Kimberly M. Wang is a veteran television Director and Producer who has since pivoted into brand-storytelling photography. Based in New York City, Kimberly creates photo-based feature stories for magazines and other publications. These stories often feature prominent creatives and artists at the top of their fields. She also creates portraiture and video content for entrepreneurs of all kinds and helps influencers share their stories with the world.
Currently, Kimberly is working on “Visionaries: Process and Ritual”, a visual exploration and collection of essays featuring the creative processes of groundbreaking, renowned artists from a wide range of artistic disciplines. You can find her photos on Instagram, on her website, or even with one of our previously featured creators.
Interview conducted and edited by Tiffany Chan
Featured image: Photo © Michael Falco
Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with photographic storytelling?
My attraction to storytelling has a lot to do with growing up a minority in the Midwest. I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and raised in one of its suburbs. Kansas City is a lovely town to raise a kid, but back in the 70’s it was far from diverse. So it wasn’t uncommon to find myself a target of racism. I knew intuitively that people’s ideas about me could either diminish how I felt about myself or embolden me to be stronger, more fearless, more outspoken—and it just wasn’t in my nature to be a compliant wallflower. The more I felt people wanted me to be a little Asian girl they could control, the more I wanted to develop the strength and savvy to defy their expectations.
Being a target of prejudice taught me not only to stand up for myself, but I also learned to fashion a mask that didn’t betray my hurt or feelings of vulnerability. Feeling at times disrespected, marginalized and misunderstood, made me wonder: Who else feels this way? What’s behind other people’s masks? These questions were the first seeds of my interest in storytelling.
I was never the popular kid, the smartest kid, the best musician or even a notable athlete. But what I had was confidence, not a whole lot of fears, a ton of curiosity, and a feeling that I was on a mission. My goal at the time was to be a print journalist. When I finally left Kansas City for college in Boston, I felt I was riding this great wave of possibility, even though I had no idea where it would take me.
Q: When people think of Asian Americans (AA) as a demographic group, they typically picture industries such as finance and medicine. Did you have AA creative mentors/idols growing up? And if so, who were they and how/why did they inspire you?
Other than my older sister (who became an editor for The Christian Science Monitor); my strong, fearless, industrious mother; and my principled, outspoken brother, who was also my childhood partner in crime; I can’t say I had any Asian role models per se, because there were precious few who even entered my view back in those days.
So, my heroes growing up were mostly American writers, musicians, visual artists, film directors, and dog trainers! (When I wasn’t drawing or writing short stories, I was studying how to train my dogs.) Of course, with dog trainers being the exception, the link amongst all of these people is that they are storytellers.
But in my college days and in the years following, I found myself increasingly drawn to stories that reflected the experiences of women and people of color. I was floored by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”. Completely captivated by Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. And was thrilled to discover the films of Wayne Wang and Ang Lee in the early 90’s. “The Wedding Banquet” and “The Joy Luck Club” are both burned into my memory. And then to see the great talents Joan Chen and John Lone on the big screen in Bertolucci’s “Last Emperor”, and Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala”…it was all a revelation.
You know that feeling you get when you realize you’ve been missing something, but didn’t even realize you were missing it? That’s what it was like watching the brilliant, insightful, touching work, of these artists. That’s how it felt to dive deep into a novel by Maxine Hong Kingston or Amy Tan.
Q: What was your professional path like? Can you tell us about the different paths and what motivated each pivot?
My career in television production began with a willingness to explore and test out different aspects of the business and not feel tied to any particular place. The goal was always to first master the challenges of the job, and then evaluate whether it suited me.
I started out in Boston, in local news, which, while stimulating in its immediacy, felt too restrictive to me. Then did a stint as a local print news reporter in Alexandria, Virginia, until I snagged a job working overnights for a long-running business news program in D.C. I was sharp, and a fast learner, so my boss promoted me swiftly from production assistant to assignment editor, which ruffled some feathers of those in senior positions. But, I quickly learned how to keep my head down, prove my mettle and calmly confront those who felt it was their job to make me feel uncomfortable.
