Heng Mok Zung is often called the “ninja photographer” for his unusual stealth and speed at work.
One minute, he could be hiding behind a tree shooting from a distance and the next minute, be right in front of your face.
“Initially, I didn’t like being referred to as the ‘ninja photographer’ because I thought it was cheesy, ” laughs Heng.
“But later, I realised that it was good branding and accurately described my style. Now, of course I love it!” he adds.
And it is this style, plus a lot of hard work, that has led the award-winning photographer to where he is today.
Better known as Zung Ninja photographer or Zung Heng, the people photographer has been the personal lensman of American author and life coach Anthony Robbins since 2009.
Heng, 41, has also photographed three US presidents – Donald Trump, George Bush and Bill Clinton – British business magnate Richard Branson, the Dalai Lama, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, and other world icons. Unsurprisingly, he is sought after by Malaysian royalty and high society for his services.
Most of his high profile clients come through referrals and word of mouth.
“The world is very small and people are more connected than we realise. The six degrees of separation theory states that everyone is connected in six steps or less, which is how the term ‘friend of a friend’ might apply in such a situation, ” he says.
“A lot of people say that I’m lucky, and perhaps I am. But to me, luck is actually work. If you work hard, work smart and do the right thing at the right time, then you ‘get lucky’. I make sure I always do a good job for my customers, and when the opportunity comes, they usually refer me to their friends, who become my customers, ” he explains.
Heng highlighted the importance of being equipped with the right skills.
“I trained myself in different skills to photograph all kinds of people, rather than just limiting myself to one style or copying other people’s ideas, ” he shares.
“I believe in creating my own unique style, capturing the moment and telling the story. My photos have been described by Anthony Robbins as ‘capturing the soul’, ” adds Heng, who also feels that photography must always grow and evolve.
A self-taught photographer, Heng has been in the industry for over 20 years.
“A formal education is important but it’s not enough because it produces a regular worker, and such workers often don’t make it in the world of photography. What sets one apart is the ability to think out of the box, experience and the ability to create and conceptualise, ” he points out.
Having said that, Heng does believe in training and conducts photography masterclasses in between his busy schedule.
Some people have also likened him to the character of Sean O’Connell, a photographer in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty movie.
“On the surface, it does seem like me. But what most people don’t realise is, I’m also like Walter Mitty – the one who is scared and afraid, but who one day just decides to venture out into the unknown to do what seems impossible, ” he shares.
Born and raised in the small fishing village of Sekinchan, Selangor, Heng came from a poor family. The son of a fisherman, he was the youngest of seven siblings.
When he was 18, he lost his sister to breast cancer when she was 25. That really made him question the meaning of life and be determined to live life to the fullest.
Heng had initially wanted to become an engineer, but his dream was dashed two years before graduating. He had to drop out of university as his family faced financial problems when the Asian economic crisis hit.
Heng then started working part-time photographing events at nightclubs on weekends, while on weekdays, he worked at a camera shop to raise funds for his education.
But his meagre wages were not enough to pay for his studies and he never went back to university.
“I was really upset because my hopes and dreams were shattered. I cried for a long time, ” he recalls.
The turning point in his life came when one day, he just decided to pick himself up and do something about it.
“I said to myself: ‘Don’t blame others, don’t blame the situation, don’t blame your parents or the government, the country or the economy, but blame yourself and then find a solution’, ” he says.
Heng ventured out to start his own company, photographing weddings at the age of 24.
“Many people looked down on us because they thought wedding photographers were of the lowest category and that such work was only done by those who didn’t make it into more popular types of photography like photojournalism or commercial photography, ” he says.
But good work speaks for itself. Last year, his company photographed over 1,000 weddings. Heng travels to hundreds of locations each year for various special engagements. His most memorable job was when he received a standing ovation from the 200 guests at a wedding in Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
“Most of the guests only spoke Spanish in the relatively unknown holy city of the Catholic world. They were wondering why the couple hired a photographer from Asia when there were so many talented ones in Europe.
“But after the shoot, when we got the slideshow done and showed it during the wedding dinner, they understood why, ” he says.
Over and above his work, Heng believes that it is important for one to never forget where they come from and to give back to society.
He often gives motivational talks to underprivileged youths in public schools and orphanages locally and abroad.
Heng has visited schools in Zambia to contribute towards improving their facilities. He also donated proceeds totalling RM15,000 from the sale of his Jumping Masai photo taken in Kenya to Hospis Malaysia.
Having worked in every continent, Heng has a few favourite locations – Bhutan, Peru and Bali for their culture; Iceland, Antarctica and Morocco for their landscapes; and Italy (Tuscany), Portugal and Japan for their architecture and food.
However, his favourite country remains Malaysia. “It’s not perfect but it’s home. There may be a lot of things that can be improved but I enjoy it, and I love the multiculturalism, ” he ends.