Through the Lens of Johnny C. Y. Lam

Seeing connection beyond distance.

For Johnny C. Y. Lam (仲賢), travelling and photography are life passion. He found his voice as an artist in photography on a three-year journey to over 40 countries, and he continues to travel internationally for commercial and editorial commissions. His images tell the stories of the people he connects with during his travels. Born in Hong Kong, Lam moved to Canada with his family at age 16. He is now based near Prince Edward County, in Ontario.

How did you become interested in photography?

My mother was a pretty serious amateur photographer when I was young. She gave me a point-and-shoot camera on my 10th birthday, which I mostly used on family outings. The big shift happened in my early years in Canada. I joined the high school photography club in Grade 10 and started playing with SLRs, black-and-white film, developing negatives, and making prints in the darkroom. My teacher was very encouraging, and he assigned me as the yearbook photographer. Being able to photograph people and events was the most empowering experience I had in my high school years.

What work or photographer has had the greatest influence on you?

It is hard to limit it to just one body of work or just one photographer. I would say that there have been a few stages in my life where different photographers have influenced me. I started out being really obsessed with the work of Sebastião Salgado, Josef Koudelka, Eugene Richards, Steve McCurry, James Nachtwey, Francesco Zizola, and Alex Webb. Then I discovered the work of Fred Herzog, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Alec Soth, Tony Ray-Jones, and Masahisa Fukase. More recently, I’ve been loving the work of Christopher Anderson, Jack Davison, Alistair Taylor-Young, and Nadav Kander.

What are you trying to capture in the subjects or landscapes you photograph?

It all depends on the subject and the location. Generally, when I photograph people, I try to capture their authenticity, instead of their “camera face.” If it is an environmental portrait, I love to show the relationship between the subject and the environment. As for landscape, I always try to capture a moment of magic in a scene; it could be the sparkling sunlight reflecting on the water or a whirling dust devil moving across a savannah.

What role do the unexpected and mystery have in your work as a photographer?

Whether working on location or in a studio setting, I think it is important to allow room for whatever may happen in front of the lens. Sometimes the unexpected may happen, and I think it is important to embrace it rather than control it. To me this is much of the essence of photography: it’s important to allow space for and be open to magic.

Is there a story or a place you photographed that really stood out for you?

I photographed a story that was published in the Globe and Mail during the summer of 2018. It was about how a retiring couple made a Syrian refugee the new heir to their Lake Ontario fishing business. I learned about the story at the local farmers’ market and decided to pursue it.

As for a place, I think Rwanda will forever have a place in my heart. I’ve travelled to Rwanda on three separate occasions on assignment.

Each time I was left with a mixed sense of sadness, inspiration, and hope. Despite the brutal history and the ongoing hardship the people have to face in Rwanda, I have met some of the most generous, optimistic, and resourceful people there.


These encounters continue to inspire me.

Could you tell us about a photograph that you weren’t able to take?

I was travelling in Bolivia near Uyuni when we passed by a turquoise-coloured lake with hundreds of flamingos feeding from it. It was one of the most surreal and beautiful sights I have ever seen. I wasn’t able to stop and take photos because I was on a public bus, but I’ll have that image forever imprinted in my mind.

How are your photographs influenced by your travels?

I would say that my photographs have been heavily influenced by my travels. In fact, my career in photography began when I started travelling extensively. My favourite things to do in the world are travelling and meeting and photographing people. My most memorable journey was my two-year-long backpacking trip, which took me across Canada to Europe and eventually to Southeast Asia. I take much shorter trips now, but I still find travelling is what inspires me the most as a photographer.

Is there a cause or organization dear to your heart that you’d like to tell us about?

A Peace of Life was co-founded by Laurena Zondo, a Canadian writer whom I have had the pleasure of working with in Rwanda. This Canadian non-profit organization operates in Kigali and focuses on youth empowerment through different creative outlets. They train and mentor youth to become peer leaders in creative communications, counselling, and social enterprise for peace building and community development in the Great Lakes of Africa. I volunteered and taught a photography workshop there in 2009. The workshop was called Gafotozi, meaning “little photographers” in Kinyarwanda. I had five students in my class, and we had the best time getting to know one another and learning about photography.

What are you working on at the moment?

Aside from my current commercial and editorial work, I have recently been awarded an artist residency by the Prince Edward County Arts Council and will operate a studio for the month of April. During the residency, I will work on a portraiture project focusing on the senior members of the agriculture community in Prince Edward County.

What three Instagram accounts most inspire you?

@aspictures Art Streiber, an entertainment photographer based in L.A.

@jakestangel Jake Stangel, a lifestyle and commercial photographer based in San Francisco.

@christopherandersonphoto Christopher Anderson, a photographer/director based in Paris.

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