On a few rare occasions, I've been privileged enough to be one of Tommy Ga-Ken Wan's photographic subjects. His work conjures atmospheric narratives from the best in cinematic history and when finding interesting Glaswegian's for the GQ x GAP campaign, I knew I had to ask Tommy.
As a photographer he has fully embraced the digital age with a legion of fans through his Flickr page yet in person is as polite and humble as he looks. We took a walk around Merchant City to shoot items from the Ernest Alexander collection and caught up on his inspirations and journey so far.
Tommy Ga-Ken Wan, Photographer
Where did you grow up and where do you live now? I grew up in Ayr, a biggish seaside town on the west coast of Scotland. It was a fine place to be brought up, but by the time I left at the age of 17 to study at Glasgow University, I was ready. Ten years later, I continue to call Glasgow my home, and I love it here.
What's your star sign? Capricorn.
What music are you listening to right now? I've recently been reimmersing myself in a lot of music I loved in years past: the Stevie Wonder of my teenage years, the Ryuichi Sakamoto of my early twenties, and watching NBC's excellent series Hannibal has reignited my passion for baroque classical music. I'm excited about the release of Prefab Sprout's new album this week, but it's the breathtaking eclecticism, humour and insight of Chilly Gonzales which I think will define this year for me musically.
Have you read anything inspiring recently? I finished reading Infinite Jest this year. It's an extraordinary novel, and I won't even try to describe it. I simply urge anyone with an interest in life to read it. In non-fiction, I've been taking every opportunity to tell people about the political philosopher Michael Sandel's 'What Money Can't Buy': a brilliant, balanced and profound exploration of what, in a good society, should not be for sale.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? At 7, I wanted to be an astronaut until I learned about the gruelling physical training they had to go through: long periods confined to isolation chambers, that kind of thing. By the age of 12, I wanted to be a philosopher, by 14 a lawyer and, when I started my degree in English Literature at 17, I had no idea what I was going to do. It didn't occur to me to pursue photography as a career until I was 20.
When did you first pick up a camera? Do you remember the feeling you had? What about the resulting photographs? I was fourteen when my parents gave me my first camera. My abiding memory of that day and the of using the camera is simply that it was fun, but it didn't take me long to realise that the camera had social value. I was a shy and awkward teenager, and whenever I was faced with an embarrassing moment or a situation I simply didn't want to be in, I could lift the camera to my face. Milan Kundera once wrote that the camera serves as "both a mechanical eye through which to observe...and a veil by which to conceal her face." This rings true for me but, by the time I started studying at university, I wanted to be sociable, and discovered (this was in the days before cameras were as ubiquitous as they are now) that the camera was an excuse for people to approach and talk to me. My first photographs had no technical merit at all: the process of understanding light and composition was one I undertook alone, without the help of any formal education or even books and magazines, and it took a long time.
How did you get into photography? It was by chance. The camera that my parents gave to me was a free gift they had received. They couldn't have imagined then that they were providing the spark for a hobby, a passion, an obsession and eventually a career. The idea of studying it never occurred to me. Instead, I pursued something else I loved and went to Glasgow University to study English Literature.
How does your education influence for photographic work? I was once in an interview with the graphic designer Andrew Wolffe, and when I told him my degree was in English Literature he asked "And do you take photographs in an English Literature kind of way?" I didn't immediately know what he meant, but the more I thought about it the more I realised that I do. I studied literature because I love stories, and because other people's fictions are, I think, among the best ways to learn about ourselves and about others. So in my photographs I present a person or people in a situation, and that's it. There's no grand concept: just people, doing what they do. Susan Sontag once wrote that "The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: ‘There is the surface. Now think—or rather feel, intuit—what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way" and I've never forgotten it. It sums up my work so well.
