THIS PHOTOGRAPHER WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE
Interview by Mike O'Donnell
You want to be a doctor. So you spend years studying and get into one of the best med schools in the country. You study nanoparticles. You write a 350-page thesis. On the day of your thesis defense, you stand before a jury, enlightening them on how contrast-enhanced MR nanoparticles can help effectively diagnose heart disease. The jury awards your thesis, and you're now a doctor. When they ask you what's next, you respond: I'm going to become a photographer.
That's just what WNW Member #1138 Ahmed Klink did. We look forward to being proven wrong, but we believe Ahmed holds the distinction of being the only WNW member who is also a certified doctor. So we had to ask a few questions: how did he make such a drastic career change? And what did his parents think? It turns out Dr. Klink has even saved the lives of a few WNW members who partied too hard. We'd publicly shame each of you in a heartbeat, but he refuses to mention names. The Hippocratic Oath is strong with this one.
We also spoke to Dr. Klink about his multicultural background, how it has profoundly impacted his work, and why photographing both a Bacardi house party and Syrian refugees means so much to him. The doctor will see you now.
Tell us about your background: Who is Ahmed Klink and how did he get here?
I’m a photographer. I live in New York City but my story started very far from here and it’s kind of an extraordinary tale so hopefully you like those. I was born in Lebanon in the midst of a raging Civil war in the early 1980s. My parents were studying medicine in Romania so my grandparents raised me in a small town in the North of the country until my parents graduated. Unfortunately, because of the war, my parents were not able to come back to Lebanon so I had to leave the country with my cousin who was 17 years old at the time. The plan was to meet my parents in France. We trekked from Lebanon to Syria where we were able to catch a flight to France. I was two years old at the time so I don’t remember any of this but my guess is that the plan could have gone terribly wrong. Thankfully we were able to meet my parents in France where I grew up in a safe and happy environment.
After I graduated high school, I went to college in Paris where I studied engineering for 5 years and I graduated with a Master degree in biomedical imaging. This is in 2006. I was interested in pursuing a PhD and I had always been drawn to the States (one of my aunts lives in Houston and I had visited the Kennedy Space Center as a teenager) so I got my GRE and applied to a bunch of colleges and research labs. One of them was in New York, at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. I had a few phone interviews with the professor there (the great Zahi Fayad) and they decided to take me. There, I did research with nanoparticles and wrote a bunch of papers that yielded a 350 page thesis on how contrast-enhanced MR nanoparticles can help effectively diagnose heart disease. I graduated Suma Cum Laude in 2011. At my thesis defense, the jury asked me what was next and I told them I was going to be a photographer.
How did you family and friends take the news when you told them you were leaving a career in medicine to pursue your passion? Or are we outing you now?
No they know. I remember calling my mom a few months before my graduation. We were talking about what I was going to do and I said, "I’m going to be a photographer." I was shooting throughout my 4 years of PhD research so it didn’t really come as much of a surprise for them. It’s not as if I was calling them to tell them I was moving to LA to try to be an actor or something. During my last year I was already getting enough photo work to the point that manning both medical research and photography was becoming difficult so I had to make a decision. I come from a family of doctors but they were very supportive. I think they could see I didn’t suck at taking pictures.
"At my thesis defense, the jury asked me what was next and I told them I was going to be a photographer."
Do you ever use your medical knowledge on the fly?
Yes! Almost everyday. My friends use me as a safety net when we are out partying and stuff. I’ve saved the lives of a few WNW members but you won’t get names. That doesn’t happen so much anymore but I used to get calls in the middle of the night. One of the funniest anecdotes I have happened during the Cannes Lions a few years ago. I remember getting out of the subway on Delancey St. and I got a call from a friend that appeared to be at the hospital in Cannes after a few crazy nights out. She couldn’t speak French and the doctors there couldn’t speak English so she called me to help translate! She was like, "This is my friend Ahmed! He’s French and he’s a doctor, he’s going to help us!"
"I’ve saved the lives of a few WNW members but you won’t get names."
Do your friends call you “Doc” or do you have to remind them, “That’s Dr. Ahmed Klink to you”?
