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Through the lens of a young photographer


Photo credit: 
Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is not your average senior at Stanford University, studying Energy Resources Engineering and traveling to places as diverse as rural Mongolia to research solar technology uses for nomadic communities. He is a self-taught photographer with an eye for the dramatic, capturing subjects in their natural environment but posed to enhance the style, expression, and intensity of the human condition. Kris's portraits explore the intimacy of his subjects, while also depicting the harsh realities of poverty and underdevelopment. This budding photographer captured the attention of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, when he submitted the winning photograph in a competition sponsored by the Center. 

The CDDRL photo competition was intended to encourage students, faculty, and staff, to submit their original photos, which illustrate themes central to CDDRL's research mission. The selection committee was impressed by the diversity and professionalism of the entries received depicting scenes of democratic expression, abject poverty, and new technology use, among others. From  over 60 entries, Kris Cheng's image of a small boy gazing into a trash-clogged river in an unincorporated slum outside of Manila in the Philippines was selected. His imagery captured both the challenges and opportunities of the work we are engaged in and his technical style left the selection committee wanting to know more about this young photographer.

I sat down with this incredibly humble engineer who is an avid outdoorsman with a penchant for adventure sports and extreme environments, to discuss his winning photograph, the journey that brought him to where he is today, and his plans for photography going forward.  

Q: Kris, tell me a little bit about yourself and when you first embraced photography.

A: I started becoming interested in photography as a hobby at the end of high school when I was a senior.  I went all over taking photos, traveling, and kept taking more photos and was continuously improving. Overtime, it became a passion and something that I am intimately attached with - second nature, in a sense.

Q: Did you ever have any formal training in photography or is it all the learn as you go method?

A: I adopted the learn as you go approach to photography, taking a lot of photographs, searching the Internet to find images I like and exploring why I liked those certain images. Being self-taught, I found the Internet to be an amazing resource to learn from other photographs, replicate others, imitate other styles, and gain new techniques and insights to apply to my own work. Photography is a creative process that doesn't lend well to a rigid school environment, so for me it's been learning by doing. See what you like and don't like, and always keep maximizing or minimizing those characteristics. It's an iterative approach.  

All of my favorite photographers were more or less untrained - Joey Lawrence and Chase Jarvis are among the photographers I follow the most.  

Q: Stylistically, how would you describe your genre of photography? Your photographs are remarkable in the way you incorporate light and reflections, please tell me more about how you achieve this effect.

A: I do a more stylized and dramatic form of photography that I guess you could call elaborate portraiture. Everything I do is more or less planned. I get an idea in my mind for how I want them (the subjects) to look and pose based on what they have been doing. In this sense, it is not artificial, but rather trying to bring out certain qualities I see in the subject.  I use a wide range of lighting equipment, such as remotely triggered external flashes to achieve the effects in my pictures depending on the location. My travel-sized lights are not nearly as powerful as the sun, so I had to wait until a golden period around sunset each day when I could achieve the desired lighting effects.  

Q: Do you have a particular niche?

A: I do a wide range of photography, including fashion, nature, and commercial work. I don't have a particular niche per se, but I do have a very distinct style evident in all of my photos.

Q: How do you gain the trust of subjects in your photographs to capture them in such intimate and realistic ways? What is the process you go through to gain their confidence?

A: I understand the importance of the human connection and photography is secondary to this, a way of documenting interaction. I went to Mongolia last year to research solar technologies and their applications for nomadic households, namely cooking.  I was working with the non-profit ADRA in integrating one of their entrepreneurial programs for impoverished families and went on a 20-day trip across Western  Mongolia with some Mongolians. All interactions were unplanned, and we stayed with families for a few days at a time to do experiments with solar cooking, gain input, and test out conditions in the field. For me, it was very important to establish a relationship of trust with these Mongolian families and interact using humor as a bridge.

For my type of photography, it is essential to engage with people and make them feel comfortable. After I felt that a mutual sense of trust had been reached, I would let them know that I had a camera and make sure they were comfortable with their photo being captured or if they had particular preferences. I always make it a point to send the prints after they are done, though with nomadic families it's not exactly easy.

Q: That provides a great background to your work in Mongolia but I would love to hear more about your trip to the Philippines where you captured the winning image.  

