For Ken Kochey, photography is all about the people. Following his recent collaboration with Jumeirah Al Naseem in Dubai, the American travel photographer gives a rare glimpse into his life and work.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Ken Kochey’s are worth a story. From assisting fashion photographer Bruce Weber in New York to photographing cannibal tribes in the South Pacific, Kochey’s journey to the peaks of travel photography is as colourful as his portfolio.
Born in Philadelphia, raised in Hawaii, Kochey’s arrival in Dubai marks his first visit to the Middle East. In town to photograph the newly opened Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel, the American photographer, and regular Condé Nast Traveler and National Geographic contributor, is enthralled.
“I’ve never been to the Middle East so for me it’s been eye-opening,” he says. “I’m stunned by the scale of the hotel, the attention to detail and how much it took to put this together and make it work.”
On the first day of shooting, however, there’s a sandstorm. “What are the chances?” laughs the seasoned photographer. “It affected us a little bit in the afternoon but we got a lot under our belt quickly so it wasn’t so bad.”
Free rein is pretty much a prerequisite when working with Kochey. “For me there are two types of photographers: ones that create imagery and the ones that capture. I capture things. I don’t like to create from scratch. I walk in to a place like Jumeirah Al Naseem and things are happening naturally. So I’m like, ‘these guys look great over here’, click, click click. You might move a lamp and style it a little bit but you let it happen naturally and that is what I like, and that is what is so nice about this job. Jumeirah is letting me do what I do, which is rare.”
Whether it’s a place or a person, how do you capture a scene in a single still image?
“I don’t know if I can articulate that,” says Kochey. “It’s so innate and it’s such a gut thing. It’s not cerebral. Actually when I overthink shots they’re not the shots I like. It’s the instinctual ones where I walk up, snap it and boom I know it’s there.”
This is Kochey’s second job photographing a Jumeirah hotel. In 2008 he spent a few days shooting Jumeirah Port Soller Hotel & Spa in Mallorca, a job he reflects proudly on. “I just roamed around with my cameras and I got so many shots,” he explains. “All I needed was access and permission – I didn’t need anything else. And that was the beauty of the hotel manager at the time – the team saw that was how I liked to work and they let me roam. It takes courage for Jumeirah to try this and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to shoot with them again and to have free rein.”
For someone who started out in fashion photography, Kochey has carved out an impressive career clicking and capturing some of the world’s most breathtaking – and bizarre – places. “I moved to New York about 25 years ago and I started assisting fashion photographers such as Bruce Weber,” explains Kochey. “I got out of that and started shooting on my own for teen fashion magazines. I worked constantly for a couple of years and then I shot a story for J.Crew. It was atmospheric – [imagine] fall leaves up in Vermont – and it wasn’t just models. I sent those pictures to Travel + Leisure and they asked to see my portfolio. I went in and they kept me busy for a couple of years.”
At first the magazine commissioned Kochey for its US-based content before they swiftly entrusted him with bigger stories. “My portfolio built up because of all that travelling and I realized how much I loved it – much more than fashion. It is much more natural for me. I’m an editorial photographer, I’m not really based in advertising. I shoot off the cuff, I shoot quickly, I use natural light, and authenticity is a real big thing for me. I don’t overthink shoots and things aren’t overproduced.”
As Kochey reflects on his work to date – which spans multiple cultures, continents and decades – he is quick to point out that it’s not about the travelling for him, it’s about the people. “The scenics are part of it but what gets me going is the people – meeting the people, shooting the people and seeing the grace and beauty of each person whoever it may be,” explains the photographer, who prefers capturing “people in the moment” rather than styling the shot.
“I’ve been to the nicest hotels in the world and they’re beautiful but it is the human factor that makes it come to life. With this project we have models but we’re having more fun pulling staff and shooting with them – and they’re great. They’re better than models because they’re all having fun, they’re throwing people in pools, swimming, carrying the wardrobe. We’re very much a commando unit.”
For his latest assignment with Jumeirah, Kochey says he took around 10,000 shots. Admittedly he says the edits will take forever – “that’s the problem with digital”, he adds – but he also says: “The beautiful thing about digital is you have control of the end product whereas before you would have to send it to a lab where they would do prints for you. Now you can do it on your computer and it comes out how you visualize it. You’re not relying on a lab to interpret your pictures.”
Though Kochey wasn’t always this enthusiastic about going digital. “I used to shoot with Pentax 6×7 – a huge camera; it was like a tank. It’s a beautiful camera but I would need an assistant for that, and someone was always loading the film because you would get ten frames per roll. With digital – and I was one of the last converts – I don’t need assistants. Generally it is me walking around with two camera bodies and a couple of lenses and I’m floating around. It’s ideal. Yes it was a hard transition. I hated it but now I’ve totally embraced it and it gives me total control.”
Similarly, in a digital-first world where images are accessible freely and easily on social media, how can emerging photographers build a viable business? “There’s a lot of noise out there but there’s a lot of good photography out there,” says Kochey, who advises aspiring photographers to “put yourself in situations where you can get a great picture” rather than get caught up in buying the best equipment. “From a purely aesthetic level shoot true to your vision. Really discover what your voice is and stick to that. Don’t try to be a Jack-of-all-trades. You’re not going to be right for every job but you’ll be right for the right job.”
Looking ahead, where next for Kochey, who is currently living in Canggu, a buzzing beach area in South Bali and fitting place for the laid-back Philly-born photographer and his “surfer” family to reside.
“In the last two years I’ve spent time shooting more intense stories, more adventurous stories, and more experiential and immersive stories in places that are hard to get to,” explains the father-of-two. “That took my travel to another level. Next I’m going to Myanmar – that’s going to be cool – and I’m doing some stuff in Bali. Also the Middle East has been eye-opening for me and I’d love to come back.”
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