DISCOURSE: December - David Leøng
Welcome to DISCOURSE, my monthly blog series in which I shoot and interview a different individual each month and have a discussion on creativity, innovation, passion, and heart.
Thank you so much for following along on this project of mine this year. Producing the DISCOURSE series has been a wonderful experience for me, and even though at times it was stressful and I lost sleep, overall I really enjoyed it. For this last installment, I decided to do something special and interview myself. Yep. So without further ado...
Talk a little bit about yourself and what got you to this point.
I’ve always considered myself primarily right-brained. I would say I’m 70% right and 30% left. I like to say that music is my first love, and photography is my mistress [laughs]. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always approached creativity and inspiration the same way: whenever I saw, heard, read, or otherwise encountered something that resonated with me, my impulse response would always be to recreate it using my own style. It was as if that inspiration couldn’t stay locked up inside me; it had to flow out and be expressed through pencil and paper, building toys, sound, clothing, photographs. These mediums have varied and progressed with me throughout my life, but the cycle is always the same: input, process, response, output.
So do you equate creativity with originality?
Not necessarily. This is a tricky concept because it could be argued that nothing is ever truly original. Even if an artist came up with an idea on their own, without any external influences, more than likely someone else has thought of and executed on something very similar, to the point that outsiders could compare the two and conclude that the second drew inspiration from, or at worst plagiarized, the first. However, I think there are definite distinctions between the spectrum of coincidence, inspiration, and plagiarism. Ideas are being generated all of the time. All of them were sparked by something, even if unconsciously. The degree of that consciousness is what determines the place the idea falls on that spectrum. Of course, no one can critically judge this except the artist him/herself, and that gets into the ethical side of it. I think it would take an extreme amount of intentionality to create something that was exactly the same as something else (such as this publicity stunt), and at that point, it’s not really about creativity anymore. But there are definitely people who come up with a lot of creative ideas on their own, and that’s admirable. That’s what I’m striving towards.
Are there any similar internal thought processes or methods you have used across multiple mediums?
I’m a tweaker. I started playing guitar when I was 12, and ever since I moved past learning how to play and started caring about how I actually sounded, I’ve been on a quest to achieve the tones that inspire me, usually from recorded or live music that I listen to. I used to own a complex digital guitar tone modeling system, which was based on the idea of digitally recreating the sounds of existing products and having a massive virtual library of tones available. I would spend hours adjusting parameters, from basic things like bass/mid/treble, gain and reverb, to minutiae like parametric/graphic EQ, mic distance, speaker type, bias, and room size (all virtual of course). More recently, I’ve been using that exact same way of thinking to edit photos, adjusting things like exposure, white balance and color hue/saturation/luminance (I’m SUPER picky about my colors), upright transformations, etc to achieve a final edit I’m happy with.
How big of a role do you think gear plays in defining an artist’s voice?
Ahhh I’m a huge gear nerd. I don’t know how many guitars alone I’ve owned, bought and sold over the years. Eleven? Fourteen? Twenty? Something like that. And don’t even get me started on pedals. This GAS (gear acquisition syndrome, applies across many hobbies) is partly fueled by my aforementioned quest for tone, but also by the fact that I simply enjoy cycling through things to see what’s available and always be presented with something fresh, as well as find gear to use that will make what I do easier and more enjoyable.
However, gear is only a part of the equation that results in the final product of tone, images, or whatever it may be. Give two guitarists the exact same rigs and have them play the same thing, and they will sound different. Give two photographers the same cameras/lens, have them shoot the same thing, and their images will look different. This is because a huge part of creativity comes from here *points to head* and here *points to heart*. Every person adds their own unique… “flavor”, for lack of a better word. Everyone sees a different end result in their mind. And I think that’s really exciting, because theoretically, a person has all of these different flavors lurking inside that can be unlocked and manifested through whatever medium they express themselves through. This is why saying things like “This is such a good photo! You must have used a realllllllly nice camera! What were your settings?” or “I’m going to get [pedal] because [guitarist] uses it and I want to sound just like him” can be so ignorant, and even insulting, because it implies that the gear is what was responsible for producing the beauty. It would be like eating a delicious dish and saying to the chef, “this food is amazing… what brand of skillet did you use?” This is something that I’m very passionate about, and I only came to this realization after I used to ask questions like that myself. However, this is not to say that gear doesn’t matter. It plays a huge role (which is partly why I’m so obsessed with it!). But I believe that its purpose is to make the process and experience as seamless and enjoyable as possible, so as to put all of the emphasis on the result. Gear needs to be good enough so that it’s not a distraction.
