What were you into growing up?
I drew, played piano, was creative. Didn’t know what I wanted to do, but knew I’d be with people. Photography came naturally. I was motivated to shoot my favourite track stars, connect with them.
I was attracted to shoot icons, even as a student.
How did you not fan-out?
Sometimes I wouldn’t dare talk to them, just shoot. I knew when to step back.
Did you plan your career?
My dad’s an overachiever; he always pushed me, said hard work pays off.
Always gave the people I shot prints. Gave me a good excuse to meet them a second time. I always gave the people I shot prints, thought of myself as a journalist. Would contact magazines give them dibs on celebrities’ new projects, photo spreads.
You need people to “bring” you up. It’s a very exclusive club.
Yes. The bigger celebrities I shot, the higher my chances of being published in a magazine. But it’s not the key, it just shows what level you’re at. I needed to get a better portfolio, better images, ones people would remember.
You’re only as good as the last photo you shoot. It’s a very long process. As a photographer, there are milestones to reach.
I believe in signs. You can choose to acknowledge or ignore them.
I’d a tight knit of friends who wanted to be successful photographers too. We helped each other.
My book’s my passport. I remember seeing my book on the floor among some of the biggest photographers. At least mine was with theirs.
My first shoot for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s production company was passport photos for the producer. It was so exciting bringing my lights into studio. I also had faith my next job would be bigger. I shot Mickey Rourke.
Photography and fashion.
The attitude changes. It’s je ne sais quoi, role-playing, a lifestyle, how they stand, how it’s directed, shot. You can tell from a picture if it was shot by a fashion or portrait photographer.
In the past, with photography you could feel the girl’s skin. It was tactile. Now it’s all bak-sek [white], xiu [trim, i.e. photoshopped].
It’s voyeuristic, an escape. In the past catalogues had stilted models, before Richard Avedon came along and added movement to clothes. Then designers like Ralph Lauren associated polo shirts with lifestyle.
Were you into fashion?
Because of my mom and aunts, it was around me. How do we define what’s stylish, not?
When I started, the photographer called the shots. What was strange when I returned to Singapore—and only Singapore does it today—was, the stylist, defecto fashion editors, called the shots.
The Russel Wong aesthetic.
I travelled a lot, researched photographers I wanted to emulate: Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn. How did they have such illustrious careers?
They were stronger in black-and-white. Their work crossed borders. People never used to buy editorial photographers’ prints. Commercial to artistic. They all started in fashion.
I was never moved by trends. It’s timeless, classically framed, simple light, background, pure. I’d like my work to be treated as such. I’m attracted to Caravaggio paintings, the Italian concept of light and dark. My photos are not soft, airy-fairy, I like shadow; it creates dimension.
Overseas, I used it as a plus. Luckily, I’m quite western educated and Cantonese-speaking Peranakan. Big photographers crossed-countries but never came to the east. Asian photographers only shot their home-country celebrities.
I wanted to be the photographer to cross Singapore’s borders, known for shooting everyone in the east. People were surprised why directors/celebrities would call me to travel all the way to their countries to shoot them.
Best advice you’ve received.
One of my mentors in school said, “You are who you shoot.” It’s alignment.
Beggars can’t be choosers, when I shot celebrities many of them were just starting out. I did everything to climb the ladder. Sometimes it’s luck the someone becomes famous, but I can kind of feel it if someone’s going to make it.
I’ve always kept shooting. Actors describe acting as “keeping the knife sharp”.
Who do they shoot for? Instagram? So does my mom.
People don’t remember Instagram pictures, they’ll always remember beautiful advertisements, editorial campaigns. They’re crafted.
It’s a shame it takes a European house to find beauty in Southeast Asia—Angelina Jolie for Louis Vuitton in Cambodia.
Crazy Rich Asians.
I was one of the first people executive producer John Penotti contacted, I knew his boss at Ivanhoe Pictures. I “played” the photographer shooting Eddie Huang. I was in Kevin Kwan’s book, “Russel Wing”.
Drove the producers from The Hunger Games around Singapore, to Anglo-Chinese school, Sentosa, etc. After director Jon M. Chu was hired, brought them around again. Would speak to hawker centre stall owners in different dialects, they found it interesting.
Helped with wardrobe for the movie. No one wanted to help an Asian movie. Knew the boss of Ralph Lauren, he sent in 30 gowns for the wedding dinner scene. Then Warner Brothers hired me officially to do publicity. I knew the movie would be special.
The Asian-Americans like Constance Wu, Awkwafina had never been on a movie set with all Asians.
Your new book.
As a creative person, I try to do things no one has done. When I was in Kyoto, was surprised there’s not a beautiful, comprehensive coffee table book documenting Geisha life: how they live, play instruments, participate in festivals, relate to each other.
I’ve used my everything I’ve learnt in fashion, set design, architecture, landscapes, telling stories. The Hanamachi districts looks like a movie production. It took me 5 years to enter their Ochaya teahouse. Now, I’ve access to all 5 Geisha district houses. Have shot intimately when they were dressing up in kimonos, swashing white makeup.
Celebrities difficult to work with.
Many, but I go on auto-mode. I’ve done shoots in a minute. Had 15 minutes to shoot Jack Ma for TIME Magazine cover and spread.
Rihanna, when she was dating Chris Brown. Don’t do this, don’t do that. But I’m a professional; I’ll still make you look good.
That’s why people work with me. They know they’ll get great images.