A letter to my readers – 15 years on

After my last letter to you, I received an overwhelming stream of responses. They came from everywhere – old clients, new friends, people I couldn’t remember, people I’ve never met.

Words of encouragement, lifting me like a soft embrace…

Yet, there were many who left, people heading for the exits. Like the last time I walked out of a movie – some campy romance with a hairy guy flashing his chest and six-pack every 10 minutes…

You just can’t make everyone happy.

I once wished for life to be perfect, like weddings, like the pictures I used to make.  But the real journey isn’t all that swank.  It doesn’t mean happy pictures are meaningless.  But living a full and happy life also means shining a light on those dark, forbidden corners, for real beauty happens in the most unexpected places.

I wrote this reply to a kind lady, and now I write the same to you, in deep gratitude:

One of the most beautiful gifts in my job is to have people like yourself walking beside me, growing with me, guiding me. It’s a reward that money can never buy.


Quiet Weddings

10 years ago, I distanced myself from wedding photography.

I wanted to express feelings, but people were distracted by looks.

“Which place is nicer for photoshoot?”
“What dress should I wear?”
“Should I do this pose?”
“When should I smile?”

To every such question, I want to say, it doesn’t matter! You are not defined by how you look on the outside. But I can’t reply like this. Most people don’t get it. Even photographers.

It seems, to gain mass appeal, it is necessary to first attract people with looks. Stunning places. Pretty faces. Or, just find a way to look different.

I felt left out and alone.

That was 10 years ago. Is it any different now?

Yesterday, in a little workshop for couples getting married, I tried to talk about feelings that make a photograph timeless.

Silly me.

Here, with me, were young, beautiful people living a dream, right now! Who am I to talk about “timeless”? About reality? About emotions they have yet to experience? Who am I to say a beautiful, honest portrait is more meaningful than a glorious shot of them in a dream location?

It was dumb of me to talk about the intrinsic value of a portrait. It’s like telling your kids that eating ice-cream every day gives them diabetes.

10 years on, nothing seemed to have changed with wedding photography. In fact, I feel even more distanced now. But in a weirdly positive way, I realised how much I have matured as an artist and a person.

Time away from weddings have brought me to a quieter place, rich with a very different people. People who’ve experienced life beyond the romantic dream, a life of reality, of real joy, sadness, loss, and love. People holding on to memories that are fading as fast as their wrinkles are deepening.

People who once held their portraits in their hands and said to me, “I have never, ever felt so beautiful.”

While I once felt angst and loneliness, now I feel an urge to develop a good voice. Surely, there must be people who’ll listen, even if it’s a small audience, even if I have to speak in the noisy wedding market.

I just need to say it better.


How to photograph air

To photograph a woman, you must have something to say about her.  Something beautiful.

Some things, however, are beyond photography.

I have wonderful things to say about this lady.  Her sensuous silhouette… her breathtaking gaze, both alluring and intense… her smile, bright and cheerful like the morning sun.

But there are things that cannot be seen.  Things about her that lingered, long after she left.

Amidst the laughter and fun, a feeling of calm and assurance about her.  A sense of self-respect.  An air of acceptance, a certain confidence.

How do you photograph confidence?

How can we capture the invisible, a feeling?

It’s like trying to photograph air.

I had in my hands one of the most sophisticated and technologically-advanced inventions in the history of photography.  Yet, I couldn’t capture something as basic and intrinsic as human elegance.

The best I could do was to give her an experience to remember, with the little time given to us.


Being humbled by beauty

There was a time when I wondered if I had thrown away my future.

Why be a photographer?  I have certificates from the top schools in a top country.  I was enjoying a very successful career.   Why change when the future was bright?

Then, 18 beautiful women walked into my studio.  18 happy, babbling ladies who crashed the roof with laughter.  18 cancer survivors who truly understands what it means to be alive.

These women taught me lessons that the best schools and richest careers never did.

Unless you’ve experienced the very real possibility that you may die tomorrow, you may never appreciate what it means to live every day as a gift.

Yesterday, again, these gorgeous crazies came knocking on the door.  Again, they crashed the roof.  Again, they made me cry with laughter.

Can they feel the beauty within them?  Can they see how wondrous the light they shine on everyone?

People tell me how envious they are of my profession.  I used to doubt them.  Now, I realise how fortunate I am to be humbled.


Perfect Harmony

On an old sofa, the blind man sat alone.

“No! Auntie is not home!” He turned his empty eye sockets towards me, and groped for his walking stick. Slowly, he lifted himself into a hunch, his rotting legs buckling under the hefty body weight. Then, he began the long, painful journey towards me, one quivering step at a time.

“No need to come to the door!” I pleaded repeatedly, but he continued. I felt myself sinking. All that separated us was a few steps and a rusty gate, and all I could do was stand and watch like a helpless fool.

When he finally reached the gate, he was panting. His legs were swollen, and pus was oozing from a recent wound.

“Sorry, I don’t have the keys.”

We exchanged a few pleasantries. I tried to sound happy, but he couldn’t see my smile.

I watched him as he made his long, return journey. Along the way, he lost his walking stick. He bent down, hands on the floor, and crawled his way back to the sofa.

Only a few months ago, I had photographed this man and his wife. They looked so happy. At the exhibition, people told me, “Your photos are so full of life!”.

Life?

This couple had already given up on life. Every time we visit them, the wife would laugh, but this wasn’t the laughter of happiness that people see. This was a laughter in resignation.

“Just let it be. If the legs rot, cut them off. We’re old and useless now. Day by day. Until we die.”

The blind man and his wife live within the idealised system of working for the country, getting married, buying a government flat, having children, funding their education, having three generations under one roof. They are the perfect Singaporean model of intergenerational harmony.

If only life were as beautiful as our gorgeous-looking system.

They have a home, but they find no peace. They see their children and grandchildren everyday, but they find no joy. Years of bitter differences tore them apart. The family still lives together, because that’s the most practical thing to do.

What good are policies if there is no heart?

A man in the dark doesn’t need money, doctors, or cold, hard incentives. He needs a light, and a voice that understands.

Elaine and I visit them often. We couldn’t solve their problems, but we listened. So much anger suppressed, so much sadness within. Ultimately, we are nobodies who care, but what we offered was strangely missing from all the help and incentives they could get.

For more than a decade, I photographed people who already felt beautiful. Now, I dedicate my work to finding beauty among the lonely, the poor, and the ostracised.

I shorn a light for a lonely man, and in the darkness, I found my way.


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