High quality images of young white women in cityscapes, verdancy, and beaches are the domain of @zech.lee, the photographic repository of Zechariah Lee, a junior at Vassar College and portraiture photographer based in Los Angeles and New York City. Within a span of a few months, Lee has acquired 19.7K followers and counting on Instagram.
From a browser standpoint, the stipulation of something-K followers in any given Instagram frieze catches the eye and grafts validation onto the user and the user’s content. I admittedly fall victim to this reductive, superficial course of thought. But as an Instagram user with less than 300 followers and with low engagement, I have neither understood nor personally spoken with a user with something-K followers in regards to what meaning the K actually takes on for her/him/them.
To my relief, my preconceptions of a pink Stussy strapback and an Instagram celebrity photographer did not at all outstay their welcome. Lee and I quickly bonded over our southern Californian Korean American background and the lemons of being Economics majors.
In discussing his photographic endeavors, Lee contemplates on the rise and follies of Instagram photography, social media ethics, the diversity (or lack thereof) in the modeling industry, and his faith. Lee morally aligns himself with the notion that the K-stipulation should have no bearing on him. However, he understands that to self-righteously subsume this notion would be altogether hypocritical and, more critically, subtractive from his growth as a photographer and adult.
For Lee, the K is growth. It is a goal. It is a gift. It is from and for God.
Who or what got you into photography?
I’ve always been into photography. I was super into iPhone photography when I first got my phone.
When was that?
That was probably my sophomore year of high school. Everyone made fun of me. “Your artsy Instagram pictures” and all that kind of stuff, but I like to look at things at a different perspective, and I just like posting photos. I bought my first camera my junior year of high school, but I didn’t really use it. It was a Canon 60D, but I never really learned how to use it; I was shooting on auto all the time. I never really went out to take pictures just because the camera on my iPhone was super convenient. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get into photography earlier; I was too lazy to actually learn how to use the camera.
When did you begin to use the camera?
I was kind of going through college, and I needed a creative outlet because I was getting into econ, and for me, econ kind of sucked the life out of me. You start thinking about things analytically, and emotion just takes the backseat. My life started to get super boring, and I just needed something. I was like whatever, but I actually stopped dreaming just to the point that I was going to bed, waking up. There was nothing in between. One day, I texted my mom, “Hey. Can you send me my camera?” One of my really, really good friends Harry Wedel, we went out to Sunset Lake at 11:30pm one night. He says the skies are super clear; he wanted to take pictures of the stars and hang out. And I went out, and just within 30 to 40 minutes of me freezing my ass off, I had such a good time. I wasn’t really photographing anyone; I was photographing the stars. The results were really, really not good, but I still had a really, really good time.
One of my main motives for getting into photography is eventually for when I have a family. I want to be able to take pictures of my kids. My mom took so many photos of me in high school, and I hated it. “You suck. I hate you. Get out of here.” But then now, she’ll pull out these photos and say, “Look at this.” And I’ll say, “Yeah, I remember that.” And I’m grateful for that. One of the crazy things is that I can go on a trip with someone and not get a single photo and be happy with it. At the end of the day, it’s about the memories you make – it’s so cliché and so cheesy – but it’s true. I know so many people who have a specific agenda to go out and shoot and get pictures, but you’re missing the whole point of why you’re doing this. People are going to Iceland to take pictures, but okay. Go and actually enjoy Iceland. See how beautiful it is and really take it in. Don’t just get your shots and leave.
Who are some of your muses?
You know, obviously, there’s Instagram, and one of my biggest influences was an Instagram user named Samuel Elkins (@samuelelkins). He’s the one who started in the Pacific Northwest. He started off as a landscape photographer and just put people in front of it. He just made it kind of big. Essentially, everything you see on Instagram now has been influenced by him in some sort of way. I saw his Instagram; I said, “I want to do that.” I did my best to try to emulate that. Then, I started shooting on campus with my friends. I really wanted to be one of those cool New York City photographers on buildings. I was two weeks into that, and it was just super lonely and boring. Then, I started shooting my friends. I think it was a lot of fun because they never get that personal attention, and that’s what I love.
