Interview: Christina Paik on Shooting Virgil Abloh's Off-White and How She Became a Fashion Photographer

Christina Paik, The young, talented photographer tell us how she started shooting editorials for some of the best menswear and streetwear brands around.

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Complex Original

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​Christina Paik is dressed in all black—a Stussy jersey that she's nearly drowning in, silk track pants, and Air Max 97s. She has a petite frame, long black hair, and, for a second, seems to have a British accent (later, she'd say she spends a lot of time overseas in Europe for photoshoots). Unlike some of her peers, the young photographer doesn't have a massive Internet presence, and prefers it that way. "I don't want to sell me," she says in her raspy voice. "I want to sell my work." It's the reason she rarely grants interviews or posts photos of herself. For her, it's all about the beautiful women she shoots and the editorials and lookbooks she does for brands like Stussy, Kith, and Off-White's women's collection

Paik grew up on the move, and now splits her time between New York City and Paris, where she has a studio. She was always interested in the arts, but spent most of her childhood as a figure skater. But after multiple injuries, Paik quit the ice and picked up photography, a hobby and skill she learned from her brother. She'd go on to attend Walnut Hill, an arts high school in Boston, and, later, Parsons School of Design in NYC. She built her career by shooting portraits, which caught the attention of a modeling agency in Paris. Her photos are always about people. Even now, while she considers herself a fashion photographer, she refers to editorials by the name of the model and the location and rarely by the name of the brand. It's what makes her photos so moving and personal. 

We sat down with Paik to talk about how she got into photography, why she only shoots film, and how she started working with some of the best streetwear and menswear brands around. She also discusses the magazine she's been working on—a project dropping in the future, alongside the business cards she'll be selling at Reed Space. The conversation was candid, emotional, and every bit reflective of Paik. 

Interview by Karizza Sanchez

You only let two people take pictures of you. Why is that?

I think it’s because I don’t trust that many people and I only shoot people as subjects. I've started taking a lot of self-portraits. I’d rather just take a picture of me 'cause then I know when I’m taking the photo, I’m in control. If someone else is taking my photo, I have no control. I obviously abuse this power that I have that I’m using with other people, and I don’t want someone to do the same thing with me.


I always found it so interesting that photographers have the ability to capture people in a way others may not see. When I look at your pictures, there’s emotion in each one. That’s what I love about your pictures.

Thank you.

Even that one of you in the bathtub with your hair. It’s so creepy, but it’s so fucking good. How did you develop your style?

I don’t know, to be honest. I just started taking pictures and I had critique classes 'cause I went to school for it. I never really meant to start a style. I just started shooting the way I see it. And I guess people always say, “You have your style.” I’m like, “That’s cool.” [Laughs] I just shoot the way I see it. Everything is an image to me. 


Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?

No, I was actually a figure skater.

Really? What was that like?

It was crazy. I used to train five times a day. Nothing compares to being on the ice. It’s a whole different side of me. It's the same with photography; I express how I feel with skating as well.

Art was always in my life. Figure skating and being on the ice was something that I grew up with. I was really sick and I had to do a sport. I stuck with it. Then, I had to quit because I had too many injuries. I went back to art and just picked up a camera. My brother did photo for a bit. 

You kind of learned it that way?

Yeah, then I went to the darkroom for the first time and I just fell in love. It’s my sanctuary.


What kind of art were you doing before photography?

Fine arts, mixed media, 2-D/ 3-D, painting, ceramics…

Do you still do any of those now?

No. I don’t even have time to go to the dark room myself. I would love to, but now time is so important.

So, do you do both digital and film?

Usually film, unless a client says specifically, “I want you to do digital.” But nowadays they just hire me because I shoot in film. They don’t even ask. When they say, “I want you to shoot my lookbook,” I ask, “You want me to do it in film?”  They say, “Yes, I want you to do what you do.”

What is it about film that's more appealing to you? Have you only ever shot film?

I started only in film. Not knowing how it’s going to turn out, that’s what really excites me. That’s my drive.

Because you can’t preview it right away.

I think that's the excitement. I think that’s the only way you can capture people. I know people won't be able to create the same portraits or get the same images if I was shooting with digital. With film, it’s the moment. I’m not worried about what’s happening on my camera. I'm worried about what [the model] is doing, what’s happening, if [the model] is doing something cool, and I want to capture it right away, but I don’t know if I got that. With digital, if something’s off, I’m going to delete it and do it again.  That’s pushing it. That’s forcing things and I don’t want that. 


