Taal, Batangas, 2015
Mathias Heng (who I will refer to as MH throughout this post), that is, a Singapore-born photojournalist who I had the pleasure of meeting during a workshop held by Leica Manila yesterday in Taal, a heritage town located in Cuenca, Batangas, a couple of hours drive south of the metro.
Not unlike the experience I had with the Nick Rains workshop last year, this one added yet another dimension to my continuing journey in photography. This time around, I was very intent on learning about a PJ’s life, how it manifests itself in an Akademie setting, how it’s balanced against other considerations like family and money, for example, and, lastly, how it ultimately affects ones personal values in an ever changing moral landscape. While one can already form certain conclusions about PJs based on what one reads about them, how they got to where they are now not just in terms of stature but also in terms of personal maturity is anything but generic.
I haven’t figured out yet how to detail all that you, dear reader, but let me ramble off with how my day started and see where all this drivel will take us.
On my way to Taal, I had the honor of sharing my ride with this country’s premiere wedding photographer, Patrick Uy. We were talking about workshops and its various genres and I confided in him that I was really a bit skeptical about street photography workshops. In all honesty, I think I had my signals all mixed up viewing this particular workshop in that light as it wasn’t really supposed to be about street photography. But then I blame it on how my brain associates certain words with certain photographic endeavors. A workshop facilitated by a Nick Rains would be about travel. One facilitated by a photojournalist would have street loosely associated with reportage (which incidentally was the name of MH’s gallery in Australia, but more on that later). After a missed exit off the Star Toll highway, thanks to that amazing app called Waze, I made a comment that wedding photography must be one of the toughest if not the toughest form of photography in terms of stress, then he replied, “Well, at least I only have to dodge waiters”. While we had a good laugh at that one, it also made me feel a bit stupid about myself after realizing how detached I’ve become even in the midst of being constantly bombarded with news about war and violence all over the globe. And so maybe it was serendipity operating at a higher level that I would come face to face with a gentleman who’ve seen man at his most grotesque. Leica man who worries about sensor dust finally meets Leica man who fell in a six-foot trench escaping death when he landed in between two very sharp waist-high bamboo Punji sticks somewhere near the Thai-Burmese border. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a type of booby trapped stake usually deployed in large numbers to guarantee a gory kill. Well, I know what you’re thinking… yeah, he’s that thin 🙂
The workshop itself was a non-event for me. I wasn’t there to learn f-stops and composition per se. It was mostly a day long wait to try and figure out how to approach MH and extract some information from him. You heard of photographers waiting all day for something to happen in some corner, well, for people like me who also write, we need to wait for things to unfold in our minds before we can figure out a writing angle. And it can take awhile. In my case, the whole day. I had to lock in on MH but from a distance to observe what kind of a man he is under this particular environment of teaching.
While I did ask a question or two during the day, it was more poking the sides to determine mindset and attitude; if he’s the kind who engages or would rather keep stuff to himself. Towards the latter part of the afternoon, I already got comfortable with myself engaging MH. In fact, I stalked him inside the Taal Basilica, known canonically as The Minor Basilica of St. Martin of Tours. At that point, I wasn’t still sure if I was going to write about this fella. But I figure I’d egg myself to get inspired by taking a step in the right direction by letting him humor me with a portrait. The sun was setting and its rays were streaking through the main church entrance. It almost seemed funny in retrospect to have taken a photograph of MH with his Jesus-like hair inside a place of worship. When I looked at his image in my LCD, I took it as a sign to push the envelope a bit further.
The drive home had Patrick coordinating with the Leica folks about a possible dinner with MH. I was already very tired but the promise of some quiet time with MH and friends proved to be irresistible. While the day already ended for most of the participants, mine was just about to start. And luckily, over a nice dinner at Fely J’s. What ensued over cool drinks and yummy food I shall share with you in Letterman style. Here’s my top ten takes from that day and then some:
1) MH started out in fashion and, no, that does not explain the hair. He’s always had his hair that long. And to think he just had 6 inches lopped off it very recently. Anyway, he photographed for the likes of Chanel and YSL, enjoyed the life for a time but left that life because “there was something missing”.
2) His first big break was when he was in China during the Tianenmen massacre in 1989. I asked him if he saw that guy who stood in front of the tanks. He said he was on the other side of town when that happened. I don’t remember if he witnessed it but he mentioned a mopping up operation of sorts that happened during the night in the Square. Kind of a now you see them now you don’t type of thing. The Occupy HongKong guys don’t realize how lucky they were.
3) He opened a gallery in Australia named Reportage. His purpose was to have a venue for certain types of work. The gallery footprint was similar in size to the Leica boutique in Manila but a bit longer. He hired a person with gallery experience to run Reportage. Contrary to naysayers, he said that it was a successful venture. Having said that, I’m not sure that MH defines success purely from a financial standpoint. But one thing’s for sure, it was successful enough to have been officially recognized as a Leica gallery. Sadly but with no regrets, he had to close shop at some point because his assignments were quite demanding of his time.
