OBSCURA Photography Masterlass Alumni Interview: Tang Chun Cheuh

OBSCURA is the largest photography festival in South East Asia and they run photography Masterclass by experienced industry experts. I personally know the organizing team of Obscura and also some of my photographer friends have participated in their Masterclass before. This allows me to interview these photographers and I shall be featuring them in this and following few articles, sharing their experience being in Obscura Masterclass. To find out more about Obscura Festival of Photography, kindly go to their official site here. 

How did you get into the photography world?
I’ve always had an interest in photography since I was a kid. There was a film compact camera that my dad only rarely let me use, so I’ve wanted my own camera throughout my childhood. I got myself a compact camera when I graduated from college, and was taking a lot of snaps then. But I would say my real entry into photography came when a very close friend from college handed me down his Canon 350D back in 2012 when I was travelling to watch a concert. That would become the start of my stage photography experience.

Tell me about your photography
I enjoy photography in many forms, but personally am a stage photographer specializing in dance and music, particularly in low light situations. It’s what I do commercially, aside from shooting events. I also enjoy street photography and over the last few years, have been on a project documenting my relationship with Kuala Lumpur. Since last year, I also started dabbling in some conceptual work, but it’s a personal project.

What do you intend to accomplish in your photography journey?
I’d like to make a living as a stage photographer, but there’s no market for it in Malaysia. At this point, I’m just keen on trying to improve my photography as best as I can, and see where that takes me. It would be nice to put together my KL project into a photobook of sorts, but that’s not something for the near future.

Why did you join the Obscura Masterclass/What were you hoping to get out of the Masterclass?
I met Vig (festival director) back in 2012, where he was presenting his experience from the first OBSCURA. He talked about the masterclass as a learning opportunity. At that time, I was self-learning mostly through photography technique books, magazines and web articles, so everything I knew was from a technical standpoint, but not from a creativity aspect. If I wanted to grow further as a photographer, I’d need some sort of lessons or coaching, so I signed up for an OBSCURA masterclass the following year.

All images by Tang Chun Cheuh, taken from his 2014 Obscura Masterclass with Justin Mott. Used with permission. 

What is a photography Masterclass is to you? Describe your Masterclass – who the instructor is, what you did, the process, etc.
I took an OBSCURA masterclass twice. The first in 2014 with Justin Mott, and the following year with Ian Teh. In a nutshell, you’d spend your first lesson sharing your portfolio with your classmates and instructor, and what you hope to get out of the masterclass. After which, you’d pitch your story idea to the class, where everyone will weigh in the merit and cons of your pitch. If the instructor agrees to the story, then you go out and shoot your story each day, and in between you’ll be back in class or having 1 to 1 discussions with your instructor about the day’s shoot, and review your day’s work as your instructor and class gives you feedback and help with you edit.

From a more personal perspective, my class with Justin was very small, and everyone were more experienced photographers than I was. This meant I had a lot of personal time with Justin, so if I needed something, he could just give me a practical lesson directly. My peers were also experienced enough to give a lot of great feedback, so I grew in leaps and bounds over the course of the masterclass.

It was a bigger class with Ian, so it was more a classroom environment compared to the previous year with Justin. Even so, Ian would schedule one-to-one sessions for everyone. One really vivid memory of Ian’s class was us looking at works from masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alec Soth, Josef Koudelka, Sebastiao Salgado and Robert Frank, for example, and get a lesson in visual literacy and at the same time, see how my peers appreciate and interpret a photo.

What are the challenges and difficulties faced during the Masterclass?
I could write a long essay to answer this question alone! Firstly, you’re on a strict deadline to get enough photos to adequately tell your story, and not everything is going to go your way. For example, the lighting might be wrong, or the subject matter isn’t giving you a particularly photogenic moment to be worth shooting. You might take some fantastic shots, but you might not be able to use them because they don’t fit your artist statement. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to end up changing their project midway, or people not being able to come up with a workable story until several days in. But that’s alright. It’s part of the learning process. And even if you are on track and going well with your project, your instructor will keep finding ways to push you creatively, which translates to very physically demanding period. Whenever you’re not in class, you’re expected to shoot, or think about how and what to shoot. Needless to say, sleep is a luxury during the masterclass.

What is the most significant lesson you took away from the Obscura Masterclass?
I learnt different things in both my masterclasses. With Justin, I started building a sense of confidence, and submitted a project that was vibrant and colourful, It gave me a deep skill set and practical experience so that when I went to Ian’s class next year, I was focusing on learning to think. I came out of Justin’s class convinced that I could take a beautiful photograph, which was something I was very insecure about before.

Ian has an incredible thought process. As someone who’s deeply critical of my own work, Ian knows that whatever I submit, it would be after trying everything I’d thought of, so what he’d do is suggest other things I could try doing, since he knows I’m already examining my own flaws. He’s natural at analysing your strengths and weaknesses, and will never set you up for a challenge if he didn’t believe you were up to it. I remember a year later when I was struggling while shooting as the festival’s official photographer for the first time. So I sat down with Ian for about 5 minutes, and showed him some of my snaps. He gave me some pointers which I could immediately use, and that just improved everything else I shot after.

Post Obscura: How did the Masterclass help your photography practice?
What I learnt from my masterclasses were essentially years’ worth of practical experience condensed into two weeks. There are some things I’d immediately get better, even during the masterclass, like simply taking better shots and being able to better recognize a good moment, lighting and composition to be worth snapping, or not. But there are other lessons which take time to develop, like trying to articulate what you feel into your photography. I don’t think I’d be able to do my personal project without having done my OBSCURA masterclasses first.

If you have a platform to speak to an audience of photographers about Obscura Masterclass, what would you tell them?
I would say, if you’re stuck in a creative block and want to learn how to get out of the rut, go sign up for a masterclass. The experience isn’t easy in any way, but it changes the way you think about and practice your photography, and just how you appreciate photos in general.

You may find out more about Tang Chun Cheuh's photography at his Portfolio and Instagram. 

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