In person, you come across as very polite, quiet and almost shy. This is the antithesis on your online presence as you can be brutally honest in your photographic posts. Is this intentional? How do you think this manifests itself? It's not necessarily intentional, but I'm sure they're related. Photography helped me to overcome my shyness and to express myself, to open up, in ways that wouldn't be socially acceptable or appropriate in general, day-to-day interactions. I'm woefully inept when it comes to small talk and "banter", and this results in the quietness or shyness you've perceived. Despite this, I love talking to people. For example, the first time I met the chef Alexis Gauthier, it was in the dynamic of client-employee. After the small talk and the business talk, we spoke of various things and throughout he - with a typically French openness - asked me a lots of very personal and deep questions. "I'm sorry," he would then say, "that's really none of my business." But I thought yes! Let's make it your business: our business! These are the kinds of things I want to talk about! Let's talk about love and fear and sex and power and sacrifice and what it means to be a human being, and not all these superficial and material obstructions we make to hide from ourselves and from each other! Stop looking at your smartphone and let me see your eyes! I wish it was acceptable to approach a stranger at the bus stop and find out her story; take her hand, look into her eyes and say "Are you happy? Are you really happy?" Why don't I just do it anyway? I'm too shy. And but so maybe I take a photograph instead, so I can look into her eyes at home in a photograph and wonder about whether she's happy. Conversely, I walk away from most social encounters, especially first ones, thinking "that wasn't me, I wasn't myself" and so in my photographs it's what I try to show: my self. I think that a lot of people who write or who engage in any creative pursuit do it to find out who they are, and then share it to find someone who understands who they are, to ask "Do you get this? Do you get me?"
You're also known for your Grannie Annie videos. How did this come about? Do people know you're the grandson of this infamous Scottish lady? I've been making them since I was 14. My sister and I would wind up my Gran because we found her responses so funny. I spent years showing them to my friends, and then one day decided to put them on Youtube. Enough people agreed that they were funny and, before long, she was getting stopped in the street and my inbox was full of emails asking me if it's true that I'm Tom. I think their peak has passed, but people still talk about them from time to time. Not too long ago, a guy in the toilets of a Glasgow nightclub asked me "Are you Grannie Annie's grandson!?" When I told him it was true, he said. "Total Legend, man. You want some ketamine?"
Glasgow has such a strong student presence. If there's one photographic subject that sticks in my mind from you, it's the series of Glasgow's creative kids on the town at night. Cigarette smoking, gig attending, messy haired art school kids. How have you seen a change in this Glasgow scene since you began photography? What continues to interest you about this group? Young people are beautiful, physically, which is obviously desirable photographically, but it's deeper than that. They're at such an important stage in the journey of self-discovery, experimenting with new ideas, images, experiences: this openness to life lends itself to portraiture and documentation which is above all honest. Much of that, as with any portraiture, depends on a degree of trust. My demeanour - physically I'm short and unthreatening, conversationally I'm, as you've said, quiet and polite - may be helpful in this but, more than anything, the work I made when I was spending time with them was informed by the fact that I was one of them too, doing the same thing: trying to work out where I was going to fit in, to work out what kind of man I was going to be, and using the same methods - conversation, art, drugs, fashion - to do so.
Maybe my sense of how it has changed is irrelevant because I'm no longer inside that scene - or is tainted by the fact that I once was - but it seems to me that it has become more mainstream. This may be a good thing, the result of a gradual acceptance of images, activities and ideas that would once have seemed unconventional and which now aren't. My instinct, though, is that it has more to do with a commodification of that identity. Brands want to tap into it and exploit it. This is nothing new, of course. I don't know much about the history of fashion or about how fashion works, but I once read that denim jeans were an egalitarian product until YSL put them into a collection and made them high-fashion. Then, as a fashion item, they became aspirational for the middle classes and, once they started to wear them, jeans lost what coolness they possessed or signified. And so onto something new. Fashion, it seems to me, is change.
What’s the most challenging thing about your job? The uncertainty. Not knowing what's coming next, and not knowing where the next paycheque comes from. And even if I know where the next fifty are coming from, what about the one after that? It's terrifying, and stopping that fear from paralysing me is a daily struggle, which sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. But it's the price I pay for all that I love about my job and, despite it, I've never doubted that this what I want to do.
What do you like most about your job? The uncertainty. The idea that I could be sighing out of my window at a grey Glasgow sky and an email could arrive asking me to pack my lenses, get on a plane and shoot Paris from the back of a motorbike or Hong Kong from the side of a film truck.
I'm a huge fan of print publications - do you have any favourites? A few years ago I discovered, on the table of a hotel room in Hong Kong, a hefty and beautifully bound magazine called The Rake: "The Modern Voice of Classic Elegance." The products it showcases are worlds away from anything I could ever afford, but I enjoy the photography and most of all the prose, which is at times lovably pompous and at times horrendously snobbish, but always hilarious. Every time I'm in Asia I make an effort to pick up the latest copy. That's the only one that comes to mind: I rarely buy any print publications anymore. If I'm at an airport and want something to read on the plane, usually I pick up New Scientist.
