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

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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

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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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Comments

  1. I’ve first delve into photography late 2010, using the D70s and a 35mm lens. Practice makes perfect and practice I did not. Several cameras later, both analog and digital, I’m still left wandering what’s the purpose of all this. There’s a lesson in your story and I’m aiming to get a hold of it.

  2. hello from Bangladesh. after completing this two parts’ read … i would just say “wow”.

    in fact, some parts of my photography’s start resembles with yours. Especially, i also started photography as a creative way to vent corporate bull***ts and bureaucracy . Started with a Nikon S8200 in last november, picked up a D5100 couple months later.
    lets see the future …

    thanks for ur nice writeups. your writeups on composition are unparallel.

    // khaled

  3. Really terrific read, Ming. Unvarnished and honest.

    I imagine it speaks to the tribulations of many, many creatives who have contemplated a life doing what they believe they would love to do for a career, but instead chose the more sound, practical path because it was the sensible or “safe” thing to do.

    It’s hard to know what the answer is. Ignore your passion, and risk suffocating your soul. On the other hand, I wonder how many creatives have left “sensible”, reasonably well-paid jobs to pursue their passion, only to go broke in the process. I’d love to see stats on that. It might cause a lot of folks who espouse the “never give up your dream” philosophy to reevaluate.

    As they say, “your mileage may very.”

    I know because I’ve been down this path. Not with photography, mind you, but as a screenwriter who, early in his career, pursued the Hollywood dream―writing and pitching for television. I spent the better part of a decade writing scripts for major series, being invited to pitch shows, constantly being complemented and invited back, in one case having my material pilfered by a major studio, yet pressing on … but ultimately not getting far enough along with it to make it a viable career.

    I sacrificed a lot.

    At some point, I had to step back and reevaluate. The process of chasing my dream eventually started to cause more misery than joy. The love of storytelling that had led me into it in the first place was quickly succumbing to bitterness and frustration. It was preventing me from choosing other paths.

    I finally relegated it to the back burner, took the transferable skills I’d learned, and moved in new directions.

    Sometimes it’s important to know when to move on. And, ironically, sometimes the very process of going in a new direction can cycle one back to the very thing they thought they’d given up on. Sometimes you have to leave something for a while, not clutch it so tightly, as it were, in order to get a better grasp of it. Sometimes IT comes back to YOU.

    Life’s funny that way.

    With regard to photography, I’ve been shooting for many years. And on occasion photography is tangentially related to my other vocational responsibilities. Would I drop those other vocational avenues to pursue photography as a full time pro? No. After my decade’s experience pursuing the Hollywood thing, I’ve had first-hand experience with “long shots.” Been there, done that.

    What I’ve chosen to do instead is add photography into the mix. Shoot paid gigs when time and opportunity permit. Build the skills set and the portfolio. Enjoy the process and let it go where it goes… If it takes on a bigger life of its own, so be it. But don’t expect it.

    Easy to say, perhaps, because working as a contractor in the general field of writing & content development for the communications/media/corporate worlds has enabled me to do that. Were I in finance or dentistry or law … or some other “traditional” career, I’d be too busy and too far removed from it. It would be next to impossible.

    Still, my best advice to anyone starting out to pursue a career that has reputedly long odds would be the same thing Harrison Ford said to aspiring actors: get yourself a trade or career that you know you can fall back on and make a decent living at, then pursue your dream in every scrap of your spare time.

    It might not have the “romanticism” of sacrificing everything for a dream, but at least you’ll be alive.

    • I doubt we’ll see any meaningful – or honest, even – data on failure rates. The lack of clarity over ‘failure’ is also another thing – if you really want to do it, you’ll never give up.

      Thanks for sharing your story; it seems that a workable compromise is a job that has some tangential relation to your passion; perhaps it’s even the best solution because it never means your passion becomes a chore. I’ll be the first to admit there are days I simply don’t feel like shooting because I’ve been doing uninspiring (but necessary) commissions etc. for weeks beforehand. These times are of course amply offset by the days where everything just comes together…those are simply magical.

      • Well, said.