4) He favors the 35mm focal length which hits the spot in terms of giving off enough drama but without the distortion that one sees with wides. While we’re on the topic of Leicas, he lost his M9 through a fire when a bus that he was riding collided with another vehicle. He would’ve lost more than his M9 if the driver was knocked unconscious. He said that the driver jumped out of the burning bus and opened the emergency door at the back which was locked from the inside. I forgot to ask if he tried to retrieve it afterwards. Probably not. Only hobbyists would think about things like that. As a side note, he is a strong advocate of NOT cropping and minimizing post processing to mild global adjustments. In his case, the use of Levels in PhotoShop, if I remember correctly.
5) MH is a very patient teacher. More than patient, his empathy as a photojournalist who worked with the likes of CARE International is very evident. During the critique session, no photograph shown was unworthy of his time. He would ask a participant where they were coming from when trying to figure out a weakly composed photograph. Standing in front of the projector screen, he would simulate where he would stand, how he would tilt his camera, and what element he would highlight or exclude to make a photograph just a little bit better. Again, like in the previous Nick Rains session, MH approached me in the market to ask how I was doing. Truth be told, I was a bit scared when he did because I was just goofing off with other participants.
6) His book on the 2011 Japan Tsunami, Finding Hope, was a project 3 years in the making. He’s working on a second book that deals with the nuclear aspect of things. I did ask him about radiation as one of the participants shared with me that he lost a lot of weight during the making of the book. He said that he was ok and carried a geiger counter with him. Being a family man and a father of a bubbly 11 year old girl, safety is something that he takes seriously… well, safety is relative, huh? We talk about safety and we refer to seat belts and stuff. He talks about safety and it’s about radiation and not being skewered by punji sticks. I asked him if he had the chance to go to the Daiichi plant and he said that the closest that he got was two kilometers away from the plant but didn’t proceed for safety reasons. I bought a signed copy in order to appreciate more MH’s take on things. It’s available at the Leica store if you’re interested.
7) I asked him if he was ever going to slow down considering that he has a kid. I can relate because I have a 14 year old and dads tend to worry about these sort of things. He said NO! But that he doesn’t wish for assignments in conflict areas. Of course, if one pops up, that he would carefully consider it. I asked him about his views on ISIS and all that madness. He has been invited into Taliban territory in Afghanistan, have narrowly escaped death during the Saddam Hussein Iraqi war, had a car he was riding in shot with a picture of a cracked windshield to prove it, and, well, had the scare of his life when 3 men with RPG were headed their way while they were all stuck in some train that stopped waiting for a railway change. So I thought it would be a good idea to get a fresh view from somebody who’s been on the ground. He said that it was too dangerous for that sort of thing because they kill fellow Muslims.
8) Related to #7, I also asked him if he was some sort of an adrenaline junkie. He answered in the negative. What drives him is a sense of purpose to get that photograph out. I asked him if there ever was a time that he had to resort to using a cellphone for his images. He said that was unacceptable. Hahaha! I guess it’s ok for TV but not for publication. Chew on that while you think about the bleak future of photography. Reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated; to loosely borrow a quote from Mark Twain.
9) So you might want to know what kind of music he listens to. Well, the question crossed my mind because I was asking him about downtime during an assignment; if he did anything to make long waits in between more bearable. He said that one was always doing scenario planning because there were just too many variables. But to return to the question, he mentioned Coldplay. Being of almost the same age (he is 49), I was hoping he’d mention New Wave but no.
10) Did the work come to him or does he chase work? More of the former. He said that when you’re given an assignment, you’re not given anything else other than the assignment objective. It is understood that when they go to you, that they know that you can take care of your own logistics. If you’re lucky, maybe they give you a phone number to call and not much else… and even then, he said that you can only call that number when you’re already in-country because you can’t run the risk of a monitored call from overseas. One time, he shares that he was driven in the middle of nowhere and waited for 3 hours at some godforsaken time before being picked up by his contact. He said that sometimes it can take a longer time simply because the other side needs time to validate if the guy that arrived was the real deal. For the latter, if he wants to work on a project, he makes a pitch to his contacts. I should’ve asked him if he had to make a pitch for Finding Hope.
In summary, I find myself gravitating towards people who have a strong sense of purpose and integrity. Mathias Heng is such a person. A very kind human being willing to invest a part of himself in whatever it is that he does. I felt it. And the others surely felt the same.
I had a fantastic time with Mathias, the Leica folks, and the other participants. It was well worth the time spent missing exits and doubling back 20 kilometers only to get lost yet again. Thank you, Leica, for arranging another productive workshop.
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