Voice of the Artist: Kevin Truong’s Secret to Taking Remarkable Portraits

Kevin Truong spent his career traveling the world capturing intimate, breathtaking portraits. Here’s his advice for creating trust with your subject. 

Kevin Truong has always been interested in people’s stories. Since 2008, the portrait photographer best known for his series, The Gay Men Project, has traveled throughout the world connecting with his subjects and capturing intimate, detailed portraits. 

Within his work, Truong has been able to combine his love of portrait photography and storytelling with his own identity as a queer Asian-American. The result is portraiture that evokes feeling, meaning, and relatability—making it both beautiful art and captivating stock photography your audience won’t be able to take their eyes off of.

In fact, Kevin’s command of portraiture is so special, Shutterstock tapped him for The Create Fund, which provides historically excluded artists with financial and professional support with the goal of creating a more inclusive and diverse library of contributor content. 

Here’s Kevin’s secret to beautiful portrait photography. 

Sweet couple working in the garden togetherImage via kevkevtruong.

Shutterstock: Let’s start at the beginning of your journey. How did you get into photography?

Kevin Truong: I’ve always been into the arts. I used to draw a lot when I was a kid, but when you grew up in an immigrant family, you don’t want to tell your mom you want to be an artist, right? You tell her you want to be a dentist or something like that.

Then, in 2008, I was working in the nonprofit sector and started taking photography classes at a community college. Eventually, I just decided to really go for it. It had always been a dream of mine to go to art school in New York City, so I applied to Pratt and got in. It was an amazing experience. 

SSTK: Who inspired your earliest work, and how did that lead to where you are now?

KT: When I was at Pratt, I started this photo project inspired by a photographer named Cathy Opie and her series called Domestic, where she took a road trip across the United States to photograph lesbian couples. Basically, I was doing the same thing—photographing gay and queer men in their apartments in New York City. I loved this project so much that I continued working on it for about three years at Pratt and it actually became my thesis project. I also turned it into a blog, and then decided to take it international. 

I used my credit card to book a trip to London, where I stayed on a friend’s couch and spent my days photographing people. As the project gained more traction, I started a Kickstarter for a trip around the world to shoot different gay and queer men in their homes. This took me to 37 countries and 89 cities where I photographed over 700 people. It was really a life changing experience for me.

Couple sitting on porch swing stare at each other lovinglyImage via kevkevtruong.

SSTK: Why do you love portrait photography?

KT: I love working with people. If you look across all my work either as a photographer or as a filmmaker or as a journalist, my focus is on people and essentially their stories. I’m just drawn to people.

I love that first moment when I meet someone and they let me into their lives, they let me into their homes, and there’s a lot of trust there. 

Couple embracing while looking out open window Happy couple with their arms around each other making dinner in the kitchen Man kisses his partner while holding hands in front of open window

Images via kevkevtruong.

SSTK: What’s your best advice for creating trust between a photographer and their subject?

KT: So, I’m not the best photographer. Clearly, there are so many people who are better photographers than me. But I’m a pretty good conversationalist, and I think that has been the key when I’m taking photographs of people, and especially if I’m taking photographs of people I don’t know.

There’s just something that happens when you pull up that camera, all of a sudden there’s this apparatus between you and the people that you’re interacting with, and a lot of times they’ll close up or get tense or just be so hyper-aware of the camera.

The key to really getting a good photograph is trying to get them to forget the camera, and my approach is to be very conversational and just try to keep the experience as light as possible. I think that’s when you get the nice loose shots.

Happy couple holding hands walk their dog in the parkImage via kevkevtruong.

SSTK: Are there any trends in photography that you just can’t stand?

KT: I’ve always been like, to each their own and let everyone do their own thing, and I think there’s a lane for everybody. Everyone is a photographer, and I encourage everyone to go out there and claim that title of a photographer and really own it and do their thing.

SSTK: Can you describe the type of work you have created with the support of the Create Fund and what you hope it will achieve?

KT: Representation matters. So, to me, it’s important to see representations of queer people doing seemingly simple things—gardening, sharing a tea together, or just walking their dog.

I’m thankful that this grant has allowed me to focus specifically on queer representation, and I’m hoping to create the type of imagery that I would have benefited from seeing when I was a young queer person and still struggling with my identity.

Couple embracing while gardening in their backyard Happy couple hugging in the garden facing the camera Happy couple embracing in the warm kitchen sunlight

Images via kevkevtruong.

SSTK: What are you working on now?

KT: I’m currently making my first documentary. It’s a film about my mom called Mai American, and I’ve been shooting it for ten years.

In the past three years, I’ve really started working with the footage and turning it into something. And, in the past year, I’ve started to get a lot of funding and grants for the film, so that’s really exciting. 

SSTK: How do you define success?

KT: Growing up as a little brown kid and also a queer kid, I always felt really invisible. Even to this day, I still feel like my perspective, or my story, or faces like mine don’t matter (my idol was Michelle Kwan because she was the only Asian face I saw on TV).

Now, in all my own storytelling, I’m focused on the queer experience, and also right now with this documentary about my mother, the Asian American experience. So, as long as I can just keep telling stories and building platforms, I think I’ll feel very lucky.

Cover image via kevkevtruong.