Not long ago I had the chance to grab a coffee and go on a mini photo walk with Toronto born urban photographer SoTeeOh to chat about his creative drive and inspirations. The artist's street photography is a symmetrical fusion of everything metropolis: architecture, design, music and fashion. Redefining the candid style, SoTeeOh accentuates his spontaneous shots with digital post-processing in an investigation of our daily urban surroundings. Read more below!
Can you remember first picking up a camera?
I remember getting my mom’s old 35mm probably around the end of high school. I wasn’t focused on photography at all at the moment, I just needed it to take some pictures of a clothing line I was doing with a friend. I remember developing the film later and looking at the shots later, which were really cool but I just put it back on the shelf.
What triggered your interest in pursuing photography after?
It was a really weird and convoluted path. I’d basically done anything other than photography before going into photography. When I was a child I was really into drawing and illustration and then I got into video and painting. Photography I really started to do again more around the time Instagram started. I think I got my iPhone around Christmas in 2011 and one year later I was taking pictures of absolutely everything. Sometimes I’d draw something and take a picture of that so you could say I was a little bit all over the map. In the summertime I started focusing more and more on street photography and cityscapes. Later, Taha, who was already an established street photographer, hit me up and we started shooting together pretty regularly. He was definitely a creative mentor, giving me a lot of tips and pointers which I’ve never really experienced before. Before then I had been figuring it out on my own, very do-it-yourself and this was the first time someone came up and really gave me a road map into it.
What’s the most important lesson you learnt from Taha?
Patience. That was one of the key things, specifically in its application to street photography. Instead of running or trying to catch moments, the first thing that he showed me was how you can just stand on a street corner for ten minutes and ten amazing things will happen - if you just wait for it.
How do you describe creativity and harness it in your photography?
I view creativity as a free-flowing thing. I don’t think of it as something that you control and squeeze out like toothpaste when it’s needed. Creativity isn’t like that. It’s a free flowing energy. If I’m very stressed out or clouded, it’s not going to flow as easily but if I relax and am open, it will just come through me. I’ve heard a number of people talk about creativity as if it was something they didn’t own or something that doesn’t belong to them and that they’re a vessel for it and I really like that concept. It takes some of the pressure off (laughs). It’s not about racking your brain and forcing yourself to have to come up with something… just relax and trust that whatever happens is supposed to.
What inspires you the most about the city?
What inspires me the most about the city, more than anything, is the people. Just the culture. I look at everything as a reflection of that: the different neighbourhoods, the stores, the fashion, the artwork. It’s such an interesting, eclectic mix. There are so many different sources of inspiration to draw from and I really enjoy that.
Would you change anything about Toronto?
Mainly the accessibility. I feel like we’re moving more and more towards this idea of a segregated society where parts of the city, unofficially, not by law, are more distanced. If you’re a single parent that simply can’t afford rent and suddenly the grocery shop across the street becomes a Whole Foods then that neighbourhood is no longer accessible to you. This is definitely the case but at the same time, creatively, I’m very excited about where the city is going. I feel like it’s kind of the opposite energy. There are so many people that are willing to collaborate and work together to make something happen.
How do you focus your energy in one direction while maintaining a flexible perspective at the same time?
That’s a million dollar question. It’s super hard and it really takes a lot of self discipline. As an artist, I believe that that’s essential to maintain a degree of focus and really deliver a consistent front to your audience that goes a long way to generating opportunities and opening doors. At the same time, though, it’s super challenging because there are so many different possibilities and so many different options. Not to mention that everything is so accessible now as well. You get a little bit of access in one field and basically all the the tools you need to figure something out are at your disposal. It’s a state of mind, right? Which is cool but also very dangerous because it’s easy to become someone who’s proficient at a lot of things but not really recognized for one thing. One has to be mindful about staying open to possibilities. For me, in my life, the openness has come with a confidence in what I do best and, in turn, allowed me to look at opportunities and accept some while declining others. I know what isn’t for me and - most importantly - I’ve learnt that when it comes to collaboration, even if it’s something I want to do, if I know someone that can do it way better we just have to meet and bring both our elements to the table.
Tell me about the projects you’re currently working on.
I have my first solo show coming up on May 1st at Project Gallery. The show is taking up all of my focus: writing sponsorship letters, finishing a round of grants, artist statements… stuff I hate doing.
How are you going about choosing works?
That’s one thing I never stress too much about, I have a folder of images I’m considering and when I get a bit closer to the date I’m just going to go with what feels good (laughs). The concept of the show is 6: Street and it’s basically a contemporary look at Toronto street photography. It’s not traditional street photography in the sense that my work is much less candid than what people think of when they think of street photography. My images are very carefully composed. I use a lot of symmetry, sometimes I use object placement so some of the images may come off as staged. Digital post-processing is something that some photographers really shy away from but I’m all about it. It’s an important part of my process.
How does the post-processing emphasize your work?
I use it for coloration, I use it to bring out light and shadows. Sometimes I’ll even abstract an image… take a photograph and reflect it on itself which I guess the purest would frown upon. All the work is mounted on wood panels with a resin epoxy finish.
Do you feel like you achieve the same tangibility through a lens as you would through painting?
When I first got into photography that was something that I immediately felt like I was missing. The tactile, hands-on feel of creating a work. You get it a little bit through the development but it’s not the same. It feels less rewarding to me somehow and it’s such a short piece of that process.
You’ve grown so much as a creative through Instagram, which can be considered an even more compressed version of a lens.
That was probably the best thing for me because it forced me to create in such a confined space that it actually relieved my mind of all the other possibilities. I really started focusing on something very specific and it was a huge area of personal growth for me. I understood myself and my process and my strengths and weaknesses much more after going through that.
What advice would you give to emerging creatives?
I definitely have advice. I have to remind myself constantly about it and this goes for any creative and that’s to play. Base your practice around play. That’s where the breakthroughs come from, the growth comes from. You always have to devote some time to doing what you do just for the purpose of playfulness, of experimentation. It’s so easy to get locked into a scenario where everything you do is for something, for a client, for a show, for an upcoming project because it’s been plotted out that way. As artists, as creative people, we need to make sure to make play a key element of our practice.