It makes it harder for people.
Success to me is when you are paid your rate because you’ve earned it through all the hard work it has taken you to get to that point. Success is being able to wake up and stay in your artist field. This makes my heart smile. And how do you achieve success? Ask me again when I’m on my death bed. I’ll be happy to share my word with you then, and we can have the same dialogue.
I hope I am remembered for my kindness. I don’t want to leave a legacy. I want to teach people… now… to be inspired. Touch one human life. This is more important for me. Teach people that they CAN do this.
My advice for new creatives: Take risks!!!! Be your authentic self!!! Fuck the haters!!!! Don’t be one of them. You’ll catch more bees with honey. Be kind to people. Also, there’s no such thing as old. I just got my US green card for photography at the age of 45. I’ve made it, and that’s pretty friggin cool. Never give up or let someone tell you, you can’t do it.