A school project assigned by an inspiring high-school teacher showed Quyn Duong the power of photography to tell compelling stories. Quyn went on to shoot weddings as a side passion in her spare time—until last year, when she realized that nothing held her back from a full-time career except fear of the unknown.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
My first two weeks in New York were rough. I was 22, had just quit my job in Nashville, broke off a relationship, and moved to New York on a whim. I literally sold all my belongings off my front porch and packed the rest into two checked bags and two carry-ons. I brought clothes, some books, and my cameras. New York was never on my radar, so I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t come with a plan. When I got here it was like, "What did I just do?" Those first two weeks, I didn't get out of bed. I was so severely depressed. Finally I said, "Okay. Something's going to have to change,” because I couldn’t stand being miserable anymore. I started Googling internships and entry-level jobs based off random experience I had.
My degree is in visual communication, with minors in art history and psychology. My first job out of college was at a video-production company. My interests and skills were all over the place! I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with all of it. I just took classes that interested me and hoped I could make a degree out of it.
I managed to get an internship in sales and marketing at a hospitality group. I had never done sales or marketing! But then they hired me on full time anyways. I was the young person who understood social media. [Laughs]
Ahhh, yes. Young people—they know social media!
That was me! I loved that job so much. They were my first New York family.
During that time, I was still building my photography portfolio. I had photographed weddings, portraits, and my friends’ film sets in Tennessee, but when I moved to New York I didn’t have the intention to pursue photography. I never really thought I’d be a full-time photographer. I kind of resisted it, actually. I was afraid to turn my passion into a job.
How did you get into photography?
My high school English teacher is the one who opened me up to photography. She gave us a project to tell a story—but instead of writing it, we had to tell the story through photographs.
What an awesome assignment!
She was the coolest. That assignment made me realize how powerful photography could be. Before that point, I had always just carried around a little point-and-shoot camera, taking pictures of my friends and family, documenting all the random stuff we did as teenagers. I’d print them, hand them out, and tape them up on our bedroom walls. I still do this! But it didn’t feel like “photography” to me at the time.
After the assignment, I said that I wanted to learn more about photography, so she invited me to shoot a wedding with her. She actually quit teaching and is now one of the best photographers in my hometown!
Looking back now, those photos are terrible! [Laughs] They looked like something that would be in a frame when you buy it. Anyway, that ended up being my summer job. I assisted her and another photographer in town. They had completely different styles, so it was a great way to learn hands on. That was such a turning point for me. Until that summer, I had never thought of photography as a career, or even something that I could do with my life. I had never known any professional photographers.
That sounds like a big moment in your life.
I grew up in a town where no one looked like me, no one thought like me. I felt so out of place. There's this one moment that I remember as being the first time I realized I was a little different from everyone around me. In seventh grade, we had to do a big profile on the political candidates at the time. I was the only person that chose John Kerry. Everyone else chose Bush. I don't even remember why I chose Kerry! Obviously, I came to understand the differences. It was hard growing up in a place where you just don't see anyone like you, but it makes you learn how to figure things out for yourself.
What led your parents to move to Tennessee?
All of my family is from Vietnam; after the war, many of them fled the country as refugees. One of my uncles was sponsored by a church in Knoxville. He was the first to come to America, so it just made sense for the other siblings to go there.
My dad, however, had fought in the war when he was 18 and was a prisoner of war in the re-education camps for eight years. My parents actually met while he was in prison. They would write letters back and forth to each other.
That is an incredible story!
Yes! They didn't know what each other looked like or sounded like for so many years.
How did they come to write to each other?
It's a crazy story. My dad was in a cell with my mom's uncle. The uncle exchanged their addresses, and she started mailing him cigarettes and letters. When my dad was released, he went to meet her, and later they were married in my mom’s living room.
Are your parents still in Knoxville?
Yes, my parents are still there, and so is my sister and my nephews. My dad’s side of the family is mostly in the South, and my mom’s in Vietnam. My parents were 40 with two kids when they finally immigrated to America. It was hard. They raised us on minimum wage and overtime. But they would find jobs together! At one point, they worked in the same hospital as a janitor and a cafeteria lady. They’d save up all their money for us to go to Vietnam. I think that had a huge influence on me, being able to get out of my small town every couple of years and be in the middle of bustling Saigon—or Ho Chi Minh City, as it’s called now.
Tennessee wasn’t very diverse while you were growing up?
No. I was the one Vietnamese girl in my grade. When I was in high school, the school system was re-zoned to mix in some of the lower-income schools, and people were outraged. It was ridiculous. But there are pockets of progressiveness in Tennessee. Hard to find, but it’s getting better.
When I graduated high school, I just wanted to get out. So I went to a university near Nashville. It was a new city, but it wasn’t too far away from my family.
So you kept doing photography when you moved to Nashville?
Yes. I didn’t go to school for photography, but I didn’t want to stop learning and practicing it. The way my college credits were structured, I wasn’t able to formally register for photography courses. But I audited a black-and-white film class one semester and switched my work study to the campus photo lab for three years. That gave me access to the dark room and cyclorama wall, where I’d play with the studio lights and process film after hours.