I saw your website. Do you go into shoots with a plan?
It’s kind of interesting because I started off wanting to be a lifestyle photographer who just hung out with people and took pictures. And then, it became a thing that content became to be so hard to come by by just hanging out with people. My friends at home are super cool, and I love them to death. But they’re not models, so they don’t look comfortable in front of the camera; it’s kind of hard to do lifestyle, so I tried to get into the bigger community via Instagram. Basically, Instagram has facilitated anything I’ve ever done. But now it’s getting to the point where going out and hanging out with my camera is just not good enough for me. I want to plan something right down to the outfit, to the pose – to the point where instead of taking 800 photos in a shoot, I’ll take just 40 and know which ones I want.
Are these models on your feed friends you made via Instagram?
A lot of the people that you see on my Instagram, I made friends with them just this past summer. I started taking photography seriously just last year, right before Founder’s Day. I went for a hike with my friends, and I brought my camera along. It was just so much fun. That’s what I would consider my start. Over summer, I told myself that I’m going to set a goal to make it into the photography community whether they want me in there or not. I started reaching out to people, and all it took was one person to introduce me to everyone. From then on, it has been crazy. A lot of my friends – a lot of the people I shoot – I’ve only met them this summer, but they’ve become some of my closest friends, too.
It seems like networking is an essential part of your career as a photographer.
I think networking is a huge part of even just being an Econ major. Networking is huge. I used to think that I was extroverted. When I first got into this community, I was super awkward with everyone, but that has helped me develop personal skills. That’s one of the biggest things when you’re working with different models; you need to make sure the model is comfortable. If the photographer doesn’t talk enough or doesn’t connect well enough, then it shows. It’s funny working with someone new; within the span of the shoot an hour to an hour-and-a-half you can tell in the pictures chronologically when they start to get looser and looser and looser. You took 800 shots, but you can only use 100 of them because that’s what it took; all that time was spent to make the model comfortable.
How would you describe the style of your photographs?
I’m still trying to figure it out. I looked up a lot of tutorials on editing. In terms of composition, I try to find pretty backgrounds and just put someone in front of them. But in terms of my style, it’s a portrait style. Sam has a very faded, washed out, de-contrasted style, whereas I try and make it a little moodier and a little more contrast-y. It’s so funny because a ton of my friends – there’s nothing wrong with this – have Instagrams that are aesthetically planned out. All their photos are cohesive. But for me, I kind of let the photo in front of me lead the way in terms of style. A lot of my city shoots have a bluish cool tone to them, whereas in my landscapes, the tone is warmer and has more orange tones to them. I like to let the photo determine where to take it. If you look at my Instagram, it’s just all over the place, which is what I love. It’s partially due to the fact that I’m trying to figure my style out, but it allows me to shoot different styles. In a way, Instagram has helped and destroyed photography at the same time. When I started, I was super into Instagram. I’m a little more cynical about it.
How do you think Instagram has destroyed photography?
Basically what Instagram did was make everyone a photographer. The market is so saturated with all these photographers. When you buy a really nice camera, the quality of your photos are going to be good, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good photographer. I feel like good photographers can see right through that – Sam being one of them. Sam has been my inspiration for a lot of things, and I got the chance to meet him this summer. Now we’re pretty good friends. I’ll say, “Oh, look at this!” And he’ll say, “Yeah, no. That’s crap.”
Instagram has saturated the market in that anyone can be a photographer, and I’m happy for that because that was me. But at the same time, where are these people going to be five years from now? What happens if Instagram is gone the next day? Would you still want to be a photographer?
What makes a good photographer a good photographer?
