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Jeff Hahn

Photographer, London

Meeting photographer Jeff Hahn outside his Hackney studio is an image in itself. Perched on a concrete step, cigarette in one hand and an ‘I Heart Stokey’ mug in the other, his laidback demeanour instantly puts us at ease – a skill honed by his many years behind the lens.

Since graduating in 2012, Jeff has been blazing his own trail as a freelance fashion photographer – and his self-starter spirit has clearly paid off. Flicking through the glossy pages of his portfolio reveals images of beautifully shot editorial, captured for an enviable list of fashion royalty. But it’s his personal work which really exposes his true passions – soft, saturated portraits that seemingly blur the line between photography and fine art.

We drop by his studio space before heading to his cosy East London home to talk cameras and creativity.

  • Joseph Perry

    Words

  • Theo Bridge & Jeff Hahn

    Pictures

  • 09 Feb 2016

    Published

  • 7 min read

    Length

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Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born to a Swiss father and Hong Kong-Chinese mother. We lived in various countries before moving back to Hong Kong in 2001, where I spent most of my adolescent years. I discovered photography around the age of 13. A few of my friends owned little Lomography cameras and would run around school taking blurry, colour-drenched snapshots of each other. The freedom to photograph the banal – and often what people of my parents generation wouldn’t deem worthy of film – was really exciting. It was a side of photography I’d never known.

I dabbled with photography on and off during those years, spending all of my humble allowance developing light-leaked rolls. When I was 16, I began interning at various local magazines, predominantly shooting events and still life. In 2007, a friend of mine introduced me to Kanchan Panjabi, a fashion designer, which subsequently led to my interest in fashion photography.

At 18, I found myself becoming unhappy with the work I was creating; a lack of other photographers on the scene made things easy in Hong Kong. So in 2008 I decided to take the leap and move to London to study a BA in Photography at the London College of Communication. I’ve been freelancing since I graduated, and now spend my time shooting editorially and commercially for different brands and magazines, as well as doing my own personal projects on the side.

Tell us about your creative process. How do you decide what makes a great image?





It’s not so much a decision as it is a natural gravitation towards creating a certain kind of image. In general though, I find I work best with colour, shadow and texture.

I’m quite meticulous and organised as a person in my day-to-day life, so that does filter through into my working process. Before a shoot, I’ve normally storyboarded the editorial down to the lighting and pose for each shot. I prefer to go on set with an idea of what I want to come out with. Obviously things don’t always go to plan, but I’m learning to embrace the unexpected and roll with it.


Talk us through a typical day as a fashion photographer.





It’s all over the place! I’ve been shooting abroad a lot recently, so some of the more glamorous days have consisted of pre-shoot sunrise jogs and ocean dips in Miami, post-shoot rooftop cocktails in Shanghai, or jerk chicken sunset dinners on a Jamaican beach. But in reality, the daily grind normally involves me pretending I have a regular 9-5, replying to emails and dealing with clients. I have to admit, I also spend far too much time reviewing my work and thinking that I need to achieve more – a feeling I’m sure all creatives can relate to.

I spend far too much time reviewing my work and thinking that I need to achieve more – a feeling I’m sure all creatives can relate to.

Much of your work seems to straddle the crossover between fashion and art. Was this direction a conscious decision or something that developed organically with your style?

Probably a bit of both. I’ve always found fashion quite unrelatable to be honest. The fashion photography I grew up knowing in Hong Kong was meaningless commercial gloss. The male and female forms that were being portrayed were far removed from my own reality.

My BA taught me to question everything I had previously learned. I realised I had been trying to recreate that style of work, as it was the only reference point I had. But as I’ve grown, I’ve found that the images I love making are much more honest and intimate – the kind of imagery that comes from a fine art approach. Trying to fuse this with my fashion work has been, and still is, a challenge but it’s something I’m constantly aiming to achieve.