I also spent over a year traveling around the country for a Live / On-Location Morning Program for FX Network, which allowed for roughly three hours of sleep per night and required being ready to go live, with a fully produced, complex, on air segment at 3:30am West Coast time. I helped train on-air talent who were new to the business…and discovered how little I liked the ‘Live’ format. These were all jobs that were fit for paying one’s dues and learning how to be productive and on-point under pressure and under slept!
But it were my early gigs working on national programming for PBS that shaped my trajectory the most. Once I found that documentary-style storytelling would allow me to craft stories in a more cinematic way — using graphics, music, words and video — I was hooked, and documentary-style programming was what I focused on for the duration of my twenty years in television.
After a few years spent covering elite athletes for ABC Sports, it became clear that the politics of networks and the sameness of working within one genre didn’t suit me long term. So, I gave up job security for the variety of the freelancer’s life and launched my own company—Eardog Productions—which was basically me, freelancing as a Director/Producer of specials, series and documentaries. I’d work six months producing for ESPN, then, do a stint with Martha Stewart Living Television, then move on to several months at Animal Planet, MTV, the Food Network, or Lifetime…whomever. The variety gave me a great sense of freedom and constant intellectual stimulation. I was consistently meeting new people, exploring new subject matter, traveling around the world on the network’s dime, and learning to adapt to the demands of vastly different clients.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
The toughest part of life as a freelancer is that when you’re not shooting, you’re looking for your next gig. So there was little time to vacation or take a breath. But it’s the perfect m.o. for people who get a kick out of learning something new every day, and enjoy a peripatetic existence.
Aside from the grueling nature of the job, (constant travel, lack of sleep, intense deadlines) I’d say that the other major challenge throughout my television career was learning to deal with those #MeToo moments. For much of my career I worked in male-dominated, male-driven environments. While there were significant male figures during my career who were incredibly supportive and offered me career-changing opportunities and never attempted to cross the lines of propriety, it was more common to experience inappropriate, sexist behavior, indecent proposals, and abuse of power.
The early part of my career coincided with Anita Hill’s testimony. At that point, the general public didn’t even have a clear idea of what sexual harassment looked like. But Hill’s bravery had an influence on me.
I’m one of the fortunate ones in that I’d developed my ability to say ‘No’ early on as a kid. Being the target of racist epithets, and never being the ‘cool girl’ teaches you how to hold your ground and know your value. So, I said ‘No’, even when I knew that not being ‘agreeable’ would surely cost me valuable opportunities. But my advice is: always follow your instincts.
Standing up for one another is key. And helping other women ‘get in the room’ is also crucial. Without representation, and women and people in places of power, there can be no change. I’m grateful that this reckoning is upon us.
Q: Before you turned your attention from creating television programming to editorial photography, you took on the role of Director of Development/Original Programming for the startup Comcast network, AZN TV (Asian American Television). I imagine that the issues of Asian and Asian American representation in mainstream American media is of great importance to you. What did you learn via your experiences there?
Because the network’s mission was to create programming for and by Asian Americans, my world and contact / friendships with accomplished, ambitious, Asian American artists, writers, directors, musicians, and performers, grew exponentially every day. It was an exhilarating, eye opening experience for someone who grew up around so few Asian Americans.
In creating programming for the network, I interviewed a wide range of Asian Americans who had compelling stories to tell about how they’d fought discrimination and battled their own inner judgments, parental scrutiny and self-doubt, to arrive at a place of great mastery and freedom.
From New York Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan; to the writer/director of the acclaimed film “Saving Face”, Alice Wu; to the iconic actress/writer/director Joan Chen, I was in a constant state of amazement that I had the good fortune to help share their stories with a woefully underserved audience.
Peilin Chou, who was the Senior VP of Programming and Production at AZN at the time, (and who remains a dear friend and mentor of mine) was deeply committed to and focused on the network’s mission, and that enthusiasm powered the entire network. Peilin continues to make great leaps in the industry as the Chief Creative Officer of Pearl Studio, which is a film animation studio founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg/Dreamworks. Peilin and her team produce groundbreaking, major, animated films for worldwide release. So, though I had few Asian American idols / mentors as a youngster, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet so many inspiring Asian American leaders and creators throughout my career.
