Part Asian/part Western, and having lived almost my entire life in Asia, photography, particularly photography in Asia, has been a major interest in both my personal and professional life.
Over the years I’ve noticed that there’s a huge pool of talented photographers in Asia that generally goes unnoticed outside their local country. I’ve also found that there is a great interest in Asia by photographers based outside the region.
The purpose of this site, and my Twitter (@KanaKukui) is simple: 1) to share some insights about photography in Asia – introducing talented photographers shooting in Asia, and subjects and locations to shoot in the region. And 2) to provide a little inspiration to everyone interested in photography – from the hobbyist to the emerging professional.
Singapore-based Lenne Chai has built a reputation as an extraordinary fashion photographer in record time.
First exposed to photography during a module on Photojournalism in her final year as a Mass Communication student, Lenne interned as a photojournalist for the Straits Times before launching her career as a freelance photographer.
Making a splash in locally with her pastel-powered and unconventional images, Lenne soon caught the attention of Japan’s fashion industry and has since been regularly travelling to Tokyo, where she shoots for many leading Japanese publications.
Lenne continues to expand her creative horizons by working on projects such as ‘Karaoke Party’ (a series of three fashion films presented as karaoke videos), and a collaboration with embroidery artist Teresa Lim titled ‘Sad Girls Club’.
Lenne’s work has been featured in local and international publications such as NYLON Japan, Elle Girl (Japan), Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, Designaré, and SPUR (Japan).
Amongst India’s numerous vibrant festivals, one of the most spectacular is Kerala’s annual Thrissur Pooram festival. A photographer’s dream, the festival takes place on the Pooram day of the Malayalam month of Medom (this usually falls between April and May).
The main attraction of the festival is the colorfully costumed elephants parading through town on their way to the Vadakkunnathan temple.
The elephants are all beautifully decorated with golden headdresses, decorative bells and ornaments, palm leaves and peacock feathers. Each elephant is guided by his rider (mahout), whose costume is equally colorful.
The mahout of each elephant carries an ornate parasol during their parade through town. When the elephants and their riders reach the temple, the mahouts pass their parasols amongst themselves, some while standing on their elephant’s back.
The festival’s activities are rounded off with folk dancing, drumming, and a spectacularly huge fireworks display that begins at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Any photographer visiting India during Thrissur Pooram should definitely include Thrissur in their itinerary. While the crowds are huge and boisterous, you should be able to get some very memorable photos of the incredible elephants.
What determines whether a photographer is an artist? For one thing, artists have a personal objective. Before they even pick up their camera they have a specific vision of what they want to create – what’s often referred to as the ‘story they want their photo to tell’. Similar to artists who use other media, the challenge for these photographers is to actually accomplish their vision. That’s where their creativity, planning, imagination, technical skills, and post-processing talent come into play.
Another thing photographic artists share is a strong opinion of which of their photos is ‘good’. Every artist takes hundreds, thousands, of photos. Amongst them are a lot of average shots, some really awful images, and one or two photos that they believe successfully represent what they aimed to capture – whether you agree or not. Inevitably, those photos are the only ones the artist presents to the public.
The third thing I’ve noticed about photographers who can be called artists is that all have in common a persistent sense of dissatisfaction. I’ve never come across someone I consider an artist who is not still searching for a way to improve their photography. They’re perpetually looking for ways to improve their ability to capture with their camera the vision they have in their mind.
Keep in mind that the label ‘artist’ does not equate with ‘successful artist’. Most artists never find success. On top of that, many have their works derided and dismissed. That doesn’t mean they aren’t artists.
Most people taking photos have never given the above much thought for the simple reason that the purpose of their photography has never been ‘to create art’.
“Check out this photo I took!” A phrase we’ve all heard a million times. Our standard responses range from “awesome” to “looking great” to “where was that?” This usually leads into a conversation about the subject of the photo – you, your lunch, the location, etc… and the photo is never looked at again.
When people take – then share – a snapshot, they’re satisfied with the above scenario. The photo served its purpose. It got a conversation started.
For the vast majority of people taking and sharing photos today, those photos serve as a part of their overall communication – just as text does. These people aren’t trying to make you think deeply about something, nor are they trying to tell a story – they’ll do that with text messages, or verbally if they’re standing next to you.
And that’s fine. It just means that in today’s digital age, in addition to text and emojis, photos are also a means of communication.
A more traditional use of photos by the masses is as a means of capturing and sharing memories. Family outings, a child’s first steps or graduation, places we’ve been, and people we met. The desire to record a memory remains as strong today as it was hundreds of years ago when people would commission a painting of a family member. These ‘memory’ photos (for lack of a better word) are important to us regardless of whether they were taken by a professional photographer in a studio, or taken by a family member with a smartphone.
