For a celebrated Fine Arts Photographer who’s built a stellar reputation for Boudoir & Nude photography in a career that spans 14 years, Kelvin Lim, after being awarded the Best Portrait Photographer by Singapore Tatler earlier this year, took some time to share a few thoughts on his career and creative process.
I felt as if I’ve suddenly found my voice. I felt safe with a camera, because I don’t have to struggle with speech anymore – all I needed to do was express myself visually, in photographs.
Did You Always Want To Be A Photographer?
No. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to be. But I have always been much more a dreamer than a pragmatist, and I am naturally driven to understand people since I was little. So I was pretty sure that whatever I do, it has to be involved with empathy and art.
Photography simply happened as a career opportunity, and it was easy to learn. I didn’t expect it to be such an important part of my life.
What Does Photography Mean To You?
It means I can express myself with the confidence. I never enjoyed talking – I am slow and clumsy with words, and I’m always afraid of being misunderstood. Photography gave me courage to say what I think, how I feel. It gave me the confidence to express the beauty I feel in others. I felt as if I’ve suddenly found my voice. I felt safe with a camera, because I don’t have to struggle with speech anymore – all I needed to do was express myself visually, in photographs. For someone who can spend days on end without speaking a single word, I’m still surprised at how chatty I can become in a portrait session.
Strangely, I’ve become more comfortable with my own voice since photography found me. I’ve spoken publicly to an audience of 200, to very warm applause, and I’ve constantly challenged myself to talk about my work in front of people. Because I speak more, conversations with people become richer and deeper. In unexpected ways, photography has become a platform for me to learn and grow as a person.
Which Photographers Influenced You, And How Did They Influence Your Thinking, Photographing, And Career Path?
In the beginning there weren’t any particular photographers I found influential – I was simply in awe of the entire creative community. The visual works were so varied, I felt I could do anything and still fit in.
Then, I worked with Chris Ling, and the experience was beyond inspirational. It wasn’t about his photography (because I was stubborn and wanted to create my own work instead of copying his). It was his professionalism, his way of connecting with people, and, above all else, his class. The way he presents his work and himself, the respect he has for others and yet remaining firm in his believes and principles, the way he listens and solves problems, his dedication to every single task no matter how difficult the situation – these are things that we don’t learn in school textbooks and photography courses, lessons I’ll treasure for the rest of my career.
The other person that has moved my thinking and profession is not a photographer. He’s an American painter and teacher named Robert Henri (1865 – 1929), known for his philosophy in modern art, and “gave his students not a style, but an attitude and approach to art”. His book, The Art Spirit, is my permanent bedtime storybook.
How Do You Get The Person, Place Or Thing That Is In Front Of The Camera Onto The Film Just The Way You Want?
Fact is, I don’t “want” my photography subjects to be in any certain way. Much like what photographers call “journalistic wedding photography” or “street photography”, I immerse myself into the environment, observe, feel, and capture the moments that inspire me.
In portraiture, I’ll get the person(s) in a comfortable position, usually sitting or leaning against something. Then, I’ll start a conversation, and look out for the magic moments. Lighting and posing are simply part of the conversation, and an experimental, loosely-structured experience for me – I try different things all the time, and share my thoughts with the person. In the process, the portrait session becomes an experience of self-discovery for both the subject and myself (instead of a 2-hour job to achieve fixed results).
How Important Is It For A Photographer To “Connect” With His Subjects To Bring Out Their True Self?
If we don’t know even a little about our subjects, how can we describe or feel anything about them? Then, what photographs are there to take?
We can, of course, connect from a distance. We can look at a subject and say, nice figure, beautiful face, pretty dress – based on some predefined standards – and we try to express those opinions in photographs. But we can’t feel their laughter, their happiness, or loneliness. We don’t know what the dress means to them. We measure looks and figures on what others like to see, but the people we photograph come in all shapes, sizes, and life experiences – how do they feel? What do they love about themselves, what do they want to hide? If we connect, and empathise, won’t our photographs be much richer, much more meaningful? Won’t we have so much more to say and love about the person?
I believe it’s also important to understand that what the subject shows us may not be completely “true”. Whatever we see and feel are simply impressions of how the subject wish to portray themselves. There will always be insecurities, and this applies to the photographer too. But if we are honest with someone, chances are, they’ll be honest with us, too.
How Open Minded Are Singaporeans On Sharing Physical Intimacy Before The Camera
We’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how receptive Singaporeans are to nude and sensual photography. Many times, we were caught totally off-guard by our clients’ very open and very intimate requirements. We are open to the wildest ideas, and are prepared and experienced enough to do a professional job as artists. We just didn’t expect most requests to come from Singaporeans.
We are very firm in our stance that we are not shooting pornography. Also, we absolutely and unconditionally reject any idea that involves us in any physical acts of intimacy. A few prospective clients have offered us “physical rewards”, and the best thing we did was to politely turn down the jobs.
Our clients may engage in sex and fetishes, but unlike porn – which is meant for consumption by the public – such photographs are meant only for the clients themselves. Sex is one of the most intimate, most intense experiences of being human. It is also a very private experience. For the client, these photos reflect an important moment in life, a special relationship with someone, and an intimate memory they deeply treasure.