Gary Wang: Rangefinder Singapore

Gary Wang is a street photographer based in Singapore and is well regarded for his work shot on his Leica camera and super-wide 21mm lens. He is the founding member & head of Rangefinder Singapore, a community dedicated to further knowledge of photography and rangefinder cameras. He has also been recently nominated to the 2011 Platform Ten project. Eric Kim had the chance to sit down with Gary recently and ask him a few questions.

Q: Can you tell us more about your personal background and how you got introduced to street photography?

A: A little bit of personal background. I’m actually neither photography trained nor am I in the creative field. In fact, I was educated as an aircraft engineer and I’m currently working in the aviation industry. Since I was a kid, I have been really inspired by books on war journalism, documentary photographers documenting different tribes & their culture, capturing them on either heart-wrenching or heart-warming pictures. I feel that it is amazing how one picture can induce such different emotional reactions from different audiences.

With that, I do like documenting people and their culture. I have never had the opportunity to be a photojournalist, so I guess the natural thing to do is to take it out on the streets by documenting daily life around me. I started out by shooting alone over the weekends and reviewing my shots, comparing them with established photographers to see what was lacking and how I could improve. I feel that through street photography, I get to know other cultures better, regardless of which country I’m in.

Q: Describe yourself when you are shooting on the streets. How close do you get to your subjects and how do they typically react to you taking photos of them?

A: I would say, I could get as close as one meter or within three meters. It really depends on how I would like to frame and compose the shot. The adrenaline rush of being up close is so addictive like a drug.

Generally, after the shutter fires off when I bring my camera down, I usually will be looking at shocked, dazed faces and a fair few that do not even know that they have been shot. Of course through the years I’ve had my fair share of being shouted at, but not that much. I would say less than six times in four years?

Q: You currently shoot with a Leica M2 and Leica M3 camera and recently made the change from a 35mm to a 21mm lens. Can you describe how your equipment fits your photography style and why the switch in terms of focal length?

A: I chose the M3 and the M2 partially because of vanity reasons. I do love the old classic Leitz design which really hasn’t been seen much after the M4. The MP-3/M3P were way out of my budget range. On the whole, I love rangefinder cameras. They are small and compact, making them great travelling companions. The key word to rangefinder shooting is simplicity. The simplicity of the camera actually allows me to concentrate more on the shooting than worry about anything else. Also these old boys, the M3 and M2, they sure are hardy stuff made by Leitz.

As for the switch from 35mm to 21mm lenses, I went wider as I wanted to get closer to my subjects and at the same time see more of what is behind them. With a 35mm, up close, I felt that I wasn’t able to see what was going on in the background. I love getting close to my subjects, not because it is a ballsy thing to do, but I’ve always felt that by being close, I really am a true participant in the process of the picture construction. Being closer, it is not just  about taking the shot but you actually get to feel and smell the scene, to the point of seeing the little twitches on their faces. It’s all about being a part of the going-ons of the street.

Q: Describe the street photography scene in Singapore, and especially about your role in Rangefinder Singapore.

A: The way I see it, there has been a steady growth of street photography in Singapore, as compared to four to five years ago, where it wasn’t as big as it is now. I think social media has played a huge part to play in these last three years. People like Aik Beng Chia has been fully utilising social media to spread the love of street photography. Many in Singapore have been captivated by his street photography pictures and are starting to experiment on their own. With Kevin Lee, the man behind IPA, which is a huge success, street photography has been spreading like wildfire across Singapore and Asia.

I would say, many are captivated by street photography, but people are also skeptical about lifting up a camera to shoot strangers on the streets. Rangefinder Singapore, RFSG in short, was founded in April 2010 by a group of friends who were rangefinder enthusiasts. I believe there were less than 15 of us then. We were led by Dan Kwan, the brainchild behind Rangefinder Singapore and our goal was to promote and share our knowledge on rangefinder cameras which was lesser known then.

Through Dan Kwan, Rangefinder Singapore started its first few monthly outings and monthly mini competitions to drive up rangefinder interest and awareness. Within four months, we have managed to gather quite an impressive response from the local community and we launched our RFSG Inaugural Book, which was a coffee table book consisting of pictures all shot by rangefinder cameras by different people from all walks of life. The book was launched at the Singapore Arts Museum. Till today, I’m very impressed with the turn out which almost packed the Arts Museum’s glass house to capacity.