You mentioned something about always wanting to be presented with something fresh.
I used to despise change, especially if I was comfortable. Maybe that was because I was young, immature, and didn’t know any better. Once I got used to something, I’d get comfortable with it, and then I’d get attached to it. I think there’s nothing wrong with being comfortable, but getting attached has the potential for being a problem, because it can lead to complacency. Of course, it all depends on what we’re talking about, but the bottom line for me is that I don’t want to settle for mediocrity. I find myself getting tired of things quite easily and longing for freshness. I’ve observed this in my gear (as mentioned above), my location, my skill levels, etc.
You live in San Francisco, one of the wealthiest and most desirable locations in the world. How is that settling for mediocrity?
I’ve lived in San Francisco for my whole life other than 3 years in China and 4 years in SLO, and while there is something to be said about staying in your hometown your entire life and getting rooted and building a dynasty, so to speak, I also think that to do so would be potentially a waste, as the world is so much bigger than one region.
Personally, I strongly believe that I don’t belong in San Francisco anymore. Three years ago, I was excited to live here again and truly discover and get to know the city deeply, but that lasted for about two years before I felt that I had seen it all and was tired of it. That plus the bitter memories from certain personal experiences here, plus the one-dimensional nature of certain newcomers, some of which have very disturbing entitled and arrogant attitudes, plus of course the ridiculous cost of living… side note: it’s maddening that people here can’t pursue their dreams because they always have to worry about money, even if they have a decent job. The middle class is undergoing rapid extinction here. It’s really sad. If San Francisco continues in this trajectory, its population will transform to the point that only people who fall in the extreme opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum will exist. I’ve heard things like “wealth is just as capable of ravaging cities as poverty” which is very true, but also proves to be a very complex topic to tackle, because “gentrification is a bit like obscenity: blatantly obvious once observed, far more difficult to systematically define and measure.” There are larger forces at work that are beyond the control of most individuals.
Anyway, all this to say that I need a change of scenery. I don’t know when I’m going to leave: it could be immediate, or later, but it'll happen for sure. Not to say that I am ungrateful to live in San Francisco; on the contrary, I am very thankful for my living situation, and there are a number of things about this city that I really love. But I do think that my future lies elsewhere.
Name some individuals/organizations/publications that inspire you.
So many… I’d have to say Matt Healy and the guys in The 1975 to start. They’re very intelligent people, and this comes through in their songwriting. I love how they’re able to weave a much deeper meaning into all of their songs, and they’re very self-aware, plus they’re incredible musicians. Another musical inspiration is Bryce Avary, aka The Rocket Summer. I’ve been a huge fan of his since he released his third album Do You Feel (which was a perfect album, by the way), and he’s a big inspiration because of his songs, his musical talent, and just his passion and personality. He’s someone who is doing what he loves, for people who love it. When on tour, he’ll usually play small-medium sized clubs, and he always takes the time after each show to hang out with his most dedicated fans. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jarrod Alonge, the meta-comedy-musical genius. He’s also extremely self-aware, and his songs and content pretty much line up exactly with my sense of humor. Plus he writes everything himself, so that’s something to be admired. Honorable mentions: Astrid S, Andrew McMahon, Brad Paisley, NEEDTOBREATHE, John Mark McMillan, and Twenty One Pilots.
In photography, one of the people I admire the most is June Kim. I mentioned before how certain people seem to always come up with their own creative ideas, and she is one of them. I’m always in awe of the photos she makes, because they’re so simple, yet so incredible. Another photographer I admire is Evan Sheehan, who I met in SF a couple of years ago, and is based in Chicago. He’s also extremely ingenious with the photos he takes, and I love his use of color to create distinct images that evoke strong emotions. Last but definitely not least is Laura Zalenga, a mind-blowingly incredible portrait photographer from Germany, who I met l in SF last year. She has produced some amazing works of art using primarily herself as her subject, and her photos always have a fantastic, ethereal mood to them.
