OBSCURA Photography Masterlass Alumni Interview: Alvin Lau

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 picked up an old, used FED5D Russian camera to try out the film look. Also because it was the cheapest one I could find as a student in secondary school then.
I found a group of KL street photographers on my very first shoot sat down with them, asked if I could join the next thing I knew, I started shooting with them.

Robin's note: I was in that group of street photographer's and I remembered being amazed by Alvin's courage of approaching us and tagging along our street photowalk. 

Tell me about your photography approach?
I try to combine an artistic approach into documentary photography. I’ve been working on several projects, one musing on death, but in a way that celebrates and examines life. Another project is about my neighbourhood, but in a rather research-based methodology, with Alec Soth’s Sleeping By The Mississippi being a huge influence to the project. My work is heavily inspired by my mentors Maggie Steber, Jörg Brüggemann and Tobias Kruse from the OBSCURA Festival Masterclass programs.

What do you intend to accomplish in your photography journey?
Having my own solo exhibition in local Malaysian galleries, and being part of group exhibitions outside would be quite an accomplishment. I’d like to explore more with my photography, to expand my boundaries to become a better photographer. I hope to ultimately create more visually appealing work that manages to project a sense of research and forethought behind it, rather than simply take shots of opportunity. Though one could also argue that in a way, all photographs are formed from one opportunity or another.

All images by Alvin Lau. Used with permission. 

Why did you join the OBSCURA Masterclass? What were you hoping to get out of it?
I decided to quit college because I knew the course I was doing was not right for me and I was determined to become a photographer more than anything else. I was frustrated because I did not know how. Winning the Kuala Lumpur Photoawards (KLPA) in 2015 was my big break, because the prize was a masterclass with Maggie Steber in OBSCURA Festival that year. I entered the masterclass hoping it could answer that ‘how’.

What a photography Masterclass is to you? Describe your Masterclass – who the instructor is, what you did, the process, etc
When I joined, I didn’t know what to expect at the time. All I knew was I needed guidance and education to become a practicing photographer. Basically, you don’t go to a masterclass to learn to use a camera. You’re there to understand yourself and how you see the world, and consequently use that understanding to narrate and shape your photography.  No matter your skill level or background, at a masterclass, you’re accepted as a photographer without question, and expected to behave as one.

That means being able to come up with my own story idea that Maggie agrees to, then going out to shoot it. After which, between the in-class discussions, there’s lots of reshooting and editing every day based on the feedback I got from Maggie and my peers, before finally curating the final submission for the slideshow presentation. It’s a lot of work, but when you see your work being projected on a big screen, you know that effort was worth it and wouldn’t accept any less.

Maggie is a VERY experienced photographer and editor. Having been an editor at the Miami Herald and a National Geographic photographer herself, she wants to help you take your photography to that level. Therefore, she expects you to give your best in return. If you get lazy with your work, she can tell immediately and will give you a piece of her mind. However, Maggie is also a very down to earth and approachable person, and can engage with anyone at a personal level. She is also quick to recognise your efforts and nudge you to improve on what you’re doing well.  The experience with her was mind-blowing and very encouraging.

What are the challenges and difficulties faced during the Masterclass?
I was only 21 when I did Maggie’s class, the youngest in my batch. I think at that time, I still had that youthful naiveté and enthusiasm, so I didn’t really find it difficult. Or rather, I was enjoying the challenge of it and felt I was being pushed towards where I wanted to be.
With that being said, doing a masterclass is physically and mentally challenging. If you’re not shooting your work, you’re expected to be researching your subject, or editing. I would walk around late every night finding stuff to shoot for my project, and each night would bring about a different margin of success. When you had a bad day of shooting, the pressure is on you to make up for it the next day.

What is the most significant lesson you took away from the OBSCURA Masterclass?
It’s hard to articulate it in one sentence or paragraph. I didn’t learn one single thing in the masterclass but the seeds of many ideas and concepts. After completing the programme, you’d carry the knowledge and potential to become a great photographer, and you’d have some work as a reference point and portfolio.

But you need to keep up the momentum of making more work and continuously challenging yourself, so the masterclass doesn’t stop with the submission of your work – it is merely the beginning. You need to explore opportunities to continue with your project or start a new one with what you’ve learned.

Being selected for the Southeast Asian Photography Masterclass in 2016 was a continuation from where Maggie left off. At the SEA masterclass, I had to start a new project under Jörg Brüggemann and Tobias Kruse from Ostkreutz Agency, Berlin, with one year to see it completed and printed into a photo book. A year may seem pretty generous, but the expectations were also much, much higher, and your photographs have to reflect a deep understanding and connection with your subject matter.

How did the Masterclass help your photography practise?
Just as winning the Kuala Lumpur Photoawards opened the door to OBSCURA, my masterclass experience led to me being selected for the inaugural Southeast Asian Masterclass.  The prints and photobook from the SEA Masterclass are now on a travelling exhibition around the world, where it will continue to be shown for almost 2 years.

This in turn qualified me for the Angkor Photo Festival Workshop with Ian Teh and Sim Chiyin last year (2017), and the Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA) Photography Scholarship as well. I also had my own solo shows at Jeon-Ju Festival in South Korea and Lanskrona Foto Festival (Sweden) the same year. I’m currently applying for some residencies, and seeing where they will take me in the near future. So it snowballed into a real life-changing experience that I couldn’t have imagined back in 2015 when I first took Maggie’s class.

If you have a platform to speak to an audience of photographers about the OBSCURA masterclass, what would you tell them?
A masterclass is not just a photography workshop. It’s a life workshop. It will help you see photography differently, instead of just as media to be consumed. Like paintings, photography is an art form, and taking a masterclass will help you practice and appreciate the art better.

You may find out more about Alvin Lau's photography work at his portfolio site and Instagram. 
To know more about OBSCURA Festival of Photography Masterclass registration, you may visit their official page here. 

1 comment: