Taby Cheng is a Vancouver-based creative producer and art director who focuses on still and moving imagery. What makes Taby’s imagery alluring is its intimacy and obscurity, a signature style that crosses the versatile spectrum of her portfolio. Her work ranges impressively from art-driven editorials and portraiture to politically focused documentary. Beyond her personal work, Taby’s commercial portfolio includes shoots with Aritzia, Foe & Dear, Oak + Fort, Linder NYC, and Montecristo Magazine, just to name a few.
Taby and I caught up over coffee to chat about what inspires her work, diversity and non-traditional conceptions of beauty, the importance of impactful documentary photography, and what it’s like to work in the Vancouver creative scene.
Jacqueline Salomé: How would you describe the aesthetic of your work?
Taby Cheng: I would say my aesthetic draws towards a more awkward and odd type of imagery. Definitely not what mainstream media would consider beautiful. I focus on difference, photographing people who do not adhere to the stereotype of beauty. I think people also associate my aesthetic with the fact that I am diverse in the types of people I photograph, whether it’s their ethnic background, skin colour, size, or just difference in features. A big reason that I started shooting was that everything I was seeing was so pretty and all the same colour. I don’t ever want my images to be just pretty and one note.
JS: Where are you drawing inspiration from lately?
TC: Sometimes the inspiration is just a feeling, a bit indescribable. Right now, I think a huge part of it is faces. I love shooting people and faces really inspire me, especially diverse face shapes and sizes, and different skin tones.
You caught me at a transitional time. I’m currently re-doing my portfolio, finding a balance between what people want to see and what I actually want to be doing. There’s so much going on in the world and I want to make sure what I’m shooting is making an actual impact, so that people see it and question it. It doesn’t matter if they look at the image favourably or not, I just want people to think about the images and see them as more than just pretty.
JS: Can you tell us the story behind some of the images featured in this piece?
TC: Two of my favourite images that I’ve shot was of Liana, the model doing a backbend in womenswear and kitten heels, and of Yuka, the nude model posing in the grass. With Liana we knew that she was a rhythmic gymnast so we thought the contorted poses with the minimalist womenswear clothing would be a beautiful juxtaposition. I shot this with a heavy medium format camera so I felt bad because she had to stay in this pose for a little bit so I could get different angles.
Shooting Yuka in Berlin was also one of my favourite shoots because of how random it was. I had contacted her through Instagram, and we decided to do a nude shoot in a park. Her movement and posing was so natural and unique - I had never worked with someone like that before. It was a fun collaborative project. At the end we found a random crab which she also ended up posing with, which become one of my favourite images from the series.
JS: What was it like to photograph and participate in political protests and demonstrations both in Canada and abroad?
TC: Out of all that I’ve shot so far, I’m finding the documentary and politically motivated shots to be the most valuable. I was in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Revolution in 2014. The protests were happening all around and I just felt the need to take photos. Before that I had never even thought about shooting documentary style photography, but it felt like such a historical time. People were fighting for their freedom, and that mattered.
TC: Over the last year, I went to the women’s march and the Kinder Morgan protests. There is so much going on with the women’s movement and with climate change, and this is a big part of my life and where my values lie. Our generation is growing up in this environment, and our children will live with the effects of all that is happening now.
These were all such interesting events to shoot because I’ve always worked in an editorial space with people in a controlled set. It was unique to be put in a spot where you need to move with the people, rather than have the people move for you. This is the direction that I would love to go, combining editorial work and documentary projects.
JS: So how did you get into creative production and art direction in the first place?
TC: I feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives. My first start was during nursing school where I would do photo and video work for weddings on the side. Following that I had a job at a financial tech company doing their digital content. That job was extremely flexible, and allowed me to explore projects on the side and grow my portfolio creatively. Looking back at my journey here - I am so lucky I had a couple of close friends where we would work on projects almost every weekend styling, shooting, and producing all of our shoots.
Growing up, I never thought the creative industry was for me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but thought that it should be something that would bring a stable job and income. Looking back, it’s sad that I ever thought that way. When you’re a teenager with certain values, you just don’t know if you can become a photographer or an artist and you just want to take a safer, more traditional route. After getting into the creative industry, I realized that if you have a strong vision and you are confident in what you are shooting that it can be possible to make it your career.
JS: What is it like to work in the Vancouver-based creative industry?
TC: Production is typically smaller here because there isn’t as much money. However I do prefer working on smaller sets anyways. Usually you have to be good at more than one thing, having your hand in the art direction, styling, and make up, especially if it’s a creative project. I’ve been pretty lucky because I was able to create a really amazing group of friends in the creative industry who have the same values and appreciation for visuals.
I love Vancouver, it’s a beautiful place and it’s where I was raised, but the amount of editorial work produced here isn’t much. It can be hard to find people to work with who have the same aesthetics, and clothing pulls for styling is like pulling teeth. I do see myself working abroad in the future. I would like to be in a place where I can explore diversity and culture a bit more in my work.
JS: Is the Vancouver creative scene still as male-dominated?
TC: I do think it’s still very male-dominated, but the number of female photographers are growing! I feel like the creative and art-driven photography community in Vancouver is quite small to begin with, and percentage of females in that group is even smaller.
Personally I try to be genderless when it comes to my online persona. I do feel that I’m treated differently as a younger, Asian woman. I also feel like it changes how people see my photos, and I want people to stay focused on the values behind the images.
JS: If you had to choose only one medium, would it be photo or video?
TC: That’s a tough one. I’m first and foremost a visual producer, and don’t consider myself as just a photographer or just a videographer. I primarily use photography, but sometimes you can’t capture what you want to capture with a photo alone. That’s where moving picture and film work comes in. I love movement, and there are some movements that are just so beautiful in video format.
JS: Any preference between film or digital?
TC: I shoot primarily film. I feel like it gives the photo such a different feeling, and a certain rawness and colour to it. When I first started photography I would shoot so many frames but with film, you just focus on one shot and take it wisely. The stakes are higher.
JS: What about sharing your images? Prints or social media?
TC: Printing my images and creating a book is on my to do list this year. I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram. I wouldn’t be able to get a lot of the jobs I’ve gotten without it—that’s how people find my work. Because of all of the saturation and algorithms, I think it would be difficult to get to where I’m currently at if I only started my career now. It’s also a weird time now with Instagram because it’s easy for anybody to look like a photographer.
JS: What’s on the horizon for you? Any New Year’s resolutions?
TC: I really want to focus on more portraiture and documentary work. I would love to do a Vancouver portrait and landscape series. I am also planning a Southeast Asia trip which I hope to work on a couple projects there. So that’s been on my mind.