Understanding Subject Content Choices

As I shoot on the street often, almost on every weekend doing my weekly shutter therapy sessions (whenever we do not have an Olympus event), I have collected a large amount of random images. I generally would walk around with no particular end-goal or objective in mind (unless I was reviewing cameras and lenses of course, that is a different story) and end up with a series of disconnected, disorganized and chaotic frame of work. In the midst of all the randomness, there were repeated ideas, themes, composition styles and specific subjects that I have consistently kept an eye out, and captured again and again on the street. I am sure if you have followed me on my shutter therapy adventures here in this blog (which I should be updating more often), you will find these patterns happening again and again. I want to take a closer look at these recurring messages, understand them and discuss the meaning behind the redundancy in this blog entry.

I think it is crucial to understand yourself if you do want to improve in photography. Your photography, whether it is your conscious decision or not, does reflect a part of who you are, and your unique identity. While ideas and contents can be easily copied and plagiarized (now this is even more rampant in the age of Instagram/Twitter/Facebook), personal style in photography is something that can only be developed and seasoned over time, and it becomes a signature that the photographer imprints in his photographs that his viewers can often immediately recognize. Before you can reach that far in photography journey, it is prudent to take a step back and study on your own progress, scrutinizing your own preferences of photography execution. This is what I am doing here, and I am sharing my thoughts on what I felt, wanted to tell, and reasoning behind what I normally shoot.

I know I have a lot of photos of cats but cats are just cats and I have taken images of cats on the streets because they love me and I love cats and I must play with them and I should stop talking about cats. Moving on...

I think this is a rather straightforward one, that anyone can easily guess why I was so drawn to birds. My name, Robin itself, is a bird, and men have deep fascination with things that can fly since forever. One of the movie quotes that have always been stuck at the back of my mind was from the movie Batman Forever (I know, I know, not the finest Batman movies out there, but it was still a cool movie), Alfred gave a prudent advice to then an injured Dick Grayson, saying "broken wings will mend in time, one day, the Robin will fly again". When I heard that line, it struck a chord in me, and this was so true in so many levels, because temporary setbacks happen so often in our lives that we easily lose hope at times, feeling helpless and cannot look beyond our difficulties. Just observing the birds flying, I find it calming and reassuring that just like the bird, I will one day be able to break myself away and just soar high, fly far away from whatever mess I have managed to get myself into. Birds easily symbolize freedom. 

Finding matching items within a frame is a common street photography technique, one that is often used and repetition itself is interesting to watch. Just like my photography journey, I am still finding myself in this life I am in. There is so much uncertainty, so many things that I do not know, and I am unsure of what the future holds. In the midst of all the confusion and instability surrounding me, seeing similarities among-st all the variations of subjects makes perfect sense to me. They evoke the sense of unity, the understanding that hey there are things that are just the same, or seeking familiarity. I too, like many other photographers, seek similar-minded photographers to share our passion, stories and joy. No two people are the same, but aren't we connected by establishing at least a common interest? That is me saying, me too, at times actively seeking that connection with people, connection with other photographers who speak the same language. That is also the reason why I still continue to blog, that I can speak to an actual audience! Aren't we all the same? No photographer should be an island. 

Portrait of Strangers
God knows how many strangers in KL have I shot (now that sentence did not come out right, but yeah photography-speaking, I took photos of the strangers). Strangely, the excitement of approaching strangers, the thrill as I was making the images happen and the after-glow satisfaction that I felt when I reviewed a portrait of a stranger that I truly personally like are never, ever getting old. I felt the same every single time I was out there shooting. While this was not exactly recognized universally as street photography and at certain dark corners of street photography discussions posed portraits on the street could be frowned on, they never discussed about the connection that you make when shooting these portraits! They were short, direct, intentional, purposeful and sweet at the same time. I took just a moment of their (strangers) time, and we have that mutual trust and acknowledgement toward each other for that very brief moment. I chose to shoot direct strangers head-on because every single stranger has a different face, it is new all over again, though the composition and execution is the same. No two smiles are the same, no two facial expression convey the same emotion. Yet the strangers are people too, human just like I am, and I am seeing them through my viewfinder/live view. There is a lot more going on here than me shooting them, could I be looking for a mirror to my own self?