A: Two summers ago in 2009, I traveled to the Philippines to conduct a feasibility study of biogas integration into a village. That particular picture was taken in an unincorporated slum that was in the process of being transformed into a village by a non-profit called GK just outside Manila.  We spent two days there and it was really hard to get to know people as I was busy with my own work and there were significant language barriers - I didn't have the type of time afforded to me in Mongolia. In this village, I came across a little boy who was looking over the trash filled river that ran through his slum, and it was striking how the boy was interacting with these conditions. Places like these are a common occurrence throughout the Philippines and especially the developing world as a whole, and through the perspective of this boy I was hoping to convey the scene from a more intimate and "local" point of view. These kids play in and around the river like it's nothing, because this is their reality and they know nothing different.

Q: What has been your favorite place to photograph from among your international travels?

A: It partly depends on where I am in terms of photography. The Philippines was a really good stepping point for Mongolia in terms of audacity and planning. I learned a lot from my experiences in the Philippines, and was really able to build and expand on that when I went to Mongolia. I expect this trend to hopefully continue.

Q: Is there a future trip planned?

A: Yes, certainly! Not this summer as I need to stay in the area and get a job, but I am expecting my next trip to be up north to Greenland for a different photographic experience that is particularly focused on nature.

Q: Have you ever considered using your photographs to build awareness and bring attention to development challenges?

A: Photography goes hand in hand with the work I have been doing in international development and I hope that my work is eye-opening for a lot of people. I know there is a lot more I could be doing to make that a focus but at this point in my career I am not sure how far I want to take photography in comparison to other development projects that I feel are more tangible.

Q: But are the two necessarily mutually exclusive? Can't development and photography go hand in hand?

A: I have definitely thought of that and in what ways we can combine the two to use photography in a very new way that can provide a more lasting impact. Documentary photography has no doubt proven to be an enormous force for social change on a variety of occasions, but this is certainly not the only way photography can play a role in development. Photography touches on a very important aspect of the human condition, especially when dealing with issues of empowerment and self-worth, and I think there is much more potential to capitalize on that. Kids with Cameras (an NGO) is a great example.

Q: What are your tools of the trade?

A:  I currently have a Canon 5D Mark II and use a 16-35mm f2.8 and 50 mm f1.4 lens, with a whole range of additional accessories and equipment. I started with an entry level Nikon D50 camera several years ago and slowly worked up my way up. Luckily, my side work freelancing allows for me to pay for my personal work and equipment.

 Q: Tell me more about the professional work you do.

A: My professional work includes freelance commercial work like music photography, portraiture, and magazine profiles. I recently contributed to a feature on eco-fashion for the New York Times, which entailed a sustainable fashion photo shoot. Before, I would just take any job I got and went full steam ahead with it for the sake of experience and (some) money, but now I'm able to be more selective with what I take on.

Q: Have you ever exhibited your photos?

A: Not really, I know a lot of other people have but I do not necessarily like to heavily promote my work. That's not really my style, and I have other commitments to balance. I haven't tried but am open to getting more exposure. To be honest, I haven't done a stellar job of properly displaying my work outside of the Internet.

Q: Do you imagine a future career for yourself as a photographer? Where do you see yourself heading with this hobby for which you are clearly talented?

A: Four years ago, I had no idea where this was going to lead or that it would get me to this point, but I guess that goes with a lot of the things I do. Hopefully, this will be something I can balance with my career, although there were a few moments when I was tempted to drop everything and just become a photographer. Lately, I have gotten into documentary filmmaking because it is a natural progression for a lot of photographers and further allows me to make a real impact with my work to highlight different social issues. It suits me well to travel to all these places where no one wants to, or is willing to go. I thrive in extreme environments.

For more information on Kris Cheng's photography, please visit

The nine other finalists in our CDDRL photo contest include (in no particular order); Thomas Alan Hendee (student), Jorge Olarte Blanco (student), Rachel Quint (student), Francis Fukuyama (staff), Jon Strahl (student), Omar Shakir (student), and Marina Latu (staff). Please reference the gallery below for samples of their winning entries.

A reception honoring our winner and finalists will be held on Friday, January 28 from 11:30-1:00 pm in the lobby of Encina Hall.