For Taby Cheng, birthdays quickly turn existential.
The Vancouver-based photographer sees getting another year older as a chance to ask the big questions—especially about her work with a camera.
“I have this weird thing with age. Every time I turn a certain age, it’s like an awakening: ‘What do I want to do, what is the point of all this?’” she says, sipping coffee on a couch at vitruvi HQ. “I ask myself that every time, and I’m still doing it now: ‘What is the point of me shooting? What is the purpose?’ And I think that’s what drives my work a lot. I shoot because I’m passionate about it, but I don’t shoot just for fun, just to make pretty photos.”
It may seem laborious, but it’s this self-awareness and self-reflection that results in Cheng’s serene style of photography—one that teeters the line between wisdom and naiveté. With a distinct fashion sentimentality, her work feels beautiful while at the same time being slightly odd. And it’s to this uncomfortable contrast that she finds herself most well-suited.
“It’s a lot of juxtapositions I really like, a lot of abnormal and abstract and odd pieces of clothing,” she reflects. “I really enjoy the opposites, like very masculine and dainty clothes. I just really love that oddness.” This push-pull shows up in her work for clients like Cereal magazine, Foe & Dear, A Bronze Age, and Aritzia—but also in her personal projects, which is where she really finds that she is able to showcase the diversity that she hopes will become the norm in model photography.
“It’s been a really big learning curve from when I first picked up the camera to now, just figuring out my style and figuring out what I enjoy shooting,” Cheng says. “Because originally the biggest reason I wanted to shoot was to see more faces that looked like mine, to see different people, to see different bodies, and I kind of lost that midway because you want to please so many people. You want to do what everyone else is doing in order to conform. And then I kind of had to break away from that to figure out what I actually enjoy.” Which is great for all parties, because what she clearly enjoys is celebrating every body; her images are beautiful, yes, but not conventionally so, and are not always of stereotypically “good-looking” people.
“I think I definitely gravitate towards women. I definitely gravitate to people who are different somehow, not the standard kind of beauty,” she explains. “Beauty is so subjective to anyone. Just because they don’t meet society’s standard of beauty doesn’t make them any lesser.” Amen to that.
And despite her passion for image-making now, Cheng originally thought she would go into nursing—that is, until a photographer friend gave her the opportunity to learn the ropes. She had always wanted to work creatively, and a camera gave her the outlet she needed. Her skills grew from there, and now it’s hard for her to imagine life without a lens. “When I was younger I never did photography, and I look back and I’m like, ‘Wow, I had so many experiences and saw so much within my family and within the cultures’—my parents are both from Hong Kong and Mainland China, but my dad was born in the Philippines and my mom was born in Thailand,” Cheng says. “The first time we went to the Philippines, I remember in my head all the things that I saw. And I think back to that and I’m like, ‘I wish I had a camera to catch all of that.’”