Friday, November 18, 2011

Portraits as Visual Drama November 2011

Last weekend I taught Portraits as Visual Drama again for Objectifs. I can't really remember how many times I have taught this course now. But my last batch of students were pretty gungho and I thought it would be nice to share some of their images from the class.

Thanks to the models Adeline, Christina, Dominic and Zhi Hao. The projections were from an installation by Ric Aw.
Sven Ludolphi

Sean Yeo
Robert Volger
Robert Van Delden
Robert Baird
Marielle Veldhuis
Divya Raghuram
Clement Chia
Ben Lee

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Continuing the photographic journey

I guess that I have been on a break from blog posts. Most of my blog posts in my hectic days was about the journey of photography. I shared what I was going through and what I was thinking. I took a year off to travel last year and that I blogged on my Singapore to Europe blog. And then things went quite because my time was taken up by an illness in my family. I did a few posts about the frailty of life, but I did not do so much.

I am working on some personal photographic projects now. It is a bit hard to blog about it in the midst of the projects because it is all new to me and the process is hazy. It took me a while before I got some insight into photography and started blogging about it. So it will take a while before I figure out what I am doing with my new direction in photography.

But I am now exploring the Black Art of printing. Up until now, I have been able to make simple calibrations of my screen and make ball park prints of my images. A lot of my images ended up in digital format anyway and the printing was done by someone else if at all. For more high end prints for my exhibitions, I would get Chris Yap from Light Editions to make my prints for me. But I always had this feeling that my eye for output is still untrained. And I was always at the mercy of the people printing the images for me. Some like Chris were good, some from some commercial labs were bad. And I do not even know what it is that I do not know to make the printing better. I hope that in time when I start competing my projects, I will be able to exhibit my work. And in that sense, I realize that I need to take responsibility of the final prints. Even if I do end up sending my photos out to be printed by someone else, I had better know what it is that I need from the printer and how to express my needs. A new journey begins.

The best photographic printers, the machines, are made by Epson. Unfortunately, the documentation is sparse. And the interface between the computer and the printers are not always obvious. I mean, is my intent 'Colormetric' or 'Perceptual', I do not rightly know. And if all photographers vaguely know that we need to color manage our work flow, it is possible to 'manage' color twice and make a balls of the final results. Even the simple act of calibrating the monitor, is not simple. What color temperature should we aim for? What is the maximum lumen?

I have decided to blog about my journey into the Black art of printing. And because we all have different computers, screens, printers and paper preferences, my experience is unlikely to be template for all people printing. But hopefully the concepts will be useful and at least some of the specifics will be useful to some people.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Staring into the Abyss

I must admit, I am confronting my mortality and I am afraid. This is not a morbid daydream of mine, but it is now in my everyday experience. My eighty year old father had a stroke last September and although he is recovering, he will not be the same man than before his stroke. And my mother, who is healthy for her age, has to be checked for cancer. But even more immediate is a friend of my age having stage 1 stomach cancer which he was lucky enough to find and remove. And a younger friend who has stage 4 cancer. By some miracle chemotherapy worked and she is well, thankfully. And also a photographer friend has had a tumor removed from her brain. No, I do not think I am being morbid, mortality is on my thoughts. To think that death is something that will only come to others is a denial. Somehow consciousness of my own mortality is something that I have to deal with.

Maybe thinking about death is also a luxury of my circumstances. I am financially stable and I do not have a family to bring up at the moment. In the midst of day to day struggles, mortality may not impinge on people's consciousness because they have more immediate issues on their minds, children to raise, rent to pay. I also have had friends who have told me there is a reason why people need religion. I understand that sentiment, life on earth, in spite of the advances of man, is still painful and brutal. Even the most fortunate people will have to deal with the end of their lives, there are no exceptions. But my rational mind simply cannot accept the promise of a heaven based on faith. I have no talks with God to soothe my troubled soul. The pillar of my life, my spiritual guide till now, my father has had a stroke. The stroke is on the right side of his brain and after being a meditation master and healer for many years, he is now unable to meditate. As happy as I am to still physically have my father, who is adorable at eighty and in his second childhood, I have lost my closest councilor. My father is facing his own predicament and now it is my turn to hold his hand and tell him that everything will be OK.

