Larry Chen, Car Culture’s Most Influential Photographer, on Hard Work and Speaking Out
If you have any interest in automotive photography, you’ll be familiar with Larry Chen’s work.
Look at photos coming out of almost any automotive event—be it King of the Hammers,
Anyone who enjoys great photography, cars, and access to Instagram will be familiar with Chen’s prolific work. With over half a million followers and counting, Chen’s 16 years of shooting has brought him to 50 countries where he’s shot racing on salt flats, land speed records, drag racing, drifting, and motorcycles. He’s been to every single 24-hour race in the world.
If you've been to any of those events, then Chen will be a familiar fixture. With multiple camera bodies swinging from his shoulders, long sleeves no matter the temperature, and a floppy sun hat, Chen's been doing this for too long to suffer a sunburn like some amateur.
[May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Here at The Drive, we’re celebrating it by lifting up and highlighting AAPI voices in the automotive space. Our hope is that in driving visibility, we can help make the car community an even more welcoming space—to convince those who perhaps have not always felt like they belonged that they absolutely do belong here. Diversity in perspectives and backgrounds only strengthens the group as a whole. It is why representation matters.]
Being Asian American, Chen is aware that he potentially might be the only Asian person at some of the events he attends. It’s certainly the case when he shoots in Scandinavia. But he doesn’t let it get in his way. “If you don't want to work with me because I'm Asian, I don't want to work with you anyways,” Chen tells me in a recent interview. “There are plenty of people in the car industry who are more than willing to work with me.”
And it’s true. If you want your shit to look good, you hire Larry Chen.
Chen grew up in Santa Monica, California. His group of friends in school was rich in racial diversity, but they were united by their love of cars. It started with RC toys and then, when they got a little older, they stuck together and kept doing car stuff like fixing up a junker to take it racing or repairing a hand-me-down.
“I got into tinkering with cars and hanging out with car people first,” Chen says. “Later on I realized I’d really like to be behind-the-scenes or on the forefront of this kind of culture.”
And Chen’s personal favorite slice of car culture? “I love, love, love off-road and NASCAR,” he says. I find this surprising, considering some of the things NASCAR fans and drivers alike have said and done. I tell him as much.
Chen is well aware of how grim it can look on the outside to people of color. But he, like driver Bubba Wallace, is also adamant about how welcoming the sport has been to him. “On the surface it looks like, ‘Wow, this is crazy. It looks like I don't belong at all,’” Chen explains. “Then, when I dig deeper, it's completely not the case. They love cars, car culture, they love racing so much, and they want people like myself from all colors included because they want the sport to continue as well.” It does not do, after all, to have a sport exclusively reserved for one kind of person in 2021.
The same goes for off-roading. “I've been shooting off-road racing for over 10 years and I feel like I'm a part of the community,” Chen says. “They see me as one of their own now. I think that's probably my favorite part of car culture. I'm really good friends with people from all different political parties, all different walks of life. It doesn't matter.”
It all comes down to not being afraid and being willing to get outside of your comfort zone, according to Chen. “I feel like it's just too easy for people to just say, ‘Oh, I don't want to go to this thing because I'm not welcomed,’ or ‘I'm of a different social class’ or whatever,” he says. “You just have to throw yourself into it.” Chen agrees that the car community has been one of the more welcoming ones you can be a part of. So, yes, take a chance, because you don’t know what kind of people you might meet.
“I've always been proud of the fact that I'm Asian American,” he says. Sure, sometimes people tell him that he “doesn’t look like a Larry,” to which he responds, “What do I look like then?” (I shudder to think of the responses to that question.) But largely, Chen’s experience in the automotive industry has been very positive.
Your race should not hold you back and neither should you let others use it to keep you out. Chen believes this. “If your work speaks for itself and you are willing to put in the hours and sacrifice to get these pictures or to tell the good story,” he says, “then you deserve it.”
As a prominent figure in the automotive industry with one of the coolest jobs, Chen gets tons of messages from people, asking how he does it. How do you get started as Larry Chen? How do you do what he does? Chen always explains it’s not something that happens over night. It takes discipline and a hell of a lot of sacrifice.
“It’s the way I was raised,” he explains. “I learned from watching my parents work super hard to earn a living and give my sister and me a good platform to start off of.” Chen’s sister is Louise Chen, a Detroit-based muralist and painter. A talent for the visual arts, it seems, runs in the family.
“Both my mom and dad immigrated from China as adults, barely speaking English,” Chen goes on. “Even now, their English is not so good and they struggle to make ends meet in Los Angeles. As a kid—not ever having to worry about when our next meal is or having a roof over our heads—I saw the long hours they put in to make sure that we were okay. Luckily I don't have to struggle the same way now so I'm putting the same effort into my craft now.”
It is what every parent—immigrant or otherwise—wishes for their children: To be able to give them a healthier and happier life without subjecting them to the same hardships.
“This kind of conversation wasn't even on my radar up until this past year,” Chen says, referring to talking about Asian representation and the spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans. “Throughout my entire career, there have been people that have been openly racist to me—it was very few and far between—but I always brushed it off. I never really said anything about it. It wasn't a big deal. I look down [at those people]. I look at them and I just feel like they're beneath me.”
In this sense, Chen’s been lucky. He is a beloved and celebrated figure in the automotive community. People chant his name in adoration at events. If you turn Larry Chen away because he’s Asian, you’re an asshole and everyone will know it.
“In the grand scheme of things, I look at car culture, my group of friends, and people that I'm on camera with all the time and it is legitimately such a mixing pot,” he says. “Like Hoonigan. It's people from all walks of life and it's just so cool to be able to be a part of a community like that that is so inclusive and has such a good representation of what cars and car culture should be about.”
But he recognizes the responsibility that comes with that platform and prominence. He is no longer willing to merely stay silent.
“I see so many people, peers, and friends that are in the same position but may not have as big of a voice,” he says. “It's my turn to say something. I have a voice and there are just so many people in the world who don't. Even though it really doesn't affect me, I just hope that speaking out inspires other people that are also in a position of power.”
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