How my photographic journey began – a short autobiography, part one

Untitled-1 copy
You’d think that after 13 years of this I’d have mastered the art of camwhoring for decent self-portrait, but no. At least the collage shows two things: firstly, a relative progression of personal style over the years, secondly, that file sizes have continued to balloon…all of these are at the correct relative size to each other. Also, that I’ve gone through a hell of a lot of gear. You might even spot a Canon in there if you look closely enough.

Today’s topic is a rather personal one, but something which has been asked with remarkable frequency: how did I get into photography in the first place? I’ve been shooting seriously for the better part of thirteen years; taking commercial assignments on and off since 2005, and full-time pro for the fourth time since the beginning of last year (2012).

As you all know, I wasn’t a photographer or even an artist by training or education; with the exception of one painter, my family is a complete artistic desert – traditional Chinese families tend to be full of doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and if you can’t do any of those, then self-employed businessmen. And that’s pretty much where I come from; I make no pretences about having a long photographic lineage or even having decades of experience – I don’t think that’s necessary; this is one of the few professions where your work speaks for itself.

We’ll start from the beginning: my tertiary qualifications are in physics/ cosmology; I attended Oxford quite young, graduated at 16, and found myself in an employment environment in the UK that wasn’t quite so hot after the post-dot.com crash, and certainly not at all hot for non-locals and oddball wildcards. The simple reality is that no matter how smart you might be, what degree you hold, or how well you do at interview, most employers are completely unwilling to take the risk on hiring a 16 year old for a professional corporate position. I was told repeatedly that everything was great, but I was simply too young*. In the end, I landed up not taking the (supposedly) glamorous investment banking career that my peers got into, but accepting the only offer that came: audit.

*Who knows, it might have had something to do with child labor laws. Clearly auditors have no such qualms, since I rarely did anything less than a 70-hour week.

For anybody with a creative bone in their body, this is not far off the equivalent of being sentenced to solitary. Your colleagues are there because they too couldn’t get more interesting or higher paying jobs elsewhere for whatever reason, or they’re simply as dull as ditchwater. I had both in my intake; the more interesting ones left after a few months after realising how grave an error they’d made. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I had no choice to persevere. But at the same time, I needed an outlet. I used to doodle endlessly, make half-baked ideas and designs and generally explore the creative side of things. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time in big chunks anymore – between silly working hours and the necessity of studying for the charted accountancy exams – mostly rote learning of incredibly dry material – I had to find something that could still satisfy piecemeal.

Photography was something I’d always had more than a passing interest in; however, when younger, film provisioning and developing was the preserve of my parents. I remember going on more than one trip where I was assigned to carry the camera – what my brother and I dreaded because of the weight (a small Minolta SLR), if only we’d known – and then coming back and getting told off because I’d wasted film on photos without people in them! At such time as I’d had enough of my own allowance to buy my own camera and pay for my own film, comparatively, I went crazy; a whole roll a month, sometimes! Unfortunately, I made the decision to go with APS-C because of the seductively small cameras, not knowing any better at the time.

I made the same mistake again in my last year of university; I went digital with a Sony U20 simply because it was the smallest camera that had autofocus and an LCD – all 1″ of it. But, I did experiment a lot, shoot a lot of images, and generally enjoy the process. Cue forward a few months to the start of work, and the onset of chronic boredom: I needed a bigger fix. Doing research online made me realize two things: I needed more camera, and I was missing out on a lot of photographic control. I made a slightly less bad decision on the next camera thanks to DPR – a Fuji S5000; though I had it for all of two months before realizing that a) the sensor was rubbish, and b) a 10x zoom is rather pointless. I even bought all of the overpriced ‘system’ accessories that the chain stores were pushing (so there really are people who fall for that kind of thing; I was one of them).

My neighbor in London at the time was a well-known illustrator and keen photographer himself; it was due to his influence and generous offer of lens loans that saw me spend most of my savings on a D70 a few months later. With that came liberation, of sorts: this was more camera than I knew how to handle, and it was responsive in a way that nothing else had been, whilst still being relatively easy to use, and able to deliver great results under very low light conditions. I photographed a lot during those days; probably more than I have since unless on assignment. I’d shoot on the way to work; go out at lunch; and again on the way home. A thousand frames a day was pretty normal for me. And yes, I took plenty of photos without people in them.

