Martha is a Singapore-based photographer with 19 years of experience in the region. Her work is expansive, ranging from portraits to branding, and now includes personalized fine art pieces made from client’s existing photographs. An accomplished woman having nabbed multiple awards and honors for her style and storytelling which she translates through her photographs. However, it is not only her resume that is impressive — Martha is also committed to using her talents in social and humanitarian work, assisting others by harnessing the power of her art.
Know more about this amazing lady as we talk to her about her career, her inspirations, and what it took for her to get to where she is now.
You are a very successful and accomplished photographer. Before anything else, can you please tell us exactly what kind of photography you do and why?
I am best known regionally for my portrait photography and have won many awards in this space. I founded my first studio in Singapore in 1997, and subsequently opened studios in London and Hong Kong where we lived for periods of time.
Historically I have done light commercial work as well, particularly in the creative industries for designers and other creatives. Most recently, I have scaled back on portrait and commercial work to focus on photographic fine art. I still do selective family portraiture, and brand storytelling photography for selected businesses.
My fine art work began as a way to support the efforts of philanthropic and humanitarian organizations that I believe in. Creating works to sell and auction for the benefit of these NGOs gave me the confidence I needed to further pursue this passion. My fine art work deals with simultaneity and time, identity and memory, and usually involves a process of fragmentation and re-construction of images.
I am now re-orienting my professional studio to prioritize a new line of products that build on my fine art work: bespoke, gallery-worthy pieces that I create using my client’s own treasure trove of photographs as raw material.
What sets you apart from other photographers? How do you spread your message through your pictures?
Well….everyone is a photographer now, as you know. The incredible power of smart phones has enabled everyone to get behind the lens and lowered the barrier to the pursuit of professional photography. I may be different in as a photographer I actually embrace this! I have, as I described above, actively begun to integrate my clients’ own photos into the work that I do, because I strongly believe often their images tell a broader story than I can possibly do for them. At this intersection of photography and art is where I play now. At the same time, I have a long and professional history, nearly 20 years in the industry in five countries, and I feel totally confident in my skills and credentials as a professional. I do think that this credibility sets me apart from a good number of the studios and ‘start up’ photographers which swell in number every year. Lastly, my perspective and experience imbue my images with a different quality and narrative than many of my colleagues in the field. I am increasingly less interested in technical perfection, in staged and static images. In my work I strive to deliver narrative, story, and find beauty in the authentic. I have taken thousands of beautiful photographs of beautiful people during my career. I am finding now at this point in my trajectory that I am more interested in interpreting journey than I am in creating the staged encounter.
When did you know you wanted to be a photographer? Is there any particular moment wherein you knew you wanted to pursue the art?
Photography is a second career for me. Actually I have a Master’s Degree from Columbia University in New York in Public Administration. My first career was in urban development. This has informed my photographic work always, in ways I am beginning to recognize more and more. I became a photographer in 1996 after relocating to Singapore with my husband. We followed his job here, and I left mine to tag along for the adventure. I had always pursued photography as an avid hobby. Soon after arriving I had my first child, and decided to pursue photography as a profession that I could shape to accommodate my responsibilities as a mother. I trained with a local commercial studio here for a year — apprenticing myself for free in order to learn studio lighting — and then in 1997 opened my own studio. The rest, as they say, is history.
Where do you draw your inspiration? What sparks your light?
I draw inspiration from so many sources. From ‘eating images for breakfast’ which is so easy to do on the internet, but I am also a newspaper junkie. I see in a particular way now, and so enjoy simply paying attention at every level, throughout every day, finding inspiration on the streets, in the play of light, in discarded items, books, magazines, music videos and films.
I run and walk and find those meditative activities are the best for letting thoughts freely associate and inspiration strike. I surround myself with creative people as much as possible. I listen, compile and write.
You have all these amazing accomplishments and yet you still ground yourself on social work, can you please elaborate on this?
Well, I touched on it above, and honestly for me deep engagement in social enterprise has come in waves. At the moment, I am not deeply involved. Up until about a year ago I had been most recently engaged with a small locally run residential centre for child victims of the sex trade and other abuses in northwestern Cambodia.
