16 years ago…

16 years ago, I spent my time searching for beautiful places to photograph.
Now, I spend my time discovering beauty in people.

16 years ago, I called myself a photographer.
Now… does ‘human’ qualify as a job?

16 years ago, I believed in being the best.
Now, I believe in joy.

16 years ago, I believed in finding my passion.
Now, I know life is a journey, and passion is nothing but an attitude.

16 years ago, I was 30.
Now, I feel like 20.

16 years ago, the more I run, the fitter I get.
Now, the more I run, the fatter I get.

16 years ago, I was happiest when my work was known.
Now, I am happiest when people laugh with me.

16 years ago, I’d feel hurt when people say I shouldn’t photograph nudes, because I’m a guy.
Now, it still hurts.

16 years ago, I woke up to the morning sun, and dread the day ahead.
Now, I wake up to the dawn, and paint the wondrous hues of nature.

16 years ago, I go everywhere with a camera and a bag full of lenses.
Now, I go everywhere with an open heart.

16 years ago, I dream of living in the mountains among the trees.
Now, I still dream of living in the mountains among the trees.

16 years ago, I found a new career.
Now, I’ve found myself.


Retirement plan

I picture myself in old age,

listening to the stories of strangers who will become friends, 

finding light within darkness, grace among the ordinary,

and expressing life with the most beautiful words and paintings humanly possible.


What stories do we tell our children?

Little May, just 7 months old, sat in the middle of the big big bed, looking at me with curious eyes. I sat by the bedside, and held her tiny hand gently in mine. They felt so tender, fragile. I could feel her fingers move a little.

I gave her a baby handshake. She stared at me. I shook her hand a little harder – she offered what looked like a sly grin. I shook it again, and again, and again… harder each time… until her cheeks wobbled like jelly in a mini-earthquake. She chirped, giggled, and gave me a giant, toothless smile.

Tumbling backwards on the fluffy bed, Little May laughed and squealed with innocent delight. Mummy joined in, then Papa, cuddling her, kissing her, laughing. Everyone was so happy, it became quite noisy. At one point, I stopped myself in quiet embarrassment, when I realised the loudest laughter came from me.

No posing. No cheese. No counting to 3.

~.~

“Shall I wait outside while you change?”, I asked Mummy.

“No need!” came her quick reply.

Little May looked at Mummy while she undressed, and murmured impatiently. She knew it was time to fill her little tummy.

While Mummy relaxed herself on bed, Little May climbed onto her, and helped herself to an Oreo*. The baby murmured and groaned in pleasure, and playfully pulled at the nipple with little gummy bites.

Mummy smiled, and wrapped her protective arms around her. When Little May had enough, she bobbed her head from side to side, nipple still in her mouth. She tugged at it again, but this time she pulled it so hard and so long, it looked like the nipple will come off with a rubbery pop.

“Ouch!!”, Mummy yelped. Little May propped her shoulders on her lotus arms, and chuckled.

For two hours, Little May spoke to her parents in a little voice that sounds like tiny birds in a nest, like a newborn kitten in a cotton-laden shoebox. I can still hear it now, as I write. A tiny violin playing in my ears. There was no crying, no sadness, and no complaints. Just a loving family in their own world, on their own little island, talking, laughing, holding each other, touching.

As Papa placed the baby on his chest, and pulled her close in a loving embrace, Mummy leaned on his shoulder. Little May whimpered, ever so softly, and touched their faces with her tiny hands.

I struggled to hold back tears.

~.~

I looked at their portraits every night, long after the shoot was over. They’re not my own family. Not even distant relatives. But every time, I was moved to a heartache. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m really a woman. But I do know I love people, and I love Little May and her family very, very much.

~.~

In this mad, rushing world, few consider photography as an emotional experience. This is normal – I know this, it’s been 16 years. But if we harden our hearts, if we treat people like cash-spitting mannequins, if portraiture is nothing but an empty pose, what, then, will be our legacy? What good are the values we pass on? What stories do we tell our children?

Little May’s story may not be extraordinary, but it is a story I will tell my kids, over and over. A story about simple love, real happiness, and an ordinary man, blessed with a life well lived.


* During my time with breast cancer survivors, I learned that some of them – after mastectomy – had the shape of their breasts surgically enhanced, but not all of these “new breasts” come with nipples. Fake nipples, which they mischievously called “Oreos”, are totally optional (I haven’t seen any of their Oreos, but they could have chosen another biscuit with more matching colours…).


What happens when you’re born with a dream


There was a time when my mum would tower over me like a huge, black shadow, cane in one hand, my poor exam results in the other. Her eyes burnt with a fire that was both fierce and amusing.

“You know how to eat??!!”
“Yes.”
“You know how to eat, why you dunno how to study??!!”

“Why??!!” – Whip!

“Why… WHY??!!” – WHIP! WHIP! WHIP!!!

40 years later, long after the purple stripes on my butt had faded, I still don’t know what eating’s got to do with studies.

Then again, I didn’t know much about anything. They called me “blur”, because I loved to dream. But I also loved to draw.

