Tommy Ton’s Unique Perspective on Style
Tommy Ton is one of the leading street style photographers working today. His unique point of view focuses not so much on the pretty people of the fashion world as the way their clothing plays off of their surrounding environment. The results are always striking and they beautifully chronicle the ever changing fashion landscape in the real world of the city streets.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 13th issue of ODDA Magazine and the interview originally took place at the Flander DC Fashion Talks.
Is there any key to become a street-style photographer? Are there things you do and things you don’t do?
Well, the number one thing is that you don’t run after someone. You have to draw the line at some point where, if you know someone, it’s ok to run into traffic and take photos. But, you know, imagine a woman with a man coming after her that she never met, chasing her with a camera and she’s just doing her business to go to fashion shows, it is intimidating. So, obviously, you have to consider the fact that they are not voluntary there on the street to be photographed, they are going to work. Of course, it’s a different situation when people want to be photographed. At the same time, it’s a very intense experience and you have to keep in mind that people are people and don’t necessarily want to have a camera in the face.
Then, how do you kind of see an opening to take your photo? Do you wait for your moment? How does it happen? Because it seems like you’re a hunter waiting to attack.
I like to describe it like hunting, and for me it’s just about capturing the moment because there is so much curiosity inside that you have to pick up a part that makes sense to you as a photographer. Today it’s so easy to take pictures of everything and everyone that you finish being exhausted by all the frames. It’s almost like a fashion show, you have to know what to capture.
How do you feel about your role-play with all these influencers arriving in the fashion industry?
I take definitely full responsibility for the fact that I am part of this whole thing. I am in a partnership with social medias. Because of social media sites, the exposure that I have really increased, so it helped me.
It seems like someone who is wearing a flashy piece would have a lot more attention from photographers than someone wearing something understated. Is that true? Is it always about who’s “making the most noise”?
For me it’s the opposite of what you just said. So, if you would be wearing a bright purple outfit, you can just keep on walking, I won’t photograph you. That’s the sad thing, people assume that street style is all about being noticed, and it is for some people, yes. If you want to be photographed, then you can be exposed and become an influencer. But then, there are those people that are interested, quiet and are chic people. But, at the same time, I won’t discriminate someone who wants to wear a garbage can, I can find this fascinating too.
Tell me a little bit about people who just want to get photographed and appeal interest. What is the giveaway sign for those people?
Well, for me, I love someone who wants nothing to do with me, someone that just doesn’t care. But for the others, people would come with a group of friends, all dressed up with the same brand or, the funniest is when people pretend to be on the phone, or to call a driver in the street and finally they just finish taking the subway.
Let’s talk a little bit about the business, of what you do. What is your relationship with brands now?
The thing with brands started when they realized that arrivals to the shows were becoming a red-carpet situation. They started dressing many women that were sitting in the shows and they gave them key bags and items to show them in press releases or on Instagram or social medias. I have a job to do, this is the business and that’s the reality. I don’t want to make any comments on the industry of photographers but I find that people today relate more to images they find on Instagram. This is the state of the industry; people want to feel that connection with the product.
Well let’s talk a little bit about this aspect, because I know there was the hashtag #NofreePhoto during the SS18 shows where street style photographers were upset about influencers using their images on socials without paying them or crediting them. What is your feeling about this, do you think they were right to do that?
I feel like there are two sides to that issue: On one side, yes, people should be compensated for the work they do. On the other side, I feel like these photographers are just complaining about the fact that they are not getting as much money and work as the influencers are. The funny thing is that I think of the subjects that we have: if you voluntary choose to be outside of a fashion show, that’s your choice.
And the fact that people were taking pictures of are voluntarily being photographed and are making money of it, what is there to complain about? There’s no need to create a hashtag. For example, celebrities don’t make money for paparazzi photos, it’s all about exposure.
What would you say to somebody who wants do what you do? Is it a saturated market at this point?
There is always openings for anything in this world; anyone can do anything anywhere. But the problem is there is a certain level of safety concern about the shows. The fashion shows used to be a very quiet, private event for people to come so the fact that we are drawing attention from you or teenagers wanting a picture, or celebrities coming to shows, it’s kind of getting out of control.
People are more than welcome to take pictures, I think it’s fine, but the thing is: if you are going to run all over the place, you are adding more chaos to the situation. I mean, I think you need to be very respectable to people who are going to shows, because they are just like you and I.
I wanted to go back a little bit to that paradigm shift eight years ago at the Dolce & Gabbana show. All of the sudden, front-row guests were sitting in second row so that you could have a front-row seat. When you walked in, you didn’t realize what was going on, what was that moment like for you when you saw you were at the front row?
Well, I walked in with sweat marks on my shoulders, because I was like “I will probably have a seat in the fourth row or something” and when I was looking for my seat, I was like “what the hell is going on?”.
I had never been invited to a fashion show in Milan, you know, to have this gesture. Then I thought this image was the idea of a generation of digital media is being embraced by an Italian fashion house. In the back of my mind, all I was thinking was that everyone was looking at me and “How did this happen?”. You know, it completely changed everything.
Jessica Michault is the Senior Vice President of industry relations at GPS Radar by Launchmetrics. She is also the editor-at-large for ODDA magazine and contributes to publications like the New York Times, the Business of Fashion, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Mixte magazine.
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