An exclusive interview with Pete Pin

Welcome Photoion students and photography fans. We’ve got a special treat for you today; an exclusive interview with Pete Pin.

Pete is a Cambodian American artist whose work exploring Cambodian Americans lives after the Killing Fields is as fascinating as it is powerful.

We sat down with Pete to ask him about how he got into photography, his process, and his project Cambodian Diaspora.

Hi Pete, why photography? (Why is it your medium? How did you get passionate? When did you start? Why do you stick with it, etc.)

Pete_PinI purchased my first camera in the summer of 2008, right before entering a PhD program in the Political Science department at Berkeley. At that point, I had wanted to pursue a career in academia. My first real engagement with photography occurred months later at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, where they had two simultaneous photography exhibitions: a Richard Avedon retrospective, and the 50th Anniversary exhibition of Robert Frank’s The Americans. Prior to this, I had absolutely no understanding of photography as a medium of visual expression.

I really studied both photographers, returning to the SF MOMA weekly. What was incredible about the Robert Frank exhibition in particular was its depth; every frame and sequence was examined in detail. I learned for the first time, through my obsession with these exhibitions, the language of photography. Through Avedon and Frank, I became fascinated with both portraiture and reportage.

At Berkeley, I became increasingly disillusioned with my studies and found myself spending more time thinking about photography. I started hanging out with a lot of street kids, train hoppers, and squatters, and before long I started photographing them. I purchased a single strobe light, some light stands, etc., and set up a makeshift portrait studio in the basement of the Cooperative I was living in, and taught myself portraiture by photographing the punk kids I was hanging out with. Shortly after this, I took a “leave of absence” from my studies, and moved to New York to pursue “photography” full-time.

What is a photographer? (what’s his/her role as well)

A photographer is someone who uses the visual language of photography to communicate. Everyone laments about the explosion of cameras among the public, via smartphones etc., and the supposed “death” of photography. I believe this is shortsighted and misses the point entirely, specifically if we parse out my very basic definition of a photographer. Mass literacy did not kill writing; it had the opposite effect by both enlarging the audience and the pool of “professional writers.” It is the same with photography. As photography becomes more and more ingrained in everyday modern life, there is a newfound opportunity to engage wider audiences, and increase visual literacy. The role of the photographer now, more than ever, is to use this visual language to provoke, inform, and inspire their audience through compelling visual storytelling.

What’s your best advice to somebody that wants to become a photographer today?

Find something that moves you, a story that you HAVE to tell, and that can only be told in your unique voice, informed by your own personal connection to it.

The kind of photography – and by extension – photographer, that moves me personally is deeply intentional, personal projects that explore complex themes and ideas, and are multidimensional in both project design and audience engagement.
Now more than ever, photography is not an island; simply taking photos is not enough. If we understand that photography is, at its most basic, visual communication, we need to be far more critical in how we devise our audience engagement strategy.
This is, in my opinion, more important than the time you spend behind the camera. New media – the web and mobile phones – provide newfound opportunities for compelling visual storytelling and outreach.

However, when thinking of project design and outreach, let it come naturally, let the needs of the project dictate your process and engagement strategy. Everything needs to be intentional, from the way you approach the very process of how you photograph, to the tools you use for distribution and outreach.

Finally, be prepared to wear many, many, different hats, and embrace this whole-heartedly.


Can you talk about your project “Cambodian Diaspora”?

I was born in a refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand after the Killing Fields in Cambodia, to parents who spent the formative years of their youth in a Khmer Rouge labor camp. My family, along with most Cambodian families at the time, lost the entirety of their worldly belongings. We emmigrated to the States as refugees when I was an infant, to Stockton, CA. Growing up, without fully understanding that history, I witnessed, in my own personal life and the wider refugee community, the aftermath of that legacy in the form of structural poverty and violence.