Vol. 10
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 10

Taking It To The Streets with Ashka Shen

June 2015

Photographer, street-style blogger and jet setter who shoots trend setters.

Ashka Shen is a Street Style Blogger and Fashion Photographer. In volume 10, we learn how her passion for photography combined with her keen interest in the female form and its extension through fashion developed and helped her build a reputation as Australia’s premier street style blogger. Take a seat, brew a coffee, and enjoy her story as she takes us on a journey from frustrated digital designer to an internation fashion week photographer.

Ashka Shen--- 7 January 2014

By Lorenzo Princi

What do you do?

What do I do? That’s a good question, I’m a photographer and a blogger. I guess that’s-- that’s the best way to put it, yeah.

"I’m a photographer and a blogger."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 10

You completed your studies in graphic design in 2004 and worked for many years as a graphic designer in various roles. Why did you decide to make a shift into photography as a full time freelancer?

Yeah, it was really interesting and it’s not really something I realised that was happening until like much later I guess. Yeah, so, studied graphic design, then went into advertising, digital advertising, specifically. Worked as Art Director, Digital Designer, all sorts of different roles and I guess the first agency I was at was brilliant. The Creative Director was really nurturing in a-- very much a mentor figure. Still is kind of a mentor figure in my life. And that was all well and dandy and then-- so after six month he had left and the agency pretty much just had a whole turnover; new Creative Director, whole bunch of people left, a whole bunch of people-- of new people joined and the vibe just wasn’t the same and I guess-- I don’t know? That was-- that six months was like my honeymoon period and afterwards it just all went downhill. I stuck around in that job for another, maybe like nine months or so and then went to another agency.

So, a bigger agency, so JWT’s (J. Walter Thompson) digital agency and that was just the Digital Designer role and that was horrible, it was like soul sucking [laughs]. The Creative Director had like, anger management issues, literally yelled at people sometimes like, “it’s not good,” not what you want ever! And also, he’d never really want anyone to ever move up, so he just wanted everyone to stay exactly where they are like a little cog in this giant factory and do their job day in, day out.

So that was really, really frustrating and I was there for a year and a half and by the time I got out of that I was like-- I hated it and then I just freelanced, I travelled. I took nine months off, travelled all over the world and during then I worked in London for a little bit as well but it’s interesting because it’s all-- while that was sort of happening, photography was happening all along at the same time.

So literally, at the very first agency where I was at, I don’t know? Like, a few months in everyone was like, “hey, there’s this website, it’s called Flickr, you should get on it.” I was like, “Oh, what is this Flickr? Okay fine, everyone’s on it, I’ll get on it.” Got on it, was like, “oh, this is cool.” Like, yeah, but my whatever digital little compact camera was obviously not cutting it. So I went back to my dad’s place, dug out his film SLR camera, went to this tiny little random photo shop and they had like a box of expired film on the counter and I literally just bought ten rolls-- like two dollars a roll kind of thing and kind of learnt by trial and error so just shot and shot and shot.

Like, we studied photography (Ashka and I did a photography class during our time at Design Center Enmore) but none of that registered; ISO, like shutter speed, like aperture, just went like-- flew all over my head, literally none of it registered until I like picked up that SLR and learnt roll by roll, shot by shot and Flickr became like a really big thing in my life, like, there was this one group on Flickr, like, Sydney Photo Bloggers. So, a friend of mine was in it, he was saying, “you should come along to the meetups.” I was like, “I don’t want to meet up with all these friggin’ nerds!” [Laughs] but I went, I really enjoyed, like we did photowalks, always ended up at a pub drinking. It was really nice, it was fun and a lot of the people there had been shooting for years and years and a few of them were professional photographers so I learnt a lot from them just by listening to their conversation-- to them-- like to the other guys talking about photography and how they shoot and what they shoot, that kind of thing.