        The real irony here is that I know of people who never gave up, and sacrificed everything to reach their dream career, only to realize it wasn’t what they thought/hoped it would be. Once again, disappointment and disillusionment ensued.

        I guess if we all had 2 or 3 times the lifespan we currently have, we might have time to properly explore a variety of things … and learn lessons that didn’t take a “lifetime.”

        • Ah yes. I admit freely that pro photography isn’t quite what I envisioned; it isn’t bad, just different. If only there were a way to try before you buy, so to speak.

          I’m not sure I’d want to live that long. That many do-overs can’t be too motivating, either.

          • Well, as Mr. Spock famously once said, “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

            I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers. In fact, the older I get, it seems the less I know.

  4. While reading these two pieces, I share many of your experiences in mine (though I myself am at a much earlier stage in photography). I’ve been working in the i-bank and private equity industries for almost 10 years now (and am now at the firm that owns Leica, btw). The job offered enough new things that kept me happy for 9 out of the 10 years but things quickly took a dip since last year when I desperately needed to accelerate my understanding and practicing of photography (24×7 doesn’t even seem enough). Though I’ve been shooting for fun on and off for the last few years, the new generation Nikon camera and the complements I got in shooting a friend’s wedding in 2012 and early this year, got me really excited about the prospects of taking photography seriously as a career option. The private equity job isn’t that bad as I could deal with new sectors/companies/people on a frequent basis, but I guess I am 1) really bored by the lack of freedom and 2) more importantly the continued shaping of your brain/expression/behavior to a “logical corporate animal” while the world outside of it is so vast and so much more colorful. I’ve been learning drawing since very young and have always have this passion for art, but the PE job just makes me gradually losing it bit by bit. My wife one day pointed to the photos I took at a friend’s wedding and said that all photos are exactly horizontal or vertical, that really stunned me…

    Though as conservative as I am in venturing to a new career, the PE job is okay hour-wise and pay-wise. Plus I am senior enough in the food chain to have reasonably good free time (basically I can forget about work after 7pm every work day, and 90% of the weekends), and the money is certainly a big factor in building up my knowledge and gears needed for the next level in photography. But I just have this strong inner desire to spend 24×7 of my time on photography (and that’s practically all I do on my off-work time, be it week days or weekends – practicing and practicing). Especially when conflicts arose (and recently heightened) when my job continuously got in the way of my photographic time (most recent event was that I had to cancel a trip to a good friend’s wedding as their entrusted photographer). This struggle has lasted for almost a year now and it’s been very painful. Obviously the other part that gets me is the desire to “go free” (relatively), to be able to manage my own work/time in most situations. From reading your article I can sense this strong similarity to my own experience but obviously I am many steps behind in terms of actually making that move.

    Given where I am now, do you have any advice, Ming? Looking back at your own experience do you think you made the move at the right time? and if you were to generalize about what’s the right time to move in terms of skill level, etc, what’s your opinion? Can you share more on how you’ve been after the move? how does the real world compared to imagination being a professional photographer? I know these are probably silly and overly-broad questions, but would appreciate your thoughts.

    • I can certainly sympathize with you, but I don’t know where you are in skill level, contacts, financial situation, family commitments etc – impossible to say what you should do. Other than if you ignore it, you’ll probably regret it later. I’m guessing you could always take a sabbatical for a year and go back to PE afterwards with little career penalty. Perhaps the best option.

      • Very fair, Ming. Anecdotally part of me feels happy by just having this pain and frustration as I know I’m into this now in a very serious way. Thanks for the tip on sabbatical (my wife and I have been discussing it), definitely on my calendar. At this stage in terms of skill level (some of my work is here, far from what I myself even considered as satisfactory http://www.500px.com/jackygexin), financial situation’s ok now and will be able to support a one-year sabbatical. Thanks again for your help!

  5. MIchael Sin says:

    Hello Ming. Great stories. I have been following your blog for quite a while and have witnessed your change. Congratulations once again as you are faithful to what you believe. It is hard work as you have written before; and I guess it is all worth it & is very satisfying, too! It is a wonderful experience if you can put your passion in career, making it work. Thank you once again as you have encouraged me on Leica Photography before I made the jump into the M system. I have no regrets and have been enjoying it.

