OBSCURA Photography Masterlass Alumni Interview: Benjamin Khong

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?
My interest in photography started when I was a kid from my fascination with beautiful images published in magazines lying around the house. Unfortunately, my family did not own a camera but I did have a cool uncle who was always keen on taking our family pictures. My spark in photography grew when I met Tang Chun Cheuh (a common friend, also an Obscura Masterclass alumni) who was very kind to loan me a Canon DSLR 350D in the year 2014. With that camera, I started shooting mainly stage photography following local independent music scene in Malaysia.

Tell me about your photography
I do mostly stage photography. Incidentally, I also perform as a chorus  member for Kuala Lumpur City Opera (KLCO) as well as other related stage productions under them. Being involved in classical music scene locally in Malaysia allows me the opportunity to understand and appreciate the productions more intimately. I found my photography as a powerful tool to realize this appreciation, and as a means of contribution back to KLCO and the local classical music community.

What do you intend to accomplish in your photography journey?
At a later stage, I want to be known as a photographer who contributes significantly to the community. I have interests in commercial photography and definitely would like to get my feet wet in the future. I intend to explore portraiture and product photography work professionally.

Why did you join the Obscura Masterclass/What were you hoping to get out of the Masterclass?
Tang Chun Cheah was the friend who introduced me to Obscura Festival of Photography, and he highly encouraged me to take up their Photography Masterclass. The main reason I decided to participate in the Masterclass was to expand my knowledge in photography as well as to widen my social connections in the photography community. In addition, I was also keen to improve my shooting skills and enhance the overall social aspect of photography. I have always been keeping to myself when it comes to my own photography and the Masterclass provides me the opportunity to break this wall and open up myself and my work to other photographers, gaining useful insights that could help develop my growth.

All images by Benjamin Khong. Used with permission. 
The first set is taken from the photo project done during Benjamin's Obscura Masterclass in 2017. 

Explain to me like a 6 years old, what a photography Masterclass is to you?
To me, a Photography Masterclass is essentially working on a photo assignment or a project with helpful guidance from an instructor who is an expert and experienced photographer.

Describe your Masterclass – who the instructor is, what you did, the process, etc
I took the Masterclass under the awesome Maggie Steber in 2017, and she assigned a common theme to everyone in the class – “daring to see the world in a new way”. She challenged everyone to think outside the box and to change our usual perspective in order to force ourselves out of our comfort zone.

My initial project I wanted to do was to document a local Wet Market. I wanted to cover the scenes and imagery of local traders and their interactions with customers and other patrons to the market. However, upon executing the project on the first day, I found myself in an extremely challenging situation, as I had to face many unwilling market people who refused to have their photographs taken. They were less cooperative than I have initially anticipated. Furthermore, there was a language barrier, as the locals in Penang spoke mainly “Hokkien” (a Chinese dialect) which I was not fluent with, causing communication issues. Therefore, I have decided to adapt quickly and after consulting with Maggie Steber, I have narrowed down the project focus to one specific trait: emphasizing only on the meat traders.

Having more focus allows me to concentrate in getting the shots that I needed for the project. I needed to push myself to approach strangers, overcoming the fear of rejection and work with them to accomplish my photography objectives.

What are the challenges and difficulties faced during the Masterclass?
The biggest challenge for me was working with gory, messy and generally repulsive meat in its rawest form. It was not easy finding the good angle to shoot the images aesthetically and certainly, I needed to approach my composition more creatively. I needed to go close enough to get my shots.
The next biggest difficulty for me was learning curation. This is a new skill that I have acquired from the Masterclass, the process of selecting, editing and arranging the images to fit appropriately into the original project narrative. After all, curation is a crucial part of photography presentation and this helped me to understand my own photography work better, separating the images that worked from those that did not.

Tell me more about your instructor
Maggie Steber is a unique and strong character as a photographer, having done it all with all kinds of photography ranging from portraiture  to documentary. Yet she remains down to earth, open minded and sees life in such a positive light. Despite her years of exposure to humanity in their many forms, she is still vivacious and young in spirit. She dedicated her time in reviewing everyone’s progress every day. She selected a few photographs to explain why they worked, supplementing with helpful comments on how to take the next step. She also encouraged open environment in the class where everyone supported and encouraged each other to do better.

The following set of images were taken from Benjamin's latest assignment covering University of Malaya's recital

An interesting note to add: Maggie was surprised and expressed her genuine admiration of me showing up early at 630am to shoot my project while some of my classmates were still asleep!  Having such positive remark from Maggie herself was a huge motivation to push myself further.

What is the most significant lesson you took away from the Obscura Masterclass?
To me, I have learned to be adaptable. You have to change your approach when the situation calls for it, and always be on your toes to make that necessary change. Circumstances may not always work on our favour, but we can be flexible and make the best out of what we have and do what we can. We have to evolve and roll along with the changes to overcome the challenges. I strongly believe that great photographers are highly creative problem solvers. I strive to become one.

Post Obscura: How did the Masterclass help your photography practise?
The Masterclass has helped improved my photography game in general, the most evident being in my stage photography. I have learned to see and understand photographs and concepts better. I can also curate my own photography better now.

If you have a platform to speak to an audience of photographers about Obscura Masterclass, what would you tell them?
The Obscura Photography Masterclass is an international level Masterclass that is widely accessible by anyone; it does not matter if you are a hobbyist or a professional photographer. They have a range of incredibly talented and helpful instructors to help you grow as a photographer. The experience I have had was unforgettable, and I have learned and developed so much in such a short time. The friends and connections I have made from Obscura have formed a close kinship and we all still keep in touch until today.


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