Excuse me, are you a Hasselblad Master?

Growing the creative industry is more than just throwing money at artists -whether it is in the form of direct investments, tax rebates or generous grants.

After almost 40 years, I’ve finally been admitted into Parliament.

I should quickly clarify, before I am charged with contempt. I did not become an elected official of the land. Instead, three pieces of my panoramic works were exhibited in the recently refurbished historic building, which has aptly been renamed The Arts House at the Old Parliament.

I did not attend the opening ceremony, although I was in Singapore at that time.

I was, ahem, to use a big word, depressed. I was thinking that I should give up photography.

Still, it was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. I’ve given the matter serious thought for some time now.

At the risk of sounding conceited, I think I have reached a plateau, in my career. I’ve become a big fish in a small pond and a guppy in the ocean.

Recently, I went up to a dear friend and said:” I can’t see anymore.” She brushed me off matter-of-factly and said: “Choi, touch wood, don’t say such things.”

My proclamation has nothing to do with the fact that many members of my family are myopic.

Not only do I fear that I can’t see, I think I have also lost my voice.

How is it possible for someone who is so “hot” in his career to be talking like this?

The little group show at the Old Parliament House is in an area without proper exhibition lighting. When I was there one late afternoon, it was dark, even with the general hall light on. I could imagine how dark the area would be come sundown.

I have since learned that the decision to turn the space into an art gallery was made only after the retrofitting was almost completed. As a result, there was no money left to properly equip the place.

If this was indeed true, it is sad. This is easily one of the most important buildings in Singapore and there is no reason to settle for less or to compromise.

When I think of what it means to take pride in one’s work, an episode in my newspaper internship at the Hartford Courant newspaper in Connecticut always comes to mind.

It was the summer of 1991 and I was a greenhorn midway through journalism school.

The Courant, often cited as one of the best photojournalism newspapers in the world, had a star photographer called Bradley Clift.

Brad had won many awards, including the top Newspaper Photographer of the Year award at the prestigious Pictures of the Year contest. In the paper’s competitive photography department, he was the king and often got things his way.

One night, I saw Brad talking on the phone. Sensing the severity of the situation from his body language and facial expression, I edged closer to find out what was the problem.

It turned out that he had just photographed a school soccer game and was trying to caption the picture. There were five players in the picture and Brad could only confidently identify four of them. The newspaper has a policy that everyone in a picture should be identified when there are five or fewer people.

Brad called everyone he could think of, including coaches and players from both teams, to try and identify the fifth person.

After some effort, he managed to find someone who could identify the fifth player.

If it had been me, I would have settled for that. But not Brad. He called another player to confirm the identity of the person.

With his status and clout in the paper, he could have easily persuaded the picture editor to select another picture. He didn’t. He could have done a few other things that were easier. He didn’t.

The picture was from a routine assignment that would not even run on a section cover. Yet, it mattered to him.

Last year, Brad was a finalist in the Pulitzer contest. He didn’t win, but I’m confident that he eventually will.

Even if he never wins it, he will always have my respect for his pride, professionalism and refusal to compromise.

Later in my own career, when I was faced with a similar situation, I proudly did the same.

If I have my way, I would make it an offence for artists to compromise. Only then can we start talking about being world-class.

Growing the creative industry is more than just throwing money at artists -whether it is in the form of direct investments, tax rebates or generous grants.

In the business of photography, whether commercial or editorial, cost is just one of the major factors that determine success.

The biggest issue, in my opinion, is quality.

We need to offer services at a level second to none. We need to offer something Uniquely Singapore(yes, I hate the slogan). We need a level of professionalism and pride that makes people willing to pay more for better work.

Fortunately, many things cannot be legislated or there will be too many new laws and that may just kill creativity.

I believe in osmosis. I believe in celebrating good work.

But good work can become an albatross round your neck. I’ve begun to feel uncomfortable with the oft-used description, Hasselblad Master, when people introduce me or write about me.

I received the award last year and it was no doubt a big career milestone. But there is a lot more that I can achieve, and it would be a sad day indeed if my reputation rests solely on one lucky break.

I do not wish to rest on my laurels. I need to be challenged and that challenge needs to come from our local community as well. The shows that we do, the books that we publish, all have to eclipse past work.

Only then, can I move beyond just being a 2003 Hasselblad Master and a one-hit wonder.

Only then, I can perhaps see and speak again.


The column first appeared in Grain Magazine.