Student Shaun Tan mixes ocean and fashion to win Photo Face-Off

Singaporean university student Shaun Tan says he felt more relieved than ecstatic last week when he won the second season of Photo Face-Off, a regional photography competition that was telecast on History Channel.

In the final rounds, Tan, 23, was up against two competitors who were considerably younger than him: 12-year-old Thawiphum Techaphan from Thailand and 16-year-old Kennardi Sebastian from Indonesia.

"They were young, but they were shooting at a level that was way above their age," he says.

En route to his victory, which was announced in the final episode of the show that aired last week, he beat 15 other amateur photographers from six countries in South-east Asia. He won a nine-day trip to Japan to attend the Canon Photo Clinic, a chance to photograph a red carpet event in the United States, a Canon EOS 7D Mark-II and a Canon professional backpack.

Among the challenges he took on in the final episode, which was filmed in Cebu in the Philippines, Tan was most pleased with his venture into underwater fashion photography, although it was his first time doing it.

"At that point, you knew everyone left in the competition is good. You couldn't bluff your way through the competition and be in the finals. If you mess up in the finals, you're out," he says.

"Even after planning your shot with the model, once you're underwater, your plans can just disappear, as the only form of communication is through hand signals. "While you have to remember to breathe properly, the model also needs to go up for air, so you have an opening of 10 seconds at a time to take photos."

The final shot was among 20 to 30 shots he managed to take in the 30 minutes contestants were given to complete the challenge.

The main judge, award-winning photographer Justin Mott, whose works have been featured in The New York Times, Time and Forbes, says of Tan's shot: "It is an absolutely stunning photograph. The light is gorgeous, the colour is gorgeous, the composition is really, really good.

"This is the most extreme challenge we've faced in Photo Face-Off's history and this is an epic photograph."

Other judges in the competition were Edwin Martinez, Jacob Maentz, Sarah Black and Dexter Alazas, all of whom are leading photographers based in the Philippines.

Tan, a second-year student at Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, started pursuing photography seriously while studying for a diploma in communications and media management at Temasek Polytechnic.

"The school started us off on film to help nail down our basics, then transitioned to digital to keep us up to date with industry standards," he says.

Tan, who lives with his parents and younger sister in a terrace house in Kembangan, has spent more than $10,000 buying his own equipment. His favourite photographer is American Joey Lawrence, whose works have a painterly quality and, most famously, have been used on Twilight movie posters.

While he has not decided if he wants to be a professional photographer after he graduates, he is working on a project titled Sever, which focuses on the sense of isolation one feels when in a foreign country.

Two photos from the series, which started in 2013, have been exhibited at this year's Noise Singapore exhibition at Ion Orchard.

"Sever was born out of my frustration at being creatively stagnant while serving national service. My first overseas leave in Spain came as a relief, both physically and mentally," he says.

"It's still raw and I intend to keep working on it for a number of years as I learn more about fine art photography."

•The encore telecast of Photo Face-Off Season 2 airs on History Channel (StarHub TV Channel 401) from Nov 22 to Dec 27 at 11pm.

Correction: In an earlier version of the story, it was stated that Shaun Tan is a second-year project and facilities management student at National University of Singapore. This is wrong. He is a second-year student at Nanyang Technological University, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'Winning mix of ocean and fashion'. Print Edition | Subscribe