Tong Lam

Toronto through the lens of Tong Lam

Toronto is a hub of photography. In addition to being one of the most photographed cities in the world, some of the best professional and amateur photographers out there can be found roaming our streets with camera in hand. To keep tabs on all this local talent, every Saturday we feature the work of a Toronto-based photographer in our series "Toronto through the lens of."

This week I chatted with Tong Lam.

What is your day job?

I'm a professor doing research on historical and urban issues.

How long have you been taking photographs and what made you want to pick up the camera in the first place?

When I was a kid, I spent lots of time learning painting and drawing, but I gave all that up when I was a teenager. Then, in the 1990s, I took several courses on black and white photography and was completely hooked. Somehow, my earlier artistic training came back to haunt me. I particularly enjoyed the experience of being in a darkroom. All these changed, however, in 2004 when I bought a Nikon D70, which was marketed as the first affordable DSLR. I still preferred the old fashion way of developing and printing photos, but DSLRs allow me to continue to shoot. At any rate, I didn't really become a serious photographer until just about two years ago.

What are your favorite places to shoot in Toronto?

Toronto is a wonderful city for street photography. Unfortunately, I don't have too much time to wandering around the city these days. So, my condo in the downtown core becomes one of my favorite spots to experience and observe the city. I'm often amazed by how complexed images and stories of the city--from urban spectacle to urban alienation--reveal themselves in the stream of time and in the ever changing light.

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I know you're an avid traveler, how do you think traveling has shaped your photo style?

I travel a lot of because of my work: research, conferences, talks and so on. However, I do not like travel photography, at least not the conventional type. Yet, when you are traveling in a foreign country, it is impossible to not to engage the obvious question of sameness and difference. So, the real challenge for me is to avoid depicting peoples and places as strange and exotic so that they may become incomprehensible. That said, being an outsider definitely allows me to put things in perspectives, and those perspectives help me to select what is important and what is not.

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What is your favorite subject matter(s)? Why?

At the moment, I'm particularly interested in industrial and post-industrial abandonment and ruins. I'm also interested in photographing contemporary China, especially the pace, magnitude, and contradictions of its hysterical transformation. In a sense, both topics are related to my work.

There is something special about shooting in an abandoned site at night, whether that is a ghost town in the high desert of the southwestern US or an abandoned airfield in England. The experience of just being there at night is incredibly refreshing and stimulating, and since shooting at these locations requires good intelligence and social engineering, I often need to link up with local photographers and artists.

What is your favorite piece of equipment in your camera bag at the moment?

My Nikon 18-200mm VRII, which allows me to handle a variety of situation. I wish I could shoot in a full frame camera with prime lenses. However, due to the way I travel, it is simply not practical for me to carry so many lenses.

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