I’m a compulsive photographer.

During the week, I work as a community college counselor and I love it. It’s what gives my life meaning and purpose. It’s how I choose to do my part in leaving the world a better place than I found it. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Photography is how I reward myself. I shoot to explore, to de-stress and to get into a flow. Yeah, it’s a mental health thing…but to be clear, it’s an obsession.

I suppose my interest in all things urban started when I was in junior high. In the summer, I would take the train up to the city and spend my allowance on cassette singles to make mixtapes (mostly hip-hop at the time). Back then, to me, the pierced-up and tatted-up punk rockers hanging out on the corner were the epitome of cool.

When I started DJing and producing music in the mid-90s, I specialized in electronic dance music. I was methodical in my efforts in scouring the city for obscure vinyl records and finding that rare gem. I’ve always been a finder and collector of things. In the mid-2000s, my time spent working at a record store on Haight Street ingrained a certain aesthetic into my very being.

After suffering significant hearing damage, I retired from music. Thankfully, soon after, photography became my creative outlet.

There's a similar thrill in finding an inspiring subject and framing it with a perfectly complementary backdrop as there is in finding that magical record in the back of a dusty bin and being able to re-contextualize it and blend it into a tapestry of other songs.

There’s a certain zen to being mesmerized by a beautiful image as there is in losing your mind to a hypnotic dance floor stomper.

It’s escapism. It’s an indulgence of the senses.  It’s fun.



Street Candids

I photograph people because they are unique, dynamic subjects that have been molded by a lifetime of experiences. And San Francisco is ripe with interesting looking characters. When I come across one, I challenge myself to get as close to them as possible and make a candid image of them that is flattering and technically sound. Good lighting, beautiful clean background, expressive eyes…that kind of stuff. 

These images are people in their day to day lives just going about their business;  being who they are, thinking whatever mysterious thoughts they happen to be thinking at the moment.  Or maybe, they're not thinking at all;  maybe they're just immersed in the present moment experiencing life as it comes.



Stranger Portraits

Sometimes while I'm out and about, I come across a person and something about them just compels me to stop them and ask them if I can make a portrait with them.  Mostly I do this to ensure I get a strong shot (candids are very hit-or-miss for me).

I'm continually surprised by accommodating people are.  I still haven't gotten used to them thanking me afterwards, as if I've somehow done them a favor.  It's like they don't fully realize how much of a gift they are actually giving me by providing me with their generosity, time, and trust. 



There Is No Here

Combining elements of fashion, architecture, and street photography, this is a coming of age story of a girl growing up in the city and finding her place in the world.  This photographic essay touches on the possibilities of self, the challenges of conforming to society's expectations, and ultimately what it means to live life on your own terms. 

Collaborator and model:  Alina Lee



Want More?

I also do landscape and nature photography.

For that stuff, please visit TonyVanLe.com.