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Talking Photography: Jasbir John Singh

Jasbir John Singh is a photographer from Singapore, who specializes in social documentaries, street photography and other non-commercial genres of photography. He identifies his work as mostly artistically-driven and humanitarian by nature. Jasbir is a UN Volunteer and has produced several award-winning fine art photo series which he describes as "Visual Poetry".

Jasbir took some time off his busy schedule to share his thoughts and insight, so read on!

All photos in this post are by Jasbir.

Chloe Chotrani by Jasbir John Singh

What got you into photography?

Jasbir: My adolescent years up till I was in my early 20s was a confusing period in my life. Having come from a military-turned-business family, most of the important life decisions were already planned for me regardless of whether I liked them or not. One of those decisions was to send me to law school. I was not able to adapt to the environment in law school, and it definitely affected my relationship with lecturers and other students. At that point of time, I badly needed an outlet to vent my frustrations, and so I impulsively bought a secondhand DSLR camera with a kit lens that would accompany me on long walks along the East Coast Park beach. This sparked off an irreplaceable relationship between photography and myself.

Through photography I would eventually gain the confidence to express to my family that law school was not working out for me. I showed them my (amateur) work and told them that there was a possibility of me doing far better in life as an artist rather than as a lawyer. They decided to allow me to study Fine Art instead of Law, and more than a decade later I am thankful to my family for who I have become today.

Logendra Chandra Sehkar by Jasbir John Singh

How has your journey as a photographer impacted you?

Jasbir: My journey as an artist and photographer has humbled me to become a student of the world we live in. Due to the fact that I work on several different genres of photography (documentary/ fine art/ portraiture/ street), I have been blessed to explore many different cultures, learn about people and the varying schools of thought that exist, and experience our beautiful world and all the good and bad it has to offer.

How did you develop your own personal style of portraiture?

Jasbir: My style of creating photographs is very free. I take inspiration from my own experiences from all the different genres that I work on, to create this unique sense of expressiveness within each photograph.

While studying fine art, I became obsessed with Rembrandt’s lighting techniques in his paintings. While photographing and learning theatre, I picked up the idea of capturing motion because I started to realise that when I slow down the shutter speed of my camera, I start to invite more personality of my subject into the frame with their unique gestures and ways of expressing themselves captured. With documentary and street work, I picked up the habit of not processing the photographs too much, to allow the subject to maintain its authenticity.

Photograph from a series called “Ratirahasya” by Jasbir John Singh

What role do you think photography plays in society?

Jasbir: It varies according to the industry, genre, and photographer. Some photographers create photographs for entertainment which is more commonly found in commercial work, while others create for impact which is usually found in documentary and photojournalistic work. Neither should be considered lesser than the other. We have seen the likes of Gregory Heisler, Irving Penn and Peter Lindbergh in the commercial space, and on the other hand we have seen the likes of Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, and Mary Ellen Mark in the documentary and photojournalism spaces. We have also seen the likes of Shirin Neshat, Roy DeCarava and Nobuyoshi Araki in the contemporary and fine-art spaces.

Within every genre of photography, regardless of industry influence, there are works that contribute in different ways to society - be it to entertain, express, influence, or question.

Photograph from a series called “Dorscon Orange: Stories from within the Shadows of COVID-19 in Singapore” by Jasbir John Singh

What are 3 important things every photographer should know?

Jasbir: 1) Collaborations - While collaborations may have taken on a “nasty” meaning, especially in the creative industries within our Southeast Asian region, I have also observed that many photographers are willing to work with big corporations or more famous entities for “free”, but would charge a smaller company or lesser known entity exorbitantly. I am of the opinion, with history as my witness, that no creative individual has ever been known for becoming great by working with big corporations or famous entities - it is rather the organic appreciation that the creative individual cultivates that makes him or her great. I welcome collaborations as long as it is either artistic, humanitarian, or non-commercial by nature. Collaborations are a great way to explore and learn - and on a lighter note, it is a great way to make like-minded friends.

2) As a photographer (or any creative individual for that matter), you are forever a student of the arts and the world around you. The more humble you are, the more you will learn, and, the more progressive your career as a photographer becomes.

3) Seek progression and not popularity. Progression is a good indication of how well you are doing as a photographer - personal growth. Have you been getting more assignments and commissions? Have critiques of your work grown more positive? Are people taking notice of your work more keenly than before? Are you able to sustain yourself completely from photography? Are you able to upgrade your equipment? Are you happy? All of these questions are very direct and intrinsic. The answers to these questions are exclusive to your journey as a photographer and can only be changed or replaced by what you do in that journey. Popularity on the other hand, while not a bad thing, is very external and is often not in your control. So why prioritise what cannot be controlled over what can be controlled? Progress to where you need to be personally and financially first, and then start looking into external matters like popularity.

Photograph from a series called “Dorscon Orange: Stories from within the Shadows of COVID-19 in Singapore” by Jasbir John Singh

How do you decide what photography equipment to invest in?

Jasbir: My current workhorse camera is the Sony A7RII which has been serving me beautifully with its high pixel count that is important for the genres of work that I do. The deciding factor for me will always be to consider if I need a particular piece of equipment or not.

What is one piece of photography gear you can't live without?

Jasbir: Unfortunately, I have learnt to already live without it. I was once a proud owner of the Hassleblad 500CM but because it was just sitting in my dry cabinet for such a long time, I felt sorry for it and wanted it to have an owner that could use it to its fullest potential. Selling that camera off hurts me till today!

Photograph from “Observations Gallery” of Jasbir John Singh

What advice would you give budding photographers?

Jasbir: None. Seeking advice, critiques and so on should come much later at an intermediate stage of their journey. They should just be enjoying the process of exploring their new passion of photography more than anything else and concentrating on creating as many photographs as possible.

Thanks Jasbir for sharing your thoughts and insight with us!


Please consider sharing your photos with the community by tagging #dharmaportraits on your Instagram photos - I'd love to see how you're using these tips to create beautiful photos.

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