Last Updated on May 14, 2021
Can Ahtam is a Turkish photographer currently residing in Los Angeles. With over a decade of experience in photography, Cam specializes in portraits, fashion and lifestyle and product photography and is the founder of PortraitMeet. You can follow Can on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and go to www.canahtam.com to learn more.
Can you tell us how you got into photography and a little bit about the company that you founded (PortraitMeet)?
I’m originally from Turkey born and raised in Istanbul lives there for about twenty-one years and I sort of, you know, began my venue sort of my exploration around photography as an average kid with a disposable camera in his hand given by his mother. And being part of Turkey has the advantage of actually being remote and accessible to any other country around. You know, being in a country that connects Europe to Asia in particular so I was fortunate enough to actually travel around the world and unintentionally, you know, as a kid you start comparing cultures.
You see the differences you see the commonalities they actually peek out really strongly so I just started capturing all of those through my point and shoot the disposable camera I had. And then while I was in college that sort of transformed into, you know what, I’m studying business, I’m studying marketing how could I efficiently learn about marketing and actually connect it with other practices like psychology, sociology, and visual communications, photography.
So I took photography on the side back in college got heavily critiqued by my photography professor at the time and, you know, we’ve all got that professor, you know, the prick professor who actually meant to push you from the beginning but you just didn’t get it so she was overly critical of my work and she kept on saying, you know what, you don’t have the eye for it, yeah.
There’s those types of people out there. You pay your tuition and yet they go nope I’ll take your money but you suck. So what I did at the time was, you know, I love photography and being a person who has zero to none hobbies at the time, you know, like my parents got me a guitar and I didn’t even play it so it’s collecting dust so they were happy, you know, that I had something to hold onto and I was happy as well so I didn’t want to lose that. I took my portfolio at the time to a renown photographer named, Ara Güler he was a former life magazine photographer, had shot photos of a lot of d\different artists and celebrities, you know, like Salvador Dalí he has a portrait of him, really old individual, around his nineties at the time. He actually recently passed away but I hold him dear to my heart and see him as the ultimate mentor in photography that I look up to, especially when it comes to portraits.
But he owned a small cafe in Istanbul in Taksim District his name means in-between, Ara mean in-between in Turkish and his cafe was this tiny little in-between cafe in-between two large buildings a tiny cafe that he used to hang out at, sip on his Turkish coffee, smoke his cigarette, occasionally talk with the individuals going in, photography enthusiasts. So I took my portfolio right out of college and I said “Mr. Güler, I’m a big fan of your work” he mostly shot black and white I enjoy shooting black and white as well but I’m an avid color photography person so I said “you know what, this is what my professor is telling me constantly would you please take a look at my work. I really need some encouragement and constructive criticism rather than somebody shutting me down”.
He looked at it, took a sip out of his Turkish coffee and had this small smile gesture and he said “you know what, screw your professor. Do you like what you’re doing? Do you enjoy what you’re doing? Are you happy with it?” and I said “yes I am” he said “okay well here’s the thing you need to actually improve your composition, you need to work on being fluent with your camera more but otherwise I see nothing but amazing pictures coming from you. Keep on doing what you’re doing” and that meant the world to me at the time, you know. I mean not at the time I bet it would still mean a lot as equally or as strongly even but I was like, you know what, who cares about my professor this guy is an epic photographer who’s done a lot in his lifetime and now he’s telling me do what you love don’t let anything stop you.
So around that time I started collecting, built an archive, and Instagram popped up but, you know what, around that time, you know, when Instagram came out everybody was about their smartphones and I was like okay I have Instagram. It means instant photography so I cannot really upload the photos I take on my professional ? camera to Instagram because one it’s not instant, two it’s not from a smartphone because it’s an app it’s on a smartphone and technically it’s cheating. That’s what I thought it was so I kept my photography on the side and just shared average joe breakfast, stray cat whatever I could find on the street on my IPhone 3G and that was around the time I transitioned from Istanbul to Boston
And around that time in Boston I’m seeing my friends who at the time had like three thousand followers imagine that. Like if you had three thousand followers at the time you were the god of Instagram, mind blowing. But those were sharing their professional degree photos on Instagram and I kept on pushing them being like “what are you doing is that the right thing to do?” and they were like “no no no you don’t get it this is where it’s moving so you better start on that as soon as possible so that you can be ahead of the game” so I said okay I’m in Boston I have some old photos from Turkey so let’s do a nice mix from my travels as well. And it was around the time when Instagram had this suggested user ship push going on, you know, they would promote the artist or the users, the community members per se that they would find interesting and then promote them within to people who newly opened up an account or people who wanted to go to their settings tab and click on suggested users and find out who else is out there.
So I’ve been promoted by Instagram three times and that gave me the push tat led to today initially because that push was recognized and seen by different brands. And again although I studied marketing you’d think I would already figure this out and realize there is this concept of influencers, right. No my whole head was going at I want to be a photographer I want to work with marketing but I don’t want to be an influencer I want to be a photographer.
