Thursday, May 20, 2010

Who's your sifu?

sifu (plural sifu or sifus)
A pair of Cantonese terms, homophones, used in English to mean "master" or "teacher" in the context of martial arts, especially kung fu and tai chi, also used to denote "spiritual father" in esoteric uses.

I guess most of us have watched the kungfu / comedy movie "Drunken Master". The actor Jackie Chan in his younger days is assigned by his strict father to be taught by sifu "Beggar Su", an unassuming, dirty and unkept old man. Although the old fellow ragged Jackie to bits, Jackie eventually became a very powerful kungfu master which could defeat the toughest of bad guys (in which case was this fierced moustached fellow using Shadow Palm kungfu, or something like that).

As photographers, we all have our sifus in one way or another. When we start out with our DSLR, we just reach out to everyone who has at least some experience in handling a camera, even though they may only have a few weeks experience.

Today's convenience offered by digital photography brings the emergence of what some may call, digital garbage. We may shoot (and brag) alot but unlike the good old times, we aren't capable of sifting the gold from the dirt. That is why we encounter thousands of photographs each day, some with tremendous impact, some with none.

It's the same with sifus (self proclaimed or not). These sifus will tell us many things. For example:

1. Attend my photography course, because I've asked the best photographers in the business (eg. Joe McNally). A local photographer has been actively proclaiming his photography school in the papers, and hundreds of student have willingly paid more than RM18k to be thought by a bunch of freelance teachers who may not even have the proper qualifications to teach. Frankly, I'd rather take my money to learn elsewhere, or purchase a 5D mkII system with some nice lenses.

2. You can be rich like me within two years. Proclaim yourselves loudly at wedding expos, and gasp with surprise if somebody doesn't know you (Why shouldn't they? I'm famous!). Use your contacts to the max (even the ones at church), and have many, many facebook accounts, even a fan page, where hopefully one day, 500,000 users will be your fans. Be a Leica or a Canon ambassador, and be envied my many. By the way, in the UK, I feel Canon ambassadors like Jeff Ascough really deserve the title as compared to some of the pros in Malaysia who prefer to kill each other for the title for their own selfish gains.

3. Be proud to proclaim your students when they become successful. The only issue is when the sifu is plagued with certain negative habits, his student will just be a chip of the old block and will continue to swindle other couples from their hard earned money. What they say is just a nice front, while their actual products are less glamorous than what they appear to be. I heard that the local Canon ambassador (and his student) machine guns away using the latest 1D bodies and L lenses at a wedding, and in the end delivers his client 7,000 ++ unedited jpeg images. Now the poor couple have to look through 7,000 unprocessed images which may not be professionally taken, and compile their wedding album on their own while they should be enjoying themselves from their honeymoon.

Of course, not all that they teach would be suitable for your workflow. I met a photographer who likes to apply 'unique' split toning effects to his wedding photos. I tried my best to acknowledge his work, but in my heart and mind, I prefer the styles of photographers such as Neil van Kerk who loves to augment the natural colours of his images through the use of off camera strobes.

The best sifus today are lurking around and don't have prominent web identities like most of today's phtoographers.. They have various identities and may not even be professional photographers at all. I'm talking about war hardened veterans who've been lugging all-manual film cameras since the 70s and 80s, who know the proper basics of film photography, and who've been to the toughest of places (such as the war-ravaged nation of Sudan). They don't have million dollar apartments and S-class Mercedes cars. Instead, they live in small towns, have simple lives, and drive old, road worthy cars. OK, I'm generalising, but I hope you understand what I mean.

Some of the best sifus that I know shoot with the most humble equipment, such as a small 24mm prime and a humble manual focus 75-150mm f/3.5 lens which makes it easier to lug around, especially if they're seasoned travel/landscape photographers like Galen Rowell. I also read a blog post where another photographer is looking forward to dump his fourthirds gear in return for a Micro43rds Panasonic GF1, and a Panasonic 7-14mm/4 and 20mm/1.7. Some also revert back even further by shooting with hardy film cameras such as an Olympus OM-1 and a Zuiko 50mm f/1.4.

They also emphasize the basics of good technical skill and artistic creativity, because without the basics, we'll continue to produce digital garbage from whats essentially a dumb box which lets light inside. It can be as simple as the techniques of how to press the shutter and hold your camera properly to obtain absolutely sharp images at 1/15 sec and lower. OK, its not applicable all the time, but if you'd like to use lower ISOs to reduce noise at the expense of lower shutter speeds, that may be the only option for you.

I sometimes see albums posted on Facebook with the caption "Simply snap only", or "Bang Bang Bang". Are we that shallow? If a true sifu was among us, he would compel us to ask these questions: How would the lighting affect the clarity and mood of the photograph? How fast should the shutter speed be? How large a lens opening should be used? (more often that not, we suffer from a lack of subjects in focus because we're spoilt with using large aperture lenses that limit our depth of field). What belongs in a frame and what doesn't? What lens should be used? For most of us (myself included), we ignore all these questions, snap and continue filling our ever expanding 64GB CF cards with more and more digital garbage.

Their expertise and experience isn't limited to photography only. They sometimes go out of their way and treat their disciples as friends. We can share freely about issues that trouble us, and discuss ways to build each other up instead of tearing each other down like what some other pros do to each nowadays. Nothing's feels better than sitting down with your sifu with a cup of teh tarik at your local mamak store talking about life :)

And fortunately, these sifus aren't lured by goodies or charge exorbitant tuition fees to their students. They genuinely want to take in students who have a keen eye and a willing heart to learn, instead of those which have a 'get rich quick' attitude. It's a far cry from how our dear Prime Minister liberally threw millions of ringgit (which is actually our hard earned tax payers money) to the people of Sibu in the recent by election.

They also uphold commendable virtues, such as honesty, self respect, and being hard working. They also respect the subjects that they're photographing. I've mentioned this before, but I'll mention this again. Olympus visionary John Isaac says - I am a human being first and a photojournalist second. Never take away someone's dignity, just as I would not like someone to take away my dignity. 

Indeed, one of the best advice one of my sifus told me was "Don't become a (full time) photographer, you'll be going through the school of hard knocks in no time!"

Friends, if you have a good mentor whom you respect, treat them like gold and do not take them for granted. Keep in touch with them once in a while even though you may not see them, and honestly complement their work. They are hard to come by, and once you've realised what you've lost, it might be too late.



RustieZac said...

Very meaningful.

weng yap said...

well said. many people think after they shoot but not think before they shoot, that's much difference

david chua said...

You have highlighted the most important facts in life that typical "its-not-my-business-so-i-keep-quiet" kind of Malaysians have always been avoiding.

It is about time that we should realize we are just like "mannequins"!

Lance said...

I fully understand what you are trying to say here but I disagree with your first point from a certain point of view. No offense but different people different views.


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