What's your opinion on the upcoming Scottish referendum? In the past few years, my views on Scottish independence have gone from unionist to wavering to strongly nationalist, which is where they sit today. When I say nationalist I only mean political independence, not flag-waving or sentimentalism or xenophobia or any of those other things which the word is sometimes associated with. I'm very much on the left of the political spectrum, both economically and socially, and so I like peace, environmentalism, the redistribution of wealth, social justice. I'm confident that an independent Scotland - governed by the SNP or not - will deliver these things to her people more than any UK government will. My own views aside, it's obvious from Scottish polling data and election results that Scotland is much further to the left of England: less than 17% of Scottish people voted Conservative in the last general election, and yet it's a Conservative government which decides issues of constitution, foreign policy, energy, employment and defence for Scotland. This is incredible. I hope the people of Scotland are brave enough to vote for change next year.
Why do you love Glasgow? I haven't spent enough time in other UK cities to know whether Glasgow is special in this respect, but it seems that, even in this time of austerity and recession, there's always a new restaurant to try, a new bar to drink in, a new club to dance in. In recent years we've seen the appearance of huge buildings like The Riverside Museum and The Hydro, creative hubs like The Whisky Bond and The Glue Factory; the Theatre Royal is currently undergoing a massive refurbishment, and the National Theatre of Scotland is building a new creation centre. It's amazing, everything that's happening in this city. When I compare Glasgow to Edinburgh - it seems to me that the only respects in which the capital trumps Glasgow is in natural beauty and fine dining - I know I belong in Glasgow. On every night of the week in Glasgow, there are things to be done, whether it's theatre, classical music, gigs, club nights, exhibitions. And all this is only a ten minute journey on the tube from the leafy, bohemian west end where I live. I'm fortunate to travel a lot and, after the hurly-burly of London or Singapore, Glasgow is the perfect place to return to and to call my home.
What’s an average day like for you? My work tends to come in bursts: I'll spend a week eating quickly in cafes between shoots, returning home only to sleep and to empty my pockets of train tickets and taxi receipts. The next week might have hardly any work at all: I'll spend that going to the gym, processing photographs, cooking and eating at home, reading books, watching films and spending time with my friends. It's a rare blessing when I find the right balance: too much of either can be physically or psychologically challenging, but I certainly won't complain.
Do you have a dream client? I have a lot of childhood memories of Michael Palin's travel documentaries because my dad was, and remains, a huge fan. I took an interest in them as I grew up and, after I developed an interest in photography, I would look through the accompanying books and admire the images. Since then, I've always thought that my dream job would be to the stills photographer for Palin's shows; or maybe even just his job of hosting them, although I'd have to do it with a camera in hand.
How would you describe your personal style? I'd probably say smart, preppy and boyish with a gentleman's twist. I never think of myself as particularly stylish or fashionable: usually I feel I'm dressed either like a philosophy tutor who's trying too hard to be down with the kids, or an aged academic who isn't trying at all. I can't remember who, but someone once told me it was "Frasier Crane meets Jarvis Cocker" which I quite liked. I'm not sure if it's true anymore, though. These days it's like a uniform: jeans or chinos, brogues or loafers, and a shirt. The older I get, the more casual my personal style gets, and the more casual my attitude to it all gets too. When I was young, I wanted through my clothes to project an image of the person I wanted to be: creative, successful, intellectual. This was essentially an expression of my insecurity. As I get older and feel a bit more secure in myself and where I am in my life, the less I care about what my clothes say.
Do you have a favourite menswear designer or store right now? I tend to be constrained by being able to find clothes which fit my small frame. My shoes are Loake. Most of my shirts are from Ralph Lauren; almost everything else comes from Zara or Uniqlo.
What's on the horizon for Mr Ga-Ken Wan? Who knows? I've made some forays into cinematography, an area which I'm keen to explore further, and have had some tentative invitations, off the back of The Big Shot, to consider more work in television. Whatever happens, I hope it will be frightening and exhilarating and make me feel alive. And whatever happens, I'll have my camera over my shoulder.
Finally, leave us with some words of wisdom...To whatever extent I have wisdom, it's based on knowledge that I've had for a long time: knowledge that I think we all have because it forms the basis of every cliche and parable we've ever heard or learned. The constant challenge is for us to take them from being distant truths at the back of the mind and bring them up front, to apply them in daily life. The only way I've been able to do this is to throw myself into life and to keep my mind open and self-aware while doing so. I find the whole thing terrifying. These, of course, are just more cliches, but the only way to bring them to life is to shut down your computer, put your phone away, go outside, make relationships and engage with the world.
Come along to GAP on Buchanan Street tonight at 7pm, to preview the new American Designs collection. RSVP to GarconJon@gmail.com.