But, you know, eventually brands started coming and one of the first brands I partnered up with was Mashable and they actually had me host one of the contests that they were having. And later on that partnership grew more and they actually hosted one of our Insta meets in Brooklyn and they streamed it on Meerkat, they had intense support, and then I had a second partnership with them also paired up with the Hilton Hotels. But right around the time in Boston was when I fully immersed myself in photography and I was like, you know what, I am becoming a photographer, I got my education, I’m practicing it, I’m meeting all these different people through Instagram, let’s do it.
Coming back to the other question you had about PortraitMeet it’s not a company it’s a gorup of individuals internationally that we’ve established. It started out in Boston and it sort of came out of a struggle, you know, kind of come from Turkey – long story short nobody cared if you took their photo, candid photo on the street. You know, if they realized if they were aware of who was shooting their photo they would come up to me and say “oh I realize you shot my photo may I know what it’s for and if so can I see it. Would you mind sending it to me so I can show it to my family and friends” it was very open, nobody sees anything negative with it.
Now that’s Turkey coming into the US from a foreigners point of view man you guys enjoy personal space, you guys want to protect that space as much as possible which is understandable. I respectfully understand that and abide by it but it was an obstacle for me. All of a sudden a guy who shoots photos of, you know, street artists, moms, average joe in Turkey comes into Boston and everybody just goes “what are you doing? What are you doing? Stop that. Can you please delete that?”. So as I’m attending to all of these Insta meets that are happening in Boston I happen to realize that, you know what, it’s not really about shooting photos of like Acorn Street, one of the most photographed streets in the US it’s in the old part of Boston, every Insta meet we would have we would go explore around the city, people will try and take photos of the street and the view but there would always be several individuals jumping in front of fifty, sixty individuals with like red balloons in their hands and beautifully dressed like they wanted to be that glamour element in their photo, right and everybody would be all about that.
So all of a sudden I said, you know what, Insta meets are about people, Insta meets are about getting to know one another and capturing that priceless moment that we’re immersed in. So what if we actually created a community, a group that only revolved around shooting photos of each other. Doesn’t have to be professionally signed models, it could be modeling enthusiasts, it could be somebody who even needs a head shot for their passport or their LinkedIn. It was just about how we perceive one another and basically I needed people voluntarily to come to me and ask me to take their photos because again I couldn’t shoot candid, right so I needed people.
The first ProtraitMeet I did I was actually fifteen minutes late to that and I had about twenty to twenty-five people join and then years later three, four years down the line we have over a hundred per city joining. So far I’ve only done around five in LA I’m hoping to expand that and then we have a group in D.C. they’re rocking it and then we’ve done some in San Francisco, we’ve done some in New York back in the day, we have groups in Indonesia, India, Greece, and Canada. And it wasn’t even coming from me, you know, going out to people saying “hey would you mind starting a group yourself?” it was them coming to us saying “listen we love what you’re doing. You don’t charge at all”. Tt’s always free of charge, it’s embracing you don’t have to be a professional degree photographer or a model, I’ve had a grandpa show up with an IPad, you know, I’ve had a kid show up with his point and shoot and he dragged his parents along with him and guess what that kid shot photos of Steve Jobs when he went to an Apple event back in the day. So that’s why it is that importance of acceptance of, you know. basically what peaks us and has us come through other Insta meet groups.
When I came to LA I attended several Insta meet groups here they always charge, you know, whether it’s for location, models, whatever it may be, you know, models pay sixty photographer pay one hundred and twenty or, you know, models pay thirty photographers pay sixty. At PortraitMeet we find sponsors, everything is free of charge, and we enjoy. We shoot away, we enjoy, [and] we improve one another. You know, in Boston we were sponsored by the Sheraton Hotel for instance. We had the pleasure of shooting at their Beacon Hill Lounge where the Red Sox party at or we had a pool party at the Sheraton one time. Some of us shot underwater portraits and some of us shot more of the swimsuit line so it is usually around that. Here is El Segundo, California we actually have a photo studio and a coworking space called UNITA and they’ve been really nice and kind enough to host us a couple times. I’m currently planning some PortraitMeets with different camera brands. I don’t want to disclose that right now. I’m hoping it’s going to be big but I’m really excited about it. So that’s pretty much PortraitMeets in a nutshell.
What are some of your favorite strategies or tools such as apps to use that would be useful to influencers as it pertains to elevating their photography and creating higher quality posts that engage?
I’d say don’t chase after the trends because I know trends do work. Trends definitely work, you know, from the Tezza app where you create yourself as an oompa loompa to all of the, you know, lens bowl shots and the cell phone reflection neo light stuff yes, you know what, if you want the likes if you want the followers they’re going to get you those. But again you don’t want to be of the same group you want to actually truly discover yourself and come out shining bright like a diamond, you know, as a cliché description but you truly want to discover yourself and showcase what you can uniquely bring to the table as opposed to being one of the other sheep. And I don’t mean this to be demeaning or offensive because that’s an easier route. The best strategy would be to take the bolder risk and actually innovate and create your own and for that I would definitely go around exploring different apps. Visco has been an extremely helpful tool for me to actually figure out what works for me, what works for different photos. I can’t use the same filter on every photo, I can’t do the same editing on every photo, portrait or landscape or product it doesn’t matter it all deserves a different kind of editing based on what the brand needs, based on what the person needs so there are those who actually keep a consistent theme. Hats off to them because you’re actually restricting yourself.
