Kai Man Wong: The Man Behind DigitalRev

Kai Man Wong is the presenter, co-producer, writer of DigitalRev TV – the world’s most subscribed photography channel on YouTube – and a passionate photographer. A lot of the reviews he makes are characterised by the photography that takes place on the streets of Hong Kong. Eric Kim, a contributor to the Leica blog, interviews him.

Q: Hey Kai, it is a great pleasure to have you on the blog. Most everyone knows you from DigitalRev, but not so much about the Kai “behind the camera”. Tell us a bit about your personal background and how you got interested in photography and hosting shows.

A: I liked art when I was in primary school, sketching things that weren’t just limited to drawing naughty things on other kids’ exercise books. I did a lot of still life sketches and paintings, which makes it all the more amazing that my drawing skills seem to look like that of a kindergarten kid’s now. I’ve regressed.

Photography seemed like the natural progression, but I wasn’t too keen to get into it at first – it was part of my University studies – but then I eventually got really fascinated by it. Not fascinated, obsessed. The teacher didn’t hold any lessons so it was all entirely self-taught, but I think it can be a good thing to work some things out on your own. I got seriously geeky about it: reading photography magazines and books, walking up bloody big hill-mountain things to get just one shot, taking notes of my settings every time I took a photo (I guess the mentality was that I would save precious beer money from being spent on developing poorly-exposed film) and generally being very passionate about photography.

Before that, during the latter half of high school and in college, my passion was invested in performing arts. I was studying Law, Media and English also in college, but I really spent a lot of effort on studying theatre and performing. It was the route that I thought I would take but then I decided to do a few years studying Film & Media first to think whether I wanted to carry on with the performing arts. In the end, I didn’t do any more studies. I’m quite lucky that I have had the opportunity to do two of my passions at DRTV: photography and being loud.

Q:  Describe a typical day in the life of Kai Man Wong.

A: It’s not as glamourous as one might think. There aren’t always helicopters, fast cars, me popping champagne all over Hong Kong and pole dancers around (those last two things were separate, we didn’t pop champagne over a pole dancer). A typical day contains two things: planning and implementation. Shooting, editing and voiceovers take a big chunk of time out of the day, but we also need to plan for the next shoots also.

Q: In a past DigitalRev episode, you recorded “What makes the Leica M unique”. You test out a plethora of new cameras and lenses every month, yet you still shoot with a film Leica M2 personally. Share with us why you enjoy shooting with your film Leica in the midst of all the technological developments with most digital cameras.

A: It’s beautiful to shoot with and caress. It’s the only beautiful thing that you aren’t married to that you can touch and caress in such a manner without getting arrested or divorced. I remember when I was still a student, I kept looking at a camera shop catalogue and drooling over the Leica M7 and MP pages so much that the camera shop banned me from going into their shop.

That well-worn M2 is my first Leica, so I use it a lot and I have taken it with me on many trips. I use it because I own it. I use cameras that I own; they’re not for decorating my shelf. Both film and digital have their purposes so it’s not a case of preferring film over digital – they’re different. For me, I shoot with film every now and then, just to keep it real. There’s that comfort zone, with digital, that is all too easy to get into get into: relying on aperture priority and chimping like a crazed chimpanzee. I still like the surprise of getting the film back and finding out that there are shots better than expected or some bad shots – it’s humbling. With the M2, I would often take it out without a meter and use the Sunny 16 rule to guess exposures; I love technology but it’s also nice to use something that has enough features for you to concentrate on the very core basics of photography to shake things up a bit.

Q: Although your primary job is to review and test out cameras, you must have a difficult time making personal time to shoot your own photography projects. Share with us the challenges you face regarding this, as well as how you work towards overcoming it.

A: The video content is the most important thing, so I do focus a lot more on executing that well than shooting things for my personal projects. I could quite happily walk the streets all day to look for photos but in the shoots we’ve done time has been quite tight. Sometimes, the photos are throwaway shots that really only serve the purpose of testing a lens or camera. For example, if I wanted to support a point about the colour fringing, I would take a high contrast shot. I might not intend for that photo to have any particular meaning, only for it to show what I was talking about. But this is something I want to change, even though time is quite tight on these shoots when we have the cameras/lenses for a very limited time, I want to make sure the photos are right for the video. I want to raise the bar and produce a more consistent, ever better quality. I want to be pickier when it comes to selecting photos for the video but I really can’t expect to get project work all the time, as the team productivity comes before my own.

Q: One of your passions in photography is to shoot street photography. Describe some photographers (old and new school) who influence you and tell us what you enjoy about shooting the streets of Hong Kong.

A: I only really got into street photography when I came to Hong Kong a few years back, and only shot landscapes before that. But even before I started, I was aware of street photography and well-known street photographers. Martin Parr was the first street photographer (I believe he calls himself a travel photographer though) whose work I was introduced to and I loved his style. I love his quirky outlook on life. There were photo journalists, like Don McCullin, who deeply inspired me with his work, but it was Martin Parr’s work that really started the interest in other kinds of photography other than landscapes.

Of course, there’s the works of Cartier-Bresson, Erwitt, Gilden and many others that left an impression on me, but it was more the community that really got me properly into shooting street photos. Before Flickr was rubbish, it was great to keep up with the latest work of enthusiasts like me. I enjoyed the work of a Japanese photographer, Tommy Oshima, and I remembered going back to his photo stream again and again – his work really made me want to take some photos of street stuff. Seeing other people who do it as a hobby, like you, producing some stunning photos is inspiring stuff.

