This article originally appeared in Vice Korea.
Sandy Kim lives in California, but she’s all over the place. The multi-hyphenated photographer-videographer-graphic designer-skater who grew up in Portland seems to go from Hollywood to San Francisco to New York and everywhere in between in a flash, the instant teleporting exaggerated by the constant display of her life on Instagram Stories.
At a glance, Kim seems to be all play and no work, but chatting with her for just an hour makes it clear that she isn’t too worried about balancing the two. For her, they are synonymous. Her over-the-top self portraits are as much a result of her artistic inclinations as her big-name brand campaigns.
Kim has shot the likes of Larry Clark, Kendall Jenner, Kim Gordon, 2Chainz, Wacka Flacka, Ashton Sanders, Prodigy, Na-Kel Smith, Hari Nef, and the list goes on. She has also worked with fashion heavyweights like Louis Vuitton, Supreme, Calvin Klein, and Marc Jacobs. But her most recognisable photos are ones of herself, where she’s topless in the middle of Times Square or lying in bed in bloodied underwear. What unifies her work — whether they’re personal or commercial — is that they are raw and rough around the edges, always deeply intimate and real.
VICE recently met up with Kim, who spoke about how she’s growing up from her extreme party-goer personality and the trials she faces as an Asian-American woman in a male-dominated world.
VICE: How did you get into photography?
Sandy Kim: When I moved to San Francisco for college, I was really inspired by the music scene and the artists that I met. A bunch of freaks. I found a polaroid camera that my dad used to have and started shooting my friends in situations at parties. Then I started putting my photos up on a blog and I noticed that people actually enjoyed them. People kept encouraging me, so I slowly started going on tour with bands and took their photos. One thing led to another, I guess. I felt like I was living an interesting life and I wanted to document it and remember all of it because I was loving life. I still do. I wanted to document all the people that inspired me in a sort of visual journal.
How has your photography changed over the course of your career, if at all?
In a way, it has changed, in another, it hasn’t. Before, I was just photographing a lot of parties and getting wasted. Just going to shows with people doing crazy shit. Not that I don’t take photos like that now, but you can only shoot parties and bedrooms so many times. I have photo agents now who bring me work so I also do shoots that are more thought-out and have concepts. They got me the Louis Vuitton campaign. I just got back from a New York Times shoot with Jennifer Aniston. Ten years ago, I never thought I would get to shoot Jennifer Aniston. It’s good to have agents to not worry about managing money or getting paid more.
I’ve been taking photos for about nine years, but I didn’t make any real money until about three to four years ago. I used to not even know the pay standard. Once I figured out how much men were getting paid I was like, “Fuck!” I guess that’s just how the industry is. I didn’t realise for a long time that I was getting ripped off.
Do you have a favourite subject?
My favourite one always changes, but I really love shooting Young Thug and Ashton Sanders. I shot Ashton for the Louis Vuitton campaign. And Sky Ferreira; we’ve been friends for so long. I also like to reshoot a lot of the people that have been in my life periodically throughout the years. I always stay in touch with my muses and friends that inspired me so I can continue shooting them.
Which photographers do you look up to the most or have learned from the most?
Ryan McGinley has definitely always been supportive of my work and been a mentor to me. When I was in New York, every time I was broke, he’d give me work and I would help him with model casting or even model for him a couple times. I love his work. And Nan Goldin, Robert Maplethorp; I can go on forever.
In your view, is there anything common between these great photographers?
I think a lot of it is subject, who they choose to shoot. How photographers fit their lifestyles into their work intrigues me the most. Ryan McGinley, Larry Clark, and Nan Goldin lived crazy lives. Not that you have to have a crazy life to be an artist, but it definitely makes your work more interesting, especially if you’re a photographer — getting a glimpse into someone’s real life through photos.
That’s how Ryan got so big in the beginning and also what got me into his work. I related to his photos of road trips because I would go on tour with bands and it was kind of the same thing. He would take a group of kids on tour and they would be naked, running around the fields, and he created beautiful images. They’re so intriguing and have inspired a bunch of photographers today. And I think they inspire each other as well.
How did you start working with Supreme?
I’ve always been friends with skaters. I love them and they love me. I photographed all those kids who are grown now like Sean Pablo and Na-Kel Smith. We used to just kick it. About four or five years ago, I hit up Angelo Bacque, who was Supreme’s creative director at the time, to ask if I could shoot Sean and the kids for The Fader. Supreme is really territorial and normally doesn’t allow others to shoot their skaters. I think there’s some sort of contract; if not, an unspoken rule.
Cut to a year or two later, Angelo reached out to me and was like, “Hey, I think you’re a dope photographer. I want you to shoot for Supreme. Would you be down?” And I was like, “Fuck, hell yeah.” I still shoot for Supreme, not all the time, but consistently. They’re one of my most consistent clients.
How is it working with Supreme? What’s the process like?
I would go into shoots without having any idea what I was doing. I would know who I was shooting, but wouldn’t even know where — not even the day before, or even the day of. They would be like, “Okay, you’re going to Paris with us,” and I would ask where we’re shooting, and their answer is “Don’t know.”
