The Forumkamera Interview

An interview with Indonesian online photography community Forumkamera.

Without further due, we will go directly to our first question. Could you tell us about the beginning of your interest to photography? How and when did you come to realize that you like it? When was the first time you learn about it? Who influenced/inspired you? how do you turn your photo skills into a photographic career?

My interest in photography started purely out of need. I was about 15 and very interested in airplanes. I tried to borrow my family cameras for an air show I was going to but was unsuccessful. In my anger, I took out half of my savings and bought myself a SLR. It was a Ricoh KR-10 with a basic 50mm lens. In the early days, I bought a lot of magazines and try to copy some of the styles I liked.

There weren’t any particular photographer who influenced me until a few years later, when I stumbled upon the works of Don McCullin, a British war photographer. From the moment I saw his gritty images in his book Hearts of Darkness, my photography inclined towards photojournalism and documentary. Rather quickly, I fell in love with the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was also exposed to the fashion work of Sarah Moon. She remains someone I admire although many people found it surprising how I can be so diverse in my taste.

Gradually, I got acquainted with more photographers and my list of influences and inspirations continue to be updated. Seriously, I would count Martin Parr, Josef Koudelka, Jeff Jacobson, and Daido Moriyama.

When I was serving my military service, I created opportunities for myself to photograph. Every posting I got, I was always able to persuade my commanders to let me document my training. The exposure helped me to get over the technical problems very quickly.

When I left the military, I had a portfolio that was good enough to get me a newspaper job. After one and a half year as a newspaper photographer, I decided to further my study and the USA. I left for the University of Missouri in 1989 and came back with a degree in photojournalism in 1992.

Over your long years of career, there must be a particular unique experience that you will always remember. Would you share that experience with us?

I will always remember the first time I photographed a dead body. It was only a few weeks after I joined the newspaper and I was on the crime beat. We received a call that there was a body found in a reservoir. When I got to the scene, the police was just able to pull the body out of the water. I was standing about two metres from the body with a tele-zoom lens. As I was clicking away, I noticed two women coming into the frame. They were the deceased’s mother and sister. All these years, I remember the look and the smell. It was horrible. For weeks, I couldn’t eat a certain kind of food. I have no idea whether it was the smell, the rotten body or the faces and the cries of the family that got to me. It has been close to 20 years and I still remember all the details.

Regarding to your achievement as a Hasselblad Master, how did you achieve it? What does the award mean to you personally? Did the achievement changed people’s perception about you?

The award came as a total surprise. I was extra happy because it was not something I applied for or dreamt about. In fact, I don’t even know the existence of the award until I got it. In 2000, when I was living in New York City, I was corresponding with the editor of the Hasselblad Forum magazine. It started with me sending him some images I took with the XPan and they were of Vietnam and New York. The magazine used a few of my pictures in one issue of the magazine. When I moved back to Singapore, I forgot to inform the editor, who had by then mailed my transparencies back to my New York address. After a few weeks of tracing, they found it and duly couriered it to me in Singapore. To express my appreciation, I sent him another CD-rom of my latest images. This time they were all of Singapore. They were pictures that I have taken while waiting for my US work visa to arrive. As luck would have it, the CD arrived on the day of the board meeting to decide on the masters. Without asking me, the editor decided that he liked my work enough to nominate me. When I got the email informing me of the award, I just thought I was so lucky.

The award brought me a lot of attention as well as pressure. Before that, people in Singapore only knew me as the former photographer and picture editor of The Straits Times. People associated me with photojournalism and street photography but Panoramic Singapore doesn’t really belong in the genre. To me, they were very personal work and it didn’t matter to me how it should be labeled. Some people made a bigger deal about my award than I sincerely thought so. I was proud but at the same time troubled because awards always come with responsibility. With the award, I got invited to speak at several gatherings and to sit on several community panels. Of course, there were people who hated the fact that I am a Hasselblad Master and some of the postings on forums I came across were very demeaning and insulting. Once I was at a function and two persons were having a discussion about me (they didn’t know me though I was standing next to them). One guy told the other that I am a snobbish person and would never show up at event unless I am a winner. A while later, the same gentleman who passed that snide remark approached me and asked if I would be a guest speaker for his class. I acted like nothing happened and immediately accepted his invitation.

But by and large, the effect has been a positive one for me as well as other people. I believe more and more Singapore photographers are not afraid now to show work that don’t belong to a certain school of thoughts. I get a lot of requests to review portfolios and I see them as opportunities to learn as well as to encourage new work. I like telling this story because I believe if people see my motivation for sharing, they will get the message I am advocating – don’t be afraid of criticisms, stick to your vision.

Now, after all you have achieved in photography, how do you feel about it? Do you take pictures only for work purpose or are you still doing it for hobby also?