It’s the way you see things. One thing I didn’t really think made a huge difference but that actually does is angles. If you hold your camera straight onto someone and take a picture, but then you bring it up a little bit, it makes the biggest difference. Ultimately, what you’re trying to do, for me, is to shoot more so that you feel something or you feel an emotion or you feel connected to the picture.
How do you have this massive following on Instagram?
Originally, I was posting on my personal Instagram, and then I came to a realization that my friends don’t care about my work. They care about my life and what I’m doing – not necessarily who I’m photographing. I decided to put my pride aside and start fresh. I said that I will not buy followers; I will not buy features; I will not follow to unfollow people. I’m going to build my Instagram from the ground up. I’m going to make sure that people follow because my content is good and not because I’m “playing the game” or whatever. At the beginning of the summer, I had made the goal of 1,000 followers by the end of the summer. In the middle of the summer, it wasn’t looking good; I was at 400 followers. My engagement was pretty good, and that’s another really important thing – that’s your engagement. I said, “Okay. 1,000 followers by the end of the year.” And then, I met one person who literally introduced me to the entire community and got me to shoot with a bunch of other really cool people. It wasn’t necessarily that they were shouting me out or anything; I started shooting with better photographers. That got motivated to me up my game: learning different techniques, learning different editing styles, working with better models. The quality of my images started to get a lot better, and then the following came. I hit 1,000 followers toward the end of July. I hit 5,000 followers before I came back to school. I said, “Okay. Now 10,000 before the end of the year.” Then, I hit 10,000 mid-September. It’s really not about the following for me. It’s about putting out meaningful work, but the following is kind of a good goal for me.
Zechariah shows me Brandon Woelfel’s Instagram account (@brandonwoelfel).
My friend Brandon does a lot of stuff with lights, and they’re super cool. The problem is that his engagement is insane; he gets 46,000 likes, but the thing is that starts trends, and people start copying. There are Instagram meet-ups, which I love and I hate because I love the social aspect of meeting other photographers, but I hate that everyone is shooting the same thing at the same time. I like shooting one-on-one with me and another model or me and another photographer and another model. I don’t like shooting in groups. You start seeing trends going on; you see all these photographers doing the same thing. That’s kind of how Instagram has destroyed photography – the idea of “trendy.” When those trends die out, are you a really good photographer, or are you just in it for the following or the social capital? After you get that little “K” by your name, it doesn’t really matter. I was looking back at my photos. What makes this special from something else by someone with a lower following than me who can do just as well? It started an internal conflict: what am I doing that’s special? On Instagram, it’s so easy to scroll through a feed and move past it. I want to make work that makes people stop and make them think, “Oh, hey. That’s pretty cool. I like that.” But at the same time, I don’t want to be “different” for the sake of being different. You’ve got to find that fine line between being creative and not trying too hard because if you’re trying too hard, people see right through what you’re doing.
What’s the most frustrating aspect of being an Instagram photographer?
I go to the city every Sunday: (1) for church and (2) just to shoot. On my way back, I bought a copy of Vogue because one of my friends told me that if I was ever feeling uninspired just look in Vogue. I looked through the photos, and I wanted to quit photography on the spot because Instagram is so vain in that it just wants the trendy stuff. The crazy thing with these Vogue photographers who do editorials and get published, which is essentially what I want to do, is they only have Instagram followings of 1,500 or 2,000 because they’re not worried about Instagram; they’re doing real stuff. Not to mention, people love give-me-credits. Well, how would you feel if that’s all you think about and you get a publication in Vogue and your name is nowhere on there? But that’s what drives these photographers. It’s not getting credit for the work but the fact that their work is getting out there and they’re proud of it and they put a lot of work into it. That’s a completely different mindset than a lot of people on Instagram have. A lot of people on Instagram are about I want to get my name out there and not do anything meaningful. It’s the most frustrating thing because I do it. It’s always a struggle between finding out what you want to post and what other people want from you. But I’m trying to transition to a point where it is art, where I put more thought and more emotion behind it – where I’m trying to tell a story rather than try to show a pretty person with a pretty background.
