Published: Saturday February 18, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday May 24, 2013 MYT 11:37:20 PM

Feminine touch in photography

Amateur photography is traditionally known as a male-dominated arena but being a rose among the thorns is not altogether a bad thing.

THE popularity of amateur photography may have peaked in recent years, along with the boom in high quality but affordable imaging tools, but the history of amateur photography dates back to 1888 with the introduction of the Kodak #1 camera.

That camera, invented and marketed by George Eastman, a former bank clerk from New York, was a simple boxlike equipmentthat came loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film. It simplified photography, and suddenly, even people with no professional training became trigger-happy photographers.

Sadly, Eastman Kodak, the company behind the iconic camera, filed for bankruptcy last month, signalling the end of an era. The advent of the digital camera, a technology that Kodak, in fact, invented but failed to capitalise on, proved to be the company’s undoing.

The times are changing, as it were, and so have the traditional elements that make up photography. The gender stereotype of “male photographer, female model” that marked much of photography’s history is also slowly changing. These days photography is no longer seen as a technical pursuit so much as as an acquisition of aesthetics, and women, more and more, are exploring the possibilities it offers, especially as a hobby.

“I think photography as a hobby is a free-for-all pursuit. It’s only challenging for women when it becomes a career,” says World Vision donor relations executive Jamie Tan, 43.

In 2010, Tan was inspired to embark on her own “Project 365” – an undertaking to produce a photo a day on her life and post it online – after learning about it from a friend. She has since purchased a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera, a step up from the point-and-shoot digital compact she started with.

On a recent trip to a village in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with her fellow photo enthusiast husband, musician Steve Leong, Tan discovered that being a woman with a camera came with its fair share of advantages.

“My husband had difficulties getting the villagers to feel at ease around him, but I had no such problem. The pictures that I took of the women and children turned out very candid and natural. Essentially, what I managed to capture up-close, my husband could only do with a zoom lens,” Tan reveals.

Women are generally seen to be more approachable, she explains.

Even in the modern world, men and women are perceived and treated differently. Which is not altogether a bad thing, according to medical publications business manager Wong Wen Dee, 35.

Wong’s passion for photography grew from the desire to create better pictures. In 2003, she produced a photo album depicting her travels in the UK, and has not looked back since. Together with Tan, she now volunteers her services as an event photographer for their church in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

“Women in photography tend to stand out a bit more – people pay extra attention to your photos. If the photos turn out to be good, the audience is more easily impressed. As for the guys, I think it is more competitive because they are expected to produce good visuals,” she says.

Defying the norms

Food and beverage entrepreneur Nadia Jasmine Mahfix, 29, often wonders about this perception. Is it really a good thing?

“I was once approached by an individual who was looking for a female photographer to be a part of an exhibition. In our conversation, this person mentioned how there weren’t that many female photographers around. Although I was honoured to be selected, at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder if I was chosen because of my work or simply because of the limited choices available?” she says.

The hobbyist, whose work was shown in a 2010 group exhibition entitled Beyond our City: Lights & Myths, organised by the Goethe Institut Malaysia in Annexe Gallery, KL, first took up photography as a creative outlet during her secondary school years. She has, in the intervening years, experimented with film cameras, camera phones and the marvels of the Adobe Photoshop image manipulation software, eventually finding a niche in capturing moody black-and-white images of the everyday with a DSLR camera.

“My family and friends are pretty supportive of my interest, although some of them did suggest that I should inject more colour and happier tones into my style,” Nadia reveals.

While a more feminine touch seems to be expected of her, it cannot be denied that it is Nadia’s unconventional approach to photography that attracts people to her work and website ( Last year, her self-proclaimed “dark and morbid” portfolio was featured in the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival, Datum: KL in Map at Publika, KL.

“I guess when you’re among the few female photographers in Malaysia, people tend to notice you more,” she shrugs, modestly.

Senior IT personnel On Su Suen, 29, says there are definitely perks to being a female photographer in a field dominated by men. “There was a time when I was at an event without a photographer’s pass, and the security let me through but not the male photographers. Society probably reserves a softer spot for women,” she says.

On’s interest in the field was roused six years ago when a friend invited her to a casual outdoor photo practice session. Since then, she has had a photo published in Digital Camera magazine, when one of her pictures was selected as the winning entry in a 2009 photography competition.

“Nowadays, people are no longer surprised when they encounter women carrying big bulky DSLRs. Even if they do stare, it’s because they’re curious about the type of equipment that you have,” On observes.

While all may seem well for women who venture into photography, they do face a couple of challenges. Amateur photographers often take up freelance jobs to feed their passion, and that’s where they have to explore unfamiliar territory, literally.

“Issues of security are always a concern. Sometimes I take up jobs that need me to venture into abandoned places, and at night too. These places are potentially dangerous, not just for women but also for men. I do take extra precautions, like ensuring that I have a secondary male photographer friend with me. I usually do my research on the place before the actual shoot. Sometimes, I would arrange for night shoots to be done indoors, where it’s safer. Unplanned shoots are a big no-no,” On reveals.

Women photographers are also usually encumbered by the weight issue. The weight of cameras, that is.

“One of the biggest challenges is having to carry all your heavy camera equipment with you. Imagine if you want to take National Geographic-type of photos on top of Mount Kinabalu – you’d have to focus on climbing whilst juggling with the weight of multiple lenses. But that is what photography calls for: field work,” Wong explains.

Beyond issues like the above, it would be fair to say that women actually have the upper hand when they dabble in photography.

Related Story: The professional edge

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