Pam Kriangkum’s career in photography began in a less-than-typical fashion: while competing as a member of the Canadian National Gymnastics Team. At sixteen, Pam bought her first camera to capture and share her international adventures as a member of Team Canada. She took portraits of her friends and the sights and eventually housed her work in a blog. Here she could document her progress and exercise the written word.
Her father, an immigrant from Thailand, was an elite-level gymnast in his youth and bestowed his love of the sport onto Pam and her brother. Pam has reflected on the journey of her parents’ lives in how it led her to the defining moments in hers.
At the age of fifteen, Pam’s father landed in the capital city of Ottawa; his immigration was sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), a federal organization that manages foreign aid programs. He resided in the care of an agency representative throughout his adolescence. “So essentially, my dad left Thailand not speaking any English, no money, no nothing..and moved to Canada to start over.” He began his gymnastics training during high school and went on to compete at the collegiate level.
Pam’s mother found her way to Canada in pursuit of her Ph.D. in oncology after first earning her graduate degree in microbiology. Her plans for Canada were intended to be finite: she would complete her studies and return to Thailand. But then she met her now husband, and they soon made Canada their permanent home together. They lived in Alberta in search of professional opportunities, Pam’s mother finding work in a research lab. At the same time, her father picked up construction before becoming a civil engineer and opening his own consulting business.
Pam’s parents were driven, understanding the lengths it took to succeed as immigrants. “It was just one of those things, especially having immigrant parents that, you know, your parents had come here to make a better life for you.” Both education and gymnastics were foundational to Pam’s and her brother’s upbringing and into early adulthood. Pam’s brother also earned a place on the Canadian and Thai National Team. They both competed at the World Championships, the highest level of competition in the sport, next to the Olympics.
High School and College Years
Pam attended a sports-focused high school, which made the balance between elite athletics and education possible. After a morning of academics, she and her peers were dismissed in the afternoon to train. Pam specialized in trampoline gymnastics, and despite her success in the sport, she knew the career of an athlete came with a limited tenure. An advanced education would be critical to her long-term professional outlook.
At the University of Alberta in Edmonton, she studied sports science and medicine and earned her degree in kinesiology, a natural progression for any lifelong athlete. “I thought I would go into medicine or something related to sports because at that point…up until I was twenty-two, sports was my whole world.”
Pam came to appreciate that the business side of the athletic industry was just as grueling as the competitive side. Her degree specialized in Olympic weightlifting strength and conditioning, and as she gained direct exposure to the other side of the field, she began to reassess her place in it. “When I was in the gym, it’s an industry where you had to pay your dues. And I realized… if I was to stay in this industry, I maybe would last five years.”
That was not a commitment Pam desired to make. So, as a new graduate, she took a beat to find clarity in her direction and in the meantime, provided administrative support for her father’s business. As she reflected on her life thus far, the re-emerging theme was the absolute necessity of an avenue for creativity and belonging.
Her passion and self-taught skill for photography provided just that. When she was twenty-one, a friend of a friend, a wedding photographer, invited Pam to assist with a shoot. It would be a fun learning experience if nothing else. The photographer continued to hire Pam for other shoots, and the momentum built from there. Soon, Pam’s friends were hiring her directly for their weddings.
Starting Her Business
She continued to garner work, step by step, snap by snap and advancing her technique while learning how to build a business. The early exposure to shadowing other photographers was critical to her professional development, and she enrolled in business workshops to pad her knowledge of the industry. It took Pam four years to build up an entire business of her own. “As I continued to progress, all the other kinds of dreams faded away. And then, before I knew it, I was doing this full-time thing. So, I don’t think I realized I was in the middle of it until, until I was there.”
And the transition to commercial photography was just that, gradual and natural, prompted by her support of and collaboration with her friends who owned a local coffee shop. In addition to the storefront, they were a roaster and wholesaler in need of cultivating brand materials. After a few casual conversations, Pam eventually walked into the shop to kindly demand they accept her help and the friend discount.
Over four years together, Pam built up the café’s stock of photos and, with that, a vital portfolio expansion of her own. “Because I was doing it so steadily with them…it became my testing grounds for not only the commercial photography side of things but also the marketing… it’s given me a well-rounded look of what small businesses now need to thrive in this post-pandemic world when it comes to selling products for e-commerce and what you need from a marketing, photography, and visual standpoint.”
As Pam’s work on the side with the coffee shop and with other small businesses grew, she began to shift away from the wedding sector intentionally. Weddings, for Pam, were a massive undertaking, with high stakes, emotional waves, and an array of client needs. “I’ve been doing this for eight years, and that is a lot of summers and weekends that I have willingly and happily given to my clients. And I’ve loved every single event. But after the pandemic, my anxiety consumed me, and I would think, what happens if I can’t make a wedding? It kept me up at night, and I realized I needed a lifestyle change” Pam realized she was arranging her life to support the work demands rather than fulfilling her own needs. She could not put her well-being aside any longer.