I find that you shoot a lot of women. Is there a message that you want to get across with that?

I only used to shoot men when I first started because they made better portraits. I love fashion, but I never said I wanted to be a fashion photographer. People are what I’m interested in. I hated shooting women because you know how girls are. They say things like, “I know what side looks good,” or “Only catch this side," or “Don’t make me laugh.” It just seemed so fake to me. Men, they don’t care.

I just started shooting women because a modeling agency in Paris contacted me and said, “I keep seeing your work. I just want to send you girls every week, but I don’t want you to do what modeling photographers do. I want you to shoot girls your way.” That’s how I really started working with girls.

In a way, it’s kind of a self-portrait for me because I don’t like my photo taken. I won’t let anyone take it, but I kind of express myself with other girls. For girls, it’s different because we look at models and they’re supposed to be this image of what we look up to. This is what beauty is. This is what pretty is. But, if you look at magazines, that’s not what they really look like. I tell all my girls to never wear makeup to all of my shoots. 


Would you call yourself a fashion photographer now, given that you've worked with Off- White, Kith, and a few other brands?


How did you start working with brands, since you started off doing portraits?

When I was in New York, I was doing some work for Prohibit. That’s how I met Chace Infinite and everybody. Then I moved to Paris and I went into a streetwear store called Black Rainbow. It reminded me so much of New York and home. I just started working for them. I was doing their product shots, brunch photos, and party photos.

How do you translate your style—shooting portraits and the photo being about the person—into editorials for brands, where it's both about the person and the clothes?

I usually tell my girls, “This shoot is for Off-White,” but I’ll never call it an Off-White shoot to myself. I know every shoot by which girl and where they’re from because that’s what interests me. So let’s say if I did something for Stussy, I say, “Emily from Tahiti,” but for Stussy. That’s how I really got started with fashion. These agencies were sending me girls, but I like fashion and I just want my girls to look good. 


I think the most interesting thing about you to me is you can tell there’s a genuine interest in the people. I think you do have a distinct style. 

Yeah. No one talks to me about my work.


Yeah, people just say they like it or they don’t. But no one really has said, “This is your style. This is what you do."

I started shooting people because I was always moving around and I never knew what home meant to me. I just started creating comfort and I would try to feel safe with people. That’s what home meant to me. 

I've learned people come and go. I just try to capture people in ways memories cannot.


How does it feel now looking back on what you’ve done in these past couple of years? 

I'm proud but I’m never satisfied. I’m a freelance photographer. I don’t have a boss, so if I’m not hard on myself, who’s going to be? Any of the work I produce, I’m never happy with. Sometimes, I’ll waste three shoots because something’s not right. I just feel like I’m not good enough sometimes. I feel like that’s also negative. Bringing me down [Laughs]. But I got to keep moving.

I think it’s good and bad. You have that in your head telling you to keep going and do better, but then you’re always criticizing yourself.

And right now, I’m just so confused about whether I want to be in New York or if I want to go back to Paris…

Do you find more inspiration in Europe?

Yes, I’m not inspired here!


What's next for you? 

I always wanted to have my own magazine, so I started my magazine. ​

What kind of magazine is it?

It’s mostly photos. Fashion, art, and music. I have a lot of people on my team. The only two people that can take my photos, they’re my shooters. They are beautiful photographers as well. Darryl Richardson and Ed Mumford. I’m working with Uzi. He’s a good friend. I’ve been trying to collab with him. He invites me to the studio. I was with him with Fredo [Santana] and Travis Scott. I take pictures while he does his thing. I’m trying to have him do more fashion stuff. He’s so into music. Even he says he wants to step away from the rap game, but it’s so hard because we’re always traveling and stuff.

I was reading something about your photo series of a couple and how that was a reflection of how you were feeling at the time. The relationship you have with your photos, it's so much deeper. 

Wow, I didn’t know that series was online. I recreated my moments with loved ones with other couples. I believe there’s eight to 10 in this series, but I really enjoyed this series. This inspired my self-portrait series actually. Each self portrait is a memory I have that I just wanted to recreate. But I try not to show my face too much, or let anyone get to really know me. I think that’s why there aren't that many interviews of me.

I noticed that. 

That’s why I don’t post pictures of my face either. I don’t want to sell me. I want to sell my work. I want you to follow me for my work. 

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