I guess when I-- and when-- wait-- so at the second agency job I was really obsessed with The Sartorialist at the time, I was looking at it everyday with this copywriter, like, we sat next to each other, we’re really good friends and every morning, it’s the first thing we do, we just look at The Sartorialist for like an hour at least [laughs] on agency time! And-- and, and one day I think she was just like, “hey, you’re good at this photography thing, you love fashion, you should do this!” And this was maybe six years ago-- over six years ago and no one was doing it in Sydney and I was like, “I guess I should give it a try” so I got like a Wordpress template, like, one of those free ones. Set it all up and I remember shooting like, the first people I shot were in Circular Quay, was just like so awkward, like going up to someone, “can I take a photo?” [Laughs] and yeah I guess that kind of-- that’s how it started.

Pulling people over on the street for photography could be somewhat intimidating. What is your approach?

Yeah, I mean being a girl helps, a lot [laughs]-- a lot, it just helps so much. I can’t imagine being like, a guy and doing it, unless you’re like, really charismatic and it might be easier but I think-- at first I was just really awkward you know? I didn’t really know how to approach people, what to say but I’ve gotten a lot better over the years and now my approach is: be open, be relaxed and confident and kind of always approach people smiling and the other thing that really helps is complimenting them, of course. You know? Saying, “I love your outfit” and then-- that doesn’t always come across sounding genuine, just like, “I love your outfit,” whatever, but I will always pick out a particular detail that I really like, so like, “I love that print on your shirt” or you know? “Hey, those shoes! I’ve been eyeing them out on ShopBop” or something like that and then that really ticks them along and most people, I’d say, ninety-five percent or people will say yes and then there’s always people that say no which is, you just, you deal with it [laughs] whatever…

"Be open, be relaxed and confident."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 10

What interested you in fashion?

Yeah, I don’t know, I think it’s always been there. I guess it was never a huge thing until I started the blog and then-- and then I guess as I developed the blog, as I shot more and more I feel-- I felt like that was something I really just naturally got more and more into. Like, the more I know-- the more I learnt about it the more I wanted to know about it kind of thing. It just kept going and I mean like, part of me thinks, “Oh my god! It’s just fashion, so superficial” but then having worked in advertising, I feel like, yeah that is probably worse than fashion [laughs] so like the commercial aspect is not a problem to me I guess...

Would you say that photography is the primary motivation or interest and fashion is just the subject?

I think-- I think it’s kind of connected for me because for me, photography, like I’m never-- I’ve never really been into, like I shoot all this girly stuff, flowers, everybody shoots that but for me like my actual work. I feel more interested in shooting people and maybe women to be more specific and in that I feel like for women, clothes and fashion is a-- is a very, like a natural extension of themselves, of their personality and I guess it’s all intertwined and yeah, it is-- I think both are very connected for me.

"I feel more interested in shooting people and maybe women to be more specific and in that I feel like for women, clothes and fashion is a-- is a very, like a natural extension of themselves."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 10

You are very good at capturing movement and colour. Is there a particular thing you are going for when shooting people?

I think that’s very hard to explain, I think it’s almost-- it’s very much a subconscious thing that just happens. I mean-- I guess I’m always looking for people that are comfortable in their own skin and in what they wear. When someone’s like trying too hard, you can tell straight away and-- and the camera can tell straight away. It just kind of-- because the camera kind of amplifies it even more so it just-- when someone’s awkward, it’s just even worse kind of thing so I guess I look for people that are stylish but in their own way but perhaps not too conscious of their stylishness, I think that always helps and the movement? I mean-- I mean it’s really weird because for fashion weeks it’s a whole different thing, like when I’m just shooting, say walking around Sydney, you know? You pull people aside, or like go, “can we, you know, go onto the side street, can we turn this way, can we cross the street? The light is better, that backdrop is better,” etc, etc. But when it’s fashion week, it’s, it’s-- even though it looks completely candid, it’s not. It’s like, you don’t see the wall of photographers behind the subject, you don’t see the subject walking back and forth like five times, until everybody goes, “yeah we got it.” [Laughs].

So, and I guess that’s-- that’s something I’m still debating about to myself, “is that still street fashion? Is that street style, when it’s so contrived?”

