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

Friday, February 19, 2010

Variegated Realities

A project by Students from Nanyang Technological University.
20-25 February 2010

This exhibition is on on for 5 days! But it is worth seeing to see what thoughtful and engaging work is about. I think the photographers, who are young, can do with more living. But I like the honesty in their work.

There is an exhibition on at Orchard Central, which I think will appeal to the mass audience, but I found really boring. Pretty pictures, but forgettable.

Friday, February 05, 2010

I Wish..

Image by Saul Leiter

I got a thank you postcard and a gift of a Saul Leiter book in the post today. This is from Joyce Ho, a photographer with a love for plants. Last year, I had talked to her about some questions she had about work.

I do not know why, but young photographers have started to look to me for advice. And quite often, it is about how to survive as a photographer in Singapore. This bothers me, because I have not figured a way to survive in Singapore as a photographer unless you like commercial work, wedding or photojournalism. Oh yes, you can be an art photographer and teach too. But photography in Singapore is not for the faint-hearted. As easy as it is to buy a camera and call oneself a photographer, living off a camera is hard. Yes, it is possible if you really are truly the top of your field and can market yourself effectively. I know a few good photographers who are sinking in Singapore because they are not willing to market themselves or have not found someone to market themselves.

I was talking to my friend Chris Yap about that. He simply told me that if people wanted to earn a living from photography, then they are in it for the wrong reason. And it struck me, that it is not for me to get people to survive in this tough circumstance. The photographers that survive do it because they love it, the live photography, they breath photography. I have very little advice for working in Singapore, beyond polishing one's photography and effectively marketing yourself. In this age of photographic democracy, one needs to work like a dog to distinguish one's self. If the practices of a photographer is uneconomic, then the photographer will not remain a photographer for long. Just so you know, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus, all legendary names in photography were relatively poor in their lifetimes. There are a handful of commercial photographers like Avedon who made a decent living from their work, and some German school art photographers that command incredible amounts of money for their images. But it is like the lottery, we idolize the winner, but there are thousands and thousands of people who did not win the lottery.

The purpose of my photography is not to make money, it is because I have images in me that need to get out. I do not take pictures, pictures take me, I am like an instrument. But to enable for the images I make to come out, I find some way to survive. And it is not glamorous, and it is not easy. And always, it is an intensely personal journey, something that cannot be taught. So at the end of the day, all I can be is like an alcoholic, sharing his story with others in Alcoholics Anonymous. All there is is to affirm that photographers before me have walked this difficult route, my own route has been difficult, and it is on par if a new photographer has a difficult route. But the rewards, the sights that a photographer is privileged to see, is beyond the wealth that money can buy. And I find that if photography is used to make human bridges, the relationships made are more comfortable than any material comfort.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

After ten years

I am still looking forward and that tends to make me dismiss all my work that has come before. But someone has asked me about my work and I had to look back at what I have done. And I guess that I am happy that I took these photos.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Photographic Exhibitions in Singapore in January

There is a lot going on in terms of photographic exhibitions this month.


To begin with there is a photography of German Dance Photography at the Goethe Institute.It is interesting how German photographer's work always looks more raw and technically simple, but actually is of the highest order.

Movements Frozen in Time. An Exhibition of Dance Images

Photo Exhibition
14.01.2010 - 27.02.2010
Monday-Friday 9am-6.30pm
Saturday 1pm-6pm
Goethe-Institut Singapore, Art Gallery
163 Penang Road #05-01
Winsland House II
Singapore 238463
Free admission
+65 67354555


I have not seen this yet but I really want to before it ends. This is part of the M1 Fringe Festival.

Last Meals
by Jonathon Kambouris
07.01.2010 - 24.01. 2010
5.45am - 12.15am
Esplanade Tunnel


This is a nice and fresh exhibition in a new exhibition space. Apparently this is an exhibition of six photographers who are showing their work for their first time. It includes award winning photographers Elaine Lim and John Heng. The other photographers are Fusheng, Genevieve Ding, Nicholas Foo and Wong King Leong.

I met the curator, Nicholas Foo, who is new to photography but very enthusiastic. He calls himself a noob and has his work on the wall too as the owners of the gallery asked him to put up his work. He tried shooting dinner for the photographers who were gallery sitting, Fusheng and King Leong. I passed him a paper napkin to soften his flash. Amusing yeah?

Anyway, I enjoyed it because the images were fresh and unpretentious. I hope to see more work from these photographers, including the noob curator!

my|4-walls: more than just a photo exhibition

17.01.2010 - 21.01.2010
Muse The Art Gallery


Objetifs is having the regular student exhibition, BUD. Some of my students from the Portraits as Drama class have the photos up. Well done boys and girls.

Objeticfs Centre for Photography and Filmmaking


I guess that since I am plugging other people's exhibitions that I should plug my own. I have a mini exhibition of male nudes at a gay bar, Does Your Mother Know. It is 10 photos of dancer Robert Mills who was until recently dancing for Singapore Dance Theatre. The exhibition is on till after Chinese New Year.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Paolo Roversi

I have been waiting for Paolo Roversi's web site to be up for a long time. And it finally is. Paolo just takes some of the most beautiful photographs.

Go to

Friday, January 08, 2010

At this time

I have not been blogging much in 2009. I would like to have done more and have more to share, but the last year was a year of pleasantly getting by. The biggest change came at the end of 2008 when I let go of most of my staff. 2009 just drifted by for me. I did continue shooting for performing arts groups and families. The highlight being the photography for the Genee International ballet competition. I also rented the studio out. That was a blast when the British Council staged An Interview with Adrienne in my studio. And I also rented the studio out to Steve McCurry to run his workshop during the month of photography. And I taught quite a lot in 2009. The highlight of the teaching was having a noise apprentice, Guo Jie. I saw something special in the way he sees things and I hope that I managed to help in connect that seeing with life more.

With the world financial crisis, the feet have been knocked out from under the photographic industry. This is not an independent thing, photography all over the world has been undergoing a democratic revolution, moving from the domain of specialised professionals to the ubiquity of everyone taking photos on their phone, the computer or their mp3 player. Being a professional photographer, with the exception of the top end commercial photographers, is an extremely difficult way to make money. I went back to being a freelancer for personal reasons, but if I had kept my company large in 2009, I would have been forced by circumstances to let my staff go, and the whole experience would have been much more painful. As illogical as it may sound, 2009, without a major plan, without large corporate shoots, was the best financial year for me. Lots of people look only at the potential earnings, but forget the overheads. Without large overheads, lower paying jobs, teaching and rental all add up. So I have found a way to survive in this environment. And I have freed myself up to pursue my own vision.

The greatest challenge before me is not a financial one but a personal one. I have been inspired by Anders Peterson to live life more, and not live life behind the camera. But my life is mundane, and the pictures are not that compelling. I do think though the photos that I have been taking with my iphone have their charm. The challenge for me has been how to live life better.

Although 2009 was not a hectic year, I still had too much to do. It was hard to find space to re-orientate myself. This year, 2010, I am making a personal dream come through. I am taking 8 months off and traveling overland to London. I am already sure that it will be a unique journey for me and it will be a wonderful experience. But I think the point of the trip is not to find new vistas, it is to find myself.

This is what I think that the world community has to do too in these extraordinary times. Instead of going back to the old paradigm of capitalist consumerism, which is leading us to an irreparable environmental crisis, the world needs to find in self again, in community and in simple pleasures of life. I hope we find ourselves, before we are lost for ever.