My immediate response to this trauma has been typical of myself. It is to work harder. I am no longer working for other people in photography. But I have a long list of personal photographic projects and I have launched myself into them. Desperately filling my mind with practical concerns instead of unavoidable existential ones. I think that I am clutching at life, at any sign that there is breath in my body and my heart is still pumping. Work is having to attend to practicalities, needing to get my camera kit in order, needing to negotiate the terms of my photographic engagements. It is about doing things that is within my power to do. But I am no longer young and naive. I have been fortunate to have my share of success. I was a popular wedding photographer and I have been published in International magazines. And as nice as all that is, it is true that a photographer is only as good as his last photograph. Success does not give one immortality. Recently I read that Nan Goldin used to take photographs of her friends in order to keep them alive, but it did not work. Money, success, pleasures of the flesh are but mere diversions from the finality of death. It is the nature of the world to move on, and as famous as anyone can be, they will at best be a footnote in some history book. But for most of us mere mortals, we will live on for awhile in the memories of friends and loved ones, also to disappear when they disappear in turn.

And is it depressing and black to consider these thoughts? Shakespeare was right when he said,

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages."

On some level we are just acting our roles in life, filling the time between birth and death. But I think if we can cast aside the ego that tells us we are some divine being with the possibility of life eternal or that we are capable of greatness, then we can begin to truly appreciate life. The wonder of life is in each moment of our living.

What do I mean by that? For example, each weekend now I spend time taking my parents out for meals. And as much as eating is a mundane affair that we can go through as a functional necessity. But sharing meals with my parents are important to me. Sharing time with the couple that birthed me and brought me up. It is not a national event or a great scientific discovery, but each moment of sharing a meal is the definition of being human. It is a true sacred exchange between one generation and another.

I think that accepting the temporary nature of life, one begins to truly understand the meaning of 'Yesterday is but a dream, tomorrow is in the imagination, we have only the present'. When we stop living in the past or keep looking for a future happiness, we can concentrate on now. Each breath we take, each sip of coffee and each conversation we have becomes a true experience. And it is transitory. We cannot cling on to the memory of a love or live for a future love. In the midst of now, we simply are, and that is wonderful in itself.

And then I realize also that throwing myself at various projects was an act of blind panic. And while it can help me forget for a moment mortality, it does not help deal with the underlying fear. I have to stop the emotional hysteria and simply accept what life is. I have actually started on awareness meditation daily, but I am not the type of person to give my whole life over to meditation. At least not the type of meditation where I simply sit the whole day in meditation. But I have decided to live my life more deliberately and being more aware as I undertake my photographic projects and daily routines. I also begin to understand that it is not about my projects gaining validation by winning awards or be lauded by critics, it is about taking photographs that are meaningful to me, that increase my awareness of the world and my place in it. And I believe that living my life with focused awareness will make me more alive and give meaning to what I do. In some ways I am paraphrasing 'The Power of Now' by Eckhart Tolle. But it is only by being confronted with death and accepting the nature of life, then does living in now make sense to me. As long as one has the means to live, then fame, status and huge fortunes are ultimately meaningless.

I believe that life is temporary and that it will end. People have died before me and people will die after I have died. And all that is okay! It is good to simply live each moment, experience it for what it is and then let it go. All moments, good or bad, will pass. And now I am more accepting of all of my life, including its ultimate end. And I respect each moment of my life more than I used to.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Documenting the Man Theatre Festival

I have spent much time taking publicity or production photographs for various performing arts groups in Singapore. And I am happy that there are other photographers stepping up to take on this work. But due to the tight budget of performing arts groups, documentation of the production process has rarely been done for productions. So I have started to step into the gap and document the process for performing arts groups. I started off this work with Singapore Dance Theatre which is the group I am most associated with. And when I saw the line up for Wild Rice's Man Theatre Festival, I offered to help document the production process. And my offer was accepted to cover the two productions that Wild Rice is preparing for the Festival, The Weight of Silk on Skin and Cooling Off Day. The first play is a Monologue written by Huzir Sulaiman, directed by Claire Wong and performed by none other than the artistic Director of Wild Rice, Ivan Heng. The other play is an ensemble piece by playwright Alfian Sa'at based on the recent landmark Singaporean elections. It boasts a cast of veteran actors like Neo Swee Lin and Peter Sau. It's director, Jo Kukathas also acts in the play.

Even though I have been around performing arts groups so much and so many of my friends are actors, dancers and musicians, I have not really been a witness to the birthing process of plays. I entered the rehearsal building of Wild Rice on Kerbau Road with two rehearsal rooms on the second floor. The first sight that greeted me when I reached the top of the flight of stairs is a table with neat stacks of plastic cups labelled with the names of actors and production crew. And the cups were color co-ordinated for the two productions, red for Cooling off Day and Blue for The Weight of Silk on Skin. An irony to use Red for a play titled 'Cooling' and blue for a play peppered with allusions to hot sex? But I digress. The neatly labelled cups hint at the professionalism of the company. Another hint was the neat list of personnel in each play found in each rehearsal room. Already, you can see that Wild Rice is a focused organization, but not overly so because it is also a creative place.