Photography, for Pam, is a source of joy, and the industry has threatened that time and again. For Asian women and other people of color, the barriers of entry into the industry are steep and narrow. Within the industry, many major players are white, from the models to the staff behind the scenes at a shoot. In recent years, Pam has come to appreciate just how much of her early work was whitewashed as she fell into the precedent set before her. “I actually had no idea I was even doing it, and when I did realize it, it was because I no longer saw myself. I couldn’t see myself in my work. It was beautiful but so detached from who I was.”
In one instance, she accepted an offer to shoot a lifestyle campaign with a large apparel brand. She learned afterward the lifestyle being promoted was singular that of wealthy, middle-aged, straight-sized white women. “Once I also saw the vendor list, I was like, I am it. I am the only representation and will have such a hard time connecting and showing up on a set where nobody looks like me.”
The thought followed her: what would her career have looked like at the beginning? Had she seen her identities represented? Had a path been walked before her? The only option for Pam at this point was to do it herself. “I have to belong to myself, and that’s all I can do. I’m not going to find it in anyone else.” Sixteen-year-old Pam had already forged her first foray into the art world. She could do it again.
Pam rescinded her acceptance from the apparel brand, fortifying her commitment to her personal and professional values. And Pam rejected any job after that that had the potential to harm marginalized identities and that excluded them from staffing.
Pam is skeptical of any company’s or individual’s motive in expanding diversity, knowing intimately what it feels like to be a check in an identity box veiled as an inclusive effort. “Sometimes it’s transparent to see. Are [they] doing this because [this company] wants to help lift us up and, you know, change what this [art] community looks like, or are [they] trying to change the audience’s perception…to essentially stay in power.”
Getting Involved in Diversifying the Wedding Industry
Amidst the prominence of the racial reckoning in 2020, white business owners would approach Pam, seeking her advice on navigating their own mistakes and fears in creating a diverse workplace. This labor expected of Pam was an emotional drain. “To educate people that we are not props and you can’t put us in your photos. You can’t ask us to come work on sets because you think this will make you look good or you’re being diverse – it rings hollow. You’re not actually doing anything to help the community and make it a better place.”
At this juncture, Pam had long been vocal about the whitewashing of the industry. She was exhausted and pent up with frustration, and one day when scrolling Instagram, she came across a wedding editorial post that precisely displayed what Pam had come to expect: a performative inclusion of BIPOC models on an otherwise white-dominated and run set. She commented, voicing her concern over the harmful practices being perpetuated. Pam’s comment gained traction, widely supported by her followers and clients. But as the internet tends to go…,“Then I ended up getting one of the biggest people in the Canadian wedding industry [privately] messaging something horribly racist. Oh my God. And I just sat there, and I didn’t know what to do.”
True to her nature, she held her values close and borrowed from the toolkit of Rachel Cargle, a creative activist and founder of the Loveland Foundation. On her Instagram, Rachel created a trend of posts called “Saturday School,” where she takes a screenshot of a discriminatory comment she received that week and turns it into a teachable moment, deconstructing each word and its harmful ways. In Pam’s mirrored post, she expressed, “This is what’s happening in the wedding industry…It’s happening here. It’s happening to me, and I need to share this with you.”
While Pam preserved the anonymity of the person who messaged her, she was still terrified to speak out so publicly against them, given the power and influence they held in the industry. But she was also resolved in her decision, and an overwhelming amount of people responded positively, chiming in with their support from Alberta to Toronto and the States.
Pam knew she had sparked a shift. “It has strengthened my resolve to be like, ‘you don’t get to have all the power anymore. You don’t get to shape the way the industry is because you’re not making this place better. You’re not trying to bring people up.’”
In December 2021, Pam reached out to her online community to create a group for BIPOC women and non-binary creatives to connect to have a place to belong. They meet once a month to check in, chat, and see where they can support one another in their careers and lives. It’s been a comforting feeling for Pam and her friends to be among those who understand just how deeply identity intersects with art. “It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve done…[and] is one of my biggest joys right now.”
Pam has settled in as an established business owner and is now expanding her efforts to support marginalized communities, as with her online group and, more recently, with immigrant and refugee girls and women. Pam is determined to leave behind their footsteps to the art world she never had. “You can make art; you can do these things. Let me be the one to open those doors for you so you can come up with me or even surpass me.” The start of her career necessitated sourcing belonging from within, but now, with each new community she builds, she unlocks belonging’s reciprocal nature. The path is wider, walking with Pam.
You can follow Pam at Instagram too!