Born with an insatiable hunger to look deeper, understand more, and explore the stories behind mundane aspects of life most of us take for granted, Graeme Kennedy chose to pick up a camera.
He has photographed everything from mushroom harvesting in Lishui to surfing culture in Hainan, from agave farms in Mexico to cacao production in Tanzania.
Averaging hundreds of thousands of photos annually, Graeme’s motto is: “Just say yes.” And that motto has opened doors for him in some of the remotest corners of the globe.
This is his story.
Where are you from and what brought you to China?
I was incredibly fortunate to be born in a beautiful town in the Canadian Rockies called Jasper – a small town of 4,000 people at the heart of an incredible, sprawling mountainous National Park.
I grew up surrounded by fresh air; the forests were alive with birds, bears and elk.
My weekends were spent climbing trees, skiing, biking and pulling pranks on tourists who had travelled from all over the world to see this gorgeous place I called home.
Sadly, all of that was lost on me. Growing up, all I wanted was to leave that town, and even before I finished high school, I had left home to move to the nearest city, Edmonton.
I dug deeper into the arts, dabbled in radio and music production, stage lighting and sound – really anything I could get my hands on.
It wasn’t enough. My itch to see more led me to the marketing department of a school in Thailand, then London, and then eventually the opening of an international school here in Shanghai.
I knew nothing about China. The Canadian education system taught us the state capitals for all the American states, but virtually nothing about one of the most ancient, diverse and fascinating countries in the world, China.
I knew it was a big country, and I knew there was a large (and great) wall somewhere, but my impression was grey, uninteresting and mostly informed by political stories I saw on the news.
I figured that couldn’t be the whole story, so I bought a one-way plane ticket.
How did you get into photography?
Photography for me has always been a key. It opens up doors, gives me an excuse to travel with more purpose, and lets me see behind the scenes.
It also helps to slip out of awkward small talk at parties – “Better get back to taking photos, nice to chat!”
It didn’t take long for me to realize that what I really wanted was to simply see more, understand more, hear more stories, meet more interesting people and go through more ‘staff only’ doors to see how businesses really work.
The access you get with a camera is incredible – from spending time with the late Queen of England, to sitting in a dugout canoe with a bunch of researchers in Sierra Leone watching a family of hippos bob up and down as the beginning of an Ebola epidemic flared up around us. True stories.
How did you make photography your full-time profession?
I spent my first few years in Shanghai working in Marketing and Creative Direction for Wellington College and naked Group.
It wasn’t long before I realized that this country is too big and interesting to spend my days sitting behind a desk, so I knew something needed to change.
I went to Peru for a summer to capture stories along the chocolate supply chain with my friend Julia Zotter, one of the owners of Zotter Chocolates, an Austrian chocolate manufacturer.
It was clear to me during that trip that I wanted to be a photographer full time, to dive deeper into how things work. It’s incredibly easy to kick the can full of your dreams down the road, and I had been doing that for too long.
Starting your own company is always a little bit of a leap of faith, and so many people I know are waiting for the right moment. I was too, but I understand now there really never is the right moment; you just have to go for it.
Even so, up until the very last minute I was still searching for solutions other than starting my own company – such as working for a studio, or finding a company to sponsor my visa. But nothing ever added up.
In the end, it was – ridiculously – a paperwork issue that pushed me into following my dreams.
I spent the next year thinking: Why didn’t I do this sooner?
How do you choose where and what to shoot?
My basic approach to life and business was: “Just say yes.” I said yes to everything – the weird, the wonderful, the boring, the unexpected.
I did a lot of favors and gave away my time to friends who were doing exciting things.
Each project was like a seed that led to new projects, one or two new opportunities, and before long, my schedule was packed, shooting for brands like the Marriott Group or Starbucks, who I never imagined would be knocking on my door.
On the other hand, growing up in that small town in the Canadian Rockies taught me how important it is to support local; still to this day, I make small businesses my priority, whether that is a Taoye – a boutique hotel in Zhejiang – or Yaya’s Pasta in Jing’an.
Knowing my work has an impact on a small business means infinitely more to me than watching it get absorbed into the corporate machinery of a publicly listed company.
What is your favorite type of photograph to shoot?
There was a comment I started getting again and again when I posted photos from around China, a comment I started to crave: “I didn’t realize China was like this.”
The muted image I had of China before coming is a shared one, and I wanted to add color to people’s perception of the country I call home.
