Larry Chen: Life in the fast lane

Written by Cheryl Tay on . Posted in Cheryl Tay Blog | Blog Post of Cheryl Tay

He is known for producing ‘sick’ shots from the various motorsport events he goes to. If you are a fan of Speedhunters, then you would probably be familiar with Larry Chen’s works.

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Curious to know more about how he got to where he is and what he experiences in this job, I got the chance to interview him when he was at Autopolis last month for the final round of the Super Taikyu Series.

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1. When and how did you first pick up photography?

It’s funny how I was never really interested in photography. It was my dad’s thing and I was camera shy so I stayed away from it as my dad would try to take pictures of us when I was younger. Even though he had all the good gear and all the cameras and lenses, I just wasn’t interested in it until I got my hands on a digital camera in senior year of high school at the age of 17. It belonged to the school and I was assigned to be a reporter for a project; that’s when I started taking photos.

Then my dad gave me his camera which was a 1986 Nikon FG – I still have it and I shoot with it till this day. So I used that and I started shooting with film for fun. Eventually my father bought a better digital camera than the one I had from school.

I started shooting with it pretty religiously and found that I actually liked photography. At that time because I had shot with film, I knew how to use different manual settings. Then in 2003, I was at the top of the Empire State Building with a tiny camera and trying very hard to get a good shot. At that point I knew that I had to step up my game so I started saving up my pennies to get a real DSLR camera. In 2004, when I was 20, I had saved up enough to get the Rebel XT, that just came out, for 1,000 USD.

2. What kinds of photography did you start out with before going into motorsport photography?

I pretty much brought my camera with me everywhere I went.

With this camera I started shooting at parking lot car meets because I like cars. At that time I was already racing with Sports Car Club of America (since I was 18), so I started shooting at events I raced at. I realised that I was just not good at racing. I loved it but I was pretty slow so I continued to shoot more and more and more and I drove less and less and less.

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3. When did you start shooting motorsports?

I shoot all kinds of motorsports – from drifting to hill climbs to drag racing to GT racing to open-wheel racing to Time Attack.

The first motorsport gig I got was for a drifting magazine in 2006 – that was also the first time I got paid for my photos. In the same year, I got credentials as accredited media for the first time. I also started Driftfotos.com as a personal project to showcase my work.

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4. You were once paparazzi before leaving it to pursue your passion in motorsport photography.

Right after high school I did IT work, because that was my passion when I was in high school. I was fixing computers and building computers for businesses, trouble shooting and giving tech support.

One day at a Formula Drift event, I bumped into someone who was working as paparazzi. I thought about it and I decided to become one too as it’s a job that allowed me to shoot everyday even if it was something I didn’t care to shoot. It allowed me to have a camera in my hand every day and the money was good. I like the guerilla style, photojournalism style. That’s always what I looked up to. Everything is completely candid and always trying to tell a story.

I started part-time first then went into it full-time for two years. I left the job at the end of 2008 because it was really hard on my body, the hours were really long and I was just not very happy because I would always work nights and we would be up every single night chasing people I don’t care about. They were just dollar signs to me.

Once I saved up enough to pay off all my equipment, car and be completely be out of debt, that’s when I quit and realised that I could fully pursue something else, without having to worry about bills or whatever.

5. What happened after you quit as paparazzi?

I focused on Driftfotos.com and paid my way to events.

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6. Why drifting out of so many types of motorsport?

I feel that drifting is something I’m really good at photographing, plus drifting is naturally beautiful compared to just shots of a car during a track day.

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7. Do you remember when Speedhunters approached you? How did you feel?

I was a big fan of Speedhunters from the beginning because they were doing everything that I’ve always dreamed of doing. I started supplying some images to them and then I got asked to write my first post up in late 2010 to introduce myself. It was pretty well-received so in 2011 I was offered a full-time position.

For it was definitely a dream come true as it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. This kind of job doesn’t really exist, but is created by this team of motorsport enthusiasts.

8. Why do you like motorsport photography?

It makes me feel alive. It’s everything that I’ve always wanted to do. I was never good at science or mathematics and I barely passed high school. But to shoot motorsports is like my calling.

When I’m standing trackside and it’s pouring rain and I’m 100 percent soaked with cars just flying by, that’s when I’m completely calm, happy and content.

I know I just have to do one thing – which is to produce amazing imagery.

When I look into the viewfinder and shoot, that’s when all the pain from hiking, carrying all my equipment, lack of sleep and busy travelling melt away.

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9. How long do you see yourself doing this for? What are your future plans? What’s your ultimate goal?

I will do this for as long as I can, as long as I’m needed and as long as my body is able to carry giant lenses. I cover at least 40 weekends of shooting.

