Justin Chung and Faculty Department
We recently spent a morning catching up with our friend Justin Chung. A photographer who’s shot for J. Crew, Zara, and Kinfolk, we explored how he came into photography and how it’s shaped his career and family-life.
Justin is also the founder of Faculty Department, a personal project charged with the exploration of different ways of living. At the center of this conversation is our universal need to tell stories and how shared experiences allow for us grow closer to one another.
MW: So Justin, you mentioned off the record that you’ve been in LA for a few years now. Where are you coming from?
JC: I’m originally from San Francisco. I’ve always been a city kid, so I didn’t really grow up doing much outdoor stuff. I also had family in LA, and we’d see them occasionally, so the city didn't feel too foreign. But I’ve spent most of my career in New York. I moved out there to really pursue more opportunities and to see if photography was something that I could actually take seriously. But me and my wife did some family planning and eventually decided California was where we wanted to be.
MW: Do you feel like there is a weight off your shoulders not living in New York anymore?
JC: I wouldn’t say so. I go back there frequently, so that might be impacting my rationale, but New York still feels like a huge part of me. I loved being able to wake up and walk anywhere I wanted and still have access to the things I need. Having a bodega down the street, or a coffee shop around the corner. There’s nowhere really like that city. Los Angeles is a very different experience for me. Everyone is so far away from each other. I live in Highland Park now, so I’ve maintained a close proximity to that kind of lifestyle, but it certainly isn’t the same. I can’t necessarily walk to my coffee shop or bodega as easily as I would’ve in New York, but I’m still in tune with my community and my neighborhood, and that feels right to me.
MW: Highland park is a great one. Everyone walks everywhere. It’s still very traditional. A lot of old families, very Hispanic. I hope it stays like that for a while still.
JC: I agree. It has the infrastructure to be a really great commerce neighborhood. There’s all these shops and restaurants that have parking lots in the back. And you don’t see that anywhere around here. It’s very rare. It’s a little detail, but plays a huge role in incentivizing people to go and spend their money in their neighborhood.
MW: Definitely. So you’re a family man, right? Married?
JC: Yeah I’m married. I have two kids; a four year old and a one year old. Like I mentioned earlier, my family was the real motivation for leaving New York. Me and my wife knew that the longer we stayed there, the harder it would be to leave. So we just muscled through and made it out here. But it was a really tough transition for me. The first couple years I felt like I was on a different wavelength than everyone around me. It’s a different pace, a different way of working. But now I couldn’t be happier. I feel like I’ve really come to my own out here.
MW: It’s an interesting conversation for people in our circles regarding family and career. I feel like the common train of thought is you devote 100% of your time to your work, or to your family, but doing both seems out of the cards. Have you felt that pressure? Or has it been easy for you to maneuver between both?
JC: It’s a good question. I can definitely understand why people think like that. I feel fortunate that my relationship is built on a really solid foundation. I married my college sweetheart, and we’ve been together for many years now. Having a family has only made our relationship stronger. We’ve established this understanding of how to support each other. So if I need to focus on my work, or pursue an opportunity, I know that she has my back and I can rest assured. And the same goes for her. The cool thing that I’ve realized about having kids is that it forces you to focus on the work you really want to pursue. You have to be more selective with your time. Before, I might have taken on a job that I wasn’t thrilled about just because I had the time and ability to manage it. Now there’s only so much I can do in a given day. The time that I allot for my work is for projects that I’m excited about, and help me achieve what I want. That kind of mindset wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t have my family as a priority in my life.
MW: I’ve never thought about it like that.
JC: It’s incredibly freeing. It also keeps me fresh. Seeing my four year old draw and explore his imagination. It’s life-giving. I feel just as enthusiastic about it as he does. And it’s a mirror. If the work I’m making doesn’t give me the same feeling, why am I doing it?
MW: Can you tell me about how you got into photography and landed where you are today? The level of work you’re making is insane.
JC: Thank you. Photography didn’t show up until later in my life. Later than most of our colleagues, at least. Looking back at high school and early college, photography wasn’t anywhere on my radar, in the slightest. But, I was incredibly passionate about storytelling and presentation. I was pre-med in college, and would put so much time and effort into the presentations I was giving. How things looked, layout of information, I was obsessed with it. The first internship I got was at one of the best teaching hospitals in Cambodia. It’s sort of ironic because the hospital was founded by a National Geographic photographer who got injured capturing some of the temples out there. Some kids led him to a hospital, and he eventually went back and founded his own. There’s a gallery in it that has exhibited some amazing photographers. But leaving that experience, I was less attracted to the idea of being a doctor, and more moved to connecting with people through stories. It really opened my eyes to other opportunities outside of the medical sphere. I ended up switching over to a communication studies major, and really began exploring the realms of visual storytelling. But photography didn’t really present itself to me until my graduate school days. I got my master’s degree in Public Health at UMass Amherst. My thought behind it was that it could only benefit me, and it’d make things easier if I wanted to go to med school. But I bought a camera to document my move to the east coast, and immediately became hooked. I was taking pictures of my dogs and my neighborhood, and could feel the power of the medium. I started taking on shooting weddings, and began making some money from it. I ended up writing my graduate thesis on photography; studying the effects of giving cameras to different focus groups and exhibiting what they documented.
