Emily Cheng


Emily Cheng

▲ Emily Cheng
Photo(s) by Di Di Lin - © 2008-2014

First, it is really, really awesome that you packed up your camera and went to New York City to chase your dream. That’s takes a lot of courage. But I’m guessing it wasn’t just as simple as hopping on a plane. How did it all come about?

Actually, I didn’t think much before I went there, because I heard from a friend that I will get to see a lot of shows in NYC. I just wanted to go there for shows and to take more pictures. A friend of mine from America has a sister working as a photographer in New York, and through her, she introduced me to a local online magazine Impose. That’s how I started photographing for them. I’m really thankful to her.

A short question for a long answer: How was it? (The good, the bad, the surprising..)

Before I went to New York, a lot of my friends told me that people in New York aren’t very friendly at all, and it’s not very safe there. In the beginning I was really worried, afraid that because I don’t know anyone there, if something happens to me, I can’t find help; afraid that I will get left out because my English isn’t as good as the locals, and also scared of my cell phone getting snatched while using the subway.

But New York isn’t as scary as everybody told me, as long as I’m careful when I go out and avoid going to places that aren’t safe. I was always by myself when I went out at night to shows to take photos and I often came home by myself in the middle of the night. I always stayed hyper-vigilant when I dis that, and there were never any problems. Not only that, but the people in New York are also very nice. At least, the ones that I met were very friendly. I love New York because there are countless shows that I can go to, and also another reason is that even if you had very little money, you can still go out and have fun. There are tons of free events and shows. Museums and art galleries have specific times for free entry or pay-as-you-like. When I went to New York I didn’t have much money, but my life was surprisingly enriched.

The worst thing about New York is that some subway stations really stink. Even though the subway runs for 24 hours, in the middle of the night it might take you hours to get home. Also another bad thing is that everyone was so tall, I kept getting blocked at shows.

There were many surprising things. I met a lot of famous people. When I was at an exhibition, I met the "grandmother of performance art." Marina Abramovic. During New York fashion week. I saw the famous fashion street photographer Bill Cunningham. I saw Jake Gyllenhaal playing with his cell phone inside the car at a café nearby my place in Soho. I saw my favorite photographer Ryan McGinley walking his dog to get some coffee.

You posted some interesting statistics about how many bands/gigs you saw. Could you give us some numbers?

Every time I think of this question, I feel it’s very incredible. After just five months in New York I saw 57 shows and I shot over a hundred bands. I wish I could visit all the live houses in New York, but there were really too many.

I have to ask, what were the best shows you saw?

A lot of shows were really great. Other than my most favorite, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I was very impressed with A Place To Bury Strangers at Death by Audio. When they were performing, the whole room was dark, except for a little bit of light on the wall, and they used a lot of dry ice. So even if I used a flash it was still hard to shoot them. I had to wait for the smoke to go away for a little bit to take pictures. That venue wasn’t very big; the stage was at my knee height. When they were performing, everyone was moshing into each other. Because I was holding my camera, I couldn’t protect myself. I was pushed around and fell in front of the stage a several times. It was probably the craziest show I’ve ever shot. After I got home, my whole body was covered in bruises. And because I wasn’t wearing any ear plugs, my ears were ringing for a few days after, but I got some nice photos of that night.

Emily Cheng

▲ A Place To Bury Strangers
Photo(s) by Emily Cheng - © 2008-2014

How has your appreciation of a show changed since you starting shooting bands? Do you see things any differently? What makes a performance special?

I think a big change is that the band’s stage presentation becomes a focused detail. They use projectors or special lighting equipment to create an atmosphere. It adds more features to the band, not just the music itself. More and more bands have learned how to make the performance more interesting. Some bands have great music, but their performance is always the same. This kind of show will make an audience feel bored after watching it a couple times.
Aside from some special performances, an unexpected set can also excite a crowd, e.g. a cover a famous song with their own style.

