Seen on the Streets of Chicago, an Interview with Oak Thitayarak

I first stumbled onto the work of Chicago photographer and graphic designer Oak Thitayarak over on Ignant late last year. After following his Flickr stream for the past few months I decided it was time to learn a bit more about the person behind these incredibly candid and honest street portraits shot in my own backyard. Oak graciously agreed to do an interview and I’m excited to share it with you.

So how old are you, how long have you been in Chicago, do you have formal training in graphic design/photography?

I’m 26 years old. I’m of Thai heritage, but born and raised in Chicago. I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember, but didn’t take art very seriously until I enrolled in a graphic design program at a suburban branch of the Art Institute. There I had a great photography instructor who introduced me to portraiture and street photography, and my passion for it grew from there.

How often do you get out to shoot? And how do you select your subjects, are you looking for something in particular?

I try to shoot as often as I can. Lately it’s been once a week, for the past few months. But I’ll go on a photography hiatus for months if I’m inspired and working on my graphic design or illustrations, and vice versa.

When I am out shooting and wandering the streets, I try to look for potential stories, whether it’s through the characteristics of single person, their reaction to something happening, or their relationship to the city environment. I want the audience to read my images and see a moment of life. Other times I simply collect interesting characters. To me these spontaneous portraits are like quick jokes, one look at it and you know why it’s funny, cool, or even scary.

Some photos suggest you’re asking permission to take a photo, and in others they seem oblivious to your presence. How do you approach each photo?

This depends on the situation. If someone seems approachable, I’ll ask to take their photo, maybe have a conversation, and move on. And surprisingly, 9 out of 10 people actually don’t mind having their photo taken, you just have to approach them the right way. I also like creating scenes that feel more natural as opposed to asking strangers to pose for me. This usually starts when I see someone unique walking down the street. I enjoy the challenge of considering the background, where the subject will be placed in that environment, lighting, catching them in perfect motion, all calculated within a split second. And with a little bit of luck, I’ll have something worth sharing.

Have you ever offended anyone?

Haha, this is the most common question I get asked, and the short answer is yes. The thing is, I like working up close, very close. And believe it or not, the majority of the time people have no idea I was ever even there. On occasion they’d respond with the death stare, followed by a few hilarious words. Some have asked why I’m taking pictures of them, and I’d tell them the truth, it’s for my art. The fact is, we’re on public streets and it’s not illegal, maybe obtrusive at times, but I’m not hurting anyone. I do believe there are ethics to this, and I’m not out to ruin anyone’s day. If I feel I’ve bothered someone, or they tell me they don’t want to be photographed, out of respect I would delete picture right after. But most simply don’t care.

Your series of homeless people made the rounds on quite a few blogs recently, including this one. Can you talk a bit about how that project came about?

I was first introduced to portraits of street people by my photography teacher. During that class, one of our assignments was to go out and get portraits of people we didn’t know, and that was the first time I attempted these portraits. I find these individuals extremely captivating. What I love most is the way their stories seem to be written on their face and hands, but it’s more than skin deep. Over time, the Walk On By series became about not judging a book by its cover. Not everyone fits in a stereotype, and this applies to the judgment of people in general. Understanding kills ignorance, and that’s what I hope people get out of those images.

Any upcoming projects?

I’m a huge fan of cinematography. I often watch films to study how stories are expressed visually. Recently I’ve been trying to blend that look with my street photography. With this style I rely on strong cinematic composition, and heavy use of colors to convey mood. My scenes are still documentations of everyday life, just seen and expressed more artistically. Now if I can find a way to combine the sounds of life on the streets to these still images, my mission would be complete. So keep an eye out for that in the future.

A huge thanks to Oak for taking his time to share his work with Colossal. If you’d like to learn more head over to www.oakt.net.

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