I also started getting random photography jobs. My first wedding as a solo photographer was when I was a freshman in college. I hope the bride and groom still look back on those photos and love them, but I was 19 and had no idea what I was doing. You can't just hire someone with a camera and think that it's going to be okay!
Totally. I had a friend ask, "Do you want to shoot our wedding?" And I said, "No, you don’t understand. I can take photos but I don't know how to take wedding photos.”
It’s a totally different mindset. You have to be like six photographers in one. You have to be a photojournalist telling a story, a street photographer capturing fleeting moments, a still-life photographer getting beautiful detail shots. You have to know how to wrangle families, help people feel comfortable in their portraits, and make it look like it was the best party ever.
And the pressure! People lose all rational thought when weddings are involved.
There is a lot of pressure and a lot of energy. But I thrive off of that energy. I like being part of people’s most intimate settings. I like to organize the little moments of chaos into something beautiful with my photographs.
It's really great to be able to give someone a photo that means a lot to them and makes them feel something. For me, it's not enough to just take a pretty picture. I want to know the story behind it. Why does this photo matter? Who cares about it?
You didn’t intend to pursue photography in New York, but you took it up again while you were working in marketing full time. What pulled you back in?
It's incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. I feel lucky to love my job and feel that it’s my purpose to tell stories with images. It’s weird, but I’ve never had a direct vision of what I wanted my career to be, or what I wanted my life to look like. I knew that it would be something in a creative space and something that helps other people. I figure, whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing will just feel right.
One of the big reasons it took me so long to get back into photography was that I didn’t want to deal with the business side of it. I didn't know how to do any of that. I was so thankful for that job at the hospitality group, because it gave me a rough course in the business side of a creative industry. I was also studying up a lot in my own time, reading books about business and branding, and attending photo workshops.
How did you get your first clients in New York?
Facebook groups! There are a lot of great groups on Facebook where people will post referrals and job offerings. That was how I got my first photo job and met a community of photographers here.
What led you to make the leap to photography full time?
For two years in New York, I was still just picking up side work shooting for other photographers. I learned the nuances of different types of weddings—and the kinds that I didn't want to be at ever again. [Laughs] I started shooting for this studio that was really pushing the boundaries of wedding photography. They helped me discover that wedding photography can actually be an art if you’re working with the right people who respect the work.
My work has shifted entirely from when I was in Tennessee, where everything is outside and it's green and beautiful. You come to New York and everything is dark and cozy. Everything about my portfolio had to change.
How do you deal with arriving somewhere completely new, and having to create photographs for people that you know they’ll look at for years?
I guess you just have to be comfortable with different kinds of light. The first thing I do when I enter a room is assess the light and adjust my camera settings immediately so that I can be ready for any moment.
It can be tough. I'm not allowed to have a bad day at work. I cannot show up stressed at someone’s wedding. You have to be that center of calmness for them. People feed off your energy. Thankfully, most of my couples are super chill and fun. If I’m working with a couple that trusts my vision, then I create my best work. The coolest part about the job is that people trust you to tell their story. It's so rewarding. The way that I see their wedding is the way that they're going to relive it 50 years from now.
So what was the switch to full time like?
My hospitality job was great, but photography was calling to me. I had never given it an honest shot, so I figured it was now or never. That was last year. I think I just realized one day that I could do this, that my passion could actually be a sustainable career. I was booking enough that I could actually make a living, especially if I dedicated all of my time and energy to it. Once again, I didn’t truly know what I was getting myself into. Of course, I had that familiar feeling of, “What did I just do?” I just kind of hit the ground running and made sure I remembered to eat.
Every single day is different and I love that so much. My days are not structured at all, but I find discipline and balance in that. Obviously, there are a lot of sacrifices: stability, coworkers, weekends. It can get crazy! But if your heart's in it, then it’s worth it.
Now that you are a professional photographer, do you still find time to do your own creative work?
Even if your job is in a creative field, you still have to nourish the passion side of your interests. Actually, many of my creative outlets don't have much to do with photography. I'm also interested in exploring film, writing, and dance. I need different outlets for creative expression. I get frustrated with the limitations of photography sometimes. When you're looking at a photograph, you're looking at the past. You're looking at a memory and re-living feelings from that moment. That’s why I love live music and performance art so much. It’s amazing and empowering to get that real-time emotion from people.
When I’m shooting for work, I try to find ways to create images for myself within the client’s expectations. I’ll get all the safe shots, and then shoot some stuff for myself that’s a little weirder or edgier. Most of the time, they’re into it!
What’s the best piece of advice you can give?
Trust your intuition. It really knows best. Believe that as long as what you’re doing feels right, then the next step will reveal itself—it’s cliche, but take things one step at a time, breaking it down into smaller and smaller steps until it becomes manageable. If that step doesn’t work out, then re-evaluate and move forward. I don’t think anyone is ever fully ready for the next step, because how can you be ready for something you’ve never done before? You have to trust yourself.
What does New York mean to you?
It's all about the people here. You meet such incredible people from all different backgrounds, in all different stages of life. There's something to learn from everyone. Through their stories, you start to better understand your own.
Learn more about Quyn's work at quynduong.com