I started becoming more active in the RFSG community during the event where I gave a speech on my opinions on rangefinder cameras for beginners. Since then, I started handling the monthly outings and organizing the monthly mini competitions. Last year, before Dan Kwan left for New York, he handed Rangefinder Singapore over to me. In 2011, I managed to bring up the website for Rangefinder Singapore, with the help of Derrick Kuah, to what it is today. I must say, through this short span of under two years, the rangefinder community has really seen some growth. We have people of all ages coming in with a thirst for rangefinder knowledge.

Now that we have a bigger community, I have since given the responsibility of the monthly outings and competitions to other members. My focus right now is mainly on Rangefinder Singapore’s website. We have user opinionated gear reviews, photo essays, interviews, articles, rangefinder news and of course the news postings of the monthly outings and competitions on the website. For this year, I’m looking to start on the second coffee table book for Rangefinder Singapore along with a reception for it. I hope in 2012, not only can we expand the rangefinder community in Singapore, but to other parts of Asia as well.

Q: You currently specialize in street photography and have been nominated as one of the ten photographers in the 2011 Platform Ten project. Describe your experience with photo journalism and any future projects you are interested in working on.

A: Photojournalism was quite a challenge for me. My usual street photography shots are mainly random shots around Singapore itself wherever I turn up. For photojournalism, which I am new to, it required me to choose a subject to spend a lot of time with and focus on. It involved visiting the same places over a time span of a few months to document my subjects. Discipline was a key factor in photojournalism as it wasn’t easy to drag myself to the same locations multiple times a week over the span of a few months.

It is an interesting genre though. Through reviewing the pictures I’ve shot, I actually did rethink my shooting style and looked forward to going back to the location to improve my shots. Photojournalism has also taught me quite a bit about communicating with my subjects. With communication, they actually feel more comfortable being around you, they see you as a friend rather than a stranger. They open up more to you, giving you personal stories and insights of the location you are shooting at which really helps in the photo series.

I think the next project that I would be interested in working on would be documenting the life of my family members at home. I think for a seasoned street photographer, holding up a camera to a stranger is like second nature for me, but to convince family members to be themselves on camera at home, that would be a big challenge for me.

I guess the big challenge of shooting family members would be that we would have to deal with them on a daily basis. In contrast, on the streets you shoot a stranger, you probably would not see him/her again.

Q: What are some thematic motifs you are interested in photography, and how do your images describe who you are as a person?

A: The dark side of life and disparity of men are some of the motifs that I am interested in. From my images, I am someone who is of a curious nature, always wanting to learn more about things around me.

Q: Describe the story behind one of the most memorable images you have shot.

A: I was in my second night in Kathmandu and I saw this boy sniffing glue out of a plastic bag. I went up to him and took a shot of him. After I put the camera down, I noticed in the alley at the back of him, there were rows of boys and girls sniffing glue out of plastic bags or plastic bottles. That really left quite an impact on me.

Q: Who are some street photographers (classic and contemporary) who have influenced your photography?

A: Right, this one is going to be quite interesting. I do like the works of the classics like HCB, Garry Winogrand, Robert Capa, and Vivian Maier.

I think Robert Capa influenced me to get up close to my subjects. I shoot mainly black & white film photography on high contrast, heavy blacks, which was a big influence from Daido Moriyama on that part. I love the heavy blacks because I feel that it just blocks out all that is unnecessary and highlights to the audience what I would like them to see. I also love the work from Nobuyoshi Araki. The impact that his images have on the viewer is just amazing, not just the nude pictures which he is famous for, but the street photography pictures taken by him, shot in old Japan, they just have this wow factor about them.

Last but not least, those mind blowing colour shots from Steve McCurry. His photojournalistic pictures are gorgeous and Steve McCurry’s Midas touch of colour just creates a picture that blows minds away. Of course, to many who know me, I’m “colour blind” when it comes to shooting. Steve McCurry is a great inspