Photographer I December 14, 2017
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The story of Ahmed Klink, affectionately and accurately dubbed Dr. Klink by his friends, reads like something ripped from the pages of a comic book. A real life Peter Parker, Klink spent his early days in New York City in a lab working on nanotechnology for his doctorate in biomedical engineering, but spent his nights carving out a niche for himself as a photographer of the city’s music scene. As with any compelling superhero, Klink has an impressive origin story to match.
“I was born in a small village in Lebanon, Kalamon, in the early 80s. There was a civil war going on there at the time. My parents were studying medicine in Romania, but my mom came back to Lebanon to give birth to me one summer in July.”
Klink spent the early years of his life in Lebanon, raised by his grandparents while his mother and father completed their studies in Romania. When he was two years old, Klink’s parents made the move to France to train as doctors, but at the same time the civil war in Lebanon was taking a turn for the worse. With growing concerns for his safety, Klink’s parents arranged for their nephew Ziad, who was also moving to France at the time, to bring him along on the journey.
“He was just 17 at the time, but he got me out of the country through the Syrian border. I don’t remember any of it, of course, but I’m guessing the plan could’ve gone terribly wrong. But it didn’t, and we both made it to France where I was reunited with my parents.”
Together at last, the family began to forge their new life together in Paris. By 1993, Klink’s parents were fully-fledged French citizens and successful doctors, and Klink was fully adjusted to his new life in a new country.
By the time he was readying to finish high school, Klink expressed an interesting in following his parents’ footsteps by studying medicine. Surprisingly, his parents dissuaded him from the idea, encouraging him to pursue another field.
“They said, ‘Oh it’s a lot of work, and you’ll be on call all the time. Why don’t you try something with computers instead? That’s where the future is.’ So I said okay and enrolled in engineering school.”
Klink spent the next 5 years in Paris studying the engineering essentials: math, physics, and coding. Less than eager to get a job after finishing his preliminary degree, Klink decided to pursue a master’s in biomedical engineering.
“I thought, ‘How can I combine medicine and engineering?’ So biomedical engineering was perfect. But after the master’s I still didn’t really want a job, so I thought I’d get a PhD. You know, become a doctor that way.”
As fate would have it Ziad, the very same cousin who first brought Klink to France all those years ago, had graduated at the top of his class in medical school and was by this time a prominent researcher in Paris. Klink reached out saying that he was interested in pursuing a doctorate degree, and Ziad promptly put him in touch with a colleague of his conducting cardiovascular imaging research in New York. For the second time, Ziad had given Klink an opportunity at life in a new country.
In the year that led up to his departure for New York, Klink found himself with an abundance of downtime that would inevitably shape his future in ways he had never imagined.
“I had to prepare for my move. I wasn’t working. The iPhone didn’t exist yet. I was pretty bored, actually. That’s when I found this old camera that my mom had bought in Japan. It just spoke to me in some way.”
To occupy his time, Klink took to the streets of Paris, snapping pictures of whatever scenes he saw along the way. Initially seeing it as a hobby to pass the time, Klink began to realize over the year that he was uncovering a passion that had until that point remained dormant within him.
“It occurred to me that I had never seen Paris in the way that I was seeing it when I had that camera with me. When I finally did move to New York to finish my PhD, I just kept shooting because it was a cool way to document my time here.”
Once in New York, Klink settled into life in the Upper East Side. As his days were spent at the research lab, he found quickly found that he’d have to develop his photography skills at night. Intrigued by the city’s music scene, his earlier subjects were often small venues and clubs, shows put on by small time bands. By 2008, he had secured regular photo work with a little-known but burgeoning outlet: Pitchfork.
“They were paying me $10 per show at that time, which was hilarious. I was going to the lab during the day, got out of work at like 6 or 7, went to concerts afterwards, edited the photos until 2 or 3 am, sent them to Pitchfork to publish the next day, went to sleep, repeat.”
Before long, Klink gained more attention for his work. His photo portfolio grew, featuring smaller bands that would go on to the big leagues—bands like Vampire Weekend and The National. Eventually he was commissioned by hip-hop culture magazine The Source, a gig that forced him to sneak off from the lab for inconveniently-scheduled daytime shoots.
“I wasn’t thinking about becoming a professional photographer back then; it was just fun. But suddenly, people in the lab were like, “Your photos are great. What are you doing here?’ That planted the seed and I started thinking, ‘Yeah, what the hell am I doing here?’”
Klink made a decision. Once he had finished his PhD, he’d make the full transition to photography. For him, there would be no turning back to biomedical technology afterwards. Klink knew this would be an all-or-nothing endeavor.
“I think having a Plan B is a terrible idea. No one should ever have a Plan B. If you have an alternative, you’re never going to put yourself 100% into Plan A. I put myself 100% into Plan A.”
He told his parents shortly before presenting his thesis, both of whom were supportive, simply happy that he was pursuing something he felt passionately about.
“I presented my thesis in June of 2011. The jury loved it and said it was amazing work—I actually received Summa Cum Laude. After I finished the presentation one of them asked what the next step was. I just said, ‘I’m gonna be a photographer.’ They were a bit shocked, but I remember thinking, ‘This is what I’m going to do. It’s gonna take a couple years, but it’s gonna work out.’”
And work out it has. Since pursuing photography in full force, Klink has perfected his craft, rolling in clients like Converse, Rolling Stone, and Billboard. But even though Klink has now managed to amass a star-studded portfolio filled with glitz and glam, he still finds everyday people to be at the heart of his work. The focus on reality that has inspired one of his latest personal projects, a series on Syrian refugees now residing in Lebanon.
For Berkhout, who had already returned to the Netherlands for the editing process of the videos, this offer came during a time of great transition. His relationship with the co-creator of Like Knows Like had ended and he had begun seeing Hanne, the woman who would go on to become his wife. But after their very first date, Berkhout received an unexpected phone call informing him that his father had died. Rather than demobilize him, Berkhout found that the tumultuous period in his life spurred him into action.
“Coming from my dad dying, my old relationship ending, and burning out on the corporate work, I felt like I wanted to try out living in New York. It was a childhood dream of mine to see if I could make it here. I had been building my life in the Netherlands for 14 years, but I was ready for a challenge.”
“I visited my home village in Lebanon right when the refugee crisis was beginning. I wanted to photograph something I knew. Something that was important to me. I left Lebanon as a refugee, and then seeing Syrian refugees living in my old village really struck a chord with me. This place that I fled because of war is now a home for people who had to flee their home because it’s been completely ravaged.”
Klink notes the resilience of the refugee children as a tremendous source of inspiration for him. Each has left behind family, friends, and some have lost those dear to them, yet they still are able to find joy in the life that lies ahead of them. In his photography, Klink strives to capture that joy and optimism, recognizing that it was this same sense of hope that let him reach the heights he has in life.
“I call New York home, but there’s nothing like where you grew up. I don’t want to finish life where I started it. There’s something about going out and doing something new, but it’s good to come back. You’ll always see things differently.”