Yeah, my friends call me Doctor Klink. Some of my long standing clients call me Doc. They know the story. Some of them wouldn’t believe it at first. They thought it was some sort of marketing gimmick or something. I’ve written a thesis and papers on how to diagnose heart attacks using contrast-enhanced nanoparticles. I’ve given presentations at conferences. All of that stuff. It’s on Google!
What moment do you see as the true breakthrough in your career where you thought to yourself, “I’ve made it”?
I don’t know if that’s happened yet. I mean there are obviously breakthrough moments: the first editorial assignment, the first celebrity shoot (Kevin Hart!), the first ad campaign, the first award. All of these helped but I’m just not sure I’ve quite ‘made it’ yet. Have I achieved goals I set for myself early in my career? Yes. Do I have more in store? Absolutely. There are still pictures left for me to take.
Which celebrity were you most excited to photograph? Did any exceed preconceived expectations?
David Duchovny because I grew up watching and obsessing over The X-Files. I wasn’t really nervous but rather super excited at the opportunity. I mean this guy has been in my living room since I was 12 years old. When he walked in the studio we shook hands and he introduced himself as ‘David’. I thought I was hearing my dad or something. His voice was so familiar. The shoot was great. I was impressed at how good he was at following directions, and making subtle changes in his expressions depending on what I was asking him to do. I love the photos we took together. They’re some of my favorites I’ve taken in 2015.
You’ve shot a couple music videos and a Converse ad. Have you considering diving into motion more? How does your approach change when doing video?
I enjoy working on motion a lot. I think my way of taking pictures is originally very similar to a film/motion shoot. It’s very dynamic. I like interacting and talking to my subjects while I’m shooting to get a certain emotion or expression out of them so there wasn’t really any differences on that end. I think that working in motion, you learn that it’s much more of a team effort compared to photography where ultimately, the photographer is the one behind the camera and in control of the framing, lighting, mood, etc. In motion there’s a job for everyone on set and the director makes it all come together. Coming from a stills background, I’m very particular about the whole process from start to finish so when I first transitioned to motion I was trying to control everything and do everyone’s job. I’ve learned to let go and trust the people to do what they do best.
You have an ongoing personal project called “Syrian Refugees”. What lead you to start this project?
Well, as I was saying earlier, I’m effectively a refugee of the Lebanese Civil war. It makes me terribly sad that both of my home countries (France and Lebanon) were victims of horrific attacks in the past few months. It angers me even more that some political figures in the U.S are questioning accepting Syrian refugees. My family and I are refugees. My parents lost loved ones to war. My mom, as a kid, lost her dad to war. That’s pretty real, you know? If Europe had turned their backs on us, our lives would have been very different. My parents made a life for themselves in France; both of them are very well-respected doctors. I was able to have a normal childhood and I couldn’t be more grateful to France. I went to school, I made friends, I visited the estate of famous French painters, I listened to French music, my sister was born in France. She’s in med school, and is going to be a psychiatrist. I’m French and I feel French. Today, I’m an award-winning photographer. I photographed people that I grew up watching on my TV and stuff. All of these things would have simply not been possible had I been stuck in a war zone. I was born in the middle of a war but someone gave me a chance.
"I was born in the middle of a war but someone gave me a chance."
This project for me was a way to revisit all of that. I think that too often refugees are depicted in a certain light that is not necessarily flattering. These people are kids, children, parents, grandparents, families that are displaced from their home country. That is not easy. I wanted to show that. The humanity, the resilience but the candidness also. I wanted something lively, colorful and vibrant. There’s life there. We can’t forget that. I know that we have to be careful, that our safety is at stake but some of these refugees will become doctors, artists, architects and what not. You can’t give up on that.
BACARDI HOUSE PARTY PRINT CAMPAIGN
What drew you to it/why did you say yes?
