Over the past two weeks, we were given 3 photography tasks to complete. Each task required us to take 3 photos revolving around a certain theme:
- Task 1: expressing something about yourself.
- Task 2: studying an object.
- Task 3: studying a place.
Seemed easy enough. Right? How hard could it be to take a series of photos?
I brainstormed my concept for each task soon after we were given the requirements. For Task 1, I decided to focus on my hobby and my identity as a gamer. For Task 2, I chose my old laptop as the focus. Finally, for Task 3, I decided to do a study of the hobby gaming shop Cardmaster Games at Dhoby Ghaut. I chose these partly because I’m familiar and comfortable with them, and partly because it lets me introduce my audience to a hobby that isn’t well known outside of hobby circles.
Task 1: 1000 hours played
we are what we do
incarnated in every move
and every roll of the dice
Of the three submissions, this one was the most spontaneous. That is, it took the least prep time and the fewest shots to take to get my final images. I think this is because I had a clear vision of what I was trying to achieve, and also because all the materials were readily accessible to me right at home.
In coming up with the idea for this series, I sat down and tried to figure out my personal identity. At the end of the day, who did I consider myself to be? What did I feel could represent the core of my being?
I realized that, when it comes down to it, I don’t think my appearance really represents me. Obviously it’s an extension of myself. But is my face really who I am? Or is it just an outward-facing mask I was born with?
Instead, I feel a closer connection to the things that I do. The art and writing I create, the games that I play — these are much more telling of who I am as a person. After all, they’re a window into my choices, my beliefs, and how I spend my life.
I was especially intrigued by the idea of games being a way to represent my personality. After all, many games have an element of self-expression in the form of character customization and differing playstyles. I engage with virtual worlds and virtual personas almost as much as I engage with the real world. Isn’t it fair to say that these double lives represent a side of me as well?
The title I chose for this series is “1000 hours played.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to the metrics provided by Steam, an online service that not only acts as a video game library but also keeps track of how long you’ve been playing each game for. In reality, I have much more than 1000 hours played across all of my games, but I think the title gets the point across.
For the actual photos, I wanted to focus on the idea of a gaming lifestyle by putting the items front and center. Hence, I decided to use close-up shots of various hobby gaming items. Each photo would represent a different aspect of my gaming life, from pencil-and-paper tabletop gaming, to trading card games, to video games that I play on my laptop.
Laying out the materials began with dumping everything onto my dining room table. From there, I tried to think of visually interesting ways to arrange the items, while still making it clear to my audience what they were looking at. For instance, I made sure to hold a hand of cards for the second shot so that you can recognize the multicolored clutter as gaming cards (which not everyone might be familiar with).
I ended up using lots of diagonal lines to direct the viewer’s attention and break up what would otherwise be a lot of boring rectangular shapes (books, cards, laptop). I also had my objects fill the viewfinder as much as possible, with no dining table showing around the edges, to convey the idea that my hobby isn’t just about a single object or a series of objects — it’s a lifestyle that encompasses who I am.
Task 2: man + machine
use something long enough and
it becomes an extension of yourself
It took a while for me to decide on my object. My inspiration came from the provided reading from 4D class, Introduction: The Things That Matter by Shelly Turkle. This article serves as the foreword to the book Evocative Objects: Things We Think With and discusses how objects acquire meaning in our lives. I decided that my object would be something meaningful to myself that I was intimately familiar with.
Let me tell you a story about how I bought my laptop. My previous laptop was failing, refusing to start up at times, and generally being a nuisance. As I was serving my National Service at the time, I thought, “Ah, maybe I’ll go without a computer for a while. I’ll buy a new laptop when uni starts.” I told my friend this, and he replied with a line that stuck with me:
“Bro, don’t wait. You know what’s the one thing you use every day? Here’s a hint. It rhymes with ‘lomputer.’ ”
Okay, it was a cheesy bad joke. And it sounds worse in writing. But it was true: I realized that every single thing I did was tied to my computer. My hobbies, my social life, and my passion for art were all expressed through the lens of this single machine. If I sacrificed my laptop just because I wanted to save money, I’d be losing something very important to myself.
I ended up buying a new laptop. And while I have a brand new computer now, which is much better than that ugly potato machine you see in the photos above, that ugly potato machine resonates with me because of what my friend said. That’s why I chose the laptop I used during NS as the object for my photo series.