When you’re taking photos, what do you want to convey at the end of the day? What’s the ultimate intent?
I want to start moving more towards social commentary on certain things. Anything to convey a message without blatantly saying it. I personally don’t know what I want, but I want to be the person who goes on a lot of crazy trips, and I really do. I want to go to Iceland, the Pacific Northwest, all over the United States, Europe, and New Zealand. I would love to be that lifestyle photographer, but at the same time, I want to do studio shoots, where it’s not necessarily a pretty landscape. You just get or a white or a blue background, and you work with that based on outfit, the demeanor of the model. There’s so many emotions you can convey just through a lens and have it be so simple and have it be so meaningful at the same time. I don’t want to put myself in a box. I want to do everything. I’m starting to shoot more on film. My ultimate goal is to transition to full film rather than digital. Digital is great, and I love it, but there’s a certain look you can get through film that you can’t get on digital and through editing. That’s why I think that film will never die. There will always be a market for film. You just can’t simulate film, and that’s the coolest thing. I don’t think I necessarily have a specific agenda in terms of where I want my photography to go, but I do know that I want it to be more meaningful than what other people are doing. More planned out, more thought behind it, more emotion behind it. I don’t want to be trying too hard because that’s when you start forcing things and become unhappy with yourself. I don’t want to be that guy who hates everyone and say, “Your art is bad.”
When you’re shooting with pretty white girls all the time, they all look the same. Working with different people from different backgrounds is so cool. It’s just tough because it’s just so dominated by white people.
Lee continues his discussion on the subjectivity of art.
Art is so subjective, and I can sit here and talk trash about trends all the time, but hey, if that makes you happy, who am I to tell you that you can’t do that. That’s why I try to not give too much advice to people. Some people ask me, “What do you think of this photo?” It’s so different; if you like, then you did your best. Basic things, like composition, I can talk to you about. Editing style, I won’t talk to you about because that’s you. It can be highly contrasted and saturated, but I won’t sit there and tell you that it looks like crap because if that’s the style you’re going for, then great. Good for you, but personally, I would take it a different way, and a different person would take it a different way.
In this day in age, photographers abound, so how do you orient and empower yourself as an individual?
I went on a trip with Sam, and we had the same models. Just us two in the same location. If you look at our photos, you’ll be able to tell which one’s mine and which one is his, which is so cool because I look up to Sam a lot, but I’m not here copying his style. I want people to be able to tell my work apart from his or from other people’s work. That’s the main thing. So many people are kind of cheap in that they just want to do what Sam does and they just want to copy somebody’s work. Sam does his style because he does it the best, and everyone who does that style is going to do it as well as he does because he pioneered that. That’s his. I want to be that same way where I’m just doing my own style. Instagram has saturated the market in that anyone can be a photographer, and I’m happy for that because that was me. But at the same time, where are these people going to be five years from now? What happens if Instagram is gone the next day? Would you still want to be a photographer?
I agree. I think this is a vice of photography in social media.
I think that’s a big question that I really struggle with because if Instagram were gone tomorrow, would I want to do this as much as I want to do it right now? To be honest, I probably would not. I struggle with my own social capital. When a photo doesn’t do well, I’m hard on myself, but at the same time, I’ll look at it, and it’ll be one of my favorite photos. It’s funny because I try to give advice on my Instagram and be inspiring, but honestly, I’m talking to myself. I’m trying to give myself advice on what to do. When I’m telling you to be yourself, I’m telling myself to be myself. It’s hard because so many people will lead you on to think that what you’re doing is really cool, but nobody will stop and take the time to humble you a little bit. In that way, your ego blows up. You think that you’re better than a lot of other people; you think your way is the way, and that’s so dangerous as an artist because you should constantly be learning. There’s always someone out there better than you. Be it landscape, portraiture, or editing style, there’s something to learn, always. A lot of people who have huge followings get famous fast, and they think that what they’re doing it the correct way to be doing things, and they’re not open to learning other things. I’m just trying to take in as much as possible, but at the same time, I don’t even know what photography is even what I want to do. I’m having a good time, and I love it. The great thing about photography is that I have this for the rest of my life regardless I get paid for it or not.
