Rain or Shine.
Story by Zhuang Wubin • Photos by Ming

Ming is 25. He takes photos for a living. Does it pay the bills? Yes.

it’s Ming after all

ime is 4pm. We are along Smith Street. Stalls are getting ready for their customers. Ming sets aside his very late lunch – a bowl of prawn noodles soup. I take it as a cue to start. I hand him a printout. A few days ago, I sent two questions to start him off. In his email reply, he wrote: “I have always chosen the path less travelled by others.” This is rather cliche, I need an explanation. Ming: I noticed I was different back in those Commonwealth Secondary School days. In my last two years there, I started painting extensively. I was a Science student but chose to excel in fine art. I took art as a subject. Commonwealth has always been strong in art. Go to the school today and you will still see a lot of murals and paintings around the compound. My art teacher


is still at Commonwealth. But it was a relief art teacher who actually started me off, showing me photographic art. Wubin: So do you remember his name? Ming: Not really.

At times, it looked as though painting and taking photos were the only two things Zhi Ming was really interested in. For his final art project of the O’ Levels, he wanted to do an acrylic painting on trishaws. There were a few ways he could do it, and he needed some advice. Instead, his relief art teacher – for the benefit of the readers, let’s call him Mr. A – showed him photomontages by David Hockney. Mr. A was not trying to spoon-feed Zhi Ming. It was his way of getting Zhi Ming excited. He was just opening a door. With his camera, Zhi Ming started an intimate study of the different parts of the trishaw. He developed the images and made them into a

Relief art teacher Mr. A
Huang Zhi Ming knew he could draw. He knew he could doodle. But could he paint? “I wouldn’t know unless I tried it,” he said to himself. But once he started on acrylic, he couldn’t stop. At the same time, he was taking photos for his secondary school magazine and newsletters.


collage. And then he painted from it. In the end, he titled the painting “Tricycles” instead of “Trishaws”, because it had “a surreal feel”.

You may feel I’m making a point as the pictures look different. However, I don’t know what’s different about them. That’s just the way I see things. Wubin: How do you deal with your creative impulses when your clients tick you off? Ming: Simple. I do what they want. They pay me the money to tell them what they want. So I will give them what they want. At the same time, I will show them what I can do. Chances are, if they like what they see, they will use it. Of course, it may be too costly to do it everytime. Wubin: Commercial work pays your bills and allows you to pursue art photography. Does art photography help your commercial work? Ming: No one tells you how commercial work is done. The clients see what I do, they like what I do, they pay for what I do, and that’s commercial work. Nowadays, clients like a fresh approach. So it’s not that bad. Then again, the work is pretty standard.

1996, where he freelanced till 1997. Graduated in 1998, he was enlisted and became an OCS instructor. According to an anonymous source who was tekan-ed by Zhi Ming, he had quite a reputation. This is very different from the way he describes himself today: not too aggressive, slightly passive. Nonetheless, SAF was the minor distraction before he became Ming. Understandably, his parents were not supportive initially. “They were concerned about my career and my livelihood, but they did not insist that I became a doctor,” Ming replied in his email. “They left the decision to me. There was no resistance from their part.” By his own admission, Ming is conservative. On the other hand, he admires Keith Harding, who started his painting career by drawing graffiti in the NYC subways. We are talking about the lack of exposure for art photography in Singapore. Ming seems fiercely protective of his images and the context in which they are seen. “People talk about guerilla photography. They talk about taking an image and putting it anywhere everywhere. Frankly, I don’t know what’s the point,” he says matter-of-factly.

Paying the bills with photography
Wubin: What pays your bills? Ming: I shoot wedding photos, I do architecture photography, take photos for corporate clients – you know, year-end reports, things like that – and I work with design houses. It’s no problem paying bills with these freelance assignments. At the same time, I get to do my own photography work. Wubin: Shooting wedding photos pays bills. I look at them on your www.colonjay.com site. It feels you are making a point too. Ming: First of all, it is a privilege to take wedding pictures. Secondly, it is fun. Everything I do, there’s this element of fun. In a wedding, you meet people, which is important as you broaden your social circle, hear different points-of-view. But having said that, I am moving away from wedding photography. Wubin: Why? Ming: Ultimately, this is commercial work. The motivation is different. But I do see it as a record of our heritage. At the same time, you get tons of candid shots in the process. Sometimes, I’m literally laughing when I’m working in a wedding.