At this point, my interest in watches was also developing in parallel; however, being a poor impoverished auditor, all I could do was collect knowledge and participate in various internet fora; the kind and generous people whom I’d met – most of whom I’m still in touch with today – would invite me to attend their events and fondle the watches I couldn’t afford. One of them had a lot of gear dedicated solely to macrophotography of watches; I thought it silly at first, but later realized it made a lot of sense: not only could I shoot what you’re interested in, but I’d also get a chance to appreciate the pieces afterwards through the images. I made and collected photographs of the watches I couldn’t afford; these were the beginnings of my experiments in watch photography, and my experimentation and development of off-camera flash and other lighting techniques. Needless to say, more gear followed. But in hindsight, this was a turning point for me, too: firstly, you have to shoot subjects you’re passionate about; since you understand what you’re photographing, you’ll also be able to find a unique angle or point of view to capture the essence of the subject.

The next big shift in my photography came in mid-2004; I went on my first dedicated photographic trip – to Venice. On my own and armed with a camera, I planned to roam the streets from dawn to dusk shooting everything and anything. Unfortuantely, that dream was aborted: during a transfer at Schipol, somebody ran into me and knocked the camera off my shoulder; it flew, fell, and bounced. The person ran off to their flight and I was left too shocked to do anything. Fortunately, other than a small hairline crack in the plastic housing, the D70 appeared to be fine. I’d later discover that something internal was seriously out of alignment; looking back now at those images, I see astigmatism in the lens and consistent focus errors – probably due to a dislodged AF array or submirror. Not knowing any better, I just continued on at the time. That trip made me realize two things: firstly, the importance of a backup, and secondly, planning: after day three of seven (in hindsight, too long), I ran out of ideas and started counting the hours til I could leave.

Continued in part two.

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Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Reblogged this on JPMuralla's Blog.

  2. Gosh I know what you mean by being born in a non-artistic family. I often wonder how different my life would be if I was allowed to develop my classical piano training more completely and professionally and not just limited to being a hobby. Your story is fascinating, and I’m off to read Part II now.

  3. Out of curiosity, how did you get into Oxford at age 13? I mean, did you sit for A-levels early, sit for some special exams for the gifted, interview with the admissions officer etc? Just wondered what’s it like to be that smart at a young age. Thanks for sharing your story and I can’t wait for the next part of it.

    • I was a troublemaker at school. And the solution was to give me more and more work…but common sense prevailed when I landed up in a class of twelve year olds at age 6; things went linearly from there, which meant I finished school at 12. And then on to the next thing…

  4. Fascinating story, Ming! I come from an Asian/scientific/technical background, too. I’ve always been able to take a ‘technically correct’ photo but only recently have I tried to make strides in improving my dormant, non-existent artistic side :) Did you ever struggle with that?

    • Yes. The trick is not to think about it so much; practice the technical until it becomes intuitive, then just shoot in a stream of consciousness fashion. Overthinking before you start really ‘seeing’ will result in bland images. Photography is very much psychological; a scene has to grab you at a more subconscious level first before you try to immortalise it.

  5. Perhaps I should have added that I was in Guatemala once when two young ladies asked me to take there photograph with one of their cameras. A common event. As I intermingled my camera straps with hers, one of them fell to the ground, extended lens first. It was not mine. The lens was bent and jammed shut forever. A nice P&S camera. I apologized; she was embarrassed and not too happy. For 10 minutes I thought about the ethics of the situation, not to mention her trip with no camera. I spotted them again and went over and gave her a $100 bill, something I only carry when I have emergency cash from a business travel advance. I still wonder about the incident once in a while. How many people would do the same? If not that, what? Run off to catch a plane, doesn’t sound very good to me. If I had been a poor student (aren’t they all?), then what would I have done. Since then, I never mess with anyone else’s camera without putting the strap around my neck first.

    • This is MT’s thread to shine in, but Larry, I’m interested in your lifestory, too. The Panama reference I remember you told us a couple of times now, and it is *mindboggling* the delta in what you get for your money for those two cameras [I'm not sure which camera is which there, though!], anyway—the Panama reference, you mentioned it was the 70s… I just have this James Woods in SALVADOR image of you :)

      Now you mention Guatemala, and I can’t resist—what took you to these places Larry?