What are some negative externalities that come with your photographic endeavors?
Once I started growing on Instagram, I was on my phone constantly. Even to do this day, I’m on my phone constantly not because I’m doing important things but because I’m just checking out how I’m doing in terms of social capital. It’s starting to make me sick. What am I doing with my life? I’m missing out on all these things. In terms of school, school is getting harder but not because course material is that much harder but because I’m wasting so much time on my phone. It just bothers me; a lot of people get really mad or really disappointed when they don’t get their content to be what they want it to be. But you got to see all these landscapes and travel and be with your friends. It’s super important to surround yourself with people who think the same way as you because you’re just going to be sucked into that community. That’s one thing; I never want to sell out. There’s a bunch of brands I can work with, but I choose not to because I wouldn’t personally advertise for it.
Have you considered taking photography to the professional level?
In terms of shoots, I get paid for that. People will come to me and ask for things for their portfolio, even senior pictures. I would be okay with it, but I don’t really want to get into wedding photography. As a photographer, I would love to work for Vogue, Complex, and Milk. I would love to have a studio and be able to create what I want to create. But at the same time, I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I feel like I need to put stuff out there; I don’t like that pressure. I worked with Pura Vida Bracelets, and I love them because I’ve supported them prior to getting into photography. But then there would be another brand that would come to me. I would personally never support you, and I’m going to have to say no. I’ve had to say no more times than I’ve had said yes. That’s completely fine. Even with Pura Vida, I didn’t really enjoying shooting; I feel like I needed to get a specific aesthetic or a vibe of what they wanted to fit. That, for me, was a box, and I didn’t like this.
Based on your Instagram, I’ve noticed that most of your subjects are white female young adults. Could you speak to that?
It is an issue. It just happened. I didn’t notice it. Everything in society is white dominated. I was getting caught up in the followers, and I was just shooting with everyone I could at the time without realizing – all of them are white. I also grew up in an all-white neighborhood, so that’s just what I’m used to. I didn’t really think twice about it, and then, one of my good friends called me out on it, “Look back at your feed. I see no people of color on here.” It was a realization that I’m a person of color, and what am I doing? The whole white-washing of my feed. I need to make more of an effort to put more diverse people out there. Not even just people of color, but more diverse people out there. It’s a smaller community to tap into, so I’m trying to change things up, and add a little more diversity. It may not seem like it, but I’m definitely trying.
There’s also that issue – you can’t tap into these smaller markets just to make your Instagram more diverse.
Exactly. I don’t want people to think that I’m using them to diversify my portfolio. That’s such a wrong way of going about things, but I totally agree that this is a problem. I fully intend on changing it and shooting with more people of color and more diverse people. When you’re shooting with pretty white girls all the time, they all look the same. Working with different people from different backgrounds is so cool. It’s just tough because it’s just so dominated by white people. I’m not saying there isn’t a community of people of color who are modeling. I’m trying, and I’m looking for them. Everything that comes up on my explore feed, every person my photographers are shooting are all white. That’s another frustrating thing about Instagram. It shuns out a lot of people who don’t fit a certain status quo.
As a Korean American, how do you position yourself in relation to other white photographers?
I grew up in a white community. For a long time, I did deny my own culture; I did deny my own heritage. I didn’t want to be Korean. I vividly remember going home and telling my mom, “Can you stop making Korean food? You’re freaking out my white friends when they come home.” I bet that really sucked for her to hear. For the longest time, I was raised and thought I was white. Just last year, one of my friends asked me if I wanted to be a part of this event, and I asked why. She said that I was a POC. I had to think about it a little bit.
