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Sunday July 1, 2012

A moment in time

What the naked eye misses, the camera zooms in on for this photographer.

WHEN he found himself perched on higher ground overlooking a quaint Chinese fishing village sometime last year, Lee Chee Wai knew this had all the ingredients for the making of fine art photography. In this part in the northeast of Fujian Province, China, the coastline stretches for over 400km, with a large portion of the shore protected by mountain and rock.

Welcome to my world: Lee Chee Wai says that photography has opened up a whole new world to him. It has taught him to appreciate the art and beauty around him, and he hopes that his photographs provide a glimpse into his world.

It is here that numerous mudflats sea farming villages are located, and here that Lee immortalised them through art.

“Imagine the seashore and mudflats as media, the light and tide as the palette, the boat and human activities as brushstrokes. My senses and the composition are the tools that transform each moment into fine art images. The concept is all about presenting my subjects as paintings,” Lee says of his award-winning photo series that he shot at Xiapu, China. (See

Preceding each attempt at a shot is an uphill trek of 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the location. Preoccupied with fine art impressions during his Xiapu visit, the idea of presenting it as a series came to mind only when he decided to submit it for the Sony World Photography Awards.

“I thought it was a perfect match for the Fine Art Landscape category. I consider this my best series to date, and this was the only entry I submitted. Of course, I know from experience that even when I think I have captured the best, I will not be as satisfied later. That is good because that is how I keep the passion burning.”

The Ipoh-based photographer, who clinched second place in that category of the competition, pushes himself hard. He admits that he was even disappointed, initially, when notified of his win.

“When Astrid Merget, creative director of World Photography Organisation, broke the news to me over a conversation on Skype, I was slightly disappointed. My target was first place. But when she said my photos were selected from over 112,000 images from 171 countries, I felt very touched and excited.”

The World Photography Awards, sponsored by Sony, aim to create an international platform for emerging photographers as well as professional photographers looking to showcase their new works. It spans a variety of genres, including advertising, architecture, fashion, music and sports.

This year sees the largest number of entries since the first Awards in 2007, and Lee’s series was showcased at the Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition in Somerset House, London, in May.

Lee has bagged prizes in several other competitions, such as The Black And White Spider Awards, and The Canon Creative Asia Photography Awards, but he is clearly over the moon with this recent win.

Reflections: Lee’s favourite subject is water as it comes in many different forms, thus allowing him to apply a range of photography techniques and explore different concepts. This photograph, taken in Taiping Lake Garden in Perak, got an Honourable Mention in the sixth annual Black And Spider Awards last year.

“It means a lot to me as it provides me with greater exposure to the global photography community. I consider myself a semi-pro fine art photographer, and thanks to this awards, I am inspired to search for subjects more frequently,” he says.

The self-taught photographer works as a creative director and account manager in the advertising industry. Married with two children, Lee, who is in his 40s, says his passion for photography has been brewing since he learned to appreciate art and beauty.

“After I finished secondary school, my father gave me his old Minolta XD7 SLR. I quickly discovered that the camera could express my feelings towards the subject of my choice and how I see the world around me. It was so much more than merely recording a moment in time. This was my initial perception of photography,” he says.

In the days of film photography, one of the challenges a photographer had to contend with was getting the right exposure without the option of trial shots or an instant preview on a camera with an electronic viewfinder. Having dabbled in both, Lee says that whether it is film or digital photography, his philosophy remains the same.

“The most important part is searching for the right composition and freezing at the right moment.”

Hard labour: Sun rays on men hard at work at a charcoal factory in Taiping.

Over the years, he has discovered the thrill of capturing images that are not apparent to the naked eye. This includes black-and-white shots, close-ups, and long exposure and infrared photography.

“I prefer to showcase my photos in black and white as I think that has a stronger impact on emotions. When I was a kid, comic books, newspapers and even TV programmes were in black and white. So you can say that I grew up in a black-and-white world, and that has influenced and inspired me until today.”

A huge admirer of works by Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Hoflehner, Alexey Titarenko, Michael Kenna and Tomasz Gudzowaty, Lee says that although it is difficult to have a formula that will give you a good photo every time, he believes half the battle is won if you are passionate about photography and your subject.

“Homework is crucial: do your research. Persevere, and enjoy every moment of it. Discover what character and style you like best,” he advises.

His interests are many, and the images on his website showcase a diverse range of subjects. But he does have his favourite: Water.

“It is my favourite subject as you can apply many different techniques and concepts to its different forms, whether it is water droplets, dew, sludge, reflections, oceans, swamps, lakes or rain.”

For him, the most rewarding experience is to be inspired by others, and in turn inspire others.

“Photography has given me an outlet to express my creative visions in the way I see the world. It has deepened my senses towards the environment, people and all living beings. I hope that people who see my images will get an impression of the love between me and my subjects, and that it allows them to see the world through different eyes, too,” he says.

The possibilities are, indeed, endless.