From Zhi Ming to Ming
1994 ended. Zhi Ming had a choice. He could go to a JC with his grades. But he went to Temasek Polytechnic and took a diploma in visual communication. That was when photography became serious. He got himself an internship with Straits Times in


“Perhaps we are not desperate enough. Perhaps we are too structured.” That’s why he prefers to share his images either privately, through a public exhibition, or on the web. “Photos need to be explained. You need to give a context,” he continues. “Or else, they get misinterpreted. An artist’s statement helps.” His first exhibition, titled “Rain”, was held last November at Objectifs.

I ask myself the same question. When you click away at the sunset, there must be a point when you must stop and really enjoy it. You need to know when to stop. Wubin: Aren’t you afraid you will miss a shot? Ming: If I miss a shot, it’s not “my moment”. It’s just not my shot. There are many possible moments. But if you miss one, it just means that the particular moment you miss is not yours. I don’t fish, but I reckon it works the same way in fishing. Wubin: What is the relevance of art photography in Singapore? Ming: People call it art because they don’t understand it. Life is big, art is as wide, and therefore art is always relevant. I urge people to go into an exhibition and see what “art” photography is. You never know, it may change your life. You may not have seen your world the way photographers see it. Photographers are the eyes of the city. I like the idea of travel, of local photographers “travelling” in Singapore, looking for things you don’t normally notice. These are the images that will catch my eyes.

Portrait of Ming as an art photographer
Wubin: Is there a central theme that runs through your work? Ming: Not really. But whatever I do, it has to be fun. Trying out new ideas, challenging myself, pushing myself, these are fun things to do. Wubin: You keep mentioning the need to have fun. But looking at the photos from your “Rain” exhibition and from the “Missing Marie” gallery on your colonjay site, it is hard to detect the notion of fun. Ming: But they are not sad SAD. “Rain” came about when I was doing architecture photography. I just bummed onto the rainy season. And if there’s rain, you can’t do architecture work. Instead of waiting around, I decided to take pictures of the rain. Rain slowly became the metaphor for what was going around the world. The war was raging in Iraq, and we had SARS back home. “Rain” is found on www.lifegoeson.com.sg. I deliberately chose the URL to say that things would become better. So you see, rain is not all tragic. No matter how bad the weather may be, the sun will still shine again. Wubin: Tell me more about “Missing Marie”. Ming: Are you going to write that down? Gosh, ‘cause “Missing Marie” is about my ex. She’s from Germany. It was a doomed relation to start with. She eventually had to go. It was inevitable. So I went to take snap shots of places we had been together, cross-processed them on the computer and printed them onto a small book. I sent the book to her. It is my way of remembering her. Photography is the way I communicate and share. “Missing Marie” is a good example. Wubin: Talking about remembering people and things, how do you remember? Do you remember by taking a photo, or by feeling and seeing? Ming: When I’m travelling and I see everyone – myself included – taking photos of the sunset,

“Photos need to be explained. You need to give a context,” he continues. “Or else, they get misinterpreted. An artist’s statement helps.”

After rain, there is SHINE
A few days after the interview, Ming emails me a few pictures from a collection titled “The Cruise”. Gone are the imposing clouds before a storm. One of the photos shows a man lounging on the deck of the cruise, with two flimsy pieces of tissue on his glasses as sunshades. At the same time, Ming is also eager to break the news. His much talked-about “Shine” exhibition has finally gotten the go-ahead. It will most likely take place later the year. “Shine” will contain photos from his “The Cruise”, “Graduates” and “Chinese tourists” collections. It is a no-brainer to add that the exhibition will feature more “candid” images, where Ming’s desire to “have fun” will come through distinctively. Speaking about the “Graduates” collection, Ming says: “I actually did this in 2002, following graduates and their photographers around Singapore, looking to sneak in a few candid shots.” For now, Ming seems happily occupied. There will be commercial work to pay his bills. And there is the small matter of “Shine” to keep him on his toes. He will have the luxury of pushing himself and having a jolly time.