I'm a compulsive photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Although trained in the traditional dark room in the late 80s, I didn't start photographing seriously until after I was forced to retire from my career as an electronic dance music DJ and producer due to ear damage.
I guess what they say is true; when one door closes another one opens.
When not taking pictures, I spend my time assisting students as a community college counselor.
-Tony Van Le
Growing up in the 80s, I used to rummage through my father's camera bag while he was at work. He had a really nice camera (that he rarely used), but I was particularly drawn to a mirrored-gadget that he had that would attach to a camera lens and would allow you to take pictures of what was to the side of you instead of what was in front of you. It felt like something a spy would use!
I grew up in the suburbs, but my dad worked in San Francisco. He would frequently drive us into the city to eat in Chinatown and to shop in the Asian markets. I remember being about 5-years old thinking that that going to Chinatown was going to China! This was my first exposure to city life.
In grade school, my family would regularly visit one of my older sisters (who went to UC Berkeley) to buy her a week's worth of groceries. It was then that I was first exposed to the vast homelessness on the street. It was jarring for a suburban kid to see. This is also when I first saw leather clad punk rockers with mohawks in real life...they were the epitome of cool to me back then.
When I was in junior high, I was a part of a summer program that took place in Berkeley and so I would take the train up there daily. After class, I would spend what little allowance I had on cassette singles (mostly hip-hop at the time) and pizza slices. It was at this time that I fell in love with music. It was also during this time that I became enamored with urban life.
This is also around the time that I took my first photography class. I learned how to develop pictures in a traditional dark room. I took four of these classes in junior high and high school. It was fun, and I established a couple of my lifelong friendships in those classes, but my interest in photography somehow didn't stick back then.
My passion for music grew though, and I eventually became an electronic dance music DJ. This was at a time when you still had to hunt for vinyl records. I would scour the city and dig into every last dusty crate to find that elusive record that had been overlooked by people that it just didn't make sense to. I would figure out when record stores would receive their shipments so that I could get my hands on the newest obscure records before anyone else. Working in a record store on Haight Street in San Francisco helped refine my approach. I pursued music for ten years before my ears just couldn't physically handle the loud music anymore.
It was really, really tough for me to give up on music. Music had given me a purpose in life when I was lost, and searching for meaning. I had worked hard it, gained industry recognition, was playing at venues that I always wanted to play at, and was meeting the people I needed to meet to move my career forward. I had learned to produce the music that I played and I pressed up my own songs on vinyl, which raised my profile even further. I lived and breathed music and it was heartbreaking to develop excruciating ear pain that occurred at even moderate volume levels.
So I retired from music and went to graduate school for counseling. Thankfully, a few years later, I re-discovered photography.
Once I got a camera, my first instinct was to go up to the city; there was always cool stuff up there! Street art! Bridges! Skyscrapers! It felt so good to have a reason to be back in the city.
I got really into taking pictures of graffiti murals. I loved the vibrant colors and the masterful spray-can work. I would explore all of the nooks and crannies of the city to find what these mysterious artists had to offer. I got familiar enough to where I could tell which ones were new and which ones had disappeared or were painted over. It felt like hunting for records all over again.
Then, one fateful day in 2013, I came across a book that had a collection of black and white images photographed by a nanny in Chicago from the 1950s and 60s. They were beautiful, soulful, and arresting pictures of people on the street. She was an unknown photographer that left thousands of negatives unprinted and her work was only discovered after she had died. Her name was Vivian Maier and she, more than anyone, showed me what was possible with urban photography.
It took me years to get to a point where I was comfortable shooting on the street. I'd say it took five years before taking candid pictures of people became therapeutic instead of stressful. Yet there was always something about the challenge and physicality of street photography that kept me coming back.
I'm so glad I did.