I intend to just to further perfect my craft and further push the level of photography in motorsports, to try and bring that level of professionalism from the top level of journalism into motorsports photography.

My ultimate goal is for my images to live on when I’m long gone; build a legacy and portray motorsport history in my own way.

Ken Block, Gymkhana Four, Universal Studios backlot

Ken Block, Gymkhana Four, Universal Studios backlot

10. What do you like most about this job?

Meeting new and interesting people.

11. What do you dislike most about this job?

Wasting time at the airports.

12. What are some of the challenges?

There’s a physical limitation such as carrying multiple camera bodies and lenses. No matter how much you want try to carry, you can’t carry every single lens at your disposal, regardless of how many you own.

It is also easy to get sick from all the travelling so I always keep an arsenal of medication with me. Then there is the lack of sleep and the long hours.

There are equipment challenges too; sometimes they just stop working.

13. How do you find time for romance, friends and family?

It’s not easy because I get home most of the time on a Monday and I leave on Wednesday to go to another event. Everyone else works normal office hours so I don’t get much time with them. I hardly have any time with them; only during off season only but every year it seems to get shorter and shorter.

14. What are some things that people don’t know and take for granted sometimes?

I never imagined working harder than I do. The thing is, we always portray ourselves as having fun and it might seem like an easy job. Well, it is fun but it is very, very hard work.

People don’t realise how hard it was for me to get into this. Everything I learned from photography I taught myself and everything about the aspect of the business I taught myself too. Everything was done through trial and error and I put in a lot of time, effort and resources before I got my break with Speedhunters.

What people don’t realise is also how much time I spend in front of the glowing screen. For every two days of shooting, I spend about five days of post-processing and writing.

15. What’s your motivation? What drives you?

The people who read Speedhunters, and the people who look at my work and enjoy it because they couldn’t go to these events or they were not as close to the action as I was.

Giving them that slice of experience is what makes me feel good, but I always tell people they shouldn’t be satisfied with my coverage. My goal is to get these people to go to these events and be interested enough to save up their pennies and experience the events in real life for themselves. At the end of the day, if people don’t go to these events then they wouldn’t exist anymore.

16. What do you think makes you special or different from other photographers in the same line?

There are many, many photographers out there who are better than me but I feel that I have the ability to tell a story and the ability to shoot the people behind motorsports just as well as shooting the motorsport itself.

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17. Equipment, access and post-processing software has moulded photography of today and some people feel that the true essence of photography is lost. What do you think?

That’s why I picked up my film camera again. I always bring it along with me to events and I sneak in photos from my Leica M6 as a part of my story. This proves that I can still shoot if there was no digital technology. So then, my way of shooting is very real and I try not to produce images that are fake looking. In my eyes that’s how it looked to me at the time it was happening.

18. Strangest or most thrilling experience

In the winter of 2007, I was shooting the World Drift Series in China. During the third place battle between American Ross Petty and a Chinese drifter called Susu, Susu’s car broke during the chase run so the win was given to Ross. Susu went to protest to try and replace his car for a re-battle, but his protest was overturned and so he ended up with 4th place.

He was very angry that he couldn’t change his car mid-battle, so some of his friends decided to push down the podium backdrop during the prize giving and start a riot. My paparazzi instincts kicked in and I tried to capture what he was doing.

He spotted me shooting him, so he stopped me and demanded for my camera. I cheekily told him to come and get it and then they started chasing after me. They tried to beat me up and they smashed my camera. Luckily the American teams were close by so they came to help me.

My camera fell into the police hands but the Americans managed to get it back. Finally the fight was broken up by the police and I was taken into custody. Eventually they figured out that I didn’t start the fight so they let me go.

The irony is that Susu compensated me with a brand new hot-off-the-market (at that time) Canon 1D Mk III camera that was just released in China that week as a token of apology. In retrospect, that might have been a significant turning point for my career because I went back to America with a camera that allowed me to shoot to my full potential because of its new technology.

Here are some samples of Larry’s works:

Empire State Building, New York

Empire State Building, New York

 

Tianjin, China

Tianjin, China

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1937 Ford two-door sedan, Murrieta

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Cheryl Tay

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Singapore’s only female full-time motoring and motorsports photojournalist. Independent automotive consultant and prominent local motorsports personality Cheryl Tay is uniquely passionate about all things cars and motorsports. She also has a strong passion to share her interest and knowledge, hence having a dream to become the ‘Oprah Winfrey of cars and motorsports’ and create a multimedia platform for her sharing. - A female in a male-dominated world, Cheryl Tay is Singapore’s only female full-time motoring journalist and motorsports blogger and she regularly writes for prominent titles in Singapore, Asia and internationally. (See full list of titles that Cheryl Tay writes for here.)

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