Q: What do you think are the best ways that we, as a society, can do to uplift Asian & Asian American (AA) narratives?
My experience at AZN made it abundantly clear that it’s crucial for people to see themselves accurately represented in the stories they see, hear and read. It’s through authentic representation that we affirm our lives and destinies aren’t limited by OTHER people’s perceptions of who we can be and what we can accomplish.
As people of color, I think it’s imperative that we not only share our own stories and art, but if we’re in positions of power (ie. magazine editors, production executives, casting agents, curators or gallerists, etc.) we must create opportunities for people of other ethnicities and marginalized groups to do the same. We are stronger together than separately, and it’s our duty to support one another in the fight for equality. Making an effort to understand how others experience and combat racism is also essential. Using our skills to share the stories of those oppressed, of victims of discrimination, of those who are working to create change, can be powerful and transforming. We can create even more momentum by donating to groups that support diverse artists, attend movies / art shows / theater created by women and people of color. And refuse to participate in the production of work that denigrates or stereotypes any of us, as well.
Q: How has the current presidential administration affected your own work, if at all?
Art, in all its forms, is crucial always, but especially in times of strife. It’s a conduit through which humans communicate our experience, our vision for change, our hopes, our pain, our struggle. It’s what helps to connect people and create understanding. And it can absolutely be an agent of change. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that art can save the world. The current administration has clarified my mission and that of so many creative people I know. The negativity, the racism, the fear mongering…it can all feel so overwhelming. But, it seems the best way for me to manage my own personal anxiety is to channel that energy into work that supports those who are fighting to make a difference.
One of the projects I’m involved in is 500Pens.org, which was created by journalist Melissa Sher and a group of colleagues and media professionals, in collaboration with the Southern Poverty Law Center, to create and share stories that combat hate and create understanding. I’m a Photo Advisor for 500Pens.org, which means collaborating with other journalists and generating meaningful content.
As a storyteller and documentarian, it’s my goal to do whatever I can to support diverse, multicultural artists and activists and amplify their stories, because they have so much to teach us about persistence, vision, compassion, identity and resilience.
Q: Why did you decide to make the leap from television production to still photography, and what projects are you focusing on now?
In 2008, when the financial markets tanked, and networks were increasingly focusing on reality television, which is relatively cheap to produce, I had a string of demoralizing meetings with Executive Producers who were intent on exploiting the worst traits of human nature to win ratings. At that time, I also realized how worn out I was by the industry. Every project I was meeting about demanded large crews, big budgets, extensive lead-time. I longed for simplicity. But my desire to tell stories hadn’t diminished.
Though I’d always shot 35mm stills behind the scenes of the shows I produced and directed, I knew that my technical skill as a still photographer needed work, and that I hadn’t yet developed a clear and distinct eye. So, I stopped pursuing gigs in television, and started focusing on what it would take to become a professional still photographer, in the documentary style. The shift was a challenge from a business standpoint, because none of the contacts I’d made during my many years in television translated into the career of an editorial photographer. But, I focused on the work, on expanding my skill set, researched every aspect of the industry, and met with seasoned photographers who were gracious enough to give me a bit a time to discuss their professional journeys.
I eventually found my way back to focusing on artists…and that’s when the idea for my personal project: Visionaries : Process and Ritual was born.
While working in television, I was fortunate to interview and document all sorts of creative geniuses…Wynton Marsalis, Jessica Lange, Jerry Seinfeld, Michelle Kwan, Dennis Hopper (who was a brilliant photographer)…there was a consistent theme that kept arising in my work with them: Life as an artist is forever challenging—even when you’ve reached great heights.
Learning to create under pressure, with the weight of your reputation on the line; finding a way to create when you feel blocked and depleted; being productive when funding is low or non-existent; dealing with fans and critics who expect or demand that you create something different…or the same…these are all common challenges amongst the most lauded artists in the world. And I found that every great artist has a set of habits and ways of framing those challenges that keep them feeling vibrant, productive and engaged with their creative selves.
So, the idea of creating a series of visual documents (documentary-style photo essays), paired with interviews, became the vehicle through which I could create a source of inspiration for those who are pursuing careers in the arts…especially those who find themselves daunted.
