BY WENDY HUNG
Imagine. Walking down the street, shades of color vivaciously pop to the beat of movements framed in time. This is how Nick Onken sees the world, in photographs, in moments. As one of the most sought-after photographers, Nick beholds moments of people, frozen in time. Whether he is hired for fashion, charity or travel photography; the longer he’s been a photographer, the more he views experiences in life in snapshots of precious time, taken with appreciation.
In 2009, Nick wrote the book, Photo Trekking: A Traveling Photographer’s Guide to Capturing Moments Around the World. Indeed, moments in life and in cultures are illustrious themes that robustly surface throughout his work. His photographs are of natural moments, so viewers feel as if they are right there, present with him. “I’m always inspired when I go to other countries,” he shares candidly, “seeing and interacting with different cultures, different nuances just by walking on the streets. The book encapsulates a lot of that.”
As a child growing up in Seattle, Nick was always painting and drawing. In high school, he took Art AP and became fascinated with combining computers and art during college, where he continued studies to become a graphic designer. After working on a website for a photographer, who noticed that he had an eye for design, Nick was intrigued and began to ask questions about photography. Gradually, the realization that this was his path in life grew apparent, particularly after convincing a non-profit to split the cost of traveling to Africa in exchange of building a photo library. After Seattle, he moved to Paris in 2005, then lived in Los Angeles for awhile before settling in New York City three years ago.
In travel photography, his art is defined by observational instincts. “There’s a lot of emotions happening in that moment, even if it’s just a landscape.” He explains, “Things that I see, there’s an emotional element to it, attached to the moment. Even if it’s a grasp view, there’s a feeling like you’re there.” He also sees colors, they pop at him, which leads to the reason why Asia has been one of his favorite continents, out of 55 countries that he’s stepped foot in. To him, Asia is far more visually interesting. “It’s just colorful. The traditions, the way people dress, the things people do are visually interesting to experience. I’ve been to eight to nine countries in Latin America and most of the cultures generally feel similar. Whereas, you can go from Varanasi, India to Mongolia or Nepal, cultures within Asia can be so vastly different. For example, spirituality in Varanasi is completely unlike what they do in Tibet in regards to religion.”
Nick also finds beauty in raw moments and natural existence that even photoshop cannot possibly produce the beauty he inhales in those settings. From an image of an innocent Indian child playing in dirt, to a snapshot of a family moment in Nepal; his unequivocal observations of life around the world showcase the multidimensional component to his capability as a two-sided photographer. He has a versatile ability to shoot enticing images while embarking on cultural journeys, and innovating upon fabricated yet alluring images for commercial purposes.
If travel photography is what he observes as an outsider solemnizing foreign cultures, then the other type of art he creates for fashion or portraits in photoshoots are more denoted depictions of how he views the world, or how he characterizes the person. “There are different sides to how I define beauty.” Besides beauty in raw and natural settings that he detects from traveling, he continues, “There are also things that are visually attractive, whether it’s the models, the clothes, or location. All those elements play out to work, especially in shooting fashion.” In such a realm, his creations quickly formulate from what he sees as beautiful into photographs. It’s a crucial reason why commercial companies (such as Nike, Lady Footlocker, Old Navy…and many more,) select to hire him – the unique craft of capturing moments that feel natural and real in, often times, enclosed spaces or fabricated settings.
Moreover, he enjoys the balance between travel and commercial photography. He recalls the first time visiting Africa (the first time he had traveled to the other side of the world, in a developing country,) and couldn’t fathom the way we lived back home. “The more you travel, the more you see different cultures, the more you adapt.” He says, “There are cultures that are in between, cultures that are desolate and you just have to learn. I do feel like part of my business is giving back as well.” So he works with a charity, Pencils of Promise, one that builds schools for children around the world. He’s been in Laos, Guatemala and other developing countries, running around countrysides with kids, building schools and promoting education. The balance in a wide range of photography that he passionately creates, is fulfilling an obligation as a world citizen in giving back.
As opposed to a slew of photographers who attended formal schooling to refine their skills, Nick was self-taught. He learned without structure, which signifies that he works without and beyond boundaries. He learned on his own, freeing his mind to experiment, figuring out what works and what he prefers visually. “It’s been an asset to my growth, I’m not bound by technicalities on lighting, or this is the way things should be done.” He elaborates, “Knowing technical information helps with communication, it dictates what you want. But first and foremost, it’s about the art.” According to him, technicality is an instrument but not the reason why photographers are hired. They are hired as visionaries.
Today, Nick lives in New York, a city that not only does he love but also one that exudes perpetual stimulus. As a photographer who is constantly on-the-go, he also rides on creative highs, living in moments where he is immersed in the excitability of loving life. Whether the feeling derives from people he meets, or a certain chemical released from creations that he takes pride in; it’s a cyclical and infinite passion that keeps him create one exquisite yet lively image after another. At the end of the day, both traveling and photography gives him perspective. “It’s appreciating life,” he recognizes, “it’s still a weird dream that I get paid to take pictures. Traveling and seeing different places in the world, makes me appreciate what I get to do.” He pauses for a few seconds, “it’s pretty amazing.”