To start, let me tell you a story…. An excerpt from my 2009 book – Hong Kong
October 2009. I woke up with an enthusiasm and childish spirit that I haven’t had in a long time. There was an excitement to the proceedings; showering as quick as possible, throwing clothes on in a hurry, checking camera batteries, memory, cleaning all the lenses and bringing every accessory to ensure that not a moment would be forgotten. My breakfast was devoured, my shoes were barely tied and I was already trying to make my way to the trains. For all of the MTR system’s efficiency and speed, today it just wasn’t fast enough. We made our way towards Central where we could pick up our park passes and boarded the appropriate shuttle. 15 minutes said the travel guide. More like 15 hours. Even in a crowded bus full of tourists, children and families, I put my spectacular line-avoiding skills on display. Disembarking with my camera bags acting as bumpers, I managed to squeeze my way out before anyone else could.
Presenting our passes at the front gates and making our way through the colorful entrance, I was reminded of the times at Disneyland with my dad. I grab the park map and quickly scan the list of attractions while taking in the ascending hot air balloons and colorful mascots. The cotton candy, hot dog, popcorn filled the air with a fun aroma, while the brightly colored performers, souvenir stalls all add to the experience and building excitement. As we made our way through the opening promenade, the habitat became visible. A few snaps with the cartoon statues and we were on our way up the ramps and through the lines. As we neared the entrance, I got the camera ready. Lots of memory? Check. High speed burst mode? Check. Fast lens? Check. Continuous focus? Check. We walked through the turnstiles and saw the first one. We walked up, he sat quietly eating his breakfast. I smiled, it was a fat teddy just 6ft away. I brought the camera up to my eye and pressed the button. That was it, I didn’t let go of that button for the next hour. Today was my birthday, and I got to see a panda.
Prior to the visit with the fat teddy bears, photography was purely about capturing what stepped in front of the lens. The first number of years was spent learning the technicalities and building the arsenal of toys and gadgets. Next, it was about finding subjects and practicing the theory until it became second nature. For the most part, the process was professional, robotic and simply targeted at delivering an image. Photographic passion was about mastering the technicalities, all the compositional rules and putting into play the numbers and settings against a real world setting.
I got to the top of the peaks in the Canadian Rockies, witnessed the beauty of countless sunrises and sunsets and had the opportunity to immortalize life events for friends and family. Through it all, emotion took a back seat to the drive to learn and understand how to control the camera. Finally the light bulb moment came when I was able to spend time with the fat teddy bears. The moment a much greater inspiration for being behind the camera makes itself known – the moment you become emotionally star struck at the subject you’re capturing. The Panda bears represent my lightbulb moment – when my photographic world shifted and it became more important to enjoy the moment you’re in and appreciate the special opportunities we have as photographers to experience and document the unique moments in the world.
This was one of those situations in life that let you focus on what makes your world valuable. From the life threatening moments while caught in the middle of a typhoon, the fun memories of being a kid walking through the gates of Disney or the quiet moments spent with a loved one watching a sunset, these moments form the foundation of our valued memories. The moments combine to define our trajectory and more importantly, they allow us to develop the experiences that we can be grateful for. A reminder of the adventures, trials and triumphs that I come across and those that I have the privilege of documenting for others.
Almost 4 years on, the wonder and happiness of that first Panda day is still a very vivid memory. I got the chance to make a return visit in June 2012. I had learned a lot about being behind the camera in those intervening years. I learned how to control my cameras better, the impact of lighting, the emotional impact of capturing the right moment and for the most part, I thought I knew everything I needed to in order to deliver a better technical image. I walked into the enclosure again – better gear, more experience and a swagger that I was going to get a spectacular image. Well, sometimes you just have to let yourself be a kid again. I smiled from ear to ear when I saw them again. I put my camera down, took a seat and simply enjoyed my time with them. I had an hour with the bears. I knew that I could get the photo, but I knew that since it would likely be my last visit, it was more important to simply enjoy the experience this time.
I was reminded that you should let yourself be a participant and not always a documentarian. I was reminded that you have to take the opportunities to enjoy what’s before you because you might not get another chance. And I was reminded that part of what makes being behind the camera so special is to enjoy and cherish the experiences that are unfolding in front of it. These are the images from that return trip. My reminder that no matter how far you’ve come and what you might know, there’s still something out there that will step in front of your camera that will make you stop, stare and remember that for all the negatives in the world, the challenges we face in our daily lives, the world can be a beautiful place.