You’ve been taking photos since you were 12, who or what first inspired you to pick up a camera?
My mother is the reason I got into photography. She owned a DSLR and often took photos on our family holidays. I got the chance to play around with her camera but I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it got me interested in photography nonetheless. My parents gave me a DSLR for my thirteenth birthday and I then learned the basics of photography from my mother while we were on safari.
Did you grow up surrounded by nature? Do you have nature nearby that you regularly visit and photograph?
Growing up in Singapore I wasn’t exactly surrounded by wildlife. Singapore does have areas of nature – and there is a significant community of nature photographers based here – but I never spent a lot of time photographing the local wildlife. I didn’t really have the patience required for birding when I first started, nor the technical skill required to explore other genres of photography like macro photography. Many of my interactions with nature occurred while I was on holiday. My family loves to travel and in particular to Africa which allowed me to experience many natural habitats. Over time, I did trips to other locations including Borneo and Canada. Since I had an advanced open water diver certification I also developed a keen interest in underwater photography.
How did it feel to win YTPOTY and how will it impact your future career plans?
The first competition I entered after getting my camera was TPOTY. Winning YTPOTY was unexpected for me – after all, who wins a competition immediately after picking up a new skill?! Winning YTPOTY gave me a great deal of confidence – getting recognition for my photography motivated me to take it as far as I possibly could.
With each award I received, my passion for photography increased – I wanted to see what new genres I could explore, what different techniques I could use to make my photos stand out. My interest in photography has led me to learn about the study of optics and light, which led to an interest in physics. While I may not pursue photography as a career, I feel that it will always be an important part of my life and I’m sure that I will find some way to work it into my life.
How did you go about capturing your images of the monkeys and orangutan in your winning portfolio from 2019?
I found photographing primates quite different from my usual subjects. Primates exhibited far more intelligence than I realised, and simply just waiting for them to cross my path wasn’t feasible. Pig-tailed macaques and proboscis monkeys congregate on river banks, meaning it would be difficult to photograph them through the thick forest. The solution to this was to photograph them from a boat on the river; this introduced some difficulties, since you can’t exactly stop a boat from drifting with the current. This meant I had to be far quicker with my composition than I was used to. I needed a lot of patience for the Orangutans because they’re so high up in the forest canopy which meant it was difficult to spot them, especially if they were uncomfortable with my presence.
Once I had found the rough area where I thought the orangutan was, I had to wait to make sure that they were comfortable enough with my presence to move to more open areas. In addition to the drastically different behaviour, the environment was unlike anything I had photographed before. The lack of light due to the dense canopies meant that I needed to balance my shutter speed to be fast enough to capture animals despite movement, but also achieve a decent exposure. With some practice, I became more comfortable photographing in the jungle setting. I was forced to shed my dependence on light metering to inform me of how good my exposure was, and rely instead on my intuition at quickly making corrections.
You’ve started a conservation charity wayto.help with your sister, how did that come about?
I’m always in awe of the sheer scale and beauty of the natural world and I’ve been very fortunate to have had amazing experiences in my life. I have been incredibly privileged to interact with endangered animals and rapidly dwindling biomes and I feel that my photography reflects that. As a photographer there is the self-motivated interest in preserving animals and habitats so as to continue having subjects to photograph, but I feel that it extends far beyond that. I have experienced so many awe-inspiring things in my life, from free diving with Mako sharks to watching as a lioness uses my camera as a chew toy and it’s given me a profound appreciation for the natural world. It’s my responsibility to do whatever I can to conserve these amazing creatures and places because I’ve gained so much because of them.
Being so young there’s a limit to what I could do so I decided to have exhibitions to sell my prints and also build my own website to sell prints . In order to make sure that the funds were used properly, I partnered up with the Great Plains Foundation (setup by renowned National Geographic photographers Dereck and Beverly Joubert) to channel the funds to various conservation projects in Africa.
Your charity raises money by selling prints of your photos of endangered animals in Africa. Can you tell us a little bit about which animals you chose to feature and how you went about photographing them?
The majority of the prints I sell focus on animals that are either endangered or under threat as a result of human actions. I try to communicate the distinct personalities and behaviour of all the animals, for example, the aloof nature of tigers, the surprisingly playful behaviour of lions, elephants’ heart-melting familial bonds and more. Each of the animals I take photos of are unique and irreplaceable and I want to communicate this with my photographs. I’d describe my work as taking aspects of both documentary work and fine art; portraying things as they happen, but emphasizing the majesty of these creatures.
What I feel are the centrepieces of my work are portraits. Locking eyes with a tiger through the viewfinder of my camera sent shivers down my spine as everything else began to fade into the background except for the intelligence I could see in those eyes. I want to communicate this feeling and this understanding of just how special and human-like these animals are. I’ve admired the work of Dereck and Beverly Joubert, Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier and I feel their influence is evident in my work. I wanted to combine their way of portraying the scale and beauty of the natural world with the almost human characteristics of the animals I photographed.
To achieve this, I had to utilise extremes. As a photographer, I’m no stranger to getting only a few hours’ sleep, rising hours before the sun and only heading to bed once the animals settle in for the night. I’m a big fan of getting as near as I possibly can to the subject (what I call ‘sneaker zoom’) since I feel that there’s no better way to create that connection between you and your subject than by being close. Sometimes this doesn’t work out quite as intended, like when I was experimenting with remote photography and the clicking noises of my camera caught the fancy of a lioness who promptly snatched up my camera (rest assured the only damage done was the stress put on my heart watching her cubs gnaw at the rubber grips!). I feel that in order to capture the most authentic representation of these animals, I had to be able to capture their behaviour in the most genuine way possible; by waiting until they were comfortable with my presence and decisively choosing the perfect moment to capture.
You’ve recently published a book featuring many of these images. How did you decide which images to include?
My book is called Survivors after the incredible tenacity and perseverance of these animals who have survived despite being threatened by habitat loss, poaching, hunting as well as climate change. I chose images that I felt were microcosms of the natural world; animals in their habitat that were exhibiting the behaviour and characteristics that make them so unique.
While I tried to balance the different species of animals as best as I could, I focused mostly on the big cats and elephants because I found them to be the most expressive. I wanted to show how these animals had a variety of emotions that were comparable to humans. At the same time I wanted the viewer to appreciate the diversity of animals in the wild and so included pictures of the Polar bears, Mako sharks and orangtutans. Most of the animals featured in the book are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
In order to create a visual statement that befitted these animals I worked with a book designer based in New York and a publisher based in San Francisco. I incorporated some commentary on the animals and why certain images appealed to me so there was also a storyline to accompany the photos.
How can readers buy your book?
What are you working on at the moment?
One of the big challenges with not travelling (due to pandemic restrictions) is that I have not been able to do much nature photography over the last year. I tried to do some city photography in Singapore when it was alright to move around. I am hoping that some of the travel restrictions will ease in the next few months and then I am hoping to travel to Africa again.
Where and what’s next for you?
I just turned 18 a few months ago and will be graduating from high school this year. I plan to take a gap year so that I can pursue more projects in photography. While I am not considering a major in photography at this point, I know that photography and conservation will always be a big part of my life. As an adult, I am hoping to collaborate more with some of my role models and learn more technical aspects from them.
Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to add?
I think that the questions have covered many aspects of my photography and passion. Thank you for taking the time to interview me and I am very grateful to TPOTY for supporting my development over the years.