I’m not that type of person. I cannot hold onto one theme that’ll drive me insane and I know photography requires different set of settings, different set of editing skills, everything that you may need from styling to the scenery whatever you can think so why would I ruin that unique moment with one particular set of filters. So that’s why I would highly encourage people to actually go about, you know, finding their own niche, go find your own apps, you know, start out with the free ones and then make your way up to the subscription based or the fee based ones so that you don’t take the risk. Same goes with the gear. Usually, you know, there’s this misconception out there that, you know, if you have the best gear, the most expensive one you’re gonna take the best photos out there.
To a degree only if you know how to use that only if you know when to use it, how to use it, and for what purpose to use it. I met a lot of people who would show up with the most expensive hand burner cameras, you know, like Hasselblad it’s old high-end Sony cameras. I shoot with a Canon 5d Mark III it’s been proven worthy enough to shoot editorial to regular tourist photos if needed but even for a tourist it’s too expensive. I’ve been still using it it has a lot of scratches and dents on it but, you know what, it does do the trick. I’ve always invested in lenses first, you know, if you buy a body at least buy a decent enough body that you can actually upgrade lenses onto and then when you feel you have the capability to use and upgrade to a body that way your lenses your lenses will still be compatible. So that was pretty much the strategy I’d follow.
I don’t stay loyal to one particular brand either I like to explore different brands so I’ve shot with Olympus, Samsung, Canon I’ve shot with, you know, Huawei phones with the Leica camera on them, I’m shooting with Light L16 I don’t know if you’re familiar with that particular camera it actually has sixteen different lenses on a single body body and it’s a computational photography that basically creates fifty-two megapixel photos at the end of the day. From twenty-eight millimeters to one hundred and fifty millimeter zoom it all is encompassed in one body so I just like to, you know, think of different innovations and test them out to see how my photography will actually be influenced by that or will be changed by that or maybe I can get to change through that camera. But basically long story short again just find your own way don’t struggle to be of the same because you can only get so far by doing that.
Where do you see influencer marketing and/or visual-centric social media platforms headed in the next five years or so?
We were chatting about this at the workplace that I work at as well because, you know, we look at the influencer marketing and all that environment but it also is divided upon different generations. You know, the Millennial population has always been so perfectionist, you know, we have to be part of that clan, we have to show ourselves because we’re unique, we’re special, we deserve it that type of an attitude but then you look at the Gen Z, Gen Z doesn’t care. Gen Z wants to be transparent, Gen Z is okay with shooting a ridiculous selfie and posting that because that makes them more unique and stand out more and become more personable. But when you ask that question to me of course technically I should answer through the lens of a photographer as opposed to an influencer but when you look at the influencer landscape, you know, brands want micro influencers, brands want people who are more transparent and more edgy now so that people can actually stop for a second as they’re scrolling with their motor reflect and say “hey what is that about”. You know, again if you’re part of the same clan people are just going to keep scrolling they’re just gonna keep scrolling there’s nothing special so you need that “OH! What is that” question mark moment where people are intrigued to see more and I think Gen Z is actually doing that really well.
But from a photography standpoint again I don’t really see my photo quality as somebody’s mobile phone selfie bar, you know, so to me photographers are gonna continue what they’re doing. They’re gonna continue providing quality content, improving themselves but when it comes to an average influencer I think it’s gonna get down to that transparent moment. Some of the brands – I’ll give you one example, Sperry for instance one of the east Coast shoe companies when we worked I had signed a one-year deal with them back in the day. They didn’t care about your followers, they didn’t care about you like counts and their features none of that they cared if you could actually capture unique and quality content that they could use in a longer term as opposed to just a single report on their Instagram.
Could it be used on a packaging, could it be used on their web platform, could it be used as a poster or a brochure on their magazine because again when you look at the Gen Z platform, you know, a single selfie or a cell phone photo with no effort whatsoever is that usable for a brand in a longer term period. Can you utilize that influencer more that you can actually, you know, suck the best juice out of them. Strategically speaking, you know, having worked with those types of companies I don’t think it’s feasible enough, you know, those are only good for reposts I don’t see that happening for a website. But then again who knows I might be wrong and all of a sudden this new generation flips us all over and says “you were doing everything wrong this is what it is, deal with it”. But technically, you know, if you are in e-com, if you’re part of the fashion brand or whatever have you professional photography unique quality is necessary.
Note: Influencer Spotlights are edited for time and clarity.
Andrew is the Head of Client Services for Intellifluence and has a background in communications. He is committed to helping brands get the most out of their campaigns and is the co-host of the Influencer Spotlight series.