In a time when attention is currency and ephemeral content reigns supreme, Kanya Iwana wants to make art that lasts. The kind of work that makes an imprint on you—that you file away in your brain to access at a later date. Whether through music, writing, photography, or film, she believes in eliciting emotion and aims to create a firework-like effect on her audience.
A simple scroll through the Indonesian-born, LA-based photographer/director/creative director’s portfolio fulfills that mission. Her work has an effervescence, an intimacy, and a romantic aura with a DNA unto itself. Her use of color and warmth elicits a nostalgia you didn’t know you craved. Her work has graced the likes of of i-d, Vogue, W Magazine, The Fader, and Paper Magazine—and her client roster is even more extensive.
Unsurprisingly, Iwana has a backstory that makes you want to ask as many questions as is socially acceptable. It includes writing a strategic proposal to her mom to leave Indonesia and move to the US by herself to complete school, where she received a bachelor of fine arts in theatre at age 19. She then married her best friend, divorced said best friend, met her soulmate, and gave birth to her beautiful daughter. Amidst this journey, she’s never lost sight of her vision as an artist or entrepreneur.
You work with a lot of well-known artists and fashion industry insiders. What have you learned the most about working with high-profile individuals from a young age?
I learned very early on that you have to be educated and aware of the industry—not only on the people who are in it as well as creative trends and history, but the legal side. You need to know your rights as a creative and how to protect yourself. Knowing these facts really empowered and elevated me into becoming the professional that I wanted to be.
There’s still a gender gap when it comes to male and female photographers. How can we change that?
It needs to come from the inside—the bosses, the higher-ups. I wish I could sit down with an executive and ask them, in a genuine one-on-one conversation, why they’re so afraid to be disrupted. In the meantime, we female artists just have to keep doing what we do to the best of our ability and use our platforms to bring awareness to this issue.
What does it take to make it as a photographer today?
Off the top of my head: Discipline, taste, and genuine love for the craft. I think discipline is pretty direct. When it comes to taste, whatever yours is, you have to find it, stick to it, and really believe in it so other people will believe you too. And you shouldn’t do anything that you’re not in love with. For me personally, whenever I take photos or after I process them and see all the colors, it feels like fireworks happening in my brain and heart. Hopefully people are doing things that make them feel that way.
When it comes to taste, whatever yours is, you have to find it, stick to it, and really believe in it so other people will believe you too.
Tell us how you got your start as an artist, and how you eventually found your niche.
From the beginning, I knew I wanted my photographs to look cinematic. I’m such a cinephile and want my work to pay homage to movies. The movies I love have brilliant colors and lighting and strong narratives, so subconsciously my photos ended up that way too. I’ve gotten a lot of work because of my use of colors—I think it’s nostalgic and people are drawn to that. These days I’ve been working a lot more on music videos, so it’s getting closer to that full circle. I just follow the momentum and try to do my best.
People look to you for inspiration, but where do you go to feel creatively inspired?
Real life people and their emotions and how they navigate themselves in their environment really inspire me. Whenever I write a treatment for a video I always think of a certain memory or person that triggers an emotion, and I write to that “ahh” feeling. I also draw inspiration from music composition. Being a musician as well, sound paints certain stories, and I really ride on that.
Do you feel that the power of social media has impacted your career as a photographer at all?
100%. I do most of my marketing on social media—Instagram is my business card. Everyone has their own personal battles with social media, but I’ve learned how to utilize it in the healthiest way.
Who are some female artists that inspired your past? Who do you think is a rising star?
It’s ever-changing. I look up to several different people for very specific things. One of the people I love right now is photographer Driely Carter, and I don’t think it’s going to stop. She’s a real firecracker in the industry, through her work and her commentaries. She’s really someone I look up to when it comes to constantly creating something that I love, and f*** everything else that doesn’t.
What about your job makes you feel the most fulfilled?
That I get to go in rooms or email chains that I would have never thought I’d be in as a teenager, and that they’re so down to listen to what I get to say and what I get to create. It’s an amazing feeling to be heard, and I’m so excited that the industry is slowly starting to open up more to young, passionate creatives.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
There’s so many, but my partner told me something along the lines of “Your highest is never as high as you think it is; so is your lowest.” It really keeps me grounded and going.
What’s been the biggest surprise or highlight of your career to date?
I think my overall career arc thus far is pretty surprising! It’s just so cool. I’m so blessed. I’ve got a long way to go, but the past two years have been amazing.
What keeps you up at night?
Possibilities! I’m always so anxious and excited about my next step. I’m so crazy restless.
What are the common challenges you've seen among female creatives in business?
To be taken seriously. I personally can relate to this. I feel like I have to work twice and sometimes triple as hard, especially being a woman of color.
When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find a new road + switch gears to find success?
Take a break. It’s so important to temporarily shut down, whether it is from social media or from work overall, and I use that time to invest time with my family. And from there, start having new conversations with people you trust or people you’ve never met before, and just get new ideas from there. The most random things can spark your next brilliant idea.
Artists have it tough when it comes to pricing talent/skills. What’s the best advice you have for artists/designers/photographers out there who are working to turn their creative skills into a career?
Something that has worked in my favor is the presentation itself. Understand that people have very low attention spans these days, so make your presentation visually inviting, on-brand, and engaging!
What are you most excited for in 2019?
More opportunities for sure!
Photography by Annie McElwain Photography
Photoshoot skincare provided by Dermalogica