I don’t think I have achieved a lot so I can’t afford to rest on my laurels. People who know me know that I am the most critical person as far as my work is concerned. So there will be no chance that I will be resting. I don’t make a lot of money from photography. In fact, I am famous for saying that others make money from photography; I make money for photography. For the past two years, my main source of income has been from teaching desktop publishing at the university. I can’t even see myself teaching photography.

Regarding to your photo style, it seems to us that you like the “journalistic style”. However, what is your favorite photography object?

Many people insist on labeling my work journalistic but I suggest that they don’t place limits on me. At this stage, it doesn’t bothered me what category I fall under. If I am forced to choose a title, I always say I am a photographer. It is simple, to the point, unpretentious and all-encompassing. I don’t have one favorite subject. Rather, I am interested in several things. I haven’t been able to find an equivalent in English but a literal translation from Chinese means birth, age, sick, death. Crudely speaking, we can say it is the circle of life. I have the different projects I am working on are leading to a big body of work covering those four main themes. But the bigger question is, what about those that fall in between? I see myself more and more as amateur anthropologist. Many of my images are about things people leave behind.

What is your opinion about “beauty”? Does journalistic style photography have beauty? How does the beauty in journalistic compare or contrast with the beauty of other photography styles such as fashion and fine art?

I think beauty is really in the eye of the beholder. But honestly I don’t like the word. At least, I feel that without a given context, it is meaningless. Photography is not just about beauty. I think aesthetic is different from beauty. In different kinds of photography, one needs to see the parameters peculiar to that genre. Ugliness is also a form of aesthetic, it is just different. My subjects are mostly about found things in our everyday life. I see no issue if people see beauty in the mundane subjects that I shoot but this is only a small part of the understanding. People looking at ordinary scenes in life translated into pictures often have one of the two reactions – “boring” or “hmm, why haven’t I see it all these years”. I think people who think they know everything in life or photography need to occasionally take five steps backward and ask: I am looking, but am I seeing? Because of the ease in which a photograph can be made, people have now forgotten to ask the other question: why or why not? I think many people have forgotten photography’s principal role – preserving memories.

Jumping now to photography medium, nowadays almost everybody is going digital. Do you currently use digital camera? When did you start using digital camera and why did choose to use it?

I now have a set of digital DSLR and two compact digital cameras. They don’t figure very much in my daily or personal work. I have them in case I need to shoot the occasional assignments. I have my first digital camera in 2000. That time, I was living in New York and facing a big drought in my work. I used it to shoot people in the street. A few years ago, I was a spokesman for Olympus when they launched the E-1. I was given two sets and a lot of personal attention. Those Olympus served me really well and I managed to make them behave like my Leicas by keeping everything very simple. The cameras I use most these days are my two Mamiya 7II medium format rangefinders.

Last year, tsunami was the biggest event in the world, which happened throughout most of Southeast Asia. You went to Aceh and took some photographs there. Which other places did you go to take photographs of the tsunami impacts? After seeing and taking many pictures of death and tragedy, how do you emotionally feel about it?

I was only in Aceh for the tsunami and only went there five months after the disaster. There were many opportunities to go at the peak but I turned them down initially because I was ill. This turned out to be a blessing because I really hate to be in places when there are many photographers and journalists. (So there you go, I am in no way a photojournalist). I think my reaction is the same as most people – life is really short and not up to us. There is one other strong feeling – it really helps me believe once again the power of photography to remember, to motivate, to inform and to heal.

Now in this global culture, as they say it, what is your opinion about the photography in Singapore compared to the more established nations such as US and European countries?

Technically speaking, many Singapore photographers are up there with the best in the world. However, there are several big factors why Singapore photographers have not or will not make it in the world stage. One has to do with the subject matter we tackle. Like it or not, to be commercially successful, one needs to be known.

These days, it is very hard to find traditional outlets for subjects with limited commercial appeal. Many photographers who have made it big in the west share the common route – a long and tedious journey of getting themselves known. There are many talented photographers who will never be known. Like it or not, if nobody recognize you, it is as good as not existing. That is not to say that self-promotion is the only way to success but it certainly won’t hurt.

Let me give you an example. I read in a Singapore forum recently a discussion about Asian photographers in National Geographic magazine. It seems to me that many people in this part of the world are just interested in complaining. They are neither interested in fixing a situation or worse, finding out the truth. One guy say that the only Asian who shoots for NG is Japanese. That is absolutely nonsensical but that particular Net community is prepared to just live with it. Indian photographers Raghu Rai and Dilip Metha had contributed many articles. More than one Japanese has shot for NG. One of the picture editors in NG is Chinese. I also met a Sri Lankan who worked at NG, and an Indonesian who was there for a while. But so what? Why is the race so important?