Danilo Boer came up with the Bacardi House Party concept. The idea is that everyone loves a good house party, right? So for the TV spot they decided to strap on a house on the back of a truck turning it into a rolling party across America. So yeah… it’s a bunch of cool people partying in a moving house in the back of a truck. There are DJ’s, pizzas are being delivered to the house on the highway, a live chicken is flapping around and the tub is full of Bacardi! It’s great. Danilo and I had worked together in the past. I love him. He’s amazing. He knows my style and we had been talking about working together on the print campaign. So when it all finally came together and BBDO called, I jumped on it.
What inspirations helped inform your work?
Well, the treatment that Danilo had originally sent to the client was full of my own work which was amazing. All the photos I’ve been taking out with my friends, the crazy situations etc. They loved it. So he really wanted me to keep that style, energy and spontaneity throughout the campaign. We decided that the best way to do that was to actually throw 11 real house parties in 3 days and photograph them the same way I usually do (just with a more expensive camera). It had to feel as if the photographer was part of the party just as much as the rest of the crowd. That he was one of the cool kids too. It’s hard to fake that. So yeah, we had a real live DJ on set for the three days, tons of props relating to the different parties and of course a lot of Bacardi. It was really fun.
There were a few logistical challenges; the timeline to produce a shoot of this magnitude was pretty tight. Casting 50 people, finding the right locations, figuring out the set design for 11 different parties etc. But at the end it all came together pretty smoothly. Honestly, I think that keeping our energy high for 3 days straight was probably the hardest part. The rest of came pretty easy. Instead of holding a regular casting, my producer had this idea of holding a casting party in a bar and we asked people to bring their friends. We wanted to make sure that the final photos felt organic so it helped to see people in a party element before the shoot. Making sure we were getting everything we needed while complying with the many regulations around alcohol advertising all around the world was also key. Everyone did an amazing job. Shout out to the team at BBDO, Danilo of course, Jasmine, Janelle, Josh, the entire account team, the good people at Marketing Arm; it was a blast! #Blessed
FUTURE XXL COVER
What drew you to it/why did you say yes?
What inspirations helped inform your work?
A lot of the inspiration came from him, his music and that Hendrix persona he created for himself (for those who are not familiar, he likes to go by Future Hendrix). So I wanted to do something psychedelic with lots of colors and gels. I researched old Jimi Hendrix covers and sort of put a modern hip-hop spin on it. I wanted the images to be bright, poppy but also a little weird. He took care of that part on set when he started hanging chains off of his tongue and biting really big rings in his mouth.
Fit what previously was thought as a 3 hour shoot into 45 minutes because he was late. He said he had lost his phone.
What drew you to it/why did you say yes?
The photo editor over at Vulture called me saying she had seen my Future cover and wanted me to do a similar shoot at Comic-Con over 3 days. She said a lot of actors and personalities would be stopping by that she wanted me to photograph them in a similar style. It was the first time they were doing something like this and they were looking to establish a strong visual style. They loved the colors and energy of the Future story and that’s how it came to be. It’s always great to get hired based on a previous shoot you did. It was a big investment for them and the shoot was a hit; everyone was very happy.
Trying to establish some kind of intimacy/connection with the actors in a very little time frame. Some of the actors literally stopped by for 3 minutes, and creating compelling portraits in these conditions can be challenging. It helped they could see the colors and mood on set so they could see it was something different.
Proudest career moment:
Probably winning American Photography. I used to attend that party for years as a guest and seeing my work hanging alongside some of the photographers I respect the most that night really made me proud.
Biggest career failure:
Good question. I’d say that losing a client always hurts, especially when it’s one that’s helped you early in your career.
What do you do when you’re not working:
I like to go out and party with my friends all around the City. They’re all very good-looking people. House parties, karaoke dance parties and stuff. I usually always have my small camera on me and I like to document the craziness. I’ve created a ton of personal work throughout the years and booked actual ad campaigns based off that body of work, which is awesome (See Bacardi House Party project above). I also unfortunately like the New York Knicks which has caused me a lot of pain recently although we’re getting better.
Last thing you Googled:
in-n-out Los Angeles
Who are your creative heroes:
Current song on repeat:
‘I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them’ - Diane Airbus
Advice you’d give your high school self:
No one plays Command & Conquer anymore in 2016
Two truths and a lie:
I’m a doctor, I’m lying, I’m telling the truth.