Shooting Stars: How four photographers and directors juggle art and the need to pay bills

Singaporean photographer ND Chow held an exhibition, Leave Only Footprints, in Tokyo in 2020. PHOTO: ND CHOW

The pandemic may have made shooting more difficult, but four photographers and directors have managed to juggle both their artistic pursuits as well as commercial projects.

Whether they are based far from home in cities such as Tokyo, Beijing and New York or in Singapore, they have had to adapt to the new normal.

This may involve pivoting from working internationally to cultivating more local contacts, a shift in creative mindset or even a totally new way of shooting remotely.

While the road ahead is still uncertain, these creatives have proven that they can survive the pandemic and thrive.

ND Chow

Singaporean photographer ND Chow has spent 20 years in Japan. PHOTO: ND CHOW

Tokyo-based Singaporean photographer ND Chow went from flying 15 times a year for photo shoots to being grounded for the past two years.

Chow, 46, who has lived in Japan since 2000, said: "I could take this opportunity to go to different places that I have always wanted to go."

"Japan has so many beautiful spots for photography," he said, adding that it was "inspiring to reinvestigate her beauty".

The father of two young children visited Okinawa, Yakushima, Kyushu and Koichi during the pandemic, taking advantage of the rare downtime from work.

One of Japan's top commercial photographers, he has shot beauty campaigns for Japanese skincare giants Shiseido, SK-II, Kose and Kanebo as well as big brands such as Coca-Cola, Softbank and Seiko.

Also in his portfolio are portraits of Japanese celebrities, including actor-director Takeshi Kitano, actor-singer Takuya Kimura and singer Ayumi Hamasaki; American singers Cyndi Lauper and Pharrell Williams; and Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic.

Most recently, he helmed a project for sunscreen brand Anessa, by Shiseido, taking charge not only of the still images, but also acting as director of photography for the television commercials.

Among the challenges of working during a pandemic were sudden disruptions to plans as well as making sure all Covid-19 safety measures were in place.

Chow, who speaks fluent Japanese, said one week before a shoot in Okinawa this summer, a state of emergency was declared in the prefecture. He had to scramble to find another location.

Singaporean photographer ND Chow has shot a photo book for Japanese actress Mariya Nishiuchi. PHOTO: ND CHOW

On another job, the shoot was postponed three times.

"We are still very unsure how the country will operate and react to the virus," he said.

One new way of working was through virtual meetings and remote shooting.

"I had to remotely instruct the local crew to set up the exact shoot plan already executed in Tokyo. At the same time, I had to guide the photographer and model to get the closest possible match for the visual I had created," Chow said of one job which he shot remotely.

The commercial photographer is also an artist who has staged several exhibitions revolving around themes such as identity and sensuality.

His last one, Leave Only Footprints, was a collaboration with actress Haruka Ayase and took place in Tokyo in early 2020. The timing was unfortunate and it was cut short after two weeks due to the pandemic.

His latest collaboration is with Japanese actresses Mariya Nishiuchi and Yuki Sakurai on two photo books, both with the themes of facing new challenges and revealing sides of them which have not been seen before.

On how he balances his personal creative endeavours with commercial projects, the self-taught photographer, who obtained his master's degree in fine arts from Singapore's Lasalle College of the Arts in 2019, said they have different audiences.

"It is like creating a boundary - on the artistic side are questions, on the commercial side are answers."

Lavender Chang

Taiwan-born photographer Lavender Chang has made Singapore home. PHOTO: LAVENDER CHANG

From painter to photographer to cinematographer, Lavender Chang has never shied away from challenging herself as an artist.

The Taiwan-born 38-year-old, who now calls Singapore home, has an impressive body of work which includes artistic and commercial projects and encompasses both still and moving images.

"I feel the most important part to me is that I must love the visuals I create," said the award-winning conceptual photographer who has worked with luxury brands such as Cartier, Chanel and Audemars Piguet.

"When I do my art projects, I get to decide everything, and when I work with clients and teams, we discuss and work out something that we both like."

She added: "Most of the time, the clients give me a lot of creative freedom - that's also one of the reasons they choose to collaborate with me - so I can be very creative."

Also known for her portraiture work, she has a portfolio which includes famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, fashion designer Christian Louboutin, director John Woo and Chinese contemporary artist Cao Fei.

"With my subjects, I am not shy to ask them to do something out of their comfort zone, such as lying on the floor, wearing a suit or standing in water or in a busy kitchen. If they are good with my suggestions, together, we will have something unique."

Singaporean photographer Lavender Chang has shot Cartier for Prestige. PHOTO: LAVENDER CHANG/CARTIER/PRESTIGE

One of her latest projects is a film collaboration with fellow Singaporean John Clang, a photographer, director and visual artist who is based in New York.

The film A Love Unknown (2020), their second time working together, was screened at the Singapore International Festival of Arts in May and has travelled to a number of international film festivals.

The film follows a woman in New York and her estranged daughter in Singapore over the course of four days as they grapple with anxiety, depression and existential despair.

While the pandemic has meant that shooting in person has become more challenging, she said: "The pandemic never stopped me from creating my art projects. I found new ideas to work around the restrictions. There is always a way to share a voice if you want to."

Welcoming Portrait Of A New Time by photographer Lavender Chang abstractly depicts a subject wearing a mask. PHOTO: LAVENDER CHANG

She continued to work on her photography art as well as on a documentary film, and will hold a solo exhibition next year.

