The hunchback of Kuala Lumpur has a Hasselblad.
Continued from part one.
My return to London immediately after that trip saw me a) dispose of the D70 and purchase a supposedly more robust D2H – in reality, I just liked the way it felt in my hands – and also begin to seriously explore Photoshop and Wacom tablets; by the time my D2H arrived in the mail, I’d decided I’d only shoot raw and focus on extracting as much detail as possible out of those relatively small files. That camera was not a forgiving one: get everything right, and it rewarded you with images beyond what you’d expect for the pixel count; get it wrong and you can pretty much junk the file. It taught me shot discipline and the importance of getting as much right in-camera as possible; these traits have continued to serve me well today. Unfortunately, the camera met a watery end after shooting in a tropical downpour in Kuala Lumpur two years later in 2006; I opened the battery compartment indoors and failed to consider condensation. A zapping sound and puff of smoke later, and I’d pretty much toasted the internals. By that point though, I’d shot enough frames – heading towards a quarter million on its second shutter – and jobs with that camera that it’d a) paid for itself several times over, and b) made me learn more about photography than anything else since.
It was some time in early 2005, during gardening leave between changing from audit to consulting (I’d finally reached the limits of my endurance) and moving back to Malaysia that I considered photography seriously as a career; despite it being clear even then that the bottom was going to fall out of the industry. Cold-calling agents and clients to present a portfolio got me nowhere, so I abandoned that idea and went back to corporate. Two weeks after I started in the new job, I got a call from one of the watch companies asking if I wanted to do a shoot for them; I was thoroughly torn because it could be the break I wanted, but the sensible part of me forced me to decline since it’d mean having to either get a week of leave (impossible since I just joined) or resign (not prudent, given that this job might have been a one off). Seven years later, in 2012, I finally got them back as a client – that was Jaeger Le-Coultre.
After many more years in various corporate positions and across a range of industries – including private equity and finance, which I’d initially wanted to go into after university – it became increasingly clear to me that this was not the place for me. I could survive here, and do reasonably well providing I played the internal politics and continued to deliver just a bit better than the next guy – but I’d never be happy, and I’d always have to live with the niggling ‘what if?’ question in the back of my mind. 2007 and 2009 saw me try to turn pro again; and each time, I though I’d fixed what didn’t work previously, only to find that I was way off the mark. People don’t like generalists; agents aren’t taking on any more photographers; companies don’t always want to deal with you directly, or even see you if you don’t have an introduction or know somebody in there; and finally, there was no money in photojournalism in 2009, and there’s even less of it today – just look at the major layoffs in the US newspapers.
Come 2012, I had to make a decision, and soon. Either I’d stay in corporate and follow the career path all the way to the MD’s office – at that point I was only a couple of promotions away and being groomed for it – or abandon that life once and for all, taking any and all associated risks. For a few more months, I tried. I really did. But I just couldn’t do it; we are all individuals, and what society tells you to do and gives you kudos for isn’t always what is right for you. It certainly wasn’t in this case. A few signals happened at the end of 2011 that suggested now might be the time – an invitation to join Getty; a couple of planned collaborations with Leica; the aforementioned commission from JLC. After a lot of sleepless nights, and the support of my wife, I decided to give it one final go – and the rest is history.
What I focus on these days is trying to balance business development with creative development; if I don’t have any of the latter, my shelf life as a photographer immediately shortens. There’s no way any client will continue to use you for years if you produce the same images – especially in today’s increasingly demanding content-consuming environment. The tough part is the balance bit: if you don’t take all the jobs you should, there’s a risk of famine later and no work; if you do, you risk burnout and overloading yourself to the point you might not be able to do the job to the best your ability. At times, it feels like walking a tightrope; July was an insane month for me; I was on assignment pretty much every day back to back. I can’t complain because it was also my best month ever; however, there’s simply no way I could sustain that every month – I’d die of burnout in a year. Very much feed the bear* again.
*You are locked in a room with a hungry polar bear and some food, which has to sustain both of you. You don’t know when the door will open, if ever. If you feed the bear, you’ll go hungry, but at least he won’t eat you in the immediate future. However, he will be bigger and stronger and you’ll be weaker, so if the door doesn’t open soon, you’ll get eaten. If you don’t feed the bear, he’ll eat you. The door might open before you run out of food or he gets hungry enough to eat you, or it might not. I’m sure the philosophers in the audience will love this one: think of it as Schrodinger’s Cat but with you inside the box.
You might think I resent my corporate career at this point; granted, I did waste the better part of eleven years doing something I hated when I could have been advancing my photographic career instead, but I think at no point along the way then was I ready: most of what I’ve picked up along the way has been at least tangentially useful. Audit/ accountancy might have been boring, but at least I can handle my own finances, and unlike most small businesses, I’m hyper-aware of the importance of cashflow – so far, it’s served me well. Consulting and finance gave me a few important contacts – one of whom is a key business partner, the other of whom is now my wife. And beyond that, the ability to deal professionally with very senior clients, who are often surprised that a photographer (viewed as little more than an uneducated contractor in this country) is not only professional but has the ability to provide services and insights well beyond photography. Quite often, photographic projects have lead to other consulting engagements – ranging from creative to design to strategic to financial. And I’m willing to bet that this is a rather odd skillset that few, if any, other photographers can match – in the current business environment, we really have to do everything we can to survive.
Of course, nobody is in this game purely for survival alone, unless they have no choice; I know I am here because I want to be, and because I think I can make it work for me – at least in the medium term. I don’t think I’m going to be a photographer forever; keeping up this level of creative output on all fronts is a challenge, both mentally and at times, physically; it’s also very much at odds with most of the paying assignments. But I’ll definitely be around for a few more years yet: there’s still a long, long list of things I haven’t tried, written about or photographed to my satisfaction yet! MT
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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