Jason Keen Makes Time for Personal Work During International Assignments

Jun 1, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

To all photographers who land work outside of the United States and get to travel to faraway lands like China and Vietnam: do what Jason Keen does. Budget your time wisely so you can explore on your own — with camera in hand, of course. Oh, and make sure you bring comfortable walking shoes!

Jason Keen China trip diptych street and Great Wall

When I take assignments out of the country, I always try to build some extra time in any given location to walk around for at least a few days and absorb in my surroundings. Street photography is an emergent form of image making. Things unfold in front of you in real time and you’re either ready to capture it or you’re not. You can’t force it, and as a result, you need to invest a lot of time in simply walking, observing, and being ready for when a place or moment feels right. During my walks, I am completely engrossed in the task of observing. It’s not abnormal for me to spend many consecutive days walking 10 miles per day for 16 hours. It’s exhausting, but it’s fun. It requires your full attention, and you quickly enter a flow state.

Now, you don’t achieve work of this caliber — or gain the flexibility that allows you to go exploring on your own — without being very good at the commissioned work itself. Jason, a veteran architectural photographer, has earned the trust of his collaborators, many of whom don’t make the journey overseas.

I’m lucky with my assigned projects. I often have a lot of control and agency, especially on shoots abroad. My shoot contacts are often based in the states and sometimes don’t make the trek. Based on past projects and my portfolio, they trust that I’ll get them the imagery they need.

Jason Keen China trip architectural shot

I see my architectural and street photography as a yin and yang. My client work is very structured, technical, and we have a lot of equipment with us. Every moment is scheduled to maximize our time. In street photography, it’s just you and a camera with a lens or two. There is no schedule and expectations.

Jason Keen China trip a shot of a busy street at night

I yearn for that when I’m on architecture shoots, but also appreciate the structure and efficiency of my architecture shoots when I’m doing street work. When shooting on the street, you may have an entire day without any keepers. That can be deflating, but it does condition you to appreciate the process, not just the product or images.

You’re seeing shots from Jason’s work in both China and Vietnam, places teeming with life at every turn. This is especially the case in China, a land of one billion-plus people that features some of the densest urban settings on the planet. It can be a lot to take in, but if you utilize all of your sense, you’re in for a truly unique experience.

Every corner, nook and cranny, obscure hutong has a business or someone selling something. If you’re hungry, you follow your nose.

Jason Keen China trip man smoking cig

You’ll end up down an alley that you surely think won’t deliver on the promise of that wonderful smell, but you’ll find two plastic chairs and a table sitting outside a doorway leading to someone’s home kitchen. You sit down and a lovely old woman will serve you a bowl of the best congee you’ve had in your life. The urban experience in many Chinese cities is one of sensory overload.

Jason Keen China trip metal bolts

The whizzing of motorbikes, the sound of loudspeakers blaring state media, the collective smell of street food, noodles, and baked goods. Garrish neon signs of all colors illuminating the streets and alleyways. It’s a pleasurable sort of cacophony.

But for all the character that inanimate objects have to offer, it’s the people that Jason keeps coming back to with regards to trying to capture a place. The candid snapshots the Detroit-based photographer creates make for compelling viewing, helping to humanize a place to which many folks who see the work have never ventured. Those same people may very well want to hop on a plane — when it’s more safe to do so, of course — once they see what Jason has put on film.

The human element is important to my work even if there aren’t people in the picture. I always like to be cognizant of the human mark on the environment and place. When I photograph people in this context, I try to hang back and capture the flow of reality.

Jason Keen China trip woman looks up from phone

Usually the best photos happen before the subject(s) notice that you’re photographing them. That’s when people are truly relaxed and are not concerned with presenting themselves to the camera in a certain way. I like that objectivity and authenticity. I’m particularly interested in the moments that may feel mundane and quotidian or like an off-moment or a time between moments when people retreat into their mind a bit. These are small moments of reflection and austerity that I really appreciate.

Check out more of Jason's work at jasonkeen.com.

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