OpEd: The democratization of photography and the state of affairs in Malaysia

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Inclusive? Exclusive? Fair? You be the judge. Nikon D5100, AFS 85/1.4 G

This article was originally written by me to provide context for the 2012 Maybank Photographer of The Year Awards, for which I’m serving as Chief Judge. It was published in The Malaysian Reserve, 14 September 2012 edition. Reproduced with permission. A scan of the original article is available here.

Humans are visual people: we are drawn to things that look different, things that are aesthetically pleasing, and above all, things that communicate with us at an emotional level. This applies to both objects and photographs; in fact, half of the neural connections in our brains are related to vision in some way. What’s changed notably in the last eight years – since 2004 – is an explosion in visual content creation, sharing and awareness, fueled by proliferation of internet access, falling prices of digital cameras, and more recently, the rise of social media.

I pick 2004 as the turning point because it was a landmark year for photographers: it brought the affordable consumer digital SLR. Professional quality was now accessible to the masses at a tenth of the former cost, reducing the sole differentiator of photographers again to skill. More importantly, the learning process became extremely fast thanks to instant feedback. With film, you might not see the results of your experiments for days or weeks.

This gave birth to a new generation of digital-only photographers who have no affinity to Velvia or Neopan or Tri-X. Today’s generation even further removed – film is merely what the various Insta-whatsit or Hipsta-thingy app filters try to emulate. Yet, mostly due to that instant feedback loop, the average standard of today’s generation of photographers is higher than ever, with increasing numbers of people getting interested in and trying to make a living from photography. In fact, there are so many photographers everywhere now that it’s normal for the most people to sling a DSLR around their necks when they leave the house, and share everything with their friends online later. We communicate visually.

I’m of the transitional generation. I started pre-2004 with both film and digital – one helped me understand the other – and ‘turned pro’ in early 2012. There are two definitions ‘pro’: one, is that you make the vast majority of your income from photography or related activities; the other is that your images are of a consistently high standard, regardless of the conditions or subject. There are plenty of the former, but precious few of the latter – and the majority cut their teeth during the silver halide days. I aim to be both.

What photography clients often overlook is that you generally pay more for experience, translating into consistency. And it’s as much about time as it is about the number of experiments you’ve done or things you’ve tried. A chimpanzee could probably make ten incredible images out of a million through random chance alone. A professional should hit that mark nine times out of ten. As the client, it’s your responsibility to be educated about the services you’re paying for. Needless to say, selecting a provider with price as sole criteria – sadly a common practice in Malaysia – is a poor guarantor of quality. Thanks to the internet, it’s very easy to find specialist photographers and quickly identify if they’re good or not; in fact, picking a niche and excelling at it is probably the only way professional photographers can survive commercially in the longer term.

There are actually a number of world-class commercial photographers in Malaysia – but we don’t hear much about them here because they do the majority of their work outside the country. Much of my own business comes from Singapore and Switzerland – I specialize in watches, food and architecture, which also happen to be personal passions.

As organizations and individuals, it’s important that we do what we can to support the creative industries, beyond photography. The government can budget for ‘innovation incentives’, but something more than that is needed to make creativity flourish and grow: an ecosystem. Any industry creative will agree that inspiration isn’t always available on demand, but the environment is a large contributing factor. Take The Louvre, for example. Its archive gives inspiration to budding artists, and supports an ecosystem of its own, providing intellectual nourishment for future generations. Malaysia needs a legacy like that.

In a previous life, I was a director in the education and professional services sectors. Come recruitment time, I was saddened after interviewing many graduates with great paper scores – they were simply unable to perform at all in a professional environment. The missing elements? Creative thinking and initiative. At the same time, there’s still a ray of hope: at a recent major competition I judged, the best entries by far – and the bulk of the shortlisted ones – came from the student category. There is potential out there; we need to nurture it.

Support comes in many forms. There is commercial recognition – giving fair value for a professional service, recognizing and rewarding quality. Then there is also intellectual recognition – public acknowledgement and respect for the creator’s (and photographer) intellectual property rights. (Don’t know what an image license is? Don’t be afraid to ask). People are proud to show their best work – especially to a wide audience.

Equally important is teaching and encouragement. Since early this year, I’ve tried to do my part via http://www.mingthein.com. I aim to give back to the greater photographic community by openly sharing thoughts on technique, philosophy, and the life of a professional photographer – something beyond the other million gear reviews. The response has been fantastic so far – over a quarter of a million international visitors every month.

Collectively, this is why as a professional, a creative, and a Malaysian, I was proud to be invited to serve as Chief Judge for the inaugural Maybank Photographer of The Year Awards. It’s great to see a major company recognizing the importance of creativity, and giving Malaysians an opportunity to showcase their work, and the incentive to up their game. There are some pretty sweet prizes, too. As tempted as I am to enter instead of judging, I’m much more excited about seeing the entries. MT

The Maybank Photographer of The Year Awards may be entered online at www.maybankphotoawards.com. Submissions are open from 3 September to 31 October.


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


  1. Photos close to home says:

    Once a teacher, always a teacher. I continue to amazed at the high quality of this blog coming from an obviously busy professional. Thank you for that effort.

  2. I would vote your blog “Best Photography Blog” without a moment’s hesitation. It’s awesome the work you put into the blog and I appreciate it greatly. I’m sure others do as well.

  3. Congrats Ming, amazing what you’ve achieved in a relatively short period of time. The sky’s the limit!

    BTW, interesting what’s going on in Malaysia these days, just to mention Malaysiakini.

    • Thanks Dan! If you read the government-influenced blogs, and the other fringe ones, then average things out…then that’s pretty close to reality. Of course, nobody really transpires in the halls of power…I just stick to photography. 🙂

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