Photographing Annie Leibovitz: From a photographer's point of view

An Annie Leibovitz (right) original in the form of a selfie made Straits Times photographer Neo Xiaobin's (left) day. Also pictured is ST Life! journalist Akshita Nanda.
An Annie Leibovitz (right) original in the form of a selfie made Straits Times photographer Neo Xiaobin's (left) day. Also pictured is ST Life! journalist Akshita Nanda.

Photographers do not like to photograph photographers. Photographers also do not like to be photographed. There's something about making a portrait of a fellow lensman that stresses me out. Probably because I know that they know if I know my stuff. So imagine what I felt when I found out I had to photograph Annie Leibovitz, THE portrait photographer.

Even if you do not know who Annie Leibovitz is, you've probably seen her works before. Her iconic portraits include the pregnant Demi Moore, Queen Elizabeth, Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk, and the now legendary John Lennon and Yoko Ono Rolling Stone cover in 1980.

ST Life! journalist Akshita Nanda and I had 20 minutes for the interview and photo shoot, so the plan was to shoot during the interview and hopefully spend five minutes for the shoot.

I walked into the ArtScience Museum gallery and saw a fellow photographer friend setting up a mini studio with a black backdrop and lights. He came over and asked, "Freaking out or not?" I wasn't. Not until I found out his original lighting set-up was rejected and he himself was freaking out a little.

Newspaper photographers rarely bring around big fancy lights because we run from assignment to assignment. I had my trusty off-camera flash and that's it. It's good enough for my daily assignments but for this particular shoot, I started to feel rather inadequate as I looked around for a suitable spot for a portrait.

She ended her scheduled interview with the BBC and I managed to sneak a few candid shots of her at the mini studio being photographed by my friend. She asked for her camera and took pictures of the three photographers photographing her, saying that it will make a good series. It's quite a surreal thought - being photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

A few shots later, it was my turn as I sat her down in a white couch framed by the photo walls filled with her edits, a visual diary of her work, over the years. She showed her photographic prowess by asking if I want to shift the chair and request to draw up the shades to allow more natural light in. But I wanted to keep the background clean and I had my external flash, so lighting wasn't really an issue for me.

She knew her angles and poses. The 64-year-old celebrity photographer with her iconic black-framed spectacles looked good. Less than five minutes and I was done. She sat down for her interview with Akshita. In between moving around the room to get more shots of her, it was interesting to listen her talk about cellphone photography, photo sharing applications like Instagram and the beauty of nude bodies. She was candid, warm and friendly. I can understand why people are comfortable with her during photo shoots.

She even asked if Akshita wanted her number in New York in case she wanted to check quotes for her story. When Akshita said it wasn't necessary, a voice in my head screamed, "Just take it!"

At the end of the short session, we asked for a selfie with her. To my surprise, she sportingly took over my phone and asked us to bring our faces closer to one another. The picture is slightly blurred and our faces cut off by the framing, but I'm not complaining. I ended up with a Leibovitz original in my phone!

Thank you Annie Leibovitz for making my day.

Annie Leibovitz A Photographer's Life 1990-2005 is at the ArtScience Museum from April 18 to Oct 19. Go to for more information.

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