    • I solve that problem now by a) never letting anybody handle my camera and b) having more than one. My photos are a record of my being there, I don’t need to see my ugly mug too…

  6. I hope that first experience in Venice didn’t discourage you from going back with better cameras. I’d like to see your photos of Venice someday. It’s the photogenic city for color photography and yet I came across a teNeues book of photography of Venice all in black and white by Piero Codato & Massimo Venchierutti. How could anyone photograph Venice in b&w? It’s better than any book in color that I’ve come across so far. It sold me on b&w photography. It would be interesting to hear your opinion on photographing Venice in color versus black and white, and better yet to see how you would do either one and with what cameras. Your story is off to a great start and we await the next installment, with more photos of course.

    • At some point…but not anytime soon. There are plenty of other places I’d like to visit first.

      If there’s too much color, B&W can help to remove distractions from the fundamental structure of the image.

  7. Wait?!! You graduated from Oxford at 16? :-O Are you some kind of prodigy kid? BTW, Mensa rejected me, too.

    • Nice history Ming. When I was at a high-falutin’ science school, one of my entering classmates was a 12-year old kid from Malaysia who studied physics. He wasn’t Ming though :).

      Places like Oxford attract the very brightest kids around, so while a 12-year old is unusual, there are plenty of 16-year old first year students in places like that. It definitely puts life in perspective in a hurry, especially when you’re one of the scrum of 18-year olds who were the hotshots in high school.

      • There were a couple of other 16 year olds when I was there; they were certainly better adjusted than I was. According to the dean of my college (who’s also the historian), I’m supposedly the youngest person ever to enter in the college’s 800+ year history! and the youngest to graduate. Not that it means anything in real life other than you become a sideshow and curiosity…and have a whole different pile of challenges to deal with.

    • No, I’m an old cynical 20-something now.

  8. im already looking forward to next installment. .. thanks for sharing. I also rarely have people in my photos : )

  9. Applauding you for three things…
    One: For taking the opportunity of finding a creative outlet (photography) regardless of educational credentials
    Two: Finding people to network with to increase your creative outlet in photography
    Three: Last but not least, defeating stereotypes! and making use of your passion in photography.

    Good luck!!

  10. “Fora”: excellent. I am reassured there is one other person in the world who says “fora.” Do people look at you funny too? :-)

  11. So: you’re a genius. And I a mere mortal . . .

  12. College grad at 16, exceptional. Are you in Mensa or 999?

  13. Jorge Balarin says:

    Dear Ming, thank you very much for your interesting story. Greetings.

  14. Dear Mr.Thein,

    Thank you so much for sharing your life story with us with all your sincerity, which I appreciate a lot.
    I always enjoyed and appreciated your rzor-like sharp intelligence which are clearly reflected with the same sharpness on your images.
    I actually had always suspicion that you might have studied quantum physics somehow, I don’t know why. It seems that my hunch was right. I enjoy your every piece of article and your every photo. You are a great value to human race and I feel that your photos can act not only at the mind level but also at the heart level too. And thanks to this feature of your photos that the message of unconditional love, peace and harmony could spread out to world. Namely with your work you are doing more service to the world more than your intelligent mind knows.

    I wish you success for your every endeavour.

    Best Wishes,
    Utku Oguz,
    Istanbul-TURKEY

    http://utku.smugmug.com/

  15. May I ask what your favorite watch is today? Why? Thank you!

  16. Great to hear about your formative years as a photographer and see your history of self-portraits.

  17. amazing portraits :) love those black and whites well done :p

  18. Oh yes, the more one loves a subject the better are his photographs. The reason so much images to be found on social media are boring? There’s no attempt in them to exalt and magnify the subjects, they only show them. Have you seen what I’ve seen. Mmm… And?

    Please my dear photographer make me falling in love with those images, I love being exalted!

    Exalting the subject? Magnifying it? This is IMHO the _only_ reason for technological skills and advances in photography. To remember, Adams wrote that we don’t take photographs, we make them.

    By the way we are with reading in the same configuration as with looking at images. It’s not the technical gobbledegook but the global impression and style which impresses: the “what”. Only after that we look at the “how”. I’m delighted with both here. So I would add as a silly-oldy sentencer that I consider you as a talented writer. :-) I also know that such a sort of writings are liberating if not cathartic and overall teaching. So please carry on for our (undoubtedly including the writer) pleasure and thanks for it.

