Kai Z Feng's portraits of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars — Natalie Portman, Lupita Nyong'o, Anne Hathaway, Selena Gomez, and Jennifer Lopez, to name a few — have been seen in ad campaigns and magazine spreads worldwide. But the photographer isn't after the celebrity selfie and doesn't focus on his success; he wants to keep pushing the boundaries of his art and capture talent in an original way.
"Personally I look to include diversity in my work and am inspired by so many cultures, ethnicities and identities that I can’t imagine not including them."
“I don’t think of myself as having conquered the fashion world, but blessed to be part of it and doing well,” Feng told NBC News. “I’m not sure there’s a ‘key’ to success, but for me, I try to stay passionate about what I do and learn from every opportunity.”
Born in Shanghai, the New York-based 32 year old moved to London when he was 18 to pursue a career in graphic design. It was then that he began experimenting with photography, taking his camera to rock and roll shows and taking portraits of his friends who were aspiring models and musicians.
Feng eventually signed with Select Model Management, which gave him his first assignment as a fashion photographer at 24, and it wasn't long until he began gaining the attention of publications like Vogue Italiana and GQ Italy, as well as major fashion brands such as Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Burberry.
Now, more than a decade into his career, Feng’s work is almost perfectly described by his Instagram account: a collage of celebrity selfies and snapshots of gritty, raw photos of his New York tribe.
NBC News spoke with Feng about what inspires him as a photographer, the best advice he ever received, and his role — as a photographer — in championing diversity in fashion.
How do you prepare for a shoot and how many are you balancing at a time?
It really depends on the project, but I’m mostly involved in the creative side, rather than production, so I spend my prep time making mood boards and working on deciding exactly how I will bring mine and the client’s vision to life.
What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?
Work hard. Be nice. Don’t judge.
What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?
Work hard and try not to get trapped in one dimensional thinking.
In your career, who have been some of your favorite people to work with?
There are so many people I love to work with. The best part of my job is that it’s constantly changing, and I’m getting to collaborate with different people all the time.
My favorite shoot of late has to be my Nicki Minaj for Marie Claire. It was really fun to plan because Nicki was really involved all the way through. The shoot did turn out like we planned, but it was definitely a long day. As for improvising, I do it all the time, that’s just part of the job.
What inspires you as a photographer? As a person?
People inspire me the most as an artist and as a person.
What attracts you to fashion photography?
I love the artform of photography and fashion photography and really enjoy expressing my vision.
What do you wish you had more of in your life?
How have you seen the fashion industry (and world of photography) make strides in terms of diversity?
I would definitely like to see more successful photographers coming up from more diverse backgrounds, but I also think we shouldn’t focus too much on where artists come from over the work they produce.
Personally I look to include diversity in my work and am inspired by so many cultures, ethnicities and identities that I can’t imagine not including them. I would like to see more of that inclusion throughout the industry.
What is your goal with your photography?
To enjoy my craft and share it with the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.