  6. Okay, given the circumstances it’s worth getting the numbers correct. I’m not sure when Ansel Adams was trying hard to sell photographs for US $ 20.00, but I ran some dates through an on-line inflation calculator. You have to go back to 1939 to get a price of about $ 350 in today’s currency, not the $ 400 I mentioned. In the 1950’s, a more likely date for his sales price, the $20 would be about say $ 200 today. So, I guess new photographs should not feel too bad about starting off at $ 200.00. Costs of all the materials have gone up too. Speculation, collector’s frenzy, and so forth, is what would drive the prices up. But that’s for resale, and the photographer or painter gets nothing from the resale, only the owner. Some of your photographs look worth much more than $200 or even $400 to me. Printed, of course, not for the Ipad version!

    • I can’t remember if you got one of my prints in the last round or not, but I wouldn’t dream of presenting them any other way to a serious audience. I suppose it’s good for the owners of the first run prints, not so good for yours truly…

  7. Hi Ming, I admire your tenacity and ferociousness, along with a mind thats constitutes nothing but positives.. Don’t look back or forward just enjoy the ride my friend, let it take you to your destiny.

  8. Thanks for sharing, Ming. Very interesting story and still unfolding. That you’ve pulled it off so far seems somewhat unique to me. You found a way that fits you. What’s more common is all the other people out there (out of what 7+ billion now) who have enough artistic talent and even desire to pursue it, but who have to put it aside and make a living . . . for themselves and soon others as well. My father had to drop painting during the depression a take up a related career as a lithograph artist. His best example was removing 3/4 of the freckles from Doris Day photos before using the in magazines, etc. It required artistic knowledge and working in–guess what–red, green, blue plates. How I wish I had him back now to sit down an work in photo shop with me. But, back to your story, he did murals on the side whenever he could. What you seem to have run into is a demand for more than one of your skills. It’s not impossible to establish separate businesses for each one: financial/accounting consulting, especially trouble shooting, commercial photography, and you own fine art photography (which I’d like to see more of myself). Separate entities, separate books, cards, etc., only you choose which client at which time and location. Meanwhile, what happened to the rest of us? Retirement! If you can put aside enough “profit” and invest it well, you would someday be in a position to “pay yourself” to do whatever you want. In your case, the sooner the better. I assume and certainly hope that you are doing this already.

    I know several recently retired people who are going back to photography and other arts as well. Unfortunately, some are good enough that it they put pressure on real (and younger) professional photographers. Wedding and portrait photography comes to mind. Professionals have to charge enough to stay in business, and to many clients (say brides and grooms), the prices seem to high. I just visited a photo studio in Washington, D.C., where the artist’s photographs on the wall were selling for about US $400, framed. Visitors could be heard saying that the prices were too high. I couldn’t have disagreed more. That’s a bottom price these days for me. Painting and photography has always been like that. Ansel Adams was selling his landscape prints for under $ 20 dollars when he started and they were hard to sell then. Adjusting for inflation, that’s not far off the $300 to $400 range today.
    Keep it up. You already have the most interesting photographic site on the web. I check it every day.

    • Well, one can try to make a living from one’s artistic inclinations, but I think it requires both creativity in your field of choice and in the method of monetization!

      No problem doing many things, except finding enough time. So there’s a need to be focused, too – unfortunately there is still very much the perception that if you do a lot of things you’re a generalist and therefore not an expert. A lot of people can’t relate to being able to do multiple things well simply because they cannot do it themselves.

      As for print sales…I’m not even in the $400 range yet. But hopefully that will change soon!

  9. Two great posts. But I suppose what I’d be more interested in knowing is how your juggled both aspects of your life (the photographic and the corporate) to the point where you could make the decision to leave one and become a professional photographer. Getty doesn’t coming knocking on your door unless you are out there and well known. How did you manage to get their attention at the same time as you climbed the corporate ladder? I’d love to know a little more about all that ground work you must have put in.