In the rehearsal room for Cooling off Day, is a chart with the names of characters from the play and next to those characters, the name or names of the actor who would play the character. The rehearsal started later than scheduled when I first arrived, with only the stage manager there. She happened to be a Lasalle graduate whose graduation portrait I had taken. Then old friends arrive, Peter Say, Kheng Hua and Swee Lin. New to me is the actor Najib and the director Jo. The rehearsals started with the actors standing in a group, playing the roles of Singaporeans talking about the elections. Some of them were for the PAP and some were against. The actors read the scripts like they were trying out new clothes, adjusting a line or delivery like one would adjust the sleeves of a new shirt. And the director Jo, coaxing a form out of this ensemble performance. She was clear that the characters had to be distinct from one another so that they would not become a monotonous delivery. And at the same time, both director and actors were aware that the delivery had to be authentic, believable. And I noticed Kheng Hua, shifting with nervous energy while waiting to deliver her lines, not because she was nervous but because this was a way for her to emotionally find resonance with her character.

The playwright Alfian came in half way and sat watching the rehearsal. It was obvious that he enjoyed seeing his characters coming to life. And he was also very much part of the theatrical birthing process, explaining the rationale behind parts of his script and clarifying the characters, many which were based on interviews with real people.

With so much experience in the room, each actor brought a wealth of life to their roles. The process of directing was not a dictatorship but more like a conductor coaxing the essence out of a well honed orchestra. And even though I knew how talented the people in the room are, I was still astounded by how versatile and malleable they were under the directions.

Entering the rehearsal room for The Weight of Silk on Skin was immediately more intense. A table of four production crew and Ivan sitting on the edge of a seat, running lines. I always wondered about that process of learning lines, almost to the point of dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's. And then it hits me that the effortless delivery of lines, complete with believable character, is akin to a ballerina who makes floating en pointe look effortless. Both are herculean tasks made to look simple. There was no need for anyone to create drama for my camera, this was an actual battle as visceral as any life and death struggle found on National Geographic.

When I later asked Ivan whether remembering lines has become harder or easier, he replies that it has never been easy for him but he has a physical memory of the play. He remembers blocking more easily which helps him remember his lines. And this explains why acting is not simply oration, but an act that requires the whole body.

Claire and HuzirHuzir, experienced professionals, discussed the play on myriad levels, asking questions that I would never have thought to ask. The script writer's intention brought to life by an actor and honed to a razor's edge by the director. And this was no easy script. Huzir is extremely intelligent, his script while on one level being a human drama, is equally full of detail on clothing, fabric production and social anthropology. A heady mix which a new actor would never be able to bring to life. Ivan though, even while struggling with some of the newer lines, was mesmerizing to watch. And Claire was able to keep up with the extent of Ivan's delivery and reshape it. The process was a drama as compelling as the play itself.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

More than half way through

Death is like that big elephant in the room we are all trying to ignore. I did not meet my maternal grandmother. I barely remember my paternal grandmother. I remember that I was very young when I paternal grandfather passed away, and I had no comprehension of life, let alone death. So I knew that something big happened at his funeral, but I did not know what. It was only my maternal grandfather, whom I had any interaction with. And I was a little sad when he passed away, but my life had barely begun. There was education ahead of me, a career and the rest of life. Mortality in a civilized country like Singapore, was just not something to dwell on for a young person. And it would seem that anyone who is alive, simply does not want to think about it. When I first started working as a photographer, I worked with the Tsao Foundation to document old folks. And in spite of the fact that old folks in Singapore are relatively well taken care off, and the staff found the images I took hopeful, some outside members of the public were repelled by the images. Was it because I shot in black and white, or is it simply because, healthy people do not want to contemplate the end? I can understand a general public not wanting to see murder victims or people with other terminal illnesses, but age is something we all do. The usage of my images was limited as it was thought that it would not help fund raising.

Well, perhaps while living, we should live for the moment, concentrate on now. But recently my father has suffered a stroke. How do I ignore that? Up until the stroke, everything was under control. After the stroke, his diabetes, high blood pressure, prostrate, sodium levels, all part of a fragile machinery, become issues. I must say that my dad has done pretty well health wise, but at eighty, I guess it was inevitable that his body starts to deteriorate. Now this was no longer my grandfather, this is my father, the foundation of my family. And even though this stroke was relatively minor and he is slowly recovering, this has shaken me. I have just read the book 'My stroke of Insight', where the author had a massive stroke on the left hemisphere of her brain. The left side is the logical side and the author had found in the right hemisphere an inner peace. Ironically for my father, a long time meditator and all round calm person, his minor stroke was in the right hemisphere. He is unable to meditate and he has become emotional. In this sense, the anchor of my family, has become unstuck, keeping calm in the family now requires large amounts of paddling. And in some small way, I have already lost my father. He is still here for sure, and his actions and his words still come through, but things will just never be the same again.

