Don’t worry or be too anxious about your career. You just have to enjoy the process.
Sebastian Kim’s secret to success was that he knew there was no secret.
Sebastian is one of today’s most sought-after fashion photographers – Calvin Klein, Nina Ricci, John Galliano, H&M, and many others have commissioned his work – but, paradoxically, he is also one of the most grounded.
We met in the morning at a corner restaurant in Brooklyn. His gorgeous girlfriend and their dog tagged along. Kim was dressed simply, wearing jeans and a smile, as if he were straight from one of the Uniqlo ads he has shot. I have known Sebastian for a while, ever since I started my own business. I needed to ask him: What is the secret to your success?
Easy answer: hard work. “It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. There is no shortcut, no secret path to success; you just need to focus on what you like and keep moving forward,” he advised. “Do not let discouragement eat up your dream.”
How He Started
Sebastian’s dream started when he was a teenager; his work was first published when he was 16. Since then, this Vietnam-born half-Korean, half-Chinese photographer’s work has graced prestigious fashion magazines such as American Vogue, German Vogue, Russian Vogue, Numéro, Numéro Tokyo, Interview, i-D, Muse, and others.
But he eased into his career; he took his time. (“I’m not a young photographer,” he joked.) While in college in California, he held off on taking a position as an assistant for the legendary photographer Richard Avedon. Despite a recommendation from his professor, Sebastian deferred – he wanted a college degree before he could be ready.
However, when the opportunity with Avedon presented itself again a year later, he couldn’t let it pass by again. He jumped on the position and finished school with internship credits. He would later assist – Avedon and Steven Meisel – until the age of 32.
The Journey, in His Words
“At the beginning, assisting Richard Avedon was really hard for me. It was like being in boot camp. I started as the fourth assistant in his studio, which was one of the last traditional studios. I wasn’t just a photo assistant; I went to his studio during weekends to do his personal things like laundry as well. I assisted him very closely.
“You are missing a lot if you only try to learn the technical part of photography while you are assisting. Assisting is really important in order to build relationships and learn how the industry works. Even if you are big in Germany and China, coming to New York is a new start since you need to build a foundation to start working with people in New York. The relationships you make will all reconnect later.”
Balancing Work Styles
Over brunch, I asked Sebastian about the trials, tribulations and lessons learned by a budding fashion photographer. Sebastian chewed his omelet thoughtfully before saying that one of the most important things he learned from his assisting time is how to create a comfortable and communal environment for himself and his team.
“I think one of the keys to success as a fashion photographer is molding yourself to meet different demands as a problem-solving process, which can be hard. If you enjoy this, solving one problem gives you excitement and you go on to the next problem to solve, but if you don’t enjoy the process, you become discouraged. I believe the number one reason why people stop what they do or what they want to do is because they feel discouraged.”
Sebastian sees his industry through an unfiltered lens. “I don’t have total control of my career. I still hustle and am very conscious of everything I do. Some of my favorite photographers from the past are not in the business anymore. I thought about the reason for a while, and realized that fashion photography is a part of the fashion trend; fashion photographers are not that different from models.”
I asked Sebastian if photographers have to understand fashion trends and the industry in general. He nodded enthusiastically, saying that not only do photographers have to know who and what’s up and coming, but they also have to know the taste preferences of the industry’s important people, and the true meaning of collaboration. Sebastian says all of this is important since the photographer himself cannot be in complete control.
Managing Stress and Enjoying the Process
Brunch was winding down to mimosas and our interview was coming to a close. I was most curious how Sebastian dealt with the competitiveness of his business and the stresses of being a fashion photographer. He reflected on a day when he was assisting. At that time, Sebastian was 26 and horribly stressed from his assisting duties.
It came to him in a flash! Sebastian realized thinking about career pressure was extremely discouraging. In order to relieve himself from the pressure, Sebastian thought about enjoying the process instead. After all, he had the best seven years of his career while assisting Steven Meisel.
“The truth is, pressuring yourself doesn’t contribute to you happiness and does not make you a better person at work,” he said.
Even though Sebastian emphasized the importance of hard work and patience as keys to success, he didn’t forget to give advice on how to enjoy life: “Don’t worry or be too anxious about your career. You just have to enjoy the process,” Sebastian said.
“Let’s say you have a certain goal like being a top photographer who shoots top fashion publications. If you don’t enjoy the process you definitely cannot get there.”
After all these years, Sebastian’s advice clearly paid off.
He has shot for top clients like Alexander Wang, Alice Temperley, Accessorize, Ann Taylor, Calvin Klein, H&M, JONES NY, Nina Ricci, Oasis, Piazza Sempione, Uniqlo and 7 for all Mankind and has had his work appear in W, Interview, Numero, Vogue, Vogue China, German Vogue, Vogue Japan, Vogue Russia, Teen Vogue, Numero Tokyo, Muse, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine.
Its obvious that despite the wild west nature of the fashion world, Sebastian Kim manages to remain stable and sought after. Maybe its because, behind his lens, Sebastian has both eyes open and both feet on the ground.
THE GROUND ISSUE #2