Culture

A Conversation with Kate Dash

Filipina photographer and young mother smashing stereotypes out of the Bay Area.

Kate Dash is a 27-year-old Filipina native and photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her personal brand Been Milky (@been.milky) has empowered young moms like her to pursue their passions and take pride in their motherliness. Some words she used to describe her artistry: “intentional,” “fluidity,” “spontaneous,” and “colors.” We spent the day together wandering around the city. I noticed her energy immediately: she’s extremely charismatic, and when we were in a diner and a crowded bus she turned heads with her energy. She’s wearing a bright yellow sweater with “Mood Swings” written in red lettering, track pants, and Doc Martens.

We spent our time talking about herself, her life, her photography, her brand, and three of the most important people in her life: her daughters Isis and Akari, and their father Julian. The girls are very charismatic, social, beautiful, and, according to Kate, fire freestyle rappers. As for Julian, he works as a fashion designer in downtown San Francisco and has designed and sold clothes for artists like Young Thug and Erykah Badu.

 

So tell us about yourself; give us a short biography of Kate Dash.

I was born in Cebu in the Philippines and came here as an immigrant when I was 4 years old. We moved to San Jose right when I got here. I went to school in Milpitas, so I’m a South Bay baby—a Filipina South Bay baby that listens to hip-hop. I dropped out of college because it was a fight in my own head between doing what my parents wanted me to do and knowing myself and knowing I couldn’t focus in school because I didn’t know what I wanted. I used to be against school but now I’m down; I just have to be super intentional when I go back.

How did you meet your baby’s father?

I had just turned 21. I wasn’t a party girl, and I wouldn’t really go clubbing, but if I went out it was because someone threw a party, or someone was DJing that we know. So I met him at this party and the connection was just right away. I’m the kind of person where if I want something, I get it. So, we bumped into each other while we were dancing (it was the “cooking dance”—shoutout to Lil B) and I heard someone at the back of my head say “whatchu cooking?” I was like, “That’s so stupid, whose lame ass said that?” and I turned around like “Ooh shit, he’s cute.” That’s how we met, and it was instant, like “I choose you!”

So it’s been 7 years?

6, almost 7 years. And right away, we decided to have babies.

So the babies were a planned decision?

Yes. So, I was into fashion, and that’s still something I’m interested in and will pursue later. But when I met him I still was deciding if I wanted to do art or school, or how I could combine those two. Then I met him and he showed me his studio, and I was like, “What? A dude that can sew? And you’re cute? That’s amazing. And you’re not weird?” I was super impressed. I told him “I’ve always known that I’m going to be a mom.” After I said that to him, because I said it so confidently, he said “So let’s make you a mom. I’ll give you whatever you want.” But it’s been a journey from then to now. We had barely met each other. From when we met until even now we’re still learning each other. We had to learn super quick; we’re trying to find the balance between boundaries and respect.

Because relationships start out passionate in the beginning…

It’s been passionate but now it’s like. “How can I practice unconditional love without hurting myself?” When I had met him, he already had his business, he already had his factory, he had his little life in San Francisco. And at the time, I was pregnant, and I had pregnant brain, and I was trying to figure out who I was as an artist, as a person, but I’ve always known that I wanted to have women come together.

Before meeting Julian, I had this thing in San Jose called “Female Gone Rogue.” It was a blog with 20 contributors, who were female artists and creative thinkers. I stopped doing it because I wasn’t sure what I wanted from myself as an artist and it was hard to have people join my team when I was unsure about that. There were too many cooks in the kitchen.

Fast forward to now. I’ve always known I wanted to be a photographer, but I never told myself I wanted to be a photographer. I would just be like “I like to take pictures” and get embarrassed like “Oh no, don’t call me a photographer! That’s not me, I’m not an artist.” But about three years ago, I was like “Nah, I’m a fucking photographer.”

My earliest memory of photography was because of my dad. He was the one who’d really take pictures of everyone, family pictures and all, and he would give us disposable cameras, especially when we were going to a field trip or something. I would just take pictures of ladybugs, and the scenery on the way, and we’d come home and my sister would share her pictures and my parents would be so disappointed in me!

I want to talk about your brand “Been Milky,” your merchandise, and how you advocate for moms and women in general. What does “Been Milky” mean to you?

I heard someone say once, “Once you’re milky, you’re milky forever.” So if the world is ending, and we needed food and there’s barely any food left in the world, you would feed the moms first, because we could nourish a whole population. So how I got the name “Been Milky” is I would joke around with people like “You know your grandma? She’d been milky, you could get milk from her if you needed to.” People would say “Oh my god, Kate! You’re so gross! Stop!” But it’s true: once you’re milky you’re milky forever.

