Photographers Ramsey Cheng and Sam Feyen discuss their approaches to the female form, balancing commercial and personal projects, and how their creative processes are always developing.
Images by Ramsey Cheng and Sam Feyen
You might think it easy to make a living as a photographer in Hawai‘i, with its supply of endless beaches as a backdrop, a melting-pot demographic to pluck beautiful faces from, and, at the right hour, all that diffused natural light. But if you’re of a mindset like Ramsey Cheng and Sam Feyen, two photographers born and raised in the islands, you would much prefer to take those postcard-ready images with more grain and grit.
Often working in 35-millimeter film, the two operate at opposite ends of the sensibility spectrum: Ramsey’s reels capture a sprezzatura sense of place, with images that feel ripped out of a self-published zine; Sam’s construct a tropical, honey-soaked world peppered with muses that channel a free-spirited confidence. But they both share a thrill for the unexpected final product that results from shooting film.
At Fishcake, an interior design store and art gallery space in Kaka‘ako, O‘ahu, Ramsey and Sam met up for bright cups of clover-brewed coffee to chat about cameras, photography, and the images that most resonate with them.
My eyes gravitate to a certain beauty. Everyone in my eyes is beautiful in their own way, and they have special features that bring out a uniqueness in them. I think I can spot that really quickly. – Sam Feyen
Ramsey: I can’t even remember the last time I actually touched my digital camera. It’s been a long time.
Sam: That’s crazy. I think about bringing disposable cameras with me everywhere, but usually I’m so in the moment wherever I am that I forget to take them out. (Laughs)
Ramsey: I’ve just been obsessed with film recently. But it comes in waves, for sure. For instance, I don’t like that I only take the opportunity to really, actually shoot when I travel. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to keep my film camera on me at all times. I’m a little, like, obsessed with not knowing how it’s going to turn out.
Sam: It’s an adrenaline rush.
Ramsey: That feeling of, like, this is going to turn out so amazing or a waste of a frame.
Sam: I know! I hate the feeling of a wasted frame.
Ramsey: When it comes out right or you got that one lucky shot, nothing can beat that feeling.
Sam: It’s like a victory. (Laughs) What else do you enjoy about the process?
Ramsey: One thing I love is that it’s always going to be an outlet of happiness, you know?
Sam: That … was cute. (Both laugh.)
Ramsey: How did you get into photography?
Sam: It’s a funny story. When I was younger, I lived right next to an ABC Store. And I never had money, so I would save the receipts from ABC because if you collect enough that shows you spent $100, you can trade it in for an ABC mug. Basically, I would collect all these thrown-away receipts for these mugs. Then I would sell those mugs for like $10, and I would just keep doing that over and over. Isn’t that crazy? Eventually I saved enough to buy a disposable camera and make prints at Longs back in the day. Sometimes, when I wouldn’t be able to afford it, I would fucking steal it. How old were you when you got your first camera?
Ramsey: Growing up, my dad was always with a camera in front of our faces. He was never a professional photographer, but he loved photography. He’s got a really great eye for scenic images. And we’d always talk about it. Then as a teenager, I took a photography course where we shot with film cameras. They were Pentaxes and I really liked it. It feels kind of cheesy, but everyone says this as a photographer, but I really loved the idea of capturing all of these memories that I could literally keep.
Sam: You have to have such good awareness of your space. Your aesthetic is so … not calm, but it’s so comforting. Everything just looks as it is when you saw it. As if you just sat across from someone and you took a picture. It’s almost anthropological in that way. Whereas for me, on a shoot, I’m like, “Go here and there, do this, and that and that, and do a jumping jack.” Because I have to assemble something together that I can see in front of me.
Ramsey: Most of the shoots I’ve done with women, I always tell them to wear what they want, to do their own makeup, because I just want whoever I’m photographing to be as comfortable as they possibly can.
Sam: It resonates with your photos—you’re capturing the model being themselves.
Ramsey: How do you select models you want to work with?
Sam: My eyes gravitate to a certain beauty. Everyone in my eyes is beautiful in their own way, and they have special features that bring out a uniqueness in them. I think I can spot that really quickly. That’s how I know I want to work with them. It’s immediate. Because a woman’s confidence in itself is beautiful. When I see that, it makes me confident, too, and together we can create magic.
Ramsey: For me, I feel way more comfortable shooting men. I get really nervous with girls and maybe that’s because you’re openly gay—whoever you’re shooting knows that. I think that for the most part I’m open too, but I’m also very private. I never like to associate me with my work. I like to enforce whatever the models are doing, whatever makes them feel comfortable will make me feel comfortable. Because the whole time I feel like I’m exploding in my head. Afterwards when I see the film, I’m often impressed, like, “Wow, that worked!” But the whole time during the shoot, I’m on edge. Like, super on edge.
Sam: That’s so different with me. When I’m with a model and posing them in these awkward positions, and they’re like, “What are we doing, Sam?” I’m like, “Just trust me, like, the pictures will come out good. Just do this awkward pose, or like put your hand where I tell you and do this.”
Ramsey: With most of my photoshoots, I just want it to look like we were just hanging out.
Sam: And that’s the flow of your photos.
Ramsey: Did you ever feel like you needed to move from Hawai‘i to pursue photography? You came from Maui to O‘ahu.
Sam: Right, which is already kind of an eye-opener for someone who lives on such a quote-unquote country island. I did shoot on Maui for about four years. It’s different, it’s a slower pace, and I felt somewhat limited there. In Honolulu it’s so much faster, and I feel like I can establish myself more. But I still get comments like, “Oh, you should move to LA or New York.” But that’s not my scene—it’s just not me. It would be such a cool opportunity, but I feel like I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I do when I’m at the beach. I love our natural environment, which reflects in my work. Plus, what you can do in New York, I feel like can be achieved here where we already have such a diverse group of makeup artists and models.
Ramsey: That attitude is good. It’s kind of crazy to me that when it comes to wanting to do big shoots in Hawai‘i, it’ll still be outsourced. They’ll bring all these people from the mainland to do what creatives who are here can also do.
Sam: That bums me out. Tell me about other projects you’re working on, something that’s just for you.
Ramsey: I went to Maui with my partner, she’s also a photographer. And I’ve never dated another photographer. It’s interesting how different our styles are. My film on that trip ended up being, like, me taking a photo of her while she’s taking a photo of something else. It really got me thinking about how I love the way she sees things that I can’t see.
When it comes to nature especially, she just has this crazy eye for it. It’s funny because our pictures are in the same places, but such a heavier feeling and different, you know? All my rolls from that trip are mainly of her, and all her rolls are of just like an up-close flower or these mailboxes or just like, things, these different worlds. I was like, “Wow, I’m surrounded by this, but all I saw was just her.”
I enjoy shooting with her because she gives me a better perception of different things. I want to get better at shooting nature. I feel like any person you date has their own type of creativity, but in terms of the same field of creativity, I’ve definitely met my match.
Sam: It must be nice to share film costs! (Laughs)
Ramsey: Yeah, it’s fun! Sometimes when we go out, we both have our cameras, and it’s this feeling of “OK, cool, you’re going to capture something and I’m going to capture something.”
Sam: Aw, I want to do that now. I want to give my girlfriend a film camera and be, like, “Go shoot stuff.” Just to see her perspective.