During the pandemic, she also conducted a walking tour for the Singapore International Photography Festival in January.

It was supposed to have been an in-person tour around Katong, a neighbourhood related to her art, but due to Covid-19 restrictions, the festival organisers pivoted to using a 360-degree video recording and sharing it online.

She added: "Looking on the bright side, when people are restricted by circumstances, they are forced to be more creative."

Kirsten Tan

Singaporean director Kirsten Tan. PHOTO: COURTESY OF KIRSTEN TAN

Award-winning indie film-maker Kirsten Tan is candid about the realities of her artistic pursuits.

"I'm an independent film-maker, where I create, write and direct my own films. As much as I love it, it is labour- and time-intensive, but tough to make a living out of, and that's where my commercial endeavours come into play," said the director of award-winning film Pop Aye (2017).

The road-trip drama was her first feature film, which she wrote and directed. It was the first Singaporean film to screen at Sundance and was Singapore's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.

"I've come to realise, though, that I can't just take on any commercial work. There still has to be something in its social message or artistic vision that I believe in or connect with," she added.

In recent years, some international brands she has collaborated with include Giorgio Armani, Heineken and Tiffany & Co.

In Singapore, she has also worked with Raffles Hotel, the Singapore Kindness Movement and Singapore Tourism Board on campaigns.

Singaporean indie filmmaker Kirsten Tan has shot campaigns for Raffles Hotel. PHOTO: KIRSTEN TAN

The New York-based director and screenwriter is currently developing a couple of long-form film and television projects, but has had to adapt as the pandemic unfolded.

"The pandemic era, where conditions are ever-changing and evolving, has taught me to be a lot more flexible in my approach to my work and my practice.

"It was imperative not to be too attached to any pre-existing plans, down to details like acquiring costumes for cast because international supply lines have been affected," she said.

"In some ways, it was invigorating as those changes meant that I could really stretch myself as a creator."

Singaporean indie filmmaker Kirsten Tan has shot campaigns for Giorgio Armani. PHOTO: KIRSTEN TAN

"The pandemic era, where conditions are ever-changing and evolving, has taught me to be a lot more flexible in my approach to my work and my practice.

"It was imperative not to be too attached to any pre-existing plans, down to details like acquiring costumes for cast because international supply lines have been affected," she said.

"In some ways, it was invigorating as those changes meant that I could really stretch myself as a creator."

Even though she has spent more than a decade in New York, she said: "What I've found intriguing is that when I started out, many of my first opportunities were given to me in New York City, more so than from Singapore."

She added: "This was somewhat surprising considering that New York City is known to be a tougher, more saturated industry to break into.

"I suspect that's because they're more willing to take chances on new talent. As long as they like your work and taste, they take a chance on you, whereas in Singapore, having a thick resume sometimes seems to matter more than the work itself."

Stefen Chow

Beijing-based photographer Stefen Chow. PHOTO: STEFEN CHOW

Striking a balance between artistic and commercial projects is something that comes easily to photographer-director Stefen Chow, 41.

It was also something which he knew he had to do from the moment his career began.

"I have always placed my art on equal footing as work that pays for bills. When I became a photographer in 2007, I knew that I wanted to strike a balance between my art and commercial work," said the Malaysia-born, Singapore-raised lensman who is now based in Beijing.

"It wasn't just a wish list. It was built into my work ethic, where I would set aside time and resources just to do art. As such, I have been driving this balance right from the start."

Among the big brands that he has worked with are Disney, Nike, Coach and Alibaba and he has won awards from World Press Photo and National Geographic, among others.

On the art front, one of his most recent works is The Poverty Line, which he worked on as part of the artist duo Chow and Lin with his Singaporean partner Huiyin Lin.

The Poverty Line examines poverty with regards to food in 36 cities. PHOTO: CHOW AND LIN

Released in the middle of the year, the book, which took them a decade, examines poverty with regards to food in 36 cities and was named one of the top 10 photo books of the year by New York's Museum of Modern Art.

To balance both passions, he confesses to working long hours: starting at 9am and finishing around midnight.

"As my commercial and artistic career grew, I also started dedicating resources on both ends so I don't burn out. I am honestly passionate about both my directions of work, be it art or commercial projects."

He added: "I also have the ability to really talk business in a commercial setting, while I take on a different persona when it's about art.

"Not everyone has that personality and flexibility to do it, I know. I could somehow juggle this and not feel uncomfortable."

The pandemic has been a stressful time for him, both mentally and physically. He was in Singapore when the pandemic struck in early 2020 and he stayed on for another month while the situation in China got tense.

"It was hard. All my assignments were cancelled and, like many creatives, I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. I made the decision to return to China in early March with my family as our lives were based there," said the father of two young children.

When China entered a lockdown, he reassessed all his assignments, especially those which were overseas, and completely changed his business model to focus on building contacts with companies in Beijing. Results showed only a few months down the road.

Beijing-based photographer Stefen Chow shot a campaign for luxury hotel KHOS Shenyang. PHOTO: STEFEN CHOW

Most recently, he directed a short film for the newly opened luxury hotel Khos Shenyang, under the Rosewood Hotel Group. There were about 30 people on set and, as has become the new normal, he supervised the shoot remotely while his team was on the ground.

"I was very fortunate that China's economy was doing okay, so there was still some work available. But it took a complete change to make this happen."

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