Why is advocating for moms important to you and your art?

When I got pregnant, my mentality was “We’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it bigger because we have to. We’re going to have a family and that’s going to push us to be more successful because we have a future besides just us two.” So, for my art, it’s important to me to be super honest with my process and to see myself as a mom, do all the things I do and sharing it… The responses I get are like “Wow, thank you for inspiring me. I don’t have to be just a ‘mom’ because I feel like a lot of moms are like, ‘I can’t do this or that because I’m a mom.” But my mentality is “I’m a mom, so I’m gonna do it even harder.” It’s important for me to just be honest with myself as a mom and as an artist. With the Internet, I felt like I had to plan who I was, but now I’m doing my best to be fluid in all realms. I don’t like the whole “oh, she’s weird in real life but hella cool over the Internet.” I wanna be the same person. So the main reason I advocate for moms and women is in part for myself. I’m an artist and a mom and I’m doing a good ass job at both.

What do you think about stereotypes about how moms should act? You see a lot of young moms getting flack because they got their acrylics done, they’re in full face…

Yes, exactly! Growing up I used to be so terrified of my grandma, and I thought about it and realized, “Yo, she birthed 12 kids. This lady is dope!” Then I would question societal views on motherhood and pregnancy. In high school girls would get pregnant and everyone would just start bashing on her. Why do we have to do this? Put them down when really they need our support? That’s one of my biggest things too because I’m reaching out to young ass moms who don’t get the support. Why not support young ass moms? It takes a village. That’s why I hate shows like 16 and Pregnant because they make it a sad story when it can be an uplifting one. Women get so much flack for having sex; my body been ready since I was 9 technically!

You photograph a lot of women, and I know it’s important to you to have women come together and be creative, so what draws you to the people you photograph? Is it a unique look or a personality trait that you look for?

All of that, but usually it’s if the schedule works! As a mom, I’m not too picky with the people that I shoot; it’s just if it works for my schedule. The majority of people I’ve shot are homies—a few I met online, but a majority of them I know them and their journey, and try to capture that essence. Now I’m trying to be more and more intentional with my projects. More big projects, more art stuff, and less spontaneous shoots.

Earlier you said you’d still be interested in working in fashion. In terms of “what’s next for Kate?” do you see fashion shooting in your future?

Yeah, I’m shooting my partner’s next line. We’re learning how to work with each other and communicate better. We can be vocal about what we like and don’t like and not get so easily offended like we used to.

I’m working on shooting more lookbooks and more style—style turned all the way up! In the Bay Area, our style is like looking the steeziest but the most comfortable. Like “let me try really hard, but make it look like I didn’t try at all.” It’s about capturing that effortless style turned all the way up; that Bay essence.

What is your creative process when you go into a photo shoot?

I would have the person I’m going to shoot in mind, and I’d think of the colors that’d first pop up in my head when I would think of them. Then I would tell them what color clothes to wear or bring, and to bring some pieces too. I can just see them in these colors, and it becomes, “Can you rock these colors? Can you wear these colors? Okay, now I’m seeing red so throw on the red top.” So I’d definitely plan the color scheme in my head and we’d link up. If I feel any type of anxiety in my models I usually have them take deep breaths with me, and then we warm up and I just start saying what I want out of the shoot and the type of mood, and we move from there. I’ll start shooting and if I see the model looking tense, I keep checking them like “you good?” and after a while it just becomes really comfortable and smooth.

You make a personal connection with your models?

Yes, that’s very important to make a connection. Before I would just shoot and we’d just be so nervous, and now I’m a lot more mindful about the situation—let me look at them and their body language and just go from there. Now I’m more comfortable with directing people, their positions, and their body language through the photos.

An artist to me is someone who is able to translate what is going on in their mind, body and spirit, it’s something tangible, something we can see or feel. Once I could translate what’s going on in my head, then that’s a good foundation for my art.

What was your “a-ha!” moment?

It really all started with a picture of my daughter, my eldest daughter Isis. She was in her pink bathtub, and I just remember grabbing my camera, and I poured water over her as I took the photo. I got it developed later and when I saw it I was just so excited because it was exactly what I saw; I was like “I’m on to something; keep going!” And then it became about practicing that muscle. I know what I want, and doing it and seeing it—that’s what I wanted.

Kate Dash's babyIsis Tsukimi Dash approximately at 10 months old, taken by Kate Dash.