MW: That sounds amazing.
JC: Yeah, it was really special. I ended up graduating and moving back to San Francisco. Really unsure of what to do: Should I pursue photography? Even though I just got this degree in Public Health? I did a shoot for this emerging platform that helped unsigned models get work, called Model Mayhem. I remember having such high hopes for that day, and seemingly everything went wrong. I left feeling even more confused. A week later though, I got a call from some small boutique agencies that needed headshots and model photos. Before I knew it, I was scheduling a shoot for almost every day. I just really put 100% into it. I forged really strong relationships with those agencies, and any time they had talent coming from New York, they would always send it my way. The agencies in New York that would eventually get my photos reached out to me and said if I was ever around that there would be work for me. And this was around 2010. I quickly realized that I had two directions: I could go to New York, or I could go to LA, and really pursue this and see it through. I talked to my wife, girlfriend at the time, and we ended up moving to Brooklyn. A four-month sublet turned into an eight-year stay.
MW: You know, growing up for me, I picked up a film camera when I was 14 or 15 because I was really inspired by people a little older than me on Instagram taking really amazing photos. This was like 2012, 2013, where Instagram really felt like a platform made for creatives. But your story is kind of the opposite it seems. Like you said, photography was hardly on your radar. Did you ever worry about being a late bloomer or coming into it after your contemporaries?
JC: No, it was never a thought that crossed my mind. Mainly because at the time, I didn’t have any contemporaries. I wasn’t around anyone doing anything creatively. I didn’t even have an understanding of how photographers made money. But it was probably for the better. It’s easy to be discouraged when you’re comparing yourself. I put all my time and attention into making opportunities exist.
MW: Definitely. If we fast-forward to the present, you’ve been making images for about a decade now. Have you landed on an ideal image, or visual style? Or is that still something you’re reaching for?
JC: It’s a good question. At the end of the day, photography for me is a tool to connect and get a glimpse of how people are living. That’s always been the driving force for me. So if one of my photos can evoke a feeling, or convey a way of living, then in my mind it’s done its job. Ultimately the camera is a mirror, in my opinion. It should reflect the state of whatever environment you’re capturing.
MW: Let’s talk about Faculty Department a little bit. Hearing about your need and desire to tell stories visually, Faculty seems like the meeting place for those things to happen.
JC: It all started around 2012, maybe 2013. I went to this Japanese bookstore in New York called Kinokuniya. They had these cult-like publications called Free & Easy that focused on Americana and men’s fashion. I obsessed over them. Working in fashion, I was inspired by their take on things. I was travelling to Japan for a job for J. Crew, so was looking for some inspiration. When I was checking out, I saw this book that caught my eye. It was titled ‘Truck’, and in a store dominated by Japanese characters, this book felt like something you’d see in a Ralph Lauren store. I flipped through it. It documented this family that built a furniture shop in Japan from scratch. From prospecting the land all the way to cutting the ribbon. The whole thing. I was just taken by how this book documented an entire life. I was able to pivot from my job with J. Crew and go see the furniture shop for myself. I met with the owner, and what started as meeting for coffee led to visiting the showroom, led to having dinner together. We really just spent the whole day together. Luckily I had my camera with me, and was able to document the entire experience. I went back to Brooklyn, got the photos developed, and was truly moved by this photo essay I had created. I didn’t feel compelled to share it online. It meant too much to me, and I wanted to present it in a way that I can share it with the owner in Japan. I was talking with a former professor of mine about the project, and was inspired to present the story similar to how we would present case studies in graduate school. My professor mentioned that these stories resembled an introduction to faculty members, hence the name. Intro to woodworking, intro to whatever. But using photo essays to explore different profiles and various ways of living. It really turned into how I figured out what exactly photography is to me.
MW: That’s insane. Who could’ve imagined that a single book would have that much impact on you?
JC: It still baffles me. Spending a whole day with him, having dinner. I never would have expected it to play out like that. Looking back on it, it’s funny because that’s exactly the kind of person he is.
MW: It’s always interesting to me that these people we look up to, who we want a chance to interact with, while they seem unreachable, it’s normally not the case. With a little work, I find people are much more receptive and open to opportunities than we might imagine. It’s almost hard to believe at points.
JC: Yeah, it often comes as a surprise.
MW: I’m wondering, as you recruit these faculty members and are trying to find the right stories to share, are there obstacles that seem impossible for you to get over?
