What has Giving got to do with Photography?

Early in my career, I was obsessed with the idea of achieving natural-looking expressions.  How do I get people to smile and laugh naturally?  How do some photographers get such amazingly relaxed and natural poses that don’t look like poses?

I scoured the internet and ate books for dinner; I studied and practiced harder than I ever did in more than a decade of formal education.  If you want to know the tips and tricks I learned, just do a web search and you’ll get the gist.

But here’s the thing – none of the stuff I learned worked for me.  I had photos that looked absolutely natural, but they didn’t feel natural to me.

Simply because they weren’t.

People weren’t smiling or laughing or posing naturally because they were feeling genuinely happy.  They were doing it because I wanted them to.  They had to do it because otherwise, their photos will suck.  Those smiles on their faces were not them at their most natural selves – they were simply results that I was trying to get from them.

One day, I was struck by a thought:
If I truly, truly enjoy my work, people will surely enjoy their time with me, too.

What happened after that were the most amazing sessions I’ve ever experienced, and I couldn’t find the words to explain them, until yesterday, propped on my pillow, wide awake at night.  What happened was this:

I stopped trying to get results, and started giving.

I gave my time to listen.

I gave my heart to feel.

I gave myself a chance to love people as they are.

Instead of gunning for the perfect expression, I gave, and opened my heart to the moments that came my way.

What I received in return weren’t simply smiles that looked natural, but an entire spectrum of real human emotions, from the craziest laughter, to the saddest tears.  Feelings that mere photographs can never faithfully express, friendships that lasted years after the sessions were done.

So this Christmas – and many, many seasons after – give, and open your heart like never before, for what you’ll receive will be beyond measure.

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.

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