It wasn’t just drawing, though, like most kids do. It was an obsession.

I drew so much, the knuckles on my right fingers swelled and hardened. I used to peel at them, and sometimes they’d come off in full, flat circles of skin, like little coins.

Maybe my mum understood. Even though she could wield the cane like a pugilistic swordsman, she didn’t cane me for my indulgence. Instead, she sent me for art classes. We were poor, but it didn’t matter.  If only I had a little more sense in my pea-brain, I wouldn’t have used up the precious stack of paper my dad needed for his mathematics students.

When I was 10, I entered my school’s art competition with a drawing of a magnificent bald eagle, perched on a bare, leafless tree, fearsome claws grasping a hapless prey, majestic wings stretched into a clear blue sky. I came in second, and my mum pulled me back to school to confront the teacher, demanding why that kiddy-looking crayon piece won the grand prize ahead of me.

She never confronted my teachers when I came in second in class, or fourth (though she caned me). She had never confronted anyone in school, until then. I didn’t understand, but now I know how much she loves me.

Still, it was all about knowing how to eat.

“You’re so good in drawing!”, everyone said. “You should be an architect.”

Should.

Because architects make money. Architects have real jobs. Artists don’t.

Stop dreaming. Get real. Learn how to eat.

Years passed. I did what I should. Got a degree (computer science – better than “architect”). Got a real job. Good pay. Future looks steady. Everything was smooth like a baby’s cheeks.

I forgot my passion. I forgot the freedom I felt with a pen in hand.

Until the day I became a photographer. For the first time in life, I experienced the bitter taste of failure.

You can say I was driven by passion. The truth is, my most passionate decisions were also my scariest. They were also my loneliest.

When I started nude photography, nobody thought I could make it.

When I gave all my money and time to the needy, people said I was stupid.

When I poured my heart and my feelings into portraiture… well, it didn’t matter – the same results could be achieved with tricks to make people laugh.

Every major step I made came with immediate, heartbreaking failure. I remembered once, during a fund-raising effort, when my once-resolute believe totally broke down, and I hid in a corner to cry. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure how long I would last.

In my darkest hours, I drew. With pen, charcoal, oils, anything I could find, anything I could learn. I drew with no promise and no intention to share with anyone. I just drew, like I’ve always done as a kid.

~.~

It’s been 16 years. I now have hundreds of clients in nude photography, and an incredible portfolio many photographers dream of. Because of my love for people beyond paying clients, my fans have multiplied. And the ones who believe in real feelings? Lifelong friends who continue to support my career, both financially and emotionally.

Not many photographers last 16 years, let alone survive in a niche like mine. My career so far can only be considered an incredible success. Still, there’s something I must do, something I have to continue since I was a little boy with swollen knuckles.

I want to be an artist. Not just any other artist. A successful one.

An artist who sells art to collectors, puts food on the table, and brings joy to people around the world. An artist who lives a life of his dreams with grit, passion, and real emotion.

This is my scariest decision yet, for there is no roadmap for artists, no blueprint for success. Others will say, “get real”. But what I really need is courage, support, and love. The way my mum stood up for me. The way many of you stood by me all these years.

The road is long. Will you walk with me?


Loneliness, anger, and grass

“Hey, look, I just painted this…”

My two little kids looked at the picture on my phone. It was of a painting I just completed.

Girl: “It’s just grass.”

I laughed.

Boy: “I’ll buy it.”
Me: “Cool. How much will you pay?”
Boy: “$100.”
Me: “Holy-moly! That’s a shit-load of money!”
Boy: “Yep! I like it.”
Me: “What do you like about it?”
Boy: “I don’t know. Maybe the colour.”
Girl: “I buy your grass for $50.”
Me: “Hahaha… But I’m not painting grass.”
Boy: “Then what are you painting?”
Me: “A feeling.”

I wondered if I should give it a shot.

Me: “Ok, how do you paint sadness?”
Both: [blank look]
Me: “You can’t paint sadness, because it’s not something you can see. But you use something to show the sadness.”

I continued.

“Like, you can’t paint the wind. But you can paint flying leaves to show the wind.”
Boy: “So what were you painting?”
Me: “Well… I was feeling kinda lonely. So I painted a big piece of land.”
Boy: “I don’t see anything.”
Me: “Exactly. When you’re lonely and sad, it feels like there’s nothing around you.”
Girl: “How do you paint ‘Angry’?”
Me: “Angry? Hmm…”

I showed a monster face, and roared.

Boy: “Fire!”
Me: “Yes! Burning trees! Lots and lots of burning trees!”
Boy: “Haha! RAGE!”
Me: “Crushed buildings!”
Girl: “Awesome!!”
Boy: “Like war!!! Fighting and killing!!!”
Girl: “Bombs!!!”
Boy: “Fire-breathing dragon!”
Girl: “I bomb your dragon!!!”

We laughed out loud. The streets were empty, but the wind was cool, and the sun was shining.

Me: “Guys, I kinda forgot what Angry feels like.”


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