Approaching venerated artists with the request to photograph them in their private, natural, habitats is a big ask. It’s just not something they’re accustomed to doing.
But the artists who have allowed me into their worlds…the vast majority of whom have been photographed and documented extensively for many years…find that I work in a way that’s so quiet and unobtrusive, that they are able to work undisturbed, even when I’m shooting two feet away, in a confined space.
Q: Do you find that your experience in television production translates into your work as a photographer?
My training in television was absolutely the best training for the work that I do now. As a Director and Producer, my first job was to listen closely and be curious-this is how you get to the heart of any story. So, I learned early on how to put the subjects of my work at ease. Whether I was shooting with a cowboy in Montana, a former gang member in Detroit, a politician in D.C. or a legendary sports figure in the midst of training camp, it was always about remaining open to that person’s experiences and perspective.
Creating compelling programming also requires that you develop your vision. My job involved taking the kernel of an idea for a story and crafting it into something that a viewer would find compelling and edifying. But to do this honestly, you must have an authentic connection with the subjects of the story, and respect their boundaries. Then, you’ve got to keep this all in mind while fashioning a complete vision of how the story will unfold.
Also, in TV, you’re recording sound. So you must be invisible when you shoot, and quiet as a mouse. When I shoot with artists as a photographer, the work is about their space, their vibe, their energy. I do everything I can to avoid disturbing their process. I don’t bring in lights, assistants or even a flash. There’s just the artist, doing what he or she normally does when I’m not there, and the click of my camera’s shutter.
Working in this way allows me to capture unprecedented intimate moments that reveal exactly where that artist is, in that very moment. So, the work we do together is a tribute to their mission and their art. That the project’s intention is to help invigorate and galvanize those who might have found themselves in a creative rut, or who might just be getting started in an artistic field, makes every shoot that much more purposeful.
So, truly, everything I learned as a Director/Producer translates into my work as a Photographer.
Q: How do you know when you’ve done a good job?
When I create a photo essay and conduct an interview that is true to that person’s message and vision, and reveal something that delights or even surprises them, I know I’ve done my job.
And when that collaboration is then published in a magazine or shared with a larger audience in some manner, and I hear that others have found strength and inspiration via the work, then I feel that I’m aligned with my mission.
Q: You have an incredibly varied/diverse portfolio-what have been your favorite projects to work on and why?
I’ve had the honor of shooting with a number of renowned artists who inspire me in more ways than I can articulate in this space. There are so many stories to share, but I’ll share a few that first come to mind.
Joyce DiDonato has been called the greatest mezzo soprano of her generation. She completely obliterates the stereotype of the difficult opera diva. Instead, she’s flexible, innovative, luminous, thoroughly modern and steady as a rock. We’ve shot quite a bit over the past few years and every time we share space, I learn more about what it means to create with integrity and joy. She has a laser-like ability to focus. A few years back, she was in her dressing room, getting ready to go onstage at the Metropolitan Opera. As the star of the show, she had a lot riding on her shoulders, but after years of performing at the very highest level, her pre-curtain prep is down pat. She likes to apply her own makeup, so I was capturing all that entails, and was completely in my zone. As I quietly went about squeezing myself into the corners of her dressing room, angling for the ideal view, I’d already been shooting for about 15 minutes or so when she broke the silence and said: “Kimberly, you’re so quiet, I forgot you were here.” It was just a perfect little beat that captured Joyce’s intense concentration and the intimacy of the moment.
And like every artist I seek out to document, Joyce is devoted to using her talents to promote something meaningful, beyond her own ambitions as an artist and performer. She spends a great deal of her time doing charitable work around the world and supports education in every way she can. I hope to shoot with her next at a refugee camp in Greece where she’ll be teaching kids how to sing.