Angelo and I would location scout and figure out what would look good where, but most of the time, we just wanted the models to have a good time and hang out to get more candid shots. There were no reference images. I guess the reason they like my style is that I’m able to capture actual candid moments because I’m friends with the brand and their models. They feel comfortable around me, and that makes a huge difference. They don’t want photos that are too posed; they like it to be real, not glossy.
Are you a skater yourself?
I know how to skate but I won’t call myself a skater. I’m definitely not there. I can ride, but I can’t do any tricks. Fuck, I have so many skateboards though.
You have quite explicit self portraits. What is your message? What are you trying to capture?
Instagram would find a photo from my profile to flag everyday, even photos from years ago. I was just documenting everything that was going on in my life, pretty much unfiltered. When I first started posting those photos, people were super shocked. Back then, I was in love and wanted to capture everything that was going on because I had all these crazy feelings. And I didn’t have a crazy career, so I didn’t give a fuck. I eventually started selling those prints; I thought it was even crazier that people wanted to own them. Any man or woman or anybody should be comfortable in their own skin.
I’m not asking people to go out and take photos of bloody pussies. I just feel people should be more open.
My agents asked me to change my website and take some photos down so I wouldn’t lose luxury jobs. I know I’ve lost work because of my provocative photos. There are conservative clients out there. My agents even asked me to get a new Instagram account to separate my personal and professional photos. I finally gave in and made one last week, but I haven’t been using it. I didn’t realise how crazy my photos were until my family found them.
You come from a Korean-American immigrant family. What is your family’s reaction to your work?
I still don’t really tell them what I do. They know what Louis Vuitton and Adidas are, but not Supreme. Forget about it. I’ve done some things that they would consider successful, but they have no idea what I do in art, for example.
How does being Korean-American impact your work, if at all?
I’m first generation. My parents used to open restaurants, and when they got successful, would sell them. One time, a Korean president came and ate at one of our restaurants.
That’s why I moved around so much when I was a kid. When I was in middle school, a contractor ran away with all the money we invested for a restaurant and fucked us. Then, suddenly, we were super poor.
I send my parents money every month and eventually I want to get them a house. That’s another reason I finally gave in and deleted some pictures, because I really need to take care of them. They’re getting older and in Korean culture, you’re supposed to take care of your family. They’ve been taking care of me as much as they could, but now that I’m finally starting to see money, I feel more confident that I can take care of them as long as I keep my shit together.
I feel so bad that it has taken this long. I used to just party away and waste all my money, but I’m getting older too and can’t keep doing this. I’m an only child, so I don’t have any siblings who can help me either. I’m trying to grow up a little.
How is it like being an Asian-American woman in the creative industry, especially in the street, hip-hop, and skate industries that are so male-dominated?
The bad thing is that I didn’t realise male photographers make way more money than female photographers. But this is not just in the creative industry, it’s in every industry. I would get to a photoshoot and people would ask if I’m the intern without having any idea that I’m the actual photographer.
My looks get a certain reaction. Man, this is fucked up and it pisses me off. I find it annoying that people who don’t know my work find it skeptical or they think I won’t know what I’m doing just because I am an Asian woman. Just because of the way I look, you’re questioning my work? To my advantage, though, I feel like people are more likely to open up to me or feel more comfortable around me because I am a woman. I am really short and not intimidating.
But I do find it kind of discouraging that there’re not a lot of Asian female photographers out there. I hope that will change. That’s why I find it so cool that Supreme uses me. They use a couple of other girl photographers, but I think more companies need to do that. Things are changing a little; all these male photographers are getting #MeToo’ed and all these guys who have been running the game are being taken down. Now it’s time for us women.
Do you have any advice for photographers who want to be in music, entertainment, culture, or fashion?
For the creative industry, honestly, you have to keep shooting what you want to shoot. If you want to be in the music industry, shoot musicians, even if it’s for free. If you want to shoot for Supreme, shoot skaters, or even just people in Supreme. And post that shit. You have to put in the work if that’s what you want to do for a living. Money follows after. You just have to do it until you get to a point where you can shoot what you want to shoot.
I feel like creative directors are always going through Instagram and looking through editorials for new talent, so keep making work and putting it out there so people can see it. If you do it long enough and you are good, you will get to that place. Even if you suck, you can always learn.
What’s coming up for you?
I’m working on two feature-length films. It’s inspired by a lot of 90’s movies. It’s about a bunch of kids who accidentally take a shit ton of drugs and throw a party to get rid of it. Hopefully, we will be shooting next year. Eventually, I want to direct movies.
I’ve also been working on this hardcover book that was supposed to come out last year. I don’t seem like it, but I’m a perfectionist and it doesn’t feel finished. It can come out in a couple months, or in another year.
And lastly, I definitely want to shoot Korea more. I have a special place in my heart for K-Pop from listening to them when I was a kid. I would love to shoot more musicians there.
View more of Sandy Kim’s photos below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Elaine is a writer and stylist based in New York.