As a photographer and as a music fan, how do you feel about the prevalence of people in the audience using smartphones and iPads to record and photograph a gig?
Some artists, like Jack White, Wilco, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, are adamantly against it and ban them at shows.
From your time in America and in your other travels, is Taiwan much different?
What do you think a good solution is?

No matter which country it is, people will use smart-phones and iPads during shows. This kind of situation happens a lot less in New York than in Taiwan.
I’m actually not so against this, unless somebody’s iPad is right in my face, or the person is using so much flash that it disturbs the artist. Unless the show strictly forbids recording and photographs, I think everyone should have the freedom to enjoy the show in their own way. But constantly recording and taking photos will distract them from watching the show, and it’s their own loss.
I think the only best solution is to go back when smart-phones weren’t invented.

This may seem like an impossible question with so much music happening on any given day, but please compare New York’s music scene with Taiwan’s. What’s working well, and not working well, in both places? What could they both learn from one another?

I think Taiwan and New York have very different music scenes, so these places are not comparable. There are over a hundred live houses in New York, over a thousand bands from local or overseas, and everyday there’s over a dozen shows to choose from. A place like this, with lots of crowds, lots of shows, and lots of venues, makes the music scene very diverse. But to those people over there, many of them don’t even plan on watching the shows. They are usually just hanging out with friends, sipping on drinks, and making new friends. There are often a lot of DIY shows in New York. They will choose a place and set up an event themselves. Many of them put diverse arts and cultures together at a show. Maybe Taiwanese bands and organizers can look into this way a little more. Taiwan is losing its live houses and venues, but bands don’t actually need live houses to have a space to perform.

We met up at a show in Brooklyn over the summer. I watched you shooting. You were weaving around people, stepping back, kneeling onstage... in short, you were very active about finding the right place and moment. What does a concert photographer need to do to be successful?

I don’t like pictures being taken at the same angle and from the same distance. It looks less varied. The definition of success depends on each person, so I don’t know how to answer that, but the most important thing to becoming a concert photographer is to have an individual style, and grow in the experience of shooting.

Emily Cheng

▲ My Morning Jacket
Photo(s) by Emily Cheng - © 2008-2014

What do you enjoy most about shooting shows?

I get to see shows and take photos of them. I also get the priority to stand in the front row without having to line up and wait.

The moments of creation are precious joys for any artist, but equally important is the so-called business side of things. What have you learned about developing a career as a professional photographer?

Most people assume photographers in New York are very skillful. The environment for shooting shows over there is much better than Taiwan, and there are also a lot of great photographers. Because I got a lot of support from the local bands and my magazine, I was more open-minded and I gained more confidence in myself. To become a professional photographer, other than being skillful, good connections and communication skills are also a major factor, which is something I need to work on a lot more.

New York City is very different from Taipei. The energy can be really intense at times. How did you adapt? Are there any particular NY adventures you’d like to share? And, will you be returning?

In the past few years I went to many different countries for working-holidays, so I adapted to New York pretty fast. The most difficult part is that in the beginning I barely had any friends, so I often felt lonely. I think most of the time it is like being on an adventure, to keep facing new things. I’m currently waiting for my artist visa. Hopefully I can go back there this April to continue my work.

What advice would you give anyone who is considering a big move like yours (i.e., a relocation or some similar leap to fulfill a dream) ?

I always keep a thought in my mind - if I don’t do it now, I won’t do it later! A lot of people told me that they also want to go to New York, but to do that they need to overcome themselves. Starting over in a new place requires a lot of courage. I can only encourage everyone who wants to go to just go. Don’t think too much. No one can predict what’s going to happen but at least give it a try. Don’t live with regret.

Emily Cheng

▲ The Yellow Dogs
Photo(s) by Emily Cheng - © 2008-2014

More of Emily’s photography can be viewed here:

A video promo for an exhibition of her work in NYC:

Emily Cheng

▲ New York City
Photo(s) by Emily Cheng - © 2008-2014

Translation by Nicole Lee