I draw inspiration from publications like iGNANT and Cereal Magazine. They showcase a lot of distinct and unique art, not all of which I can relate with, but all of which I know come from extraordinary minds. And of course, all of the people I have interviewed in this project inspire me to some degree.
What brings you the most satisfaction and joy?
I liken the process of taking photos to a quest searching for treasure. I could take numerous photos in one excursion, but end up with only two or three good ones, which would still make everything worth my efforts. When I travel, I don’t look for material souvenirs to buy. Rather, I look for captivating scenes to photograph, and those photos are my souvenirs. They can be priceless. The same thing also applies to music in a way. When I achieve a tone that I like, and then I record it or play with others, sometimes I experience moments in which… well it just feels good. It’s hard to explain.
Also, I love spending time with others and sharing meaningful experiences together. Even if the experience is experience is painful or difficult, there’s something special about going through it with people you care about.
Practically speaking, I love avocados, Golden Retriever puppies, Corgis, snorting laughter, puns, and of course, fog.
What are some challenges that you’ve faced?
Ever since I got into photography, I’ve struggled with how I present myself and my photos. It’s very easy to post content that will definitely draw a lot of positive attention, and to let that guide my approach to posting anything at all. While the response of others does matter to a certain extent, especially when business is concerned, personally, I try to please myself first and foremost. My original goal was to create photos that I liked and thought were special, and post them with the hope that others would feel the same way. So that way, the opinions of others come after my own. However, this can be extremely difficult in a numbers-driven world like most social media platforms, especially Instagram. Often, just being on the app feels like a competition, and it can be easy to constantly compare one’s work and engagement levels with others. The thing that I try to keep in mind for myself is: the primary comparison that should be done is my work compared to my other work. I’ll ask myself questions like: if one photo gets more or less engagement than another one I posted earlier, why is that? What about the previous photo made it better or worse? Of course, I also observe others and how they’re achieving success, but I try not to fall into the trap of insecurity. I admit that it can be a struggle though.
In addition to, and perhaps building upon that, the intense social aspect of “intentional Instagram” has led to some deeply unpleasant and hurtful experiences. Instagram is such a visuals-driven platform that the feelings of jealousy and sadness at being left out of things that accompany social media are exponentially magnified there. I won’t get into the ugly details, but I found myself caught up in the worst of this, and ended up going through the most intense depression of my life. I felt helpless and almost like I didn’t know how to exist anymore. Not to be overly dramatic, that’s honestly how I felt. Emerging from that, I realized that I had placed far too much emotional investment in certain unhealthy places, and ever since then, I’ve been trying to be more aware and have more self-control. It’s still a struggle.
What’s next for you heading into 2017?
I hesitate to go too much in depth about this, because I don’t like setting goals that I can’t/don’t meet. So please keep in mind that none of what I’m about to talk about is guaranteed. First, I’m playing with the idea of producing a podcast centered on discussion of photography topics. I love talking about trends/controversies/strategies in the realm of photography, and I also think it’ll be fun to have a platform to ramble/crack jokes/have fun. I love @hashtaggedpodcast, and it definitely fills its niche of telling people’s stories, but what I have in mind for this hypothetical podcast of mine is that a friend and I would sit down with a topic to discuss, back and forth, rather than have an interview format. But not only would we address the topic, we’d also go down numerous tangents and have a blast with it all. I’m also thinking about putting together a simple workshop series at my workplace for anyone who’s interested in getting deeper into photography/Instagram. I think it would be beneficial and a lot of fun. I’m also exploring the field of design and seeing how I could fit. I think it’s an incredibly exciting and dynamic industry, and I’d love to get involved. That’s all I care to say about that for now.
I also hope to do a lot of traveling in the new year. I’m so grateful to have been able to visit some beautiful places this year: Norway, Yosemite, New York, and Oregon, and the prospect of visiting even more new places next year excites me. The most immediate confirmed trip is Hong Kong in mid-January, which should be a blast.
What is your definition of a good life?
To me, a good life is knowing my purpose and pursuing my passions. I know what it’s like to feel aimless and lost, and it can be suffocating. A good life is also being able to do what you love and be appreciated for it. A huge part of a good life is also having people that you care about around you that you can pour into and be poured into. As cheesy as it sounds, no one can make it through life alone… not even the introverts like me.