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LomoAmigo Tay Kay Chin: On Photojournalism, Daydreaming, and The Emergence of Singapore Photographers

When accomplished Singaporean photographer Tay Kay Chin enthusiastically agreed to our LomoAmigo invitation we couldn't have been more delighted. His honest responses are refreshing and, appropriately, matches the honesty a photograph emulates. Discover the man behind the lens after the jump.

Image via Nelson Tan

Name: Tay Kay Chin
Location: Singapore
Field: Photographer

1. Hi Kay Chin, we’re honoured to have the chance to chat with you. Firstly, we’d like to wish you a Happy New Year! Please introduce yourself. We’re all very curious to meet the man behind the lens.

Thank you for the invitation to share. I guess at 49, I have two choices here – to pick out only ‘interesting’ things I want to tell you, or just upload my detailed resume. Let’s try the easier method ;). I studied photojournalism and wanted only to be a photojournalist but major changes in life brought me into a different world. Actually, I’m quite glad about the new arrangement. Since 2001, I have been a freelance photographer, splitting my time between commercial commissions and personal projects. I also started teaching at an university in Singapore, desktop publishing, and then photojournalism. Another big part of my life is my community involvement – I have started several photography-related initiatives in the past few years. My work also involves non-photography projects but let’s talk about that another time. Apart from work, I guess other interesting things about me include my love for cooking and playing with Lego.

2. When were you first introduced to the world of photography? Can you remember your first experience with a camera?

As a teenager, I was fascinated with aircrafts and I wanted to borrow my family’s camera to go to an air show. I failed to do that, got angry, and decided to ‘steal’ money from my own savings to buy a SLR. It was a Ricoh KR10 with a standard lens. I had lots of fun using that to photograph mundane things such as eggs. I also used it to photograph the miniature aircraft models I built. Within a year, I got myself a 80-200 zoom lens and there was no turning back from that point.

3. What inspired you to pursue your studies and a career in Photojournalism?

Don McCullin’s book, Hearts of Darkness, changed my life. I looked at his pictures of war and famine and decided that I wanted to change the world by making pictures that served to remind people the atrocities of conflicts. I assumed photojournalism was what I should be doing to achieve my goals.

4. What made you decide to resign from the world of newspapers? We read that your front page design of the September 11th coverage was selected as one of the top 10 in the world by the Poynter Institute. That’s quite a recognition, and it seems you ended that part of your career on a high. What path did your photography career take after this?

I only wanted to be a photojournalist when I decided to work in the United States, but because of what I had done in Singapore, most newspaper editors told me I was over-qualified to just shoot. In the end, I was handed a job to head a newspaper design team. I took the challenge because I thought at that time that it was a good challenge. So instead of photographing, I had a chance to ‘use’ photographs. I quit the paper because I missed home and also because the organization was in the middle of a very messy change. I guess I could have stayed to be part of the revolution, but the events of 9/11 kind of made me re-adjust how I saw life.

Image via Tay Kay Chin

I knew that returning to Singapore would mean the end of my newspaper career because the choices available back home were limited. So I started freelancing. It was very tough because I wasn’t trained for it. I certainly knew nothing about the advertising world. I didn’t even know how much I was worth or how much I should charge. But I was lucky to meet people who recognized my strengths and had patience for a newbie.

My editorial work is almost non-existent now. Most of the projects I do are longer term books or corporate commissions. The closest I get to being a photojournalist these days is in teaching photojournalism to undergraduates.

5. Which camera is your trusted companion, your go-to for any kind of occasion? Why is it your favourite?

I would have to say the Leica M9 because it’s basic and serves all my needs. I don’t like to be visible when I make pictures, and I also don’t like having too many choices.

6. Have you had the chance to shoot with any of our Lomography cameras? If yes, how was it? If not, is there one that sparks your interest?

Does the Holga count? I shot some stuff with that and have always wanted to do a project with it. I love how it produces stuff that I can’t really predict or control precisely. It’s a nice change from digital too because I can just focus on having fun and not worry about the results.

7. Perhaps you can let us in on a few of your photography secrets. What inspires you to take photos? How would you describe your photographic style?

Hahahahahaha. Secrets? I don’t think I have any. Basically I am a very impatient person. Taking pictures means I can record a scene, move on to others, perhaps go back to the pictures, and then figure out what really happened earlier. I am also very opinionated and imaginative, so I prefer to make my own narratives. I use photography to comment and to ‘protest’. I’m not sure if I really have a style but I like adjectives such as ‘honest’ and ‘personal’. I guess you can also add ‘individualistic’, because I don’t like to listen to what others have to tell me.

8. Is there one particular subject you love to photograph? Please feel free to tell us a memorable experience you’ve had with one of your favourite subjects.