Your 2012 self-published book
The Next Best Thing To Loving You examined the theme of staged vs reality in photography. In the age of Instagram, where lifestyles and relationships can be effortlessly curated, this theme seems more pertinent than ever. What are you views on the self-made Instagram photographer and how has the platform influenced the photography industry?





I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of digital curation and identity, so I find Instagram fascinating. Everyone now has the opportunity to become their own brand and showcase a visual identity to any audience they choose – but it’s a platform we’re still struggling to understand. It’s strange because you can have an established photographer on Instagram with only 5K followers, and some teenager in Ohio with 100K!

At the end of the day though, talent will always win. If somebody makes it because of Instagram or through relentless portfolio meetings, that’s great. There’s no fixed map to success.


Which photographers are currently inspiring your own work?






Harley Weir is everyone’s golden child right now. I’m really impressed with her fine art approach to fashion – the consistent themes, enviable colour palette and her way of contorting innocence are incredible. She’s leaving a very visible impression on the next generation of photographers.

Wing Shya and director Wong Kar Wai were probably one of the earliest reference points at which I realised my love for cinematic photography and colour. Contradicting what I said earlier about the commercial imagery prevalent in Asia, both these guys were creating work ahead of their time – and even now. Directing Happy Together, a gay romance film in 90’s Hong Kong couldn’t have been easy. I can’t imagine anyone dealing with those “taboo” topics in Hong Kong today.

Tell us about your childhood home of Hong Kong and your experiences growing up there.

Hong Kong is a strange and surreal place. It’s the fastest city in the world – all consuming and always awake. There’s a certain faded romance that’s quickly being ousted by the glass and glitz.

I have so many vivid memories of Hong Kong as a kid: riding the street trams every morning; watching record breaking skyscrapers being built on reclaimed land; backlit steam rising from food vendors; photographing the now extinct wet markets; camping in the tropical countryside; cycling through new build towns; exploring abandoned detention centres; climbing on top of seaside shopping malls; smoking on rooftops; drinking in hushed bars on old mahjong tables next to cockroach infested dai pai dongs and dancing in the red light district. It was a magical place to grow up, but also a complete bubble far removed from any idea of reality. It’s not a creative city by any means, but it’s a place where possibilities feel endless…or maybe that’s just the optimism of youth!


How did you arrive in London and why did you choose to settle in this city over another?

I moved here in 2008 to study – and to grow. After Hong Kong I needed a bigger city, so for me it was either London or New York. London is such a stark contrast to Hong Kong. It’s the grittiest, most real place I’ve lived in, and it really beats you down. As much as I glamourise the American dream in my head, a part of me will always belong here.


What are some of your favourite places to go in London to be creatively inspired or snap the perfect shot?

My favourite place is the Walthamstow Marshes for it’s utterly strange beauty. Everytime I go through there I get lost and discover something new. Epping Forest is also wonderful, as is the Isle of Dogs, especially when you glide right through its apocalyptic cityscape on the driverless DLR trains.


Are you a part of any gay communities? How much of an affiliation do you feel with them?




I’ve never felt like I belonged to any community as such. I’ve always been a chameleon due to my cross continental upbringing and mixed ethnicity, so I often fear ‘communities’ as a concept. Similarly, I don’t need to be defined by being gay, it’s just a part of me. Having said that, I have recently joined an LGBT boxing night in Euston after boxing on and off in some quite unfriendly gyms. Everyone was extremely welcoming from day one and I’ve met so many wonderful people. It’s amazing how you can have an instant connection with gay men based purely on your sexuality – it’s almost like a secret brotherhood. Well, sometimes.

It’s amazing how you can have an instant connection with gay men based purely on your sexuality – it’s almost like a secret brotherhood. Well, sometimes.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on two book projects right now – I’ve been talking about them for a while so I guess my dream would be to complete them! I haven’t done something purely for myself in ages so I’m excited to fall in love with photography all over again.

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