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Who Can Be Considered a Professional Photographer?

By Kames Narayanan

Eugene Soh's classic
 
Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh's classic "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" gets a Singaporean spin-off.

“I handmade the book in the year 2003, it was originally meant to be a prototype. The eventual printed version of the book was released about three or four years later and it is about three-quarters the size,” shared Tay Kay Chin, who earned a Hasselblad Master award for that photo book, titled “Panoramic Singapore”. “These are actually real photo frames printed on an inkjet and if you tore each page, it can be sold individually. They are archival photo quality prints,” the veteran continued, who holds an extensive repertoire amongst Singapore’s most eminent photographers.

Seated alongside Tay was Singapore-based photographer and artist, Eugene Soh, whose works, in the last eight years, propelled him to internet acclaim and subsequently earned him a space in some of the country’s most prominent art galleries. Inspecting the photo book intently as Tay explained its make, “What do you mean by real photo frames? What is an inkjet?” quizzed Soh as he ran his fingers across the aged, austere hardcover book, each page dedicated to an individual picture. The timeworn craft of printing a book, was a paradoxical new to Soh.

Tay Kay Chin/ Eugene SohFrom left: Eugene Soh photographed by Tay Kay Chin on the right and vice versa.
From left: Eugene Soh photographed by Tay Kay Chin on the right and vice versa.

While Tay and Soh find common ground in the practice of photography, their means to an end, and the end itself, deviates sharply from the other. Trained and later, having taught in the field of photojournalism, the former’s works are more often than not guided by a purist approach. “All the images were shot in film, scanned and nothing was cropped or edited, except for the colour, which was later restored,” shared Tay.

On the contrary, the latter’s works are a digitally orchestrated reality. His photographs recreate the now, but in the context of renaissance paintings. For instance, his lauded piece, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Singapore”, was an homage to “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by French post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat. In place of the upper class Parisians depicted in the original, Soh’s local spin-off features the average Singaporean. The photograph piqued Tay’s curiosity and what followed was a slew of questions about how the image was conceived and created.

Eugene Soh
"Singaporean Gothic" is Soh's take on a Grant Wood painting.

“All the elements in this photograph were shot individually over the course of about six months on location. When the photographs were taken, they were all positioned at about the same place as they are in the final photograph but later on in Photoshop, I did have to cut them and move them around to fix the composition,” divulged Soh.

The exchange between the two photographers — separated in age by about two decades and in approach to the same craft — prompts one to reconsider the tag of photographer and contemplate the shift in the practice itself.

“What has happened in the past 10 years is an explosion of digital technology. I think mobile phones with camera really changed the face of photography. Instead of only a few elites in the society being able to afford a camera, attend art school and then become a full-fledged, trained photographer, but now, one does not have to be a professional to be a photographer. There is absolutely nothing wrong with someone who is not formally trained,” said Tay

Tay Kay ChinFrom top down: Captured by Tay at Bedok Jetty; burning offerings to the deceased at a Singaporean neighbourhood.
From top down: Captured by Tay at Bedok Jetty; burning offerings to the deceased at a Singaporean neighbourhood.

Does it then mean that everyone is a photographer? Or rather, what meaning does the term photographer hold in today’s context?

Owing to the advent of mobile phones, a vast majority of the population across the globe now have a camera readily accessible at their back pockets. Skimming the surface, with the democratisation of photography, essentially, anyone who creates images can identify themselves as a photographer. The craft in itself is also easily self learnt, through the wealth of online resources available to anyone who is interested.

“The internet is the biggest teacher these days,” shared Soh.

As the medium through which
imagery is shared in itself shifts into
virtual galleries such as Instagram,
the technical prowess of a photographer takes a backseat. Abandoning
traditional standards, an image no longer needs to be captured on a DSLR camera nor boast the highest of resolutions. While much of this has evolved through the years, there remains a quality that is still held as a yardstick for what separates a photographer from the pedestrian documenting moments of the day-to-day — intent.

At a time where the title photographer is shrouded in an air of ambiguity and unimportance, it would perhaps serve to inspect the underlying motivations of an imagery in
attributing legitimacy. The intent of a photographer serves as a filter in discerning a picture from a photograph. The former, a mere depiction and the latter, a means of storytelling.

“If you ask me, there are only two kinds of photographers, those who have something to say and others, who have nothing to say,” said Tay.

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