For this task, I wanted to distill my feelings about my laptop into a single hook that I could hang all of the photos on. That hook ended up being “man + machine,” or in other words, the symbiotic relationship I realized I had with my laptop. I decided to take a series of photos that emphasized my duality with my laptop and blurred the boundary between us.
My initial test shots were taken with my phone camera, and, well, the results were unconvincing. Because I didn’t have access to a tripod, I wasn’t able to take any full-body shots of myself. If I wanted to get myself in the photo, I had to either cheat using the reflection from the laptop screen, or contort myself into awkward poses to take a selfie without looking like I was taking a selfie. This wasn’t good for a series that was all about my relationship with the laptop.
After a consultation with Lei, who recommended I borrow a DSLR and a tripod, things went more smoothly. I puzzled out the camera timer function and spent an afternoon artfully arranging myself with the laptop in various poses. The idea was to experiment with various artsy compositions, then go back and select the ones that I felt most encapsulated the idea of “man + machine.”
Here you can see some of the shots I took that didn’t make it into the final selection. Some of them are concepts that didn’t pan out; some were deemed too similar to the three I ultimately chose, so they didn’t add enough value to the final selection; and some of them just looked cool but didn’t convey the message of “man + machine” enough.
In the end, I opted for three shots that were almost robotic and mechanical in nature — de-emphasizing my humanity, using the grid lines of the cabinet behind me to lay out the shots as though they were blueprints. In each of them, my form or silhouette is merging into that of the laptop. I don’t show my face, and instead reduce the shot to the shapes of myself and the laptop and how we interact.
In retrospect, I feel that without the caption to explain the concept of “man + machine,” the shots are still not enough to get the message across. It’s a tough conundrum. In future, if I were to do something like this again, I’d consider using photo manipulation to create surreal images of myself and my subject melting into one another. In any case, the project’s over and these are the images I ended up with — c’est la vie.
Task 3: friday night magic
there’s no icebreaker better than
drawing your opening hand
I don’t take photos very often, but when I do — on a trip, or when I see something interesting — it’s usually of a place. Hence when I was given this task, I had lots of ideas on how to approach it. For locations I considered an MRT station, my house, the schools I’ve studied at, et cetera… there really are a lot of significant places in your life, when you stop to think about them. At the same time, I wanted to pick a place that was interesting for me to go back to, which I had a story to tell about.
In keeping with the ongoing theme of “kee yong is a geek,” I ended up choosing Cardmaster Games at Dhoby Ghaut — a hobby shop where people gather to play card games. One, it was a place that I knew very well, having been there many times with my friends in the past. Two, it was a lively place with lots of visual interest and things going on. And three, it was situated at Dhoby Ghaut MRT station, and very convenient for me to stop at on the way home from school.
With the place chosen, the question became: what story do I want to tell through my photos? The card shop is a place that holds a lot of memories for me, and I could express any number of sentiments about it. Is it about the afternoons I spent playing cards and having silly fun with my friends? Is it about the tournament where I beat the store owner and made back 10 times the entry fee in prizes? (True story, by the way.)
While these narratives are all interesting and cool, I decided that I wanted a simpler narrative that would be easy for me to photograph and convey at the actual site. For instance, I didn’t want to trouble my friends to come over to be photographed. Instead, I decided to capture what I felt was the spirit of the location: the fun, the excitement, and the passion for the hobby shared by everyone you meet there.
The photo series is called “friday night magic” because, well, the card game is called Magic and the event is called Friday Night Magic. But there’s another connotation there that I really like — the suggestion that something magical and wonderful is happening. That’s the essence of what I’m trying to represent with this photo series: the passion, the excitement, the friendship, and the love of the game.
I visited Cardmaster Games over two Friday evenings, during Friday Night Magic and during peak hour. I knew that was when I’d find the most packed tables and the most interesting things to photograph. I got what I bargained for: both times I visited the small shop, it was full of people playing with their friends or against tournament opponents. Everywhere I looked, there was Magic.
At first I used my phone to take test shots. The objective of this was to experiment with different shots and ways to frame the event going on, to figure out the best way to convey my message. To this end there was a lot of asking for permission to take photos, doing gymnastics around the crowded shop to find a good angle, etc. Here are some of the photos I took:
You’ll notice that the exposure leaves something to be desired — my phone was struggling with the bright fluorescent lights against the darkness of the shop. I also ended up with a lot of shots that were merely descriptive or illustrative, rather than conveying the sense of passion and camaraderie I wanted to convey. Overall, I felt like my initial batch of shots was too distant — more like an observer rather than a participant.
