Friday, February 18, 2011

Photography Mentorship: The Secret is in their Eyes

A few weeks back, I found out that our TK group is headed to a Penan Kampung in the Mulu National Park area. It worked out perfectly for me, because I wanted to join them to observe the traditional knowledge documentation work in action, and because I was already making a trip out to Sibu, then was invited by my colleague, Eunice, to stay in Miri with her Sister and Brother in-Law for a few days, before heading over to Mulu for a 3 day stay at this village. After that, the plan is to actually see the incredible Mulu National Park, with its cave systems boasting some of the deepest cave chambers and longest, most intricate, underground systems on the planet. Eunice arranged for me to stay with her Brother-in-law, Robert, because he is a professional wedding photographer, and was willing to take me out for a photography trip. How cool!!!

I took a hot, sweaty, crowded, and unforgivingly bumpy bus from Sibu to Miri, where Eunice greeted me, and took me back home for yet another Chinese New Year binge. Delicious, again. Very similar types of dishes and desserts.

I also noticed that Eunice's mom was cleaning some bird's nest of its feathers, in order to prepare a soup from this very much Chinese delicacy. Unfortunately did not have a chance to try this out, though the concept of eating bird saliva and mucus doesn't quite make my own mouth water.

Eunice brought me to the Miri City Fan, a beautiful park in the center of the city. Chinese New Year performances and festivities were in peak form there, and the city fan was packed to the brim. Got to see a whole display of the famous Chinese New year Lions in a diverse set different looks. Also there were some pretty stunning scenes of fountains, with a mosque in the backdrop, of seahorse statues (the symbol of Miri) among other sights. Eunice was super patient with me, while I set up the tripod for some long exposure shots (it was around sunset), and I tried to show my appreciation by taking some shots of her. Win-Win.

For dinner, Eunice took me out to this fantastic restaurant, Mr. Ho's Fine Foods, where I savored my Roast Pork with Apple sauce. Nom Nom Nom Nom. She also drove me around Miri, showing me the ginormous estates of Miri's timber and oil oligarchs. And then it was back to her sister's home. I got to chat with Robert, and we had a good talk about my research, how to learn photography without formal training, Malaysian Chinese resentment (not an uncommon topic, if you remember my Sibu experiences), and a recent trip he made to Semporna, Sabah, where the ethnically Philippine 'Sea Gypsies' continue to be refused any type of acknowledgment by the Malaysian government.

The next morning, we met up with Robert's other friend and fellow photographer extraordinaire, Eric (Itemo). The plan was to head over to Niah Cave, the site of past archaeological studies investigating the earliest human occupation in Borneo ( In fact, an excavation in the 50s and 60s found a human skull, along with stone tools, dating back 40,000 years ago, placing it in the old stone age (Paleolithic). Sadly, when we got there, we were told the caves are flooded and off limits to tourists. Really wanted to check it out, but what can you do.

Next we headed to the beach to see if we could find some shot-worthy scenes there. Right from the get-go, I learned that as a rule of thumb when shooting hand-held, never shoot with shutter speeds less than 1/focal length. I tried this trick out on some sand crabs (Genus: Ocypode, AKA ghost crabs because they blend so well into the sand and seemingly disappear into it) and it really improved my macro shots.
Whatchu lookin' at?

Next, we checked out the San Ching Tian Temple, said to be the largest Taoist temple in SE Asia. Pretty spectacular place, beautiful outside with striking interior decor. I was advised to avoid taking photos that make the subject appear 'flat', but rather to take photos from interesting, unique, angles and perspectives. A central idea behind shooting original, interesting, photos, is to shoot new subjects and/or to shoot old subjects from a new angle/perspective to portray your subject in a unique light.

A temple in Miri.

Robert and Eric then decided we should go to a crocodile farm to explore some more macro photography. This being my second time going to a crocodile farm, I did expect to see other animals caged up like at a zoo. This is a sad reality at these farms, and it's definitely something that makes me feel shitty whenever I encounter it. This place was particularly shocking, because they had a sun bear and macaque, dressed in what only can be described as circus costumes, and chained up, seemingly going insane, walking back and forth, ad infinitum. Seeing that already sickened me, but this was made even worse when some dude put some very big poisonous snake, clearly drugged and tortured, around my neck without my approval. Well after this, we went to see some of the crocodile. unfortunately, this is when my one camera battery died. Big no-no. Robert says I should have 4 batteries and 4- 8GB memory cards on me when on such long trips, though I probably will not be able to afford that many. Maybe 2 batteries, 1- 8Gb, and 1- 16Gb memory card. Robert lent me his camera and lenses for the rest of the day, so that I could practice and improve, with a little guidance from him.Robert's camera, Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, is one of the top cameras sold by Canon, and is known for incredible performance at high ISOs (almost no noise up to like 2600). Combine this with the stellar lenses in his bag, and I could not believe how stunning some of the photos were coming out. My all-time favorite was the 100mm Macro L-Lens with Canon's unique ultrasonic motor autofocusing technology. This makes autofocusing fast, more effective, accurate, and silent. Using this lens is a heavenly experience, convincing me that yoda was inside the barrel of my lens using the force to focus on the subject. Still shocked and depressed by these deplorable caged conditions the animals were living in, I decided to use this as an inspiration of sorts. I would try to best capture and portray their sad situation, by focusing on their eyes to convey the hopelessness, restlessness, and suffering of the animals. It was only later when I was editing the photos did I think to call this set of photos "The Secret is in their Eyes," after the Argentinian film "El secreto de sus ojos." Seeing the expression on these animals' faces made me think of how screwed up the killer in the movie was after some time behind bars, denied any exposure to people. His eyes portrayed just how broken his humanity was (arguably some might think he deserved having his humanity shattered in this way after killing the wife of the man imprisoning him), and this was something I noticed about the animals at this place. If only there could be a strictly enforced ban on capturing and caging up animals. Why don't people care more about this?

The Secret is in the Eyes

For more photos from this set, check out Secret is in their Eyes

Later on, Eric took me out for the best seafood I've had in a long time. Gigantic prawns in a sweet butter sauce, crabs, and midin belacan. Then we went to this hip fun bar, Barcelona, where you can stalk facebook friends or watch football games on the computer at your table, while others try out their billiard skills. Actually having facebook here was kind of key. I showed them some photos I had taken previously, and they noted that I should pursue macro nature photography, since they thought I had some interesting ways of portraying the beauty of wildlife. Sometimes encouragement from more experienced role-models makes all the difference, especially in creative endeavors like photography, which sometimes feel like hit-or-miss without getting real feedback from experienced people.

Overall, I learned a ton in this single day of shooting, under the guidance and mentorship of these two fun, gracious, and super hospitable gentlemen. I do think it helped improve my photography, based on how I started to approach photography when I was shooting in Mulu. Again it all goes back to mentorship, and once again, I'm lucky in that I consistently run into excellent mentors, whether it's been science or photography.

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