BONFIRE

Conversation: Alice Gao and Jessi Frederick

Cultural — 11.19.2017

This conversation took place over iMessage, while Alice was in Hong Kong and Jessi was in Brooklyn. It was then copied, pasted, and formatted to fit this screen.

FEATURING
Alice Gao

PHOTOGRAPHER
Jessi Frederick

Jessi Frederick


I know you’re in Hong Kong. I am not sure what time it is there at the moment so I will try to keep all my thoughts consolidated into one text, as opposed to sending them all individually and blowing up your phone if you’re trying to sleep. Anyway —  I ask you for “career” advice a lot.. and I put the word “career” into quotes because the word itself seems too restricting for what we do (or not do) for a living.

Alice Gao

13 hours ahead — it’s killing me to wake up to like 50 emails at 5am. Anyway, hope the advice I’ve provided hasn’t steered you in the wrong direction. I always think, “man if I were half as savvy as you are when I was your age…”

Jessi Frederick

50 emails, and 50 texts from Jessi. Do you ever go on vacation? For as long as I’ve known you, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you tell me you’re going on a vacation and turning your auto-reply on.

Alice Gao

I haven’t in so long. It’s ironic because people leave the corporate world to have more of a flexible schedule and control over their schedule, and it’s not like that at all. Now I’m like, “I can’t take a vacation because what if an amazing opportunity comes up during that time? I can’t take a vacation because what if I have no work the following month?” Clearly some freelancers are better at this work/life balance, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

Jessi Frederick

I get that completely. There’s this idea that “freelancing” or being self-employed directly correlates to “freedom.” However, I think freelancers are faced with significant challenges because there is no monitoring vacation days, time off, paid time off, sick days, or even having a concrete job description. It’s common for freelancers to take on multiple job-titles, so to say. For example, a stylist is also a photographer, and model. 

By definition, you (and pretty much everyone else) would consider yourself to be a Photographer, however you're in front of the camera quite often. Do you ever struggle with this, being behind the scenes but also being the subject?

Alice Gao

I have a long journey with this. I basically learned photography through self-portraiture. Back then, it was just me and my first SLR and a remote. I’d set my camera all around Philadelphia either on a tripod or precariously on ledges to shoot my only available subject at the time — myself. Now, like you said, it’s much more common for photographers and creatives to also end up in front of the camera. I go through phases of love-hate with it. I get many fun and amazing opportunities that require me in front, which I have a hard time saying no to, but I also hate not having full control over how the images turn out. I can try my best to convey a vision and art direct the photo as much as possible, but it’s still a struggle to get an “assistant cameraman” to see what I’m seeing exactly. Sometimes I just want to say “fuck it, I’m never going in front of the camera again.” You’re so good in front of the camera though, I always wonder how you do it!

Jessi Frederick

I am no model. We all have that bottomless folder on our computers with a  collection of imagery that is our “blooper reel.” I get sent a hideous photo of myself regularly...it’s humbling. I like to think that constantly toggling between being in front of the camera and being behind has really shaped my perspective and how I work. I learned so much about myself, my angles, and my overall self awareness from sitting in front of the camera, allowing other people to capture what they saw vs. what I thought they saw, and seeing the results. I actually feel my journey has been quite similar to yours, except mine involves styling and directing. My only canvas when I started was myself, and I found people to photograph me. In the early stages, I edited all the photos my friends took. So I can obviously relate...it got to a point though where that was expected. That I would style a shoot, and I would be the subject, and it became routine and a job. And just like you, I am too much of a control freak. Nothing bothers me more than not being able to see the scene before the shot; making sure that the shirt is wrinkled in all the right places, or that the hair is perfectly placed.

Alice Gao

My blooper reel is beyond embarrassing. Sometimes I have these morbid thoughts about how I should delete all of them, because “if I die, and someone digs through my computer, they’re going to see me as I wish not to be remembered.” But I digress. I have long admired your eye for editing. The way you see things is a refreshing point of view.

Jessi Frederick

That is both dark and hilarious. And I feel the exact same way.  Also, thank you. I think I have finally started to accept my point of view, which for so long I have been changing and unhappy with. But it emphasizes the fact that I don’t want to be in front of the lens as often as I once was... even though that’s what people expect of me. Is this something that you struggle with at all?

Alice Gao

Yeah definitely a struggle on my part too. In some ways, it’s that I’m so used to doing everything myself, juggling all of the roles and wearing all of the hats, that it’s almost hard to step back and just do one thing and actually hire “models” or other subjects to replace what I would normally do. But I’m totally burnt out. I want help and I do want to take that step back and focus on being a better photographer and director.