Honestly, I would love the chance to photograph beautiful women. But I don’t get these kind of assignments. I don’t know why, I’m guessing some people think I won’t be able to focus. I have no memorable experiences yet, so hopefully people who read this article can help me realise my dream?

9. Are there any photographers or artists that inspire you, that you look up to?

I don’t like looking up to photographers because hero worshipping always ends up in disappointment. But I like works by Daido Moriyama, Josef Koudelka, Don McCullin, Sebastio Salgado, Eugene Richards, Anders Petersen, Martin Parr. There are also many photographer who are younger and less famous that I enjoy following. With the internet, it is easy to get carried away but I find myself returning to certain sites to look for new talent.

10. We were very excited to hear that you were named a Hasselblad Master! When was this? Please tell us more about that.

Oh dear, we are still talking about this after 10 years?

The award came as a total surprise. I was particularly happy because it wasn’t something I applied for or dreamed about. In fact, I didn’t even know the award existed until I got it. In 2000, when I was living in New York City, I was corresponding with the editor of the Hasselblad Forum magazine. It started with me sending him some images I took with the Hasselblad XPan of Vietnam and New York. The magazine used a few of my pictures in an issue of the magazine. When I moved back to Singapore, I forgot to inform the editor who had by then already mailed my transparencies back to my New York address. After a few weeks of tracing, they found it and duly couriered it to me in Singapore. To express my appreciation, I sent him another CD-rom of my latest images. This time they were all of Singapore. They were pictures that I had taken while waiting for my US work visa to arrive. As luck would have it, the CD arrived on the day of the board meeting to decide on the masters. Without asking me, the editor decided that he liked my work enough to nominate me. When I got the email informing me of the award I just thought I was very lucky.

The award brought me a lot of attention as well as the pressure that comes with it. Before that, people in Singapore only knew me as the former photographer and picture editor of The Straits Times. People associated me with photojournalism and street photography, but Panoramic Singapore doesn’t really belong in the genre. To me, they were very personal works and it didn’t matter to me how it was labeled. Some people made a bigger deal about my award than I sincerely thought was warranted. I was proud but at the same time troubled because awards always come with responsibility. With the award, I got invited to speak at several gatherings and to sit on several community panels. Of course, there were people who hated the fact that I am a Hasselblad Master and some forum posts I came across were very demeaning and insulting. Once, I was at a function and two people were having a discussion about me (they didn’t know me, though I was standing next to them). One guy told the other that I was a snobbish person and would never show up at event unless I had won something. A while later, the same gentleman who passed the snide remark approached me and asked if I would be a guest speaker for his class. I acted like nothing happened and immediately accepted his invitation.

But by and large, the effect has been a positive one for me as well as other people. It’s my growing belief that Singapore photographers are more confident these days to show work that doesn’t belong to a certain school of thought. I get a lot of requests to review portfolios and I see them as opportunities to learn as well as to encourage new work. I like telling this story because I believe if people see my motivation for sharing they’ll get the message I advocate – don’t be afraid of criticism, stick to your vision.

11. What’s a favourite photography project that you’ve done so far?

I believe I already answered this in the previous question. Yes, Panoramic Singapore. It is not because of the award or accolades, but more to do with how it permanently changed my approach to photography.

12. Do you have any dream projects you’d like to have the chance to embark on?

Where do I start? Well, I’ve always been fascinated by four ‘simple’ Chinese words – 生老病死 (translated as: birth and age, sickness and death—the lot of people), and I have always wondered about what I can do with this. In many ways, almost everything I want to do or have done can fall under one of the words.

13. Aside from photography, what keeps you busy? Is it true that you are known to dabble in a spot of web design?

Have you been spying on me? Yes, I know how to code web pages from scratch, because I was lucky to pick up HTML when the web was in its infancy. I also cook, play with Lego, blog about irreverent stuff. I guess I can also count designing books and magazines among my core skills. But the most important secret – I daydream a lot.

14. Seeing as it’s a new year, are there any upcoming projects on the horizon that you’d like to share with us?

A few friends and I started publishing initiative TwentyFifteen.sg in August 2013 and we are working on 20 books of new works by 20 Singaporean photographers. We have released four so far. With almost one book per month, this project is going to take up a lot of my time. I also hope to publish a few of my own projects but nothing has been finalized so far. I would also like to make a website to share 1001 ways to cook instant noodles. Sounds interesting right?

15. For all the budding photographers and photojournalists out there, would you care to share some words of wisdom?

Dream, Dream, Dream. And be honest. Do what you really care about.

16. One last question. What are your new year’s resolutions?

I have more than 10 but I shall share only the important. I really hope I will never stop daydreaming, and I hope I continue to believe in my gut feelings and act on my crazy ideas more. I am not looking forward to the day when I am no longer curious, because that is really scary.

Thank you for your insightful responses Tay Kay Chin! And for more about Tay Kay Chin, visit his Website.

written by soundfoodaround

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