Q:  The episodes on DigitalRev have fantastic quality (in terms of the concepts, editing, as well as the fun-factor). However recording, editing, and producing the episodes much take considerable time and team effort. Share with us how your team collaborates with one another to constantly produce great quality shows.

A: You have to start off with one great idea to get the wheels in motion. After that, you need a brilliant team and knowing which ways to steer to make it work. There, that was my crap car analogy of the day.

Q: DigitalRev is the most popular photography show out there. You have many adoring fans and people supporting what you do. However like every other show, you have your critics. How do you deal with your critics, and what do you have to say to those who think you have a fake British accent?

A: I think the “fake British” accent accusations are too amusing to take seriously. There are comments that are a lot more malicious than that, so I don’t really worry about those claims that I faked that accent. Besides, they’re right, I do fake that accent.

I check the comments on a regular basis and there are a lot of valuable comments from fans of the channel. It’s important to know if the criticism is coming from people who want to see positive things come as a result of that criticism or from the people who just want to see you crash and burn, then you ignore them either way. Kidding aside, we always strive to produce quality content that our fans will enjoy so their feelings matter.

Q:  Let’s go back to talking about your street photography. What exactly do you look for when you are shooting on the streets, and how would you say your personality influences your way of working?

A: I really do love Hong Kong when it comes to street photography, and what I shoot right now is very specific to this city. It’s a lively city full of contrasts, and there are a lot of preconceptions of this place. There are a lot of photography clichés that can be seen and done in a day here, but then I also feel that there is a lot more depth to this city than just big phallic buildings and laser shows. The whole obsession with status symbolism and consumer culture is quite prevalent here, and I love looking at the nouveau riche from China who lap it up and those in the underprivileged areas who barely eke out an existence in this giant shopping city. But then it’s not always about socio-economic things – I do like quirky characters or people that look or have an expression that are interesting.  There are things that you just react to in the moment. For sure, photos that you take are directly influenced by one’s personality, but I think inquisitiveness makes you more intrigued by human behaviour. Depends on what mood I’m in though.

Q: Share with one of us one of the most memorable shots you have taken, and the story behind the photo. What makes the photo special to you, and what do you want the viewer to get out of it?

A: I’m quite an optimistic person. And by that I mean I’m a bit of cynical, bile-filled grump-ball. But I wasn’t always like that, I was a bit of a dreamer as a kid, and I think that’s still there beneath all the layers of grumpiness. I was very fortunate to go on a trip to Taiwan, which was an interesting insight into another Chinese culture. It was certainly interesting to see everyone buzzing around on scooters, and there were families literally hanging on to one scooter.

There was one photo that I took of a boy on the back of a scooter, who seemed deep in thought. I briefly saw them buzzing along on their scooter, the kid with this quite brilliant expression on his face, and I quickly shot it – I don’t even think Lok had enough time to start the video – and I just love his expression, that innocent optimism, the kind you still have when you’re not a cynical, bile-filled grump-ball. I don’t particularly have expectations of what I want the viewers to get out of any shot because part of the beauty of it all is that they get to study the semiotics of the image. With regards to this shot, I just like it and it’s a feel good thing that happened at that moment. I’m not going to lie and say that it is a visual metaphor for panda bears dreaming of a bamboo shoot buffet or some mumbo jumbo (although that would be a great lie).

Q:  Everyone knows Kai Man Wong on-camera to be the fun, energetic, and sometime ridiculous guy. Tell us more about yourself when you are off the camera. Would you say you are the same person, or different in certain regards?

A: I’m not sure, Eric, I can’t study myself off the camera if I have no footage of myself to watch.

Q:  What are some personal photography projects you are currently working on or have planned for the future?

A: I’ll still be annoying the same people as I currently do, but there are plans to do some more projects that involve traveling. So I will be annoying subjects in other countries. I can’t say much about our next project right now, but it’s coming up soon anyway.

Q:  Who are some of the people who have helped you most in your career in photography and hosting, and what advice would you give to those trying to live out a similar dream?

A: Support does mean a lot to me, and that comes from a number of sources: family, friends, colleagues, fans, photographers that I meet. It’s always nice to meet new people and broaden your mind. My only advice is to set your target and work hard to reach that. Stay focused and stay true to you. Sounds a bit David Brent-ish but there ya go.

Q: Fun question: fill in the blank for us. My Leica is like my (blank) I wouldn’t (blank) without it.

A: My Leica is like my fake English accent – I wouldn’t leave home without it.

Q: Who is one contemporary street photographer that you admire and recommend other people to check out?

A: Matt Stuart and Trent Parke constantly wow me, even if I keep looking at the same photos. Matt Stuart produces work that is thought-provokingly entertaining, funny and engaging. Trent Parke does some amazing things with light. Sorry, that was two.

Q: Any last things you would like to mention that I haven’t asked you about and people you would like to give a shout-out to?

Rest in peace: Martine Franck, Tim Hetherington, Remi Ochlik, Horst Faas, Eve Arnold, Tony Scott…

Thank you for your time, Kai!

-Leica Internet Team

Get in touch with Kai Man Wong on Twitter or his profile on DigitalRev.