Visions We Love: Chris Vongsawat

If you've been around for the OG Arsenic days, y'all know we're obsessed with NYC based photographer & film-maker's vision, Chris Vongsawat. He really knows how to give us the feels with his unique mix of fashion photography, along with some editorial and enigmatic, sensual vibes. 

The first time we worked with Chris was 2013 in New York City, we were completely blown away with his production (video below) of Rapture. Now, this week we're lucky as Chris has graced our presence in LA, and is photographing an Arsenic shoot, which you can catch it on ArsenicTV

What we really love about Chris, is how he first got into photography. His creativity started while he was deployed as a US military advisor to the Afghan National Army in 2008. In Afghanistan, he documented his militarily duties and excursions, through images of the convoys, soldiers, the Afghan landscape and its people. In 2009, he had those images featured in the Hearst 8x10 Photography Biennial, and was also on display in other galleries such as Alexey Brodovitch, the Powerhouse Arena, and the National Veterans Art Museum. 

In 2009, Chris was honorably discharged from the military and started his creative journey in the filmmaking industry in NYC.

In New York City, he began as a photographer shooting stills, transitioned to video as a camera assistant, then to a camera operator, and worked on various music videos and short films until he became the director and creator we all love now. Chris now focuses on fashion, and continues to slay in New York City through both his stills and films.

OKAY SCREW THE SURFACE TYPE SHIT. CHRIS ANSWERED SOME QUESTIONS, KEEP READING IF YOU REALLY WANT TO PEEK INTO HIS CREATIVE MIND.

What was my 'AHA moment' that made it clear to me that pursuing my creativity was the right path?

Well the funny thing is is that I don’t really look at what I do in such a singular way. I’m very romantic about the idea of being a Renaissance person, a polymath, someone who tries to understand how things work in a multitude of fields and then intersects them in ways that might yield innovation. Building new world views by smashing unorthodox communities and ideas together, I think that’s where my passion lies. It weaves in and out of what we might traditionally consider art, but it’s all creative. I spend a ridiculous amount of time devouring books on psychology, marketing, business, history, science, teamwork—it’s not just about “art” for me. This exploration of the unknown is the thing that excites me. It just so happens that photography and video are the brightest torches I have for piercing the darkness and pressing forward with this desire to meld and morph the disconnected or distant. The models are just the most visible parts of a much larger leviathan that’s always been there.    

That said, I have had something of an ‘AHA moment’ happen recently, but it’s more of a tactical thing, not a big picture ‘AHA’. I’ve been reading a lot lately about synergy and how communication between people can create a sort of external mind that is often smarter, more talented, and more creative than the individual people having the conversation. I experienced it countless times in the military—teams performing much better than others when the right kind of talking, empathy, and, counter-intuitively for the Army, equality is in play.

I experienced it countless times in the military—teams performing much better than others when the right kind of talking, empathy, and, counter-intuitively for the Army, equality is in play. I experienced it countless times in the military—teams performing much better than others when the right kind of talking, empathy, and, counter-intuitively for the Army, equality is in play.

I’m really curious about what happens if instead of thinking of myself as an artist or director, someone in charge, what if I commit fully to being a co-creator? A high level collaborator? Someone who doesn’t prioritize their own vision or expression, but rather focuses on nurturing that external mind, that ethereal artist between collaborators who thrives on good communication and shared vision? A facilitator of synergy? I’ve naturally been operating that way for various reasons, but I’ve just seen over and over again the power of nurturing the artistry of the group, even if it’s just me and a model, rather than any single player completely dominating the conversation. It’s not about democracy or consensus, but more a particular way of thinking, talking, and melding even when we don’t all agree. There are definitely still shoots where I’m basically the creative director and I’m running the whole show, but I don’t think doing more of those jobs are very interesting to me. Being in charge doesn’t drive me. Empowering others, doing things that requires unique combinations of people, being part of things that are bigger than myself, THAT’S exciting to me. I feel much more connected to things that way. 

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"Being in charge doesn’t drive me. Empowering others, doing things that requires unique combinations of people, being part of things that are bigger than myself.."

What was the most compelling aspect about Arsenic, when you were first asked to work with us?