I didn’t want that. I wanted the viewer to feel as though they were part of the game, part of the passion, experiencing the ups and downs together with the players. To do that, I decided that I needed more close-up and eye-level shots, so that the image was almost like the view of another player sitting at the table. And so I arrived the next Friday evening armed with a DSLR ready to take a more focused batch of photos.
I was much happier with this series. With the close-up framing, you can see the players’ expressions, whether they’re deep in thought contemplating their next move, or laughing or groaning at a dramatic reversal. It adds a real human element to the composition and some much-needed warmth.
Inspired by the close-ups on the players, I also took the opportunity to photograph some close-ups of other things around the shop — elements like the signs scribbled by the store owner, or the torn-up cards displayed to commemorate a particularly memorable session of Ironman Magic. I really love the idiosyncratic side of the shop that comes out in these photos, the stories they tell about the card shop’s history.
Of course, new methodology came with new problems. My inexperience with the DSLR proved to be a stumbling block, as images that appeared fine in the viewfinder ended up being underexposed or out of focus when blown up to print resolution. I also had trouble taking some of the close-up shots, as they were all candid shots of games that were actually happening — some with prizes on the line! I had to shift water-bottles, squeeze myself against walls, and push past spectators to find the right angle. Some shots I had to pass up entirely because they would require moving other people’s valuable cards.
In the end, I narrowed my photo selection down to the five that I felt were most unique and most representative of my idea:
While preparing my submission, I didn’t know we were allowed to have more than 3 photos. Hence, I decided to cut 2 from the selection. It was a close decision — as you can see, these photos had been finalized to the point where I color corrected and enhanced all of them in Photoshop. Here are the two that didn’t make it:
This photo was one of my test shots, and the reason I decided to pursue close-up shots. I love how genuine the subjects’ expressions are (even if they’re awkward because some kid is taking a photo of them) and I love the overall composition of the piece. I cut it because it was ultimately too similar to my other close-up shot, and that one has much better image quality (it was taken with the DSLR). The other shot also places more focus on the game taking place between the players, which I feel is better for the message I’m trying to convey.
This is a glam shot of the store owner, David. I like the overall composition and the new perspective it gives for the series, but it was hampered by one big, big problem — the overexposure from the glaring light of the display case. Although I tried my best to compensate by touching up the photo in Photoshop, it’s still an ugly blob right on top of the focal point where David’s face is. In the end I decided the pros weren’t worth the cons, and cut the shot to make room for the others.
All in all, I feel like the final selection does a good job of conveying the fun and passion of the card shop. The photos tell a story in three acts — we set up the location in the first image, introduce the hobby in the second, and show players having fun in the third. While the third image could be a little straighter and a little less close-up (because my back was literally to the wall), I’m satisfied with how things turned out.
Oh, and one more thing. As thanks to David for letting me take photos around his shop, I sent him all the photos I took, and gave him permission to use them freely. Here’s his reply:
First of all thanks for all those photos that u sent me. I appreciate your kind gesture. Second, sorry for the delayed reply. It kept on slipping my mind to thanks u for those photos. ? I have seen all the photos. It is really awesome as it give me a good perspective of how a customer would view as they look around the store. Thank u!
Who says art is unappreciated?
This is how I arranged the photos for the final submission. I printed them out on A4 copy paper, along with some pretentious captions summing up the intent of each series, and just sort of plastered them wherever I had space on the wall. The title I chose — “kee yong takes photos” — is self-explanatory, shows the name of the photographer, directs attention to the photos, and is humorously self-effacing. A winning combination!
In retrospect, my presentation looked a little low-budget, and the copy paper I chose didn’t do justice to the photos I took, especially the brightly colored ones from Cardmaster Games. I should have planned the layout in advance, and I should have shelled out for proper photo printing instead of using the office paper in my room. Still, there are worse ways to mess up a photography assignment.
Now, as I write this looking back on the project, it was a fun series of tasks that pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged my creative spirit. Coming from a digital art background, it’s interesting to work within the constraints of the real world, where you can only capture what the camera sees. And the act of going out and taking photos is actually pretty fun — like going on an adventure!
Maybe one day I’ll get around to opening an Instagram account…?