Toby Zeng

Ojai, CA, USA

Who are you?

My name is Toby Zeng, I was born in Beijing, China in 1998. At the age of fourteen I moved to a boarding school located in California in a small town called Ojai. My passion for photography started to blossom during my sophomore year when I began taking photos with my iPhone. In 2016 I started taking photos with a professional camera to shoot projects rather than take random photos; this drastically improved my photography practice. Next year I am going to study at Bard College under the photo department.

What do you want?

Despite the fact that I do have lots of ambitions, I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself at such a young age. I will say: enjoy the process.

Why photography?

Why not photography? I was born and raised in Beijing, the capital city of China. In China most students my age are at home studying all day and night, they don’t have much time for freedom. This being the case, I didn’t have much time to focus on photography or really observe the things around me. I immediately noticed a difference upon arriving at my new school in California. My photography practice started when I met my photography teacher C M Hutchinson, who is an alumni of Bard photo. My creativity wasn’t restrained or trapped by tedious work; it felt like my creativity was allowed to take shape and flow freely. It was also very uplifting to have people who supported me and cared about what I was doing.

What gear do you use?

I started as an iPhone photographer, and I’ve tried all different kinds of cameras; however, my favorite camera is the Canon PowerShot Mark II. Although this point-and-shoot camera cannot be compared to an actual professional camera, the technological advancements made in the camera have really drawn people towards it; it provides the least expensive and most accessible way to take photos. Its ability to capture high-quality pictures while carrying the camera in your pocket has made people more aware of the key aspects of photography and what it means to be a photographer; to capture the beauty of the moment.

Any interests, hobbies, or passions outside of photography?

I love basketball!!!! I started on my high school basketball team as a shooter. Love watching NBA!!! Let's go Celtics. I am also really into hip pop music, J. Cole is my favorite rapper.

Music, movies, books, TV, games. What are some of your favorites? Any recommendations?

I am a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick; A Clockwork Orange is my favorite of all time. Breaking Bad for TV shows. I don’t really read that much; I think my generation should watch less YouTube and read more books.

How did you first get into photography?

My teacher C M Hutchinson.

Who or what is inspiring you?

Stephen Shore

Ren Hang

My teacher C M Hutchinson.

There were numerous contributing factors, I don’t even know how to start. The biggest one is my daily surroundings; I always tell myself that the best photo book in the world is your daily surroundings. My eyes constantly pay close attention to the little interesting details around me. It could be a white trash bag flying in the air, it could be a hot dog laying on the ground, or it could be a man sleeping on the bus… it could be anything. Sometimes I capture them on my phone, and sometimes I don't. I view my surroundings like a photo book.

Got any words of wisdom or a favorite quote?

Trust the process.

Any other photographers you think people should check out?

I want to give a shout-out to my friend Zhao Qian, an amazing photographer based in San Francisco. Astonishing work.

What do you wish someone would ask you?

What do you look for when out photographing?

What’s the answer to that question?

I was really influenced by a concept called “consciously casual” which was introduced by Stephen Shore. I don’t look for anything specific, I just free my brain and listen to my heart. By doing this, I’m not thinking too much about structure, and more about just finding the true natural state of things in nature. This way I can truly convey what it is my heart feels, in its most raw and pure form.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I was inspired by how the human body was captured in the fashion world. When I go to the mall I see those commercial photos, the model’s face is always the most interesting object in the frame. We assume that our body lives under our identity and it’s not supposed to be in the frame as its own individual entity, not shackled by the mind’s image. So I contextualize the human body and capture the individual components. I want to present a different way to observe the beauty of the body.

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Toby Zeng