PJ Lam has been a contributing photographer with Prestige Hong Kong for the past few years and – alongside her striking imagery – it’s her quiet resilience and extraordinary vision behind the camera that’s impressed us.
A calming presence in the chaos of a shoot (if you’ve never been on set, trust us when we say that it’s mostly bedlam and model mayhem), she delivers on the dot without a hair out of place. But as PJ Lam has charted the course of her career, it hasn’t always been a bed of roses. Here, she tells all.
Tell me about the first professional job you had as a photographer?
My first professional job wasn’t freelance work, but as an in-house photographer at – let me state this carefully – at a well-known international street-fashion online platform that was founded by an American Hong Kong-ese! It wasn’t easy or smooth at all, and I hated it.
My passion was and is always on fashion stories, but my job at that company was only taking thousands of product shots for sneakers, backpacks, T-shirts every day! Mixed with event photos of the boss’s wife and street snaps! I am not a fan of any of these. Working there was a disaster. However, I do appreciate the experience, as it made me figure out what I should work on to achieve a career that I am passionate about – and not end up doing something similar ever again in my life.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue photography as a full-time career?
At college itself – my major was photography in a media arts school.
What did you study when you were growing up?
I studied in the School of Creative Media in City University Hong Kong. It changed my life completely. Not only did I get my photographic knowledge and learn about technique, but I also took courses across different fields in the school; cinema, contemporary art, creative writing, acting and sound engineering. I developed strong interests in art and cinema as well as photography. It made me appreciate different fields and it opened my mind, it taught me a lot about seeing things different – and, maybe more importantly, thinking differently.
What are the challenges facing female photographers in Hong Kong/Asia?
Frankly, I don’t see any challenges because of a gender issue in Hong Kong. And I don’t think I am in a position to give an opinion about other cities.
Do you think there’s a lack of female photographers working today?
Actually, there are famous female photographers, but just maybe not as many as men. My mind goes to names like Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Ellen Von Unwerth, Diane Arbus, Francesca Woodman. I think female photographers in previous generation were fewer, but then, the world was more patriarchal – here and in the west – before the significant feminist movement during 1960s and ’70s. Gender roles were more defined in the past; women were given tasks that involved less physical effort and photography is a job that needs quite a lot of physical work. But, society has changed a lot and technology has changed. I am very glad to be born in this generation, where gender is no longer a boundary that I have to leap over to get work in a cosmopolitan city. Every year, I strongly believe that there will be more and more influential female photographers.
What’s the most sexist thing you’ve ever heard on set?
I showed up on set once and met the client for the first time on location. They were so surprised that I was a girl and said, “I thought you are a guy when I saw your name PJ. And you are a photographer, so I assumed a guy.” Oh well.
What’s the best part of your job? And the worst?
The best part is, I am doing something that I have endless passion for and I’m able to apply my vision into it. Worst part is, there are many people who think being a photographer is just about clicking the right buttons of the camera, but not valuing the profession, the vision or the artistry.
How do you work with stylists or art directors?
I am very involved in art direction besides photography. I do enjoy doing art and creative direction since I can apply my idea and vision in the way that is closest to my concept. For styling, I just give opinions. None the less, I respect the thoughts of my stylists, as every image is team work. Luckily, I often work with stylists who are open minded and with good energy and also have similar aesthetic. I totally trust most of the stylists who I choose to work with.
What advice would you have for women who are trying to break into the business or want to study photography?
Just go for it! But only if you are passionate about photography. It is all about interest, not gender.