Placing subjects into shapes such as boxes or triangles is also a popular street photography composition style, something I have frequently adopted in my shots. This has a lot to do with my engineering practices, we often try our best to categorize, classify and isolate problems or issues, before we can figure out a solution. Therefore when I am on the street I like to visually separate my subjects and I find many ways to do that. Just like how I compartmentalize my engineering problems, I frame my subjects with rectangles or other shapes, sometimes even shadows or colorful background. I need to be able to see the subject clearly and the subject needs to stand out from the scene I was shooting. 

Motion Blur 
I often emphasized on the creative use of slow shutter speed to add that extra "oomph" in the street photographs, or any photography in general. It is an inexpensive way to get better photograph and also can create really unexpected results sometimes. Living in a fast-paced modern city such as Kuala Lumpur, everything is moving so fast and I wish at times I could just slow things down, or pause the time to catch my breath! I think speed and timing are extremely important in a lot of aspects in life. The one thing that man cannot control (at least for now) is time. Yet photography is probably the only tool that can immortalize one particular moment! How cool is that? 

Men at Work
I have often taken photographs of men at intense labor. Pushing carts, carrying loads of heavy objects, or doing something physically challenging on the streets. I identify myself with these men, in our "work culture" where we do so much hard work day in and out and we question whether our life is worth thrown aside just for the sake of the work that we do. Earning a living usually costs the life itself, you spend most of the day time working for someone else, by the time we retire, I do not see myself having enough life to do the things that I want to do! I have always thought there is something inherently wrong with this system. 

Bright Colors
Somehow, I have many photography friends who would avoid bright colors in their composition and just stay with neutral, distraction free, gentler to the eyes colors. To me, I always play with bright colors in my images. While I generally wear plain and not so striking colors, everything else around me can be colorful. I see the world in full color and I celebrate the existence of color. The brighter, the louder, the more explosive, the better! My best photographs came from some of the most colorful festivals in Malaysia, namely Holi Festival (festival of colors), and Thaipusam!

Well, the repeated images of coffee, because I love coffee. And shutter therapy typically ends with a good, over-priced cup of coffee. 

Have you wondered why you took your photographs a certain way or why were you drawn to certain subjects of choice? Do share your thoughts!

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  1. Ah, remember, I was saying about a purpose and a meaning to our individual photography when we last met? You've just enunciated the underlying elements to what you shoot, how you look at things and who you are. Coincidentally, I saw this very short clip from .. Bruce Gilden a few hours agi

    1. Haha you need to come back to KL more often. KL streets await you! And the new lenses too.

    2. Ah #GAS, a good friend and my mum. What more can I ask for! :)

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  2. Definitely something we should all do from time to time.

    It's interesting what you say about your portraits. I think your stranger portraits are among your strongest work.

    1. Thanks Glenn! I just wish I have more time to shoot these days. Things are a bit crazy at work.

  3. You probably could add butterflies and spiders to this mix!

    I agree that your "stranger portraits" are what really stand out (I could never do that myself, eek!). Those portraits must have helped Olympus sell a lot of cameras. For me, there is another theme through your photos, which is your mastery of exposure. It adds so much to your talent! I always enjoy watching those images slowly appearing on my screen and appreciate you sharing them.


    1. Oh dear, Don, I don't think we should overanalyze spiders and butterflies! Those are captured because, they were easily found for macro shooting, nothing more than that you must trust me! Well, shooting insect macro is a great exercise for technical execution for photography.
      Thank for the kind words, Don. Hoping to be able to make a book and have an exhibition some day!

  4. Hi Robin;

    Great shots! One of the things I shoot repeatedly is my son's ice hockey games. It is a very restricted environment: I can't move around very much, lighting is usually terrible, can't add light, fast subjects and generally busy to ugly backgrounds. I like that it forces me to think about the things that I can control and when I learn something that improves any of the poor conditions, I get a chance at a do over or spot something that I can now make work.

    The life lesson in this shooting is looking back at previous work and seeing the changes in the kids and my techniques. Keeps me aware of time passing.


  5. Why do my comments disappear from here? I was asking how you get 10 fps mechanical when the Olympus site says 15fps mechanical.

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