What people need to realize is how hard each individual worked to reach the top of the game. To be with the best, you have to make a lot of sacrifices. If race is an issue, it is because these photographers use their race to their advantage – like persuading editors that he has the sensitivity or inside knowledge of a certain community. People really need to know the inside working of these publications. How does NG decide whom to use? Well, this bit of info might help. Every year, NG sends a senior editor to the judging of the annual Pictures of the Year contest at the University of Missouri-Columbia. This editor would sit behind the judges and quietly make notes on interesting photographers and the subjects they are working on. If a portfolio interests an editor, he would ask the student assisting with the judging for the photographer’s identity. From the pool he builds, he has good indication of what’s available out there. In a nutshell, any Singaporean photographer with the dream of working for NG can, if he is prepared to court them. Of course, there are other ways to reach them. Attending conferences and workshops never hurt.

Please give us your opinion about photography in Asia, especially in southeast part of Asia and Indonesia

In the past years, I have been most interested in photography in Japan. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that as far as the development of photography is concerned, Japanese photographers have been the most colorful in Asia.

Early Japanese photographers too were influenced by the west but they were able to use what they learn and spin off new approaches, using sometimes, the same method as western photographers, on subjects that are Japanese. William Klein, for example, had great impact on many of the contemporary Japanese photographers. Dario Morimaya certainly inherited many of his grittiness. If you look closely at Klein’s New York and Moriyama’s Shinjuku, you will see a lot of similarities. Post-war Japan also witnessed a lot of Japanese photographers using their art to express their feelings. Kikuji Kawada’s Map is one good example. I believe anyone looking at his images of the effects of atomic bombing will no doubt choose peace. Younger Japanese photographers also use this medium to reflect on the things that concern them. Tomoko Sawada’s Omiai is one great example. To finish this book, Sawada went through weight gains and losses, dressed herself up in different stereotypical Japanese personas to address the issue of matchmaking. Among Asian photographers, Japanese are also the most likely to be found in war zones.

There are many interesting work being done in Mainland China as well. While I also notice a lot of western influences, they are again different in the subject matters. I recently saw a show on conceptual photography by modern Chinese photographers, a lot of them are using their art as a way to comment on social issues. If there is a common trend, I think it is the way different Asian photographers are addressing the issue of identity.

But in many countries, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia included, photography still has not been able to break out of a few moulds. One is the salon style, the other is photojournalism. For the longest time, I think many Asian photographers believe the opposite of salon is photojournalism.

Anyone who is anti-salon and shoots in a more carefree way automatically get lumped together as street photography, and then photojournalism. In my opinion, neither is better than the other, they are just different schools of thoughts that will appeal to different people. To grow as a photographer and to leave a mark, one needs to abandon the traditional labels and try to come up with a voice of one’s own. In this challenge, I think the subject matter is going to matter more. I think the obsession with the label is a big hindrance to progress. Glamour, fashion and food photography will never go away but I think the new poster boy for Asian photographers has to be photojournalism. This track seems, to most people, the one viewed with most respect as it is not just about money but more about making a difference, like there is a purpose to be a photojournalist.

Fortunately or unfortunately, many Asian photographers still believe that pictures can change things. In this area, I see lots of good work coming out of Indonesia, Philippines, India, and Singapore. I believe many of these photographers can walk into top-notch newspapers in USA and land a staff job. There are several reasons. Photographers get to see a lot more photojournalistic work and also, recent events in Asia also brought many famous photojournalists to this region. My criticism is that most Asian photographers are still event-driven and not issue-driven.

When James Nachtwey came to Indonesia to cover the fall of the government, he didn’t stop at just shooting the demonstrations, the confrontation, or the leader’s last days in office. More importantly, he examined issues that led to the president’s fall. One of his stories was about how the poor really lived. But in all fairness, even if an Indonesian photographer had pictures of the families living along the railway track, he would have a hard time getting news organizations to use those pictures. Like it or not, someone like Nachtwey has influences over what get published. To me, I am glad that Nachtwey’s essay was published and the family received help. But I will be even happier when Asian photographers too can have that kind of impact.

In my opinion, some Asian photographers are working in the right direction and will achieve that eventually. In Indonesia, I see a very good thing in agencies such as Jiwafoto. I track its progress closely and I see a genuine effort in pushing lesser known photographers and topics to the mainstream. I am happy every time I see Kemal Jufri’s byline in Time Magazine because obviously, he has established himself as a good photographer who covers his territory well. I spent quite a bit of time in Indonesia in the past two years and I have to tell you it is much more satisfying and fun to give a talk in Jakarta than in my hometown. I always get a sense that Indonesian photographers are genuinely interested to listen and to share. Last year, I did a talk at Oktagon, the crowd, though not large, encouraged me enthusiastically and made me work like a horse. Instead of feeling tired, I felt recharged. There is a lot of hunger for information and interaction – two important things to move things forward.

The interview first appeared in Forumkamera, a popular Indonesian online photography forum.