Cameron Lee Phan Thinks Self Portraits Can Help Us Escape Ego

Ashley Tyner

Welcome to our new series "Who Is She?", in which we introduce creative characters you should get to know.

Cameron Lee Phan is a thing of beauty. He's both an emerging talent in the aesthetic pursuit of photography and gifted with a face carved in stone. A recent New York transplant originally from Dallas, Phan is developing new work and an evolved sense of identity in the city where you are whoever you say you are. We talked to him about self-portraiture, Lil Wayne's creative approach and the hidden artistry involved in modeling for brands like Eckhaus Latta, Rachel Comey and Linder.

Let's talk about your creative practice, which is photography.

Mostly, yes. I picked up my first camera when I was 14 probably? At first I was just fascinated with the idea of making a photograph at all. That eventually turned into a creative outlet for me. I've always been a person of friends and a person of family and so I think that's how I got pulled into portraiture. I think that's where I felt most comfortable with a camera, was based on my connection with other people and that synchronicity with them.

You’re driven by relationships.

Relationships. It's definitely been different and a little tough though, with friends and family, because I've now distanced myself from everything that I've known. I moved to New York a year ago.

So in Dallas, your work revolved around close, intimate ties. Now that you’ve moved to New York, how has it changed?

What I've focused on most since I’ve been here has been self-portraiture. It's funny to reflect on that now and see how it's been kind of focus of the self, focus on growth and discovery and living a life here that is completely different. Learning about the communities that I feel like I belong in, and discovery my queerness, discovering how I want to present myself.

One thing I’ve always wondered about photographers who work in self-portraiture is: What is going through your head? They turn out as these beautiful stolen moments and I’m always wondering "How are they both creating and capturing this?" Being it, and making it at the same time.

It's a really fast switch of the hat. You put on a photographer hat for two seconds and immediately jump into either the truest form of yourself, or into a character. Self-portraiture is certainly a therapy for me. It's interesting to go back and forth, being in front and behind the camera in the same 60 seconds.

Photographs by Cameron Lee Phan.

You're kind of jumping in and out of different selves.

Yeah, because both parts are true to me. Whenever I'm shooting myself, I would say it's mostly based on an intuitive feeling of what feels right. How I should lay my body or pose? How do feminine I want to be? How masculine am I feeling that day?

That brings me back to something that you mentioned before, which was how New York has helped you define your identity more and more each day. Is masculine and feminine tension something that you're thinking about actively when you're making?

Yeah, I feel like these were things that I didn't allow myself, or felt that I didn't have a choice to portray when I was back in Texas. Now it's kind of this freeing feeling of exerting my aura in whatever way that I choose. I think there's a comfort in the permanence of a photograph that's self-affirming.

Let's talk about modeling. Do you get anything out of it creatively?

I definitely do. In a way it's kind of shutting off ego. It's very similar to acting.

Photographs by Cameron Lee Phan. Styling by Ruben Burgess Jr.

You’re playing a role for them.

I've had many friends in Texas who I would shoot and they would do the same for me. I think that's rare. It’s a situation where the model is thinking artistically alongside the photographer.

I think that's something that people don't think a lot about. They just see this attractive person. But really it's a two-way street, or else you're not going to get a powerful photograph.

I think even at some points while I'm in front of the camera, I don't mind if I'm hidden or if my face was not the focus of a shot because I think it's about the overall composition. I'm thinking of it as a photographer.

Do you have any photographers that you've always worshiped? Or are you one of these artists who's in your own world and ... You know how Lil Wayne says, "I don't listen to anyone else's music." That kind of thing. Are you like a Lil Wayne?

Oh, no. There's definitely photographers that I will always obsess over. Nan Goldin is one of those photographers that I look to when I'm thinking about my relationships with people, how to synchronize being a part of the group that you're photographing, having a community. Same with Peter Hujar. My best friend, Lauren Withrow, is such a great documentarian.

I’m glad you mentioned your best friend. So many artists throughout history feed off of work coming from their contemporaries, the artists that they're coming up with. Art is a conversation.

It's beautiful to grow with other artists that you feel close to. It’s a community of people with similar values.

Photograph by Cameron Lee Phan.

What are your values?

My values are simple. Being good to those around you and understanding that you don't know what's going on inside of each person's head. Recognizing the beauty people feel in themselves for themselves. Appreciating slowness and not letting anxiety and social constructs take over. I think an important value for me is to just make sure that I'm at ease.

It's funny you say that, because when I look at your photos, that's how I feel. I feel like time has slowed down a little bit. How do you stay balanced in this Instagram-crazy, clout-crazy world? How does your work survive in this oversaturated place where everyone's a photographer? How do you deal with that stress of like, "How many followers do I have?" Is it important to you?

At the beginning of the Instagram blowup, definitely something I cared about a lot. It’s not easy. We've created this other world that we are in probably more than we are out. As much as I say, "Oh, it's just social media. I can put my phone down." There’s an itch to have to go look and see. So I don't pressure myself to update everyone else. I update the people around me. And I don't pressure myself to create work without meaning. I think that's another value.

Photograph by Cameron Lee Phan

That's major.

But that's why I love traveling and going out on the road. Especially now that algorithms are trying to feed us our interests and passions.

But then it's also ...There's sort of this other side. I know I've met a lot of creative, interesting, nice, kind people on Instagram.

Oh yeah. I would say it's helped me for a majority of my work. Although it can seem like a dark world, so is the actual world. I've made so many great connections. I've made friends. I've done work through it. It's definitely a platform in the world that can be beneficial to you if you want it to be. And there's news that I'm updated on that I probably wouldn't go out and reach for on my own, because it's the quickest, fastest way to get information. You can start to see other values that may not be yours but you are thinking about now, or stories of other people that you may not have heard of even in big media. Because in a way, it's because speaking for themselves.

You’ve become one of the faces of Rachel Comey. Has your point of view on fashion changed at all?

Yeah, for sure, and especially working at a place like Rachel Comey where I can see the way the industry works all in one place. You can see the reality of it a little more. And you can see how fashion is influenced so much by politics.

What are some of your favorite brands?

I love Rachel Comey. I also really love Dries Van Noten. And Eckhaus Latta.

What's your style? If you had to describe it.

That's hard. I just always try to stay right in the middle of masculine and feminine.

When did that start? In your life?

I think it started about two years ago. I had this good feeling wearing clothes that weren't designed for me. Like, "Oh, this is something ..."

"This is an option."

"I feel like myself in this."

Photograph by Cameron Lee Phan.