"I’m always looking for people that are comfortable in their own skin and in what they wear."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 10

The era of the blog is very interesting, professional hobbies create massive grey areas in terms of what is considered “work” as careers blend with lifestyle. People can start out working on passion projects to keep their sanity from the corporate world. However, once collaboration with commercial entities takes over, do you think it can cause some of that purity to go away?

Yeah, I think, I think you can still make it work. I think you just have to be really careful and considered when it comes to who you work with on a commercial level especially when it’s for your blog. It’s important to not just look at the money and like see dollar signs and go, “yes, yes, yes” because I think readers are really smart. They can see through everything, they can see through a really contrived collaboration and know it straight away, like, there’s no fooling them and-- and sometimes-- not all the time but people do, like, brands would approach me and I would go, “you know what? Like, that feels right and I can make it work in a way that’s-- like sits perfectly with the normal editorial content and still have it give value to the reader in some way” and so when that-- sort of-- all the stars align and then I will say yes to it and I feel comfortable saying yes to it, knowing that it is something that the readers will still appreciate.

But on another level, I guess I’m different in that most fashion bloggers are personal style bloggers so their blogs are their sole sort of income stream whereas for me the blog is actually not even-- I mean it makes a little money but not really, honestly it doesn’t make the level of money that other bloggers make but for me as a photographer, it’s a shop front. It’s where, like, it gets so much exposure that potential clients, brands are the people-- fashion editors will see the blog and kind of go, “hey, we like her work, lets hire her to shoot this job, to shoot that job” and therefore-- so I can still be commercial but have it sort of divided from the blog which I think is-- really works in my favour.

Wedding photography can seem a little lowbrow artistically, despite being lucrative. More and more however I’m seeing a trend of wedding photographers making things a little bit more artistic, shooting with a more “narrative” approach to the event. I sense an almost cinematographic approach, coming through with scene setting, capturing movement and the avoidance of eye contact with the lens. Could this be a result of a generation brought up on cinematography rather than photography?

That’s interesting, like, the film idea. Maybe that is something to do with it and-- and I think, yeah I don’t know how that whole like change of style and movement started happening but when that started happening I sort of took notice and was like, “hang on a minute, like, if I got married that’s how I’d want my wedding shot.” And then looking at it and going, it actually isn’t-- it’s quite close to the way I shoot anyway and so it felt like a very natural and easy extension of my work.

And I guess coming back to the people point, like I love shooting people and so for me it’s easy shooting weddings, it’s-- that whole candid thing, movement, like capturing very-- almost like a behind-the-scenes, like, fly on the wall kind of approach and that really, really suits me.

But about like why people love this style in recent years? I don’t know, I think maybe we are consuming so much more media and maybe it has something to do with the internet, where you no longer just get fed mainstream sort of ideal-- idealised imagery. Like, people are seeking out and realising that there can be more and maybe that’s got something to do with the whole different approach and different style.

"I think maybe we are consuming so much more media and maybe it has something to do with the internet, where you no longer just get fed mainstream sort of ideal-- idealised imagery."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 10

I couldn’t imagine having the courage to photograph someone’s wedding. How do you handle the pressure and how do you know if someone will appreciate your not so traditional approach of generic group shots and portraits.

Oh yeah! Because you can’t redo it! [Laughs]. I don’t know, I guess you deal with it. I’m pretty sure the first, like the very first few weddings I shot were for friends and that was easier, less pressure I guess because, you know, they’re your friends and I kind of did-- I didn’t really charge them, it was just, you know? “Here’s my wedding present to you” like the photos and therefore less pressure and I guess once you’ve done a few, you kind of know that as long as there’s no technical malfunction. As long as there’s no, like, seriously major stuff up, you will get pretty much-- maybe not all the shots but you will get pretty much, nearly all the shots, like almost all the shots. Like you will rarely ever miss something like the ring or the first kiss or the first dance. I mean there’s just very little chance of you missing it completely, like you will probably have a few blurry shots and not so great shots but you will probably have at least some that you can rescue. And I guess it’s maybe a confidence thing as well, you-- once you’re used to it, you just know and you feel comfortable and therefore you do get the shots.

You have recently moved to New York. What prompted the move and, aside from the financial risk involved in settling in another country, what have been the challenges?

