Making it big overseas: Superpower in the middle finger

Photographer ND Chow developed a technique of shooting quickly despite having a finger which cannot bend due to an accident. Based in Japan, he has shot celebrities such as Ayumi Hamasaki (above). -- PHOTO: ND CHOW
Photographer ND Chow developed a technique of shooting quickly despite having a finger which cannot bend due to an accident. Based in Japan, he has shot celebrities such as Ayumi Hamasaki (above). -- PHOTO: ND CHOW
Photographer ND Chow (above) developed a technique of shooting quickly despite having a finger which cannot bend due to an accident. Based in Japan, he has shot celebrities such as Ayumi Hamasaki. -- PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Photographer ND Chow (above) developed a technique of shooting quickly despite having a finger which cannot bend due to an accident. Based in Japan, he has shot celebrities such as Ayumi Hamasaki. -- PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

A can-opening accident 15 years ago left Tokyo-based Singaporean photographer ND Chow with an unbendable middle finger on his left hand.

He had been using a knife to pry open a can of food while travelling in the Czech Republic, but accidentally stabbed the base of his left hand instead.

Even after an operation there, his middle finger remained stiff, an injury which has ironically contributed to Chow's trademark shooting style.

"This injury made me develop a technique to focus and zoom all at the same time and very quickly," he says, while demonstrating on a camera.

While his index and ring fingers are busy working away, the middle finger remains sticking up wilfully. "If this is healed, I won't have this special power anymore," Chow jokes, half-seriously.

In town for his first solo photography exhibition, Roots, at Objectifs, Chow is one of Japan's top commercial photographers, having shot beauty campaigns for Japanese skincare giants Shiseido, Kose and Kanebo.

He has also photographed Japanese celebrities, such as Ayumi Hamasaki and Rinko Kikuchi, and American singers Cyndi Lauper and Pharrell Williams.

A former assistant to renowned Japan-based Singaporean photographer Leslie Kee for two years, the 39-year-old father of two has been based in Tokyo since 2000 and specialises in portrait photography.

He says he was drawn to Japan because of the Japanese "extreme attention to every delicate detail, their punctuality, their spirit and their professionalism... it has been a huge influence on my photography and lifestyle".

"The art and beauty of Japonism has drawn me in search of the concept of Asian beauty."

Chow, a self-taught photographer, discovered he had a knack for photography during a two-year soul-searching trip when he was 23.

"When I was younger, I wasn't very good at communicating. But when I started taking pictures on my trip, I learnt how to get closer to people and interact with them."

The exhibition here showcases photographs he had taken during that trip when he travelled to Iran, Pakistan, India, Tibet and Europe.

He learnt to identify and correct his weaknesses while on the job when he started out in Japan. He decided to strike out on his own to "prove that I was a good photographer in my own right".

His big break came soon after when he was asked to document the life and work of renowned Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa.

That was followed by a photo shoot of Japanese pop diva Hamasaki that made her look unexpectedly "natural", by showing "a side of her no one had ever photographed".

On making it big, Chow, who speaks fluent Japanese, says: "It wasn't easy because Japan already had many established photographers and, to top it off, I was a foreigner."

"My style is very different from the classic Japanese style which tends to be very raw, very stark and also very distant from the subject, both physically and emotionally.

"My photos are the opposite of that. They are warm, gentle and very intimate, very close. I think that helped to set me apart."

He has no plans to move back to Singapore as his family and much of his work are in Japan. He is married to a Japanese human resources professional.

He hopes that Roots will inspire young Singaporeans to travel more and learn about different cultures.

"I want them to travel and have many experiences, and get close to people," he says.