Meet Paul Tocatlian, Photographer: An Interview With KNOW Magazine

How did you become a Fashion photographer?

My journey as an editorial and fashion photographer started when a friend, photographer Neil Featherstone, encouraged me to organize a photo shoot in the bustling streets of Saigon, Vietnam. Each photoshoot featured a beautiful and talented model in an Áo Dài (traditional Vietnamese dress) set in idyllic surroundings, curated by natural light with a medley of colors and a motley of urban backdrops. One photoshoot led to another, which led to another. This experience and realization of the endless possibilities motivated me to pursue this newfound interest.

The icing on the cake came a few months later when one of the pictures of Vân Nguyễn at the Bà Thiên Hậu Pagoda was selected as the winning photograph for the 500px Takeover March 2020 Edition Quest. It was a great pleasure to see Vân’s photo featured on the home page of the 500px website, social channels, and mobile apps! 500px is a leading online network for photographers with over 15 million members from 195 countries.

How did you start with photography?

My first camera was a Kodak Pocket Instamatic. It was the 1970s, and I had been gifted a superpower: the ability to freeze time. Point. Shoot. Repeat 24 times. Develop the film cartridge. Wait. Then relish these frozen moments for the rest of time.

Fast forward a decade. The pocket camera had run its course. My new instrument of choice and prized possession was a Canon A-1. I spent the next few years taking photos of everything and anything – eventually realizing that I had an affinity for photographing people. Those early experiences helped me find purpose by empowering people to be bolder and dream bigger in front of the camera.

What inspires you about art?

Pablo Picasso said that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

The pandemic impacted every one of us in different ways. It killed millions and upended economies. Likewise, the level of psychological distress and personal struggle brought many people near – or past – a breaking point.

Although my mental warfare with the pandemic pales compared to the struggles many endured, living on a separate continent at the time, apart from my loved ones, was grievous, heartbreaking, and frustrating. It all seemed so pointless.

Realizing that I was at a critical juncture, I decided that the best way to stop surviving and start thriving was to follow Pablo Picasso’s advice and engage with other creatives on artistic projects that catalyze newfound optimism.

Armed with a camera and the urge to create, artists from all walks of life met in the streets of Melbourne and captured moments that would bring purpose and joy to our respective worlds. The projects we worked on reinforced how art can be a great healer and breathe new life into our lives.

How do you think fashion and photography would mix?

It is hard to imagine fashion without photography—especially today when there are many traditional and new media channels to share and influence fashionistas. Photography has helped amplify and democratize fashion. Bach Mai, an American Couturier, understands that vital relationship better than most and how photography offers an essential context for his award-winning designs.

Whose work has influenced you most?

So far as fashion is concerned, Chantal Cerruti gave me a first glimpse of the fashion world, for which I am forever grateful. Since then, I have enjoyed collaborating with some San Francisco Bay Area designers, including Aquatico Clothing Company and Miae Belamour Bijoux, whose dress and jewelry are featured in the photos accompanying this interview.

I couldn’t point to a single photographer who influenced me the most. But there are many photographers with whom I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate, which have changed how I approach photography. Ted Forbes, a photographer and educator, who produces a photography show called The Art of Photography,” has offered countless learnings that helped me become a better photographer.

I admire fashion photographers Mario Testino, Zhang Jingna, Lara Jade, Daniel Jackson, Tim Walker, Elizaveta Porodina, Lina Tesch, and Julia Hetta, for their creativity and authenticity.

What is your favorite part of being a photographer?

If I could only pick one thing, it would be the creative and collaborative journey, working with different designers, hair and makeup artists, and models to capture a moment that tells a story.

Expecting the unexpected and working through whatever challenge is thrown our way would come a close second. Embracing the wind. Dancing in the rain. Working through difficult lighting conditions. These elements can help create a more authentic photograph with which the viewer will connect. 

I once worked on a photoshoot where the designer dresses didn’t make it to the location on time. Rather than calling it a day, we worked with the model’s outfit and ended up featured on a magazine cover.

What are you working on these days?

I am currently in Paris for a month, working with a few creative teams to showcase some American clothing and jewelry designs in Paris. This is a project I hold near and dear to my heart, as I lived in Paris for 17 years before returning to the United States.

I am also putting the final touches on a photo book entitled “The Melbourne Portraits Project: A Photographic Ode,” which should be available for sale this coming April. The book features 101 photographs organized in 12 chapters that showcase the creativity and fashion from Down Under.

What is the secret to your success?

Empathy! Every photoshoot is a team effort. And every photo is only as good as the sum of its participating creatives on both sides of the lens.

What would you like to tell people who want to follow your steps?

Everyone’s journey is unique. So the steps I took may not be relevant. But here are a few lessons learned that served me well and are universal:

Be true to yourself. Believe in your vision. Be flexible in your approach. Take on projects outside of your comfort zone. You’re not always going to get it right, and that’s okay. You’ll learn over time the types of projects you like and dislike. Set some time aside to learn every day. Work hard. Pay forward… and luck will knock at your door. But more than anything, make sure to enjoy the journey.

Do you have a dream fashion photoshoot?

I do! It would be to work with South Korean model HoYeon Jung, featuring collections from young and undiscovered designers, such as Victor Puglielli and Jude-Hadley Louis.

“a few words of farewell”

I want to express my appreciation to KNOW Magazine for featuring my photos in this issue and giving me the opportunity to share part of my journey and experience. Thank you for your consideration!

This article was published in the December 2022 issue of KNOW Magazine, which featured photographs from my collaboration with Ekaterina Martynova on the cover of the magazine.

Do you have your heart set on publishing your photos in a #magazine but are unsure how to proceed? Make sure to reach out to Photo Editor Pia Gould, who can help you every step of the way!

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