I was also fortunate enough to be invited to shoot with the photographer/ artist William Wegman at his woodland retreat in Maine. It was a bit of a journey getting there, but I received the warmest welcome from Bill, his wife Christine, (who is a former gallerist and current publisher of her own literary imprint), his youngest child, Lola and his four, voluble Weimaraners. I’d worked with Bill years before, when I was a television producer, but this experience was entirely different. The still camera is a quiet tool, and it allows people to be present and natural in a way that they can’t entirely be when a video camera is rolling. And to capture this great artist, who has been creating groundbreaking work since the late 1960’s, commune with his family, paint in his expansive, barn-like studio while a gentle rain danced on its roof, run around the woods with a quartet of wild dogs, and witness him settle down for an afternoon book-break, with the four dogs piling in around him, was a special kind of joy.
Most recently, I’ve had the honor of shooting with the electric Ingrid Silva, a rising star and ballerina for the Dance Theater of Harlem, who grew up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Ingrid spends her free time teaching young dancers and developing an empowerment organization for women.
And I just completed a 10-page photo essay/interview for Four and Sons Magazine with Ane Crabtree, the award-winning costume designer of Hulu’s Emmy and Golden Globe winning dystopian drama series, The Handmaid’s Tale. Ane is intense, gentle, wildly creative and entirely original. I know you’ve featured her here, so you have a clear idea of how incredibly passionate and articulate she is about her vision. Shooting with Ane both in NYC and also on the set of “Handmaids” in Toronto, offered me the opportunity to get a sense of how she channels her intensity— and Ane has a lot of intensity. She wakes at 2:30 am to be at the gym by 3 am, so she can wind up at work by 5 am, two hours before her staff arrives. She needs that time to get quiet, meditate (with her rescued dog, George), and envision how to make the day ahead come together successfully. The demands placed on her at every moment would crush an ordinary person, but Ane takes it all in stride and still manages to create work that is astounding. Ane is most like a cyclone in terms of her sheer power and the ground she can cover in a short amount of time, but manages somehow to exude a deep calm at all times. The Spring/Summer 2018 Issue of Four and Sons (a beautiful bi-annual published in Europe and sold at the Tate Modern, MoMA PS1 and at fine bookstores around the world) that features our collaboration, will be out in June, so you can see and learn much more about Ane via the magazine!
What amazes me about the artists with whom I work is that even though their professions differ wildly, they all share a grounded nature, a tremendous ability to succeed under pressure against great odds. They are all experts at maintaining focus despite insane demands on their time and attention, prize fame far below their respective missions, and possess a desire to use their art for good…beyond the advancement of their own careers. I don’t always know how things will go when a shoot starts, …you never know how things will evolve…but I suppose I’m attracted to people with these unique qualities, and perhaps they agree to shoot with me because they get a sense that they can trust me to depict them honestly and with integrity.
Q: Apart from editorial work, you also shoot with all kinds of professionals and creatives. Can you share a bit about that? What do you love about that work?
I create brand storytelling imagery for clients who want magazine-worthy imagery to use for press, to populate their websites, to help communicate what makes them special. Some of them are very established, others are not yet on the radar in their chosen profession, but once I put together a photo essay for them that conveys the passion they have for their mission, or they see, via a portrait, an image reflected back at them that tells the story of all their enthusiasm for their mission, that’s a great moment. Many people feel that it’s immodest or self-centered to acknowledge their inner and outer beauty, but a well crafted photo, and a carefully constructed essay can reveal just that, and gather support for what people are working to achieve. My heart does a little dance when I witness how enthusiastically people respond to a photographic representation that reveals their best selves.
Q: What do you do for self-care?:
I exercise, eat well, (though I do love a good pastry) don’t smoke, don’t drink and spend as much time as I can taking long, meandering walks with my man (who is an actor and a screenwriter.) We’ve learned that it’s essential, even when pressing deadlines loom, to create breaks in the day, whenever possible. We’ll often take our cameras out and shoot around NYC. It’s a great way to stay inspired. We also have two, big dogs, both of whom are rescues. The youngest one still craves training, to help balance out the abuse / solitary confinement from her early, pre-adoption years, so working with her is entirely rewarding. And Theodore, our senior dog, is a trained Service and Therapy dog in retirement, so he likes to roam about with us and visit his favorite neighbors who light up when he gives them one of his trademark Malamute-mutt-hugs. These moments of light and connection keep everything in perspective and stress at a manageable level.