Kien Taking It To The Streets

What drives the passion to become a photographer differs for each person. For New York City based freelance photographer, Kien Quan, it was dance that eventually led him to pick up a camera. But it wasn’t the dance that populates so many sites and blogs these days, of beautiful ballet dancers in classical poses. No, for Quan, it was breaking—a dance form born out of Hip Hop culture and known for its Bboy and Bgirl athletic and physically challenging moves.

Quan started breaking in 2005 while he was in high school. He and his friends taught themselves by downloading tutorials and video clips and dedicating time and energy to practicing. Eventually they achieved their goal of competing nationally as well as in Europe and Asia.

It wasn’t long after that Quan bought a camera—a compact Canon PowerShot, with manual controls—so he could photograph his Bboy and Bgirl friends. He was as determined to learn how to shoot as he was to learn how to dance. “When I do something,” Quan says, “I don’t do it halfway.” Taking a similar path, Quan scoured the Internet for articles and tutorials. And, he kept shooting and shooting—“going out there and failing over and over until something worked.” Not only did his drive and passion lead to a career as a freelance photographer but, he adds, that “a lot of people have told me I have a very non-traditional way of shooting,” which he credits, in part, to his self-teaching approach to the craft.

What’s extremely important, though, is how Quan’s experience as a dancer gives him an edge over other photographers. This isn’t unique to this genre of photography, of course. A photographer with skateboarding experience will have an advantage over those who do not, for example. “As a dancer” Quan explains, “you have insights that others don’t have. It feels really easy to me—I know when the peak moment is. I can call it before it happens most of the time.” This allows him to shoot more selectively, avoiding the “spray and pray” approach that fills up media cards and requires hours and hours of editing.

Perhaps more important, though, is the relationship between Quan and his subjects. “I have a close connection to a lot of dancers and it’s really important to have people trust you.”

As Quan’s photography career was growing, he was also going to college and trying to practice dance every night.  It was really difficult managing all three and he knew that something had to go, so he stopped dancing but maintained his connection to the dance world with his photography. Through social media and word of mouth, he picked up assignments to shoot breaking competitions, as well as more traditional forms of photography including portraiture, fashion and weddings. But, his heart and passion was—and is— focused on capturing Bboys and Bgirls and movement.

Having long outgrown that little Canon PowerShot, Quan now shoots with a Canon 5D Mark III and a Sony a7R II. While he’s shot in studios, Quan loves to shoot dancers in the streets, since that’s where Hip Hop culture comes from. It’s exciting, too, and keeps his “reflexes sharp” since he has to be aware of traffic, security guards, weather conditions and all the other factors that can challenge a street shoot. He chooses his locations carefully, taking into account how the background fits into his concept for the shoot. And, as you can see from his images, Quan has a talent for perfectly framing his subjects against those backgrounds.

Lighting needs vary, depending on the location, time of day and Quan’s intention for the images he wants to capture. When not utilizing natural light, he may simply use a reflector or, when appropriate for the location and his concept, outfit a couple of Profoto B1’s with Chimera softboxes. Quan, who points out that one of the reasons he loves photographing internationally is to experience the world, comments that the Chimera softboxes are perfect for travel. They’re compact and easily fit into his carry-on bag.

But Quan’s photography is so much more than gear, technique and getting the exposure just right. One day he may be working with experienced dancers he knows. The next day he may have to develop a rapport with a subject who needs more direction. Either way, photographing Bboys and Bgirls in the streets “Keeps me alive,” says Quan, unlike shooting in a studio where “everything is predictable.” “These are stories and memories; the photograph is just the language of how I tell it.”


Made by Refugee

Photography isn’t the only art form that 26 year old freelance photographer Kien Quan takes to the streets these days. Spurred into action by the President’s immigration rhetoric and proposed policies, Quan—whose family immigrated from Vietnam during the War—and fellow artist Jillian Young began their Made by Refugee project. A combination of street art and graffiti, Quan and Young call attention to the contributions of immigrants and refugees.

Quan—whose family immigrated from Vietnam during the War

On the Made by Refugee Facebook page, you’ll find this statement of purpose: “Reminding the world that countless refugees have made life-changing contributions to society.” In addition to giving well-deserved recognition to refugees and immigrants, Quan—whose project has been covered in more than 40 publications globally—encourages others to join the movement.  (If you’d like to download your own Made by Refugee sticker, just click this link: In the end, Quan says, “If I can change one person’s perspective [through this project], I will be happy.”