    • That bit is simple: lots of coffee, and nowhere near enough sleep! I was also editor of a photo magazine for five years at the same time as I was in corporate; taking leave to do the occasional commercial job, and maintaining a rudimentary internet presence through flickr and forum participation…

  10. I admire your courage. What happens after photography?

  11. Thank you, Ming, for this somewhat intimate look into your life and struggle with the creative path. For myself, though I’ve been very seriously involved with photography nearly all my life–certainly most of my adult life–and though I tried to “make the break” toward photography related creative endeavors, once, and failed, I chose to stay with what I knew; that is, the corporate world. Now at 60 and retired I don’t have the energy required to climb another hill! Kudos to you for the courage to risk it all and go in a direction that your heart totally believed in. And, certainly a bow and tip-o-the-hat to those around you who encouraged and supported your efforts. Best of luck to you and keep all those wonderful images coming!!

  12. Thanks for opening your heart and mind to us with this two part short autobiography Ming! This was both an endearing personal slice of life and an engaging story of perseverance in your professional development. It’s those almost insignificant moments along the journey that end up cracking that bear room door open the most (e.g., having the wisdom to see how self sacrifice in feeding the beast of burden paradoxically becomes an act of self service in planting the seeds for a future that is yet to be come).

    As you so eloquently stated, your professional work in accounting, private equity, and finance have not only ultimately served you well in developing and managing your own small business (and in showcasing that you are a renaissance man of general talents and interests to your clients)…but also in developing and honing what I believe is a beautifully unique artistic style. After having followed your work through this blog for the last several months, I’m beginning to feel that I could pick your work out of a crowd of other talented artists because your style is…well just so Ming Thein! It’s professional, polished, and clean (without being clinical), yet with deep layers of emotion and meaning regardless of the subject of study. This suits your clients well as their products, services, and human and physical resources are showcased in a socially fulfilling and influential way.

    I am so very much looking forward to actively sharing in the rest of your journey in photography (and possibly beyond?) through this blog! Namaste!

  13. Terrific pair of posts. I love your images, and fully enjoy the wisdom with which you write about the art and gear of photography, and it was great hearing about how you got to where you are.

  14. Marvelous. Thank you for sharing your story. Even if I don’t become a professional pianist – which is really one of my passions but for my free time – the truth is that I have other professional dreams that have nothing to do with what I do now professionally. Your story is very inspiring to see that yes we can change things. And also (what I already assumed) that what we’ve already done gives us added experience and insight in different fields. And big thumbs up to your wife for all her support :)

  15. nice picture. I like this

  16. 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.

    Indeed. And a nod to the women in our lives — and the men in the women’s — when no one else believes in you, or people only believe in you with nothing on the line, they make the truly faithful leaps for us. As we would for them.

    Taking about art and artists the other day, it should have been clear that “belief” is a keyword, like it or not. The above line is a reminder that after ourselves, our loved ones are often the first believers in our art. A special kind of follower. Perhaps the most pure (it makes no difference to them whether you’re famous or not).

    But for some reason, the leaps of faith don’t extend to gear. I mean, I’ve been trying and trying and trying to convince my better half that a Bravia 4K and a Thunderbolt 27″ and Macmini and MBA 13″ and iPad Retina and Intuos and CS6 while it’s still on shelves is CRITICAL to my artistic development—but, as I say, for some reason, she just won’t go for it :)

    • I think that’s the reason (at least I hope so) why we chose them as partners to begin with. They believe in you when nobody else does, friends and family included. The irony is that even though they might believe in you – they don’t necessarily do that much in the way of ‘support’ in the traditional sense. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t even read most of my articles, nor has she seen 90% of my work. But it doesn’t really matter.

      As for gear – the wife doesn’t interfere if it’s business related; I’ve got more accounting chops than she does anyway :)

  17. Great story. Very interesting to read how you found your way to professional photography.

  18. Marco Borggreve says:

    Nice to read while travelling back to Holland from Berlin, was Amsterdam nice to you?

    Be well,

    M

    Send from a mobile device, please excuse brevity and typos

    http://marcoborggreve.com

    Op 29 sep. 2013 om 06:01 heeft Ming Thein | Photographer het volgende geschreven:

    > >

    • So far so good – except my stupid accident with the GR that took a chunk out of the LCD. All good otherwise though, great group, lucky with the weather, excellent food too!

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