And if my eighty year old father suffering an illness is expected, then the real wake up call is that a couple of my friends have stomach cancer. Fortunately they have been able to treat their cancers, but this is no longer a distant possibility. I do remember hearing that a college friend of mine dying of a heart attack in her twenties. But this was an unfortunate congenital condition. It was an 'accident' in the sense that it was out of the norm. However, it is now obvious that death walks amongst us, amongst the people of my age group. We cannot take our health for granted. I went to have a check up on my eyes, finding that I had become long sighted and I got these headaches. I was worried of having a stroke, but I was told that it was normal for people past their forties to become long sighted. The truth is that the descent has begun. This not a morbid thought, it is not something to panic about, it is simply a fact. It is a fact that we are mortal.

Contemplating the end is a sobering thought. I guess worrying about how my life will unravel at the end can be the stuff of night mares, but that is a wasted effort. Knowing that I am mortal is actually a good thing. It makes me treasure life and it is making me think hard about my priorities. The important thing is not to let morbid fear paralyze me. I may or may not have a pleasant ending, worrying about it will not change it. But right here, right now, I have choices to be made. When we are young, we have an abundance of energy and no experience. We can try many things out, aim for the peaks of many distant mountains and afford to hit a few dead ends. At this point of time, I have to decide what is important. Why should I get out of bed in the morning, and just what mountain do I want to scale? Heck, is it even worth scaling a mountain?

In my own experience, just what is it that matters? Fame, like winning awards or having millions of social network likes, is fleeting. Pleasures of the flesh, intense as they can be, are transient. Past a certain level, money has diminishing returns. It really is not the end points that matter, the place where things can be tabulated. For a while now, the photographs that I have been taking are not as important as the process of taking them. Take for example, my overland journey in 2010. Having the photographs from the journey is nice, and I do want to exhibit them. But it was the journey, that counted. The act of going from country to country, meeting new people and experiencing new sights. It was for me a way to experience life fully. To keep engaged in being human and understand what other humans are experiencing. I am continuing my photography now, but it is not the photographs that are my aim, but the experiences and insights that I gain from the process of creating them. Why do I make some photographs, what is the process of making them, what does it mean? What can I share with other people with my photography? The same goes with my relationships. I am not interested in being with the in crowd. I do not want to be seen in a certain way. I am not looking for networking opportunities. I am looking for quality time with my friends and family, ways of sharing and making life richer by weaving bridges of understanding. I want to share the good and the bad.

I guess that what I am trying to say is that I realize that I have to live my life to the fullest so that I will have no regrets at the end. And living life to the full is not some big fancy thing, but it really is simply being engaged in the act of living. I want to keep pushing as much as I am able to, but it is more focussed. I am no longer blasting off like a shot gun, but I am a sniper, with a specific target. Mortality is not good or bad, it is a fact. We all just have to deal with it. I know that I am probably more than half way through.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Making a stand

Those who know me or have read my bio somewhere would know that I consider myself an accidental photographer. I did not start with a burning desire to take photographs, I was just like the normal tourist photographer, taking photos on holidays for some memories. But my love of dance and that need to record my love of dance was the reason I became a better photographer. It was a pleasure, an act of love.

In my pursuit of a certain form of beauty in dance, I set up a studio, and ran a business for eight years till I finally put on my exhibition 'Dance Me Through the Dark'. I had to learn studio lighting and work on many dance projects to get to my goal. I shot for performing arts groups which is natural for what I wanted to do. But I also became a wedding photographer, a corporate photographer and even did some commercial jobs. And in running a business, I had to manage staff, promote myself, keep the office running. It was draining all round but it was a good learning experience that I do not regret doing. But the truth is that I did not enter photography to run a business. Photography, because of my love of dance, was an exploration of a personal passion. A very simple, naive ideal.

This year, I made a long term dream come through by traveling overland from Singapore to Europe. Due to various circumstances, I had to use air travel in certain parts of the journey, but this was still without a doubt a journey of a lifetime for me. And after years of putting energy into running a business and training myself, I was not just having a holiday, I was pondering what is the most important thing in life and what am I doing with the resources I have?