After several years of intense involvement with the children and the staff there, I have taken a step back. Fittingly, a young high school student at the Singapore American School, whom I introduced to the organization, has picked up the ball and along with her young tribe of talented and committed friends is carrying forward what I started. I love that. I blogged about her.
Here in Singapore I recently completed a project with PhotoVoice, working through photographs with elderly citizens as a means of engagement and connection. Other ongoing project include a passion to rid Singapore of its relentless obsession with vinyl banners and the terrible waste produced by this form of ugly advertising (or at least to up-cycle the disposal ad banners in a cool way) and an abiding interest and compassion for the foreign workers that I call the Lawn Warriors who tirelessly trim Singapore’s grass and shrubs in gardeners’ combat garb.
Establishing oneself in this field seems like a daunting task, how did you do it? Were there setbacks?
As I mentioned, I just acted boldly, admitted what I didn’t know, and set about finding out how to learn it. There was a magazine in the late 90’s called Photo Asia: I remember I rang up the editor and asked him to name for me the top three commercial studios in Singapore. I knew I needed to learn studio lighting. He did, and I called them all. Only one responded to my proposal to work for free in return for training, and so I did! Peter Chua of Caesar Photography. Peter do you remember? Then I pushed my way into every expatriate Club in Singapore, offering to set up on sight for days on end to offer portrait photography sessions to members at very reasonable rates. It was a production line approach. I am exhausted just recalling it, but it got me widely known in the community and in the industry, and set the stage for me to build a much more exclusive client base as time went on. I am pretty good at the business side of things, and over the years have had assistants to help with that as well. Really, like any business, it’s all about people. My assets as photographer are rooted in my connection to my clients. This has always been obvious through the lens, and obvious in the photos that I create, but it is essential for growing a loyal clientele as well. Interestingly, I have grown alongside many of my clients in the region, as a person, a mother, a woman business owner. My new business direction to create works of art from the images of people’s own journeys, comes directly from the mouths of my clients, and friends, and resonates deeply with me as I launch my own babies into the world as adults these years. I’ve come a long way, and my experience has deepened everything about me, including my work.
Technology has changed a lot about how we process and take pictures. What is your opinion on photography in this digital age versus raw photography before?
I love it. The smart phone cameras and apps are phenomenal. Incredible. They are there for every moment. They are the keepers of the journeys! I recognized long ago that my fiercest competitors are my own clients, and I have embraced it. I know without doubt, that my skills far outstrip those of the average person with a smart phone, and that is why I am still in business. But like everyone in a changing and digital world, I have had to adapt my business and my approach to it to acknowledge change. Change, as they say, is the only constant. You know, there’s a great story I have from my earlier days, in the dying days of analogue I was one of the last hold outs still shooting film. It may have been 2002 or so. I realized that there was no way around it. I was going to have to switch to digital. I went to a week-long photographer’s workshop in Texas, and was the only one there still shooting film. After the week, I wrote a note for the hotel chamber maid, telling her how and where she could sell used photographic equipment, and I left my whole camera kit (except for one amazing lens) in the hotel room and flew back to Asia. I knew if I didn’t leave it behind, I would straddle the fence forever. I took a year-long sabbatical from clients, and trained myself to use digital equipment, and digitize my image management system and learn digital post production. It was a bit extreme, but it worked. Here I am. In a way I am repeating the same type of concept: largely hanging up my camera and embracing the gorgeous images that my clients already have! I am now their solution to getting those precious archival images out of their devices, and crafting them into a stunning legacy art piece.
Do you have any advice for the aspiring photographers out there?
Your connection to your subjects is really the only thing that matters. That’s where the practice lives and breathes, and dies.
Do you have any upcoming events or shows that you would like people to know about? Any message you’d like to impart?
I am pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at LaSalle Academy of the Arts. That endeavor, as well as the re-focusing of my business and my second son’s launch to University is all-consuming for me this year. I will be part of my LaSalle cohort’s Work in Progress Show which opens on November 13th. Additionally, my work is to be featured in Expat Living’s October issue where one of my Art of Family clients will be profiled in a showcase alongside my work. My work will again be featured in their inaugural Home supplement in January 2016.
This post was first published on Executive Lifestyle Magazine and has been reposted on Executive Lifestyle with the permission of the author.