How to photograph air

Keivin Lim - Sensual Portraits

To photograph a woman, you must have something to say about her.  Something beautiful.

Some things, however, are beyond photography.

I have wonderful things to say about this lady.  Her sensuous silhouette… her breathtaking gaze, both alluring and intense… her smile, bright and cheerful like the morning sun.

But there are things that cannot be seen.  Things about her that lingered, long after she left.

Amidst the laughter and fun, a feeling of calm and assurance about her.  A sense of self-respect.  An air of acceptance, a certain confidence.

How do you photograph confidence?

How can we capture the invisible, a feeling?

It’s like trying to photograph air.

I had in my hands one of the most sophisticated and technologically-advanced inventions in the history of photography.  Yet, I couldn’t capture something as basic and intrinsic as human elegance.

The best I could do was to give her an experience to remember, with the little time given to us.

Being humbled by beauty

Every day is a gift

There was a time when I wondered if I had thrown away my future.

Why be a photographer?  I have certificates from the top schools in a top country.  I was enjoying a very successful career.   Why change when the future was bright?

Then, 18 beautiful women walked into my studio.  18 happy, babbling ladies who crashed the roof with laughter.  18 cancer survivors who truly understands what it means to be alive.

These women taught me lessons that the best schools and richest careers never did.

Unless you’ve experienced the very real possibility that you may die tomorrow, you may never appreciate what it means to live every day as a gift.

Yesterday, again, these gorgeous crazies came knocking on the door.  Again, they crashed the roof.  Again, they made me cry with laughter.

Can they feel the beauty within them?  Can they see how wondrous the light they shine on everyone?

People tell me how envious they are of my profession.  I used to doubt them.  Now, I realise how fortunate I am to be humbled.

Perfect Harmony

Blind ManOn an old sofa, the blind man sat alone.

“No! Auntie is not home!” He turned his empty eye sockets towards me, and groped for his walking stick. Slowly, he lifted himself into a hunch, his rotting legs buckling under the hefty body weight. Then, he began the long, painful journey towards me, one quivering step at a time.

“No need to come to the door!” I pleaded repeatedly, but he continued. I felt myself sinking. All that separated us was a few steps and a rusty gate, and all I could do was stand and watch like a helpless fool.

When he finally reached the gate, he was panting. His legs were swollen, and pus was oozing from a recent wound.

“Sorry, I don’t have the keys.”

We exchanged a few pleasantries. I tried to sound happy, but he couldn’t see my smile.

I watched him as he made his long, return journey. Along the way, he lost his walking stick. He bent down, hands on the floor, and crawled his way back to the sofa.

Only a few months ago, I had photographed this man and his wife. They looked so happy. At the exhibition, people told me, “Your photos are so full of life!”.

Life?

This couple had already given up on life. Every time we visit them, the wife would laugh, but this wasn’t the laughter of happiness that people see. This was a laughter in resignation.

“Just let it be. If the legs rot, cut them off. We’re old and useless now. Day by day. Until we die.”

The blind man and his wife live within the idealised system of working for the country, getting married, buying a government flat, having children, funding their education, having three generations under one roof. They are the perfect Singaporean model of intergenerational harmony.

If only life were as beautiful as our gorgeous-looking system.

They have a home, but they find no peace. They see their children and grandchildren everyday, but they find no joy. Years of bitter differences tore them apart. The family still lives together, because that’s the most practical thing to do.

What good are policies if there is no heart?

A man in the dark doesn’t need money, doctors, or cold, hard incentives. He needs a light, and a voice that understands.

Elaine and I visit them often. We couldn’t solve their problems, but we listened. So much anger suppressed, so much sadness within. Ultimately, we are nobodies who care, but what we offered was strangely missing from all the help and incentives they could get.

For more than a decade, I photographed beautiful people who already felt beautiful. Now, I dedicate my work to finding beauty among the lonely, the poor, and the ostracised.

I shorn a light for a lonely man, and in the darkness, I found my way.

On Empathy | Kelvin Lim’s speech at the 32nd Integrated Network Event

I had the privilege to speak at the National Council of Social Services’ (NCSS) 32nd Integrated Eldercare Network on 1st July 2016.

I told the stories of the less privileged, and shared the lessons I learned from these wonderful folks. Some in the audience were moved to tears.

I’d like to share my speech with you, and I hope it inspires you, too.

Download the original transcript as an e-book

Listen to the speech here:

 

Original transcript:

This is the true story of a young couple, Shabbeer and Meharun. They lived with their five little children in a small HDB flat. This happened more than 40 years ago.

Shabbeer and Meharun were very poor. The husband worked 2 jobs. In the day, he worked as a cleaner, sweeping the roads and clearing rubbish bins. At night, he worked in the petrol station as a pump attendant.

Meharun worked 3 jobs. At 6am, she would clean the stairs and corridors HDB flats, from the top floor to the bottom. She would also clear the trash at the ground floor rubbish chutes. Cockroaches would rush out and crawl all over her arms and body. Nothing could get rid of the smell.

In the afternoon, she would return home to cook and to care for her old mother-in-law. She would teach her 5-year-old daughter how to cook nasi lemak, do housework, and care for her little brothers. Meharun herself barely had time to eat.

Then, she would continue working, cleaning the homes of other families – up to 8 homes every day, until late into the evening. At night, when everyone was asleep, she would start her overnight shift as a factory worker.

The couple worked very very hard. But they earned so little, they couldn’t afford their children’s text books and school fees. They don’t have enough to eat, and never had enough sleep.

But they were very, very kind. When their own siblings needed help, they offered food and shelter. At one time, more than 30 people were living in the same little flat.

Despite their kindness, life was cruel. Shabbeer’s mother was against their marriage, because she wanted him to marry another woman. Whenever Shabbeer was away at work, she would vent her anger on Meharun and her little children.

It was horrible. Continue reading →

Acceptance

You can always find a smile along these corridors, no matter how long, dark and lonely.
No matter how hard the mattress, how bare the homes, how empty the lives.

You can always find a smile.
Even if their children don’t visit anymore.
Even if their meals are simple.

They’ve seen so much.
We are but young and reckless, ambitious and proud.
We have nothing to lose.
Just like them, a long time ago.

They’ve gone from rich, to poor.
From famous, to homeless.
From loved, to abandoned.

Life was never fair. Still, they find happiness.

They don’t have much, but they have a home.
They’re not rich, but they love their friends.
The children don’t come, but why hold them back? Let them fly!

They smile, because they’ve been given a chance to live.
Even if they’re old.
Even if they’ve lost their limbs.
Even if their bodies survive on tubes, machines, and drugs.

Life’s not perfect, but it’s their life. No one else’s.