JC: I think any obstacles were self-induced, honestly. I had this idea that I wanted to turn Faculty Department into a book. All of a sudden this personal project became increasingly challenging. How am I going to finance printing? How do you even design a book? Logistics, packaging. All these challenges of small business operations suddenly became large hurdles. The biggest obstacle was learning how to manage fulfillment, and all the other nuances once you actually have the final product. But all those make for valuable lessons. Doing it the first time seemed impossible, but the second time around it felt a little less daunting.
MW: I’m glad you bring that up. Issue one had 13 contributors. Issue two, that dropped towards the end of last year, had 23, almost double. Did you see any noticeable shifts from Issue One to Issue Two, outside of size?
JC: I was just looking at Issue One a few days ago. Looking at it in hindsight, it’s clear to me that I was making it out of selfishness. Focusing on different intrapreneurs, and ways of making, I was exploring career opportunities that were foreign to me. I was drawn to these trades that I had no experience with. Nobody around me was a furniture maker, a clothing designer, a barista. It all felt new and exciting to me. I was fixated on how people achieve a self-made kind of living through their crafts. What I noticed after I made Issue One, was that there was a lot of overlap between these trades. A lot of parallels between the furniture maker and barista, for example. So where Issue One explored the craft of these individuals, Issue Two stepped back and focused on how these people are actually living. What are they doing when they’re not working? And how do those actions build up into a lifestyle, into a mentality? A big turning point for Issue Two was meeting up with Shoichiro Aiba, a Japanese chef. There’s a lot to say in regards to the experience I had meeting with him, but I remember having coffee with him outside his cabin one morning during Winter. It was snowing out. It was just so clear to see the importance that nature and his surroundings had on his mentality. It wasn’t about money or material goods for him. He focused on simple adjustments that can be made to allow you to be happier. I came back to LA and just knew what direction Issue Two would go in.
MW: Totally. Was having a language barrier with Shoichiro uncomfortable? I would imagine that acts of service seem much more intentional when you can’t talk about them or explain what’s going on.
JC: 100%. He told me later how nervous he was. We hardly talked while I was with him. I think he was a little confused about what I was doing there. He wasn’t sure what a story around him would look like. But you’re right, you learn a lot about people’s lifestyles and habits when they’re not able to explain every little interaction. It’s very telling and honest.
MW: I’m curious about what the future of Faculty Department looks like. Do you have any plans?
JC: Honestly, no. I haven’t gotten there yet. The problem with doing a book is that there’s so much production involved. There’s so many stories I want to share, so potentially exploring more online storytelling options. But it’s still a personal project. There’s no business plan or any production goals I’m trying to hit.
MW: It’s really cool to see that you’re working with longer timelines as well. I mean, there was a five year gap between the first and second books. It feels refreshing not shoving stuff down people’s throats. It feels more timeless when you give the projects the ability to breathe and grow before the next thing comes.
JC: I’m glad you brought up that idea of timelessness. Up until now, each story has existed as a single chapter in a larger book. What does it look like to give a single story it’s own platform? Really exploring long-form storytelling. I’m not quite sure how to best approach it just yet.
MW: It’s an interesting point. We’ve wondered the same things with these journal stories. We’re really proud of them, and love the guests we’ve had and the conversations we’ve explored, but we’re always questioning how we can increase the life of them. Right now they’re only digital, what does it look like to have a print editorial? Is it something we can manage? We’re not too sure either.
JC: There’s always an associated risk in starting projects like that. It can be paralyzing at times.
MW: Definitely. As we begin to wrap this up, I want to hear a little bit about how you’ve been working in quarantine. Obviously production has been hit really hard throughout all of this, and collaboration has dropped significantly. How have you been managing through it?
JC: It’s tough, for sure. Anyone who says otherwise is probably lying. The joy of production is making stuff with other people. Whether that’s a small shoot with just me and the talent, or on a larger scale with an entire team. But when there’s no collaboration, there’s a lot of pressure on the photographer. You might not have the immediate feedback of the client or art director present. Working on your own can be scary. I think it’s incredibly important for photographers, for creatives as a whole, to start owning their own voice. At the end of the day, the client hired you. Trusting yourself, trusting your instincts, and creating work that is true to you feels entirely relevant in production during this pandemic.
MW: It’s a really smart point to bring up. It’s one thing to be confident in a room full of people where you can show them what you’re working on in real time. But how can you convey that confidence through an email? How can you send selects over to the client and convince them that’s the direction they need to go in? Obviously the work has to be good enough to speak for itself, but everyone is looking for a reassuring voice as well.
JC: You’re 100% right. And you can fake that mentality all you want, and sometimes you need to do that, but you’re never going to gain that level of confidence if you’re not going out and making opportunities for yourself.