I was really impressed by how decentralized everything was. Of course there’s some level of editing and selection that goes on, but it was the first platform I saw that really embraced this sort of open source distribution. Arsenic was using social media on a level that I don’t think anyone else was really doing at the time. I remember when I shot SUBMERGE at the first Arsenic House, we had people on Snapchat, Meerkat, AND Periscope documenting the shoot. A lot of magazines might look at that scene and scoff at it, but Arsenic saw it as an asset, which impressed me. And as I’ve seen Arsenic grow, I think it’s a window into what a post-magazine world could look like. Everyone else is trying to convert magazines into a digital space. They’re chained to legacy. But Arsenic was building from a totally different starting point.

Every artist battles with their own creative struggle. What's mine?

I’d say my creative struggle is based largely on speed. How do I get faster? How can I care less about details that don’t matter? How can I work differently to shave off a few seconds here, a few minutes there? I’ve seen work I’ve put a lot of time and heart into get no response, and work I put out quickly and was unsure of get massive response. It happens pretty steadily both ways so I’ve learned to detach myself from thinking of time as a necessary ingredient of quality. I’m pretty focused on using art as a means to connect and build a giant network of people, so the more projects I can turn around, the more people I can meet, the more my end game of a vast global network will be realized. So speed as a gateway to quantity is THE priority. I think I’m pretty anti in that way compared to most creatives I’ve met.

As for how I deal with it, it’s an ongoing exploration. Last year I exhaustively spent a lot of time studying workflows and efficiency, adding every hack and shortcut I could find to cut even a half second off my time retouching and editing projects. People think I’m crazy because I get excited about finding a way to not move my mouse or avoiding unnecessary clicks. I’m also looking into building up a team of assistant editors right now to help me with the early stages of pulling clips from raw footage. Whether it’s changing myself or bringing on others, I’m almost trying to create a situation where I have more than 24 hours in a day.  

What's my workflow like?

It’s fairly instinctual and I work differently with different people. I shoot more than I think I need, and I aim for a lot of variety, while also keeping an eye on the clock. Different angles, different movements, fast and slow, messy and clean, sexy and boring. I sort of shake up the situation with different extremes, I see what emerges, and I just try to capture it all with as wide a net as I can. It’s very much about reacting to things and knowing how to create situations to react to. But every shoot is different. I think one thing I do well is I know how to direct in a wide variety of ways depending on how the model is reacting to me. If a model doesn’t understand what I’m saying at first, I’ll explain it differently until hopefully something clicks. And it’s less about a model doing what I say and more about her interpreting what I’m saying and seeing what she does with it, which goes back to this whole idea of synergy and the connection between us making the art rather than me pulling anything specific out of her.

What's my most interesting experience during a photoshoot?

I can’t really say there’s been a most interesting shoot when it comes to the entire time I’ve been shooting. There have been a lot of shoots that stand out for different reasons. But I can say what my most interesting shoot last year was though. It was a video shoot. I did a campaign film out in Cuba in December and it was just this crazy and amazing experience. Going to Cuba is already pretty exotic, but then me and the team were running around Havana with four models and being REALLY public about it. We were running in and out of traffic, asking random old ladies to shoot in their apartments, hiring locals to dance with the models outside hotel entrances. Shooting is not nearly as exciting as people think it is. But that particular shoot was the closest I’d ever come in reality to how I think people imagine shoots to be—-fun, exotic, eccentric, vibrant, enchanting, fantastical. It was something out of travel fiction or a romance novel. It was one hell of a time.

What's my passion project? Where else can I satisfy my creativity?

There’s several things I’m exploring simultaneously as collaborations. Biggest thing is I’m trying to expand into a much more global presence, so shooting in cities and forming relationships around the world, particularly Australia and Europe. I’m looking into figuring out how I can create stuff in VR or VR related media. I’m looking into doing more work with models and stylists who do comedy and shooting sketches. I’m doing some work with a pet photographer trying to see how to intersect the pet industry with fashion and models. I’m trying to shoot and edit more videos using ONLY the iPhone just to see what benefits the mobility might create. I’m trying to do more interesting Snapchat/Instastory videos based around getting a bunch of potentially funny and eccentric models together in quirky situations. Essentially, just a lot of exploring through collaborating. I think the media landscape is going to be extremely different in the next 5-10 years and I think the smartest thing I could do is be part of a diverse network of optimistic, generous, hard working people trying new things and for us to sort of all be in the chaos together. 

In a Chris Vongsawat Creative K-Hole?

Be sure to check out more work on his Instagram, website and Tumblr