In southern California, people don’t normally refer to others as POC.
I think that’s another thing. California is already so diverse (definitely not the Instagram community). My group of friends back at home, they’re extremely diverse. That’s just normal there, but it’s different here. But there’s definitely a problem; my Instagram is predominantly white, but at the same time, the community that I’m in is predominantly white. That’s a fact, but I can do better in terms of reaching out to other people. At the same time, these people are so readily available; they’re just there, and it’s convenient. It was one of things that I never really thought about it until somebody brought it up, and I said, “Okay. You’re right. This is a problem.” I’m not going to not post my white friends, but I’ll definitely make more of an effort. It’s something that needs to be in the back of my mind, but it just wasn’t. Nothing I can do about what’s in the past, but looking forward, I am definitely reaching out for more people of color and more diverse people and getting a feel for just how beautiful people are. There’s this stereotype of white being what beauty should be, and that’s just not true.
In terms of my Instagram, I have 19k followers who are following me and are inspired by me in some sort of way, and if I’m not using that to glorify Him, then I’m not fulfilling the purpose He had for me.
I see that you’ve included Bible verses here and there throughout your Instagram. What role, if any, does faith play in your photography?
A lot of the opportunities that I’ve been given have been a blessing. Whether you believe in that or not, it’s up to you. It’s just what I believe in, and I just feel like God has had his hand in a lot of things that I’ve pursued. God calls us in this life to have a purpose for Him and to glorify Him through that purpose. I was just praying a lot and meditating and reading my Bible and just asking what my purpose was in life. For the longest time, I wasn’t getting an answer, and it was super frustrating. My purpose was being here, and that’s ultimately the conclusion I came up with because I’m happy God has put me here. Photography came into the picture, and God just opened doors and introduced me to a ton of people that really helped and all these little opportunities. You know how I told you I had only 400 followers at the beginning of July; I never really prayed about it before, so I prayed about it. This is what You really want from me. I’ll do what I can as a photographer. In terms of the audience, You have that control. Right after I prayed, that next day, that guy that I met introduced me to everyone. For the longest time, I thought that these were just little coincidences, but there were way too many coincidences for me to not believe that God has had his hand in it. But at the same time, it’s also Him trying to teach me a lesson – “I gave you the audience; let’s see what you can do with it.” I don’t know if you read my post – it was a super long post – about my increasing arrogance and self-centeredness, as I started to grow on Instagram. It was less about people and more about myself in terms of my performance as a photographer. For the longest time, I thought that this was all under my control. It really hit me hard because who gave me this audience? God gave me that audience, and he can easily take it away from me. In terms of my Instagram, I have 14k followers who are following me and are inspired by me in some sort of way, and if I’m not using that to glorify Him, then I’m not fulfilling the purpose He had for me.
So these Bible verses have some evangelical purpose, right?
Bible verses are things I like to add to my captions just because it doesn’t force-feed Christianity. It’s just little things I like to reflect on. This is a way to put it in there and out there because who knows what somebody who sees it will do. Maybe they’ll look up the verse and read more of the Bible and that’ll bring them to God, or maybe they won’t. God has given me so many opportunities in my life that basically I have no right but to give it back. Even my bio, “He>i.” Nothing. That’s it. Just so that when people come onto my profile, they know what they’re getting themselves into. When you grow that fast, it gets to your head. You hold yourself a little higher. And then, you get kind of a gutpunch from God, where I was in church and our pastor was basically going in on social media, “What are you doing with your lives?” I was sitting there, and I said, “That’s basically my whole life.” I’ve even considered taking a break and quitting Instagram, but I don’t think He’s telling me to quit Instagram but to do it in a different way. Christianity plays a huge part in my photography – not necessarily in the story I’m trying to tell but what I can do with my reach.