  19. subroto mukerji says:

    Really enjoyed it, Ming. I keenly await the next episode. Your biography is very encouraging for others, most of whom have had similar small (and difficult) beginnings. It is the journey to greatness and self-discovery (despite initial ignorance and hardships) that inspires lesser individuals, and your account is sure to become a best-seller. Wish you even greater success and happiness in the future.

    • I can’t decide if it’s encouraging, foolish or discouraging – make of it what you will, I suppose :)

      I’m definitely not sure about the greatness or best seller part though – it seems rather pretentious to assume people care about the person and not the work – certainly in the commercial photography world nobody seems to give two hoots so long as you get the job done for the right price…

  20. A wonderful history there Ming and lots of challenges to overcome. I found it a very interesting and insightful read.
    My own early camera problems in Italy were self-induced. On my first foreign trip with school at 15, I had borrowed my Dad’s 35mm camera (Halina?). Like a complete idiot I tried advancing the film after each shot by one small graduated mark on the winder, not by winding until it stopped. Many problems resulted of course and like your camera failure, there was no backup solution to my ignorance.

    • I suppose it might be an interesting exercise now – you put all of your images from a trip onto a single frame…but I can imagine it being extremely disappointing back then!

      • I’ve begun doing that exact thing to help me focus my images and produce something reminiscent of a photo essay. I took inspiration from all those crazy spy and criminal shows. They cut newspaper clippings and put them all over the wall. Use string to connect the dots. Etc.
        I use a large cork board. Get a bunch of cheap prints. Then go at it at the cork board. Great fun. And I find much more rewarding than staring at Lightroom.

  21. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Just a thought…
    I have always wondered about the story of van Gogh cutting his ear.
    Can it have been in frustration while working at self-portraits… ?

  22. Fun Read Ming! Thanks for sharing! Best Wishes – Eric

  23. Kristian Wannebo says:

    I believe self-portraits are hard to make – at least judging by what I have seen from painters.
    At best they are revealing both the artist and his way of looking at himself, and that is rare.

    A painter (a relative in Budapest) did a sketch of me when I was about 25, I didn’t have to sit still and we conversed. It was very revealing, he saw things in me I didn’t even know myself, and he had known me only a few days.

    I do like the idea of the photographer aiming a snapshot without abandoning his cigar, while the world (in the background) leans over and threatens to tumble.

    • Very. Because they require self-awareness: and that’s the difficult bit. How can you objectively view yourself, or at least in a way sufficient to capture your own essence in a photo? I certainly can’t, hence the schizophrenic result here.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        If you paint from memory self awareness might be sufficient.
        If you use a mirror or are photographing you have the added problem of expressing yourself simultaneusly as being aware of it – which is really hard, and one of the reasons why an actor (or any artist on the stage) needs a director.

        • Self-awareness is a tough thing to have. One of the things I do with portraiture workshops is get the photographers to be both model and director so they have some sense of self-awareness…

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Yes.
            When I read about any really good portrait photographer, it strikes me that a great social skill is his/her primary asset.
            ( Which is why the few usable portrait photos I have made are occasional snapshots of close relatives and friends. And I look screwed up unless I’m unaware of the camera. )

  24. I remember going on more than one trip where I was assigned to carry the camera…

    My neighbor in London… photographer himself; it was due to his influence and generous offer of lens loans…

    the kind and generous people whom I’d met… One of them had a lot of gear dedicated solely to macrophotography of watches…

    I needed an outlet…[to] generally explore the creative side of things…

    How much was nature, how much was nurture? Doesn’t matter, does it—we’d all rather look at your pictures and enjoy them, instead engage in dry talk about these things. But those people in your life — even as you point out: the guy who bumped into you at the airport — are the wondrous part of the story. Of everyone’s story. When biography and lore and talk of what came to pass roll around, I always remember a line of David Geffen’s I clipped, him talking about his very storied life:

    It’s not about the ones who say no, but about the ones who say yes. Your life isn’t made up of people who aren’t in it.”

    • I’m guessing a bit of both. If you have the nature but not the encouragement, it’s a dead end. And vice versa: no amount of teaching is going to make you want to do stupid things like give up your job to be a photographer.

  25. Want to master the art of self-portraits? Look no further than all the selfies on Instagram! =D

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