What the journey through so many countries taught me is that there is beauty and there is hope in the world. Even in the harsh country of Mongolia, that last winter suffered a winter so cold it wiped out one quarter of their livestock, the people persevered. And when I talked to the Mongolians, they were proud of their country, they loved it. When I told my guide that Mongolia is a harsh country, she said 'Yes, but it is beautiful'. And I met other people, other friends who through adversity still hope and still love. And the most important thing is that people stay true to themselves or what they are.

As much as I have grown in running a photography business, there is no love in it for me. I hope for nothing here. There is no love, fewer learning experiences and not enough money to tempt me into prostituting myself. It was clear that the past way of doing things was not something to return to. But knowing not to go back does not mean knowing how to go forward.

Although my goal for many years of capturing the beauty of dance had  led me to produce work that I am proud of, I also learned new things in craft and had a deepening understanding of photography. I grew up. It was apparent after Dance Me Through the Dark, that there can be more depth in my personal work. The beauty of Dance is an ivory tower, worth ascending to, but cut off from the rest of the human experience. And damn it, what was once an adrenalin rush, had become an exercise. After achieving my goal, I was empty and lost in the wilderness. There is no other way to describe it.

And then one year in Tuscany, I took a workshop with Anders Peterson. He forced me to stop hiding behind my camera. He forced me to accept my own feelings of happiness, sadness, love, the animal instincts. Photography is secondary to living. It is like the ability to walk, useless unless there is a place one needs to walk to. And this meeting inspired me to try a revolution. To explore the fringes of society looking for a more raw, visceral experience. But after two years of searching for a way into this other world, I realised that this was unnatural for me. I simply do not belong in that world coming from a comfortable family background. And I simply do not have what it takes to become part of an alternative society. I got a wonderful hint from Anders about the possibilities of life and photography, but I still had to find my own path.

I think that I understood deep inside me what I needed to do. Actually Anders did say to me that my path could be a fusion of dance and raw experience. Before my long overland journey, I had already started a project called Night Song. I was trying to express the longings, moments of happiness and periods of sad loneliness while working with dancers. On this long journey I did a detour back to Tuscany and took a workshop with Arno Minkkinen and I did a series of images about the importance of dance and freedom to my life. And it worked. The slowly welling conviction in me became clear. I would use dance and photography to explore my own personal life. And I can also use dance and photography to explore other people's lives and experiences.

Which brings me to now. Now I am refreshed and I am once again excited to make images. And I believe that my new direction will not just help me grow as an image maker, but also as a human being. I am making a stand now, I am going to concentrate on personal work. I will not go back to corporate, wedding or family portraiture. It hinders me. I will still shoot for arts groups and artists though. They are like my family and they are also my collaborators in my personal work. But time is becoming precious to me and the most important thing in my life is to live my life fully.

Carpe Diem!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A quote from Paolo Roversi

My studio is a rectangular room with a high ceiling, old wooden parquet flooring, and a large window facing north. It is like a tiny theatre with an empty stage, a space to be filled, a time yet to be invented, a proscenium where everything is possible, no trick disallowed, where neither seasons, nor days, not hours exist. Here all temporal boundaries dividing live and imitation, reality and fiction, dissolve. Like any art worthy of the name, the most brazen lie can evolve into surprising and seductive truth. The furnishings are modest: two stools, a carport, some chairs, two or three lights, and an old blanket, which is my favorite backdrop. It can be a wall, a road, a field, sky, night, fear, wind… a screen for dreams. The studio is not only in this room; it is anywhere I put my camera on my tripod and my tripod on the ground, liberating my heart and mind. The studio is far more than a workplace or a tool of my trade. It is above all a state of being and feeling. The studio is everywhere. It is the corner of my mind. I have a very mystic and spiritual approach to photography, which I can't explain, and I don't need to. I like to keep things unrevealed, I like sometimes to lose myself into the indefinite. That often happens to me along the path of beauty, without every truly understanding where to proceed, and the further I manage to see, the deeper the mystery becomes. Photography goes beyond the limits of reality and illusion. It brushes up against another life, another dimension, revealing not only what is there but was is no there. Every photograph is an encounter, an intimate, reciprocal confession. I like long exposures to allow the should all the time it needs to rise to the surface, and to let chance have its way. Always, photographs surprise me; they never turn out quite the way I imagine they might. Every photograph enters the world as a sign of hope. It is late, very late. Everyone has left, and a strange silence has descended. I wander aimlessly around the deserted studio trying to bring some order to ideas and objects, but the natural and permanent chaos exerts its power. I put on my jacket, turn out the light, and close the door. But where does the light go? Silence… Darkness is the light's silence.

Paolo Roversi