What prompted it? [Laughs] that’s really interesting [laughs] because it’s something I’ve always, always wanted to do, like ever since the first time I’d been there, I don’t know, like seven-- six, seven years ago and there’s that-- it’s so cheesy, it sounds so cheesy but you know how everyone talks about like New York’s got like a certain energy, a vibe and I feel it, it’s real, it’s not something that, like, you make up, it’s real and it’s something that always been on the back of my mind but very much like a bucket list kind of thing and I honestly thought it was not going to happen because I had a long term boyfriend and it just wasn’t going to work but then we broke up and I’m turning thirty this year so last year, like literally immediately after the break up, maybe not even a week after I was, you know, sleeping on the couch, couldn’t-- couldn’t go to sleep and the thing that popped into my head was New York and as soon as it was in my head I was like, “needs to happen, this is the last chance, like if it doesn’t happen now it’s just never going to happen.”

So, I kind of just thought, “you know what? Sydney’s not going anywhere, my friends are not going anywhere, my parents are in good health, if all else-- if all fails, I can just come back and pick up exactly where I left off.” Like you pretty much lose nothing. Australia’s kind of good in that way, we’re so slow [laughs]. So yeah, so that’s why I went.

Challenges? Well the first challenge is getting a visa [laughs] that’s taken me four months to put all the paperwork-- all the requirements for it together. So literally, right now, I’m waiting for my visa for come through. So I’m waiting for that email from my immigration-- from my lawyer to be like, “so, it’s come through!”

That’s been really challenging but I think I’ve been really lucky because I have the blog, like I-- so I’ve got enough sort of press credentials and industry sort of connections that kind of pulled me through. Other challenges? I guess-- I think I’ve just taken Sydney and what I have here for granted, so the networks I’ve built which had come from very unconsciously and over a very long time, you know, over quite a number of years and it’s just slowly been naturally built up and I took that for granted you know, literally knowing people, knowing all the clients and heading to New York, it was such like a rude awakening, like it’s just so hard trying to get a meeting. So hard evening getting a reply from people, let alone trying to get your portfolio in front of someone and that was such-- such a shock [laughs], yeah that I was not prepared for.

You’ve experienced different cultures, Chinese, Australian, American, English. How have they shaped or influenced you creatively?

I’m sure it has but I think on a subconscious level, I-- I don’t think I can pinpoint anything directly because I guess and nowadays culture, any sort of culture is so easily accessible because of the internet, it’s just-- yeah I don’t think I can pinpoint it but my Chinese background is definitely something that I-- I won’t say I rejected it when I was younger but I’d say I probably suppressed it to some point, like just as a natural-- I guess any people from an immigrant background living in Australia or I guess anywhere in the world would probably have the same experience. I think you just want to assimilate as fast as you can-- you kind of just suppress it and it is easier and I don’t-- I don’t regret it because, you know? I am Australian, like-- and that was essential in a way for the process to happen but now that I’m getting older, I feel like I’m more open to like, Chinese culture-- like my Mandarin is better than five years ago. You know? Like a lot of different things, like I’m more in tune-- like I will actively look up news in China and in Asia whereas I never cared before. You know? Politics-- kind of try and keep up, any kind of interesting story. So, I don’t know, it’s weird and I can’t explain why, I just feel like I need to know, yeah...

What’s next for Ashka?

What’s next? Yeah, having a real crack at New York and I guess, Asia as well because it is such a big market, especially China and I feel, like, the sort of blogging sort of area is still very much up and coming. There’s not, I-- I honestly can’t pinpoint any huge bloggers in China, so I feel like that’s-- well not fashion bloggers anyway. There’s a lot of celebrities, there’s a lot of like personalities-- socialites, that sort of thing but not bloggers per se, so I feel like there’s definitely something there and so very much on my agenda for 2015 is to hit up some of the Asian fashion weeks, so Tokyo, Shanghai, maybe even Seoul and see if I can try and crack the market, being-- you know? Chinese [laughs]. Yeah!

Find Ashka at ashkashen.com and follow her fashion blog at XSSAT

Proofreading by Cinzia Forby & Luke Yates.