Another group of photographers are commercial photographers – those who are commissioned to take photos for specific purpose – ranging from family portraits to product shots for a company. While it can be argued that some of their commercial work is artistic, by default it doesn’t qualify as art as it is based on a client’s objectives – not on the artist’s vision. (Interestingly, quite a few commercial photographers are actually accomplished artists whose commercial work pays the bills).
So, when you think of the hundreds of millions of people taking photos, it’s really a very tiny minority who are taking photos with the objective of creating art.
A method of communication, a tool for recording memories, a way of telling a story – the purpose a person has when they press the shutter button determines whether they are an artist, or not.
In 1848, Ueno Shunnojo-Tsunetari (a Japanese trader based in Nagasaki) imported Japan’s first daguerreotype camera from Holland. The following year, the camera was obtained by Shimazu Nariakira, a Japanese feudal lord (daimyo) who ruled the Satsuma Domain from 1851 until his demise in 1958. Shimazu was renowned as an intelligent and wise lord, and noted for his great interest in all forms of Western technology.
Having obtained the camera, the daimyo ordered his retainers to study it and produce working photographs. One of these retainers was Ichiki Shirō (市来 四郎). Ichiki had previously excelled in the study of gunpowder production, which involved an understanding of chemistry. Due to this background, Shimazu believed Ichiki’s background would suit him for the challenge of mastering the creation of daguerreotypes – which entailed use of chemical treatments to develop the final image.
Due to his complete lack of formal training in photography and in how to use the camera, it was many years before Ichiki produced a quality photograph. To the daimyo’s delight, on September 17, 1857, Ichiki succeeded in creating a portrait of Shimazu dressed in formal attire. Ichiki recorded his struggles, and eventual triumph in mastering the camera, in his memoirs which he compiled in 1884.
After Shimazu’s death in 1958, the Terukuni Shrine (also referred to as Shōkoku Shrine) was built in Kagoshima as a memorial to the late daimyo. He was enshrined there in 1863, and the photograph was placed there as an object of worship. However, it later went missing in the 1800s.
After being lost for a century, the daguerreotype was discovered in 1975 a warehouse. Recognized as the oldest daguerreotype in existence that was created by a Japanese photographer, the photo was designated an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government in 1999.
Being so compact, and with a great transportation system, getting around Singapore to take a couple of photos is not difficult. Most visitors will certainly take shots of Singapore’s best known icons – the Merlion, Marina Bay Sands, etc. The following are a couple of ideas for different locations.
Photo by Kevin Carmody / CC-BY
Singapore’s Chinatown with it’s low rise shop buildings and eclectic mix of ornate Chinese, Buddhist and Hindu temples and shrines, is a great place for photographing a variety of sites and subjects.
Photo by Walter Lim / CC-BY
Kampong Buangkok is outside the city proper, but is worth visiting for photos of traditional village life. One of the only places left where you can take photos of a traditional village of wooden houses, complete with chickens scratching in the shade of jackfruit and banana trees.
Photo by Gabriel Garcia Marengo / CC-BY
Great street-style photos can be taken by visiting Little India. This market street is lined with stalls and shops selling Indian products – from piles of spices to garlands of flowers. The bustle of Indian customers and vendors will make you feel like you’re actually in India.
Photo by Allie Caulfield / CC-BY
If you’re interested in a challenge, visit Singapore’s Night Safari for the opportunity to shoot wild animals at night. While the low-light conditions (and prohibition against using a flash) is challenging, with a fast lens and stepped-up ISO it’s not impossible to get a truly unique photo.
Many first-time travellers to Asia, particularly those on business, have asked about easily accessible photo opportunities in the cities they visit. This post is part of an ongoing series, each on a different Asian city, introducing a few photo locations for visitors with limited time.
If you’re looking for a truly different photo opportunity, you might consider attending this unusual Japanese festival where revelers carry gigantic phalluses through the streets of a Japanese city.
Photo by Takanori / CC-BY
The Kanamara Matsuri (“Festival of the Steel Phallus”) – also called the ‘Penis Festival’, is a Shinto fertility festival held on the first Sunday of April in Kawasaki, Japan. The festivities start at Kawasaki’s Kanayama Shrine.
Photo by Guilhem Vellut / CC-BY
The highlight of the celebration is when the gigantic phalluses are carried out of the shrine on portable shrines (mikoshi) and paraded throughout the streets. Capturing a good photo isn’t easy as you’ll have to contend with crowds of onlookers.
Parade at Penis festival, at Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki
Photo by Guilhem Vellut / CC-BY
During the event, penis-themed souvenirs ranging from penis-shaped lollipops and chocolates, to pens, key chains and more, are on sale.
Penis candles sold at a stand at the Kanamara Festival
Photo by Masayuki Kawagishi / CC-BY
What might seem as an outlandish display of sexuality is actually a very family-friendly affair. The crowd is full of people taking snapshots, so you don’t need to feel self-conscious taking photos.
Woman having photo taken on wooden phallus by friend