China is not one big homogenous landmass of chopsticks, factories and political headlines. It’s complicated, delicious, ambitious and creative, and I get to be up close and personal with all of that through my camera.
Over the years, stories about food have become a bigger part of the photos and documentaries I create.
I love watching dishes being delicately plated on the edge of a loud and chaotic kitchen, then chasing those ingredients back to their source – spending time with the people carefully producing them – then going back even further to understand how they came to be and the impact they have had on those communities.
The deeper I dug into these stories for companies like Zotter Chocolate, the more connected I felt. I recognized that maybe my choices of what chocolate bar I buy is much more meaningful than I expected to someone thousands of kilometers away.
Photography also becomes an incredible drive to explore.
As part of the Peddlers Gin team – the first China-based gin brand, started in Shanghai – when we set out to make a gin that represented the incredible diversity of flavors here in China; we sourced botanicals from all over the country – almonds near the border of Kyrgyzstan, Buddha’s Hand from Yunnan, our iconic Sichuan peppers.
Years later, I still have only scraped the surface of the stories that are within that bottle of gin.
Why are you so stoked about food?
My mother was a dietitian, and my father worked for the railway. Those two worlds collided when a 50kg bag of lentils fell off a train, and my father brought it home.
We spent what felt like the next 10 years eating lentils every day.
It was as much of a test of mother’s creativity in the kitchen as it was the malleability of lentils. Lentil pizza with a side of lentil stew is often what comes to mind when people ask if I miss my mother’s cooking. But, in reality, what she really was cooking up was a much deeper appreciation of food.
As a dietitian, food really meant something to my mother; food wasn’t mindless to her, it came with thought and an understanding of ‘why’ we eat.
Food should be thoughtful, not just what we are eating and whether it’s healthy, but also the stories behind it.
Our world revolves around food – imagine the journey your morning coffee went on to arrive in your cup. The stories along that path fascinate me.
We interact with food every day, so as a photographer these are images that people can connect to.
What is your advice to budding photographers?
I didn’t study photography; I’m not formally trained; I have virtually no art experience.
But that’s not what photography is about for me. If you want to be a photographer, be constantly asking yourself the question: “What is the story here?”
It doesn’t matter if you are shooting a dish at your favorite restaurant or the food waste processing plant that deals with what’s left over – let the story guide you.
What does that mean?
If I’m photographing a dinner party for Social Supply (a Shanghai-based creative experience marketing and design agency), it’s important to capture not just the plate of food, but to step back and capture the scene around it.
If I’m capturing a JFever concert, the audience is just as much part of the story as the rapper, so I make sure to obscure part of the stage with the silhouette of the crowd
If I’m taking photos of a mushroom harvest in Lishui, I make sure to find an angle that shows just how much they’ve harvested, but also a few close-ups of the weathered hands that are carefully sorting.
Like anything, photography requires practice. I’ve taken hundreds of thousands of photos this year alone. The more you shoot the better you will be.
So, start shooting – anything and everything, but especially your friends' businesses and projects.
Do I have a good camera? Yes, but some people still think that the photos I post from my phone were taken on that camera, so don’t confuse good gear with being a good photographer.
Some of my favorite photographers just use their phone, so start there, and start today.
Angles and lighting are everything – this is what brings emotion to your image. Let the light compliment the story you are trying to tell, and let the angle make that story pop.
Getting good at this takes time, but for me I like it when the light comes from the side; it means the subject pops from the background.
And I like to kneel down when I shoot, looking up slightly at my subject mostly to avoid having the ground or floor in the image.
Lastly, don’t let your camera get in the way of your life.
Being a photographer has sometimes been a barrier for me, a wall between me and whatever I’m capturing. I promise you that there are countless moments in life that are much more valuable as a memory rather than data on a hard drive.
This is Part I in a two-part series. In our next sit-down with Graeme, we take a deep dive into his favorite places he’s traveled to in China, the inimitable experiences he’s had there, and the connection he’s felt with the people, places, subjects (and food) he’s captured through his camera lens.
When Graeme isn't working on visual stories about agriculture and life in the countryside, in Shanghai he shoots for a huge range of brands – from hotels to restaurants – and a variety of other products and businesses. Check out his website at www.GraemeDYK.com or by scanning the QR code below:
Follow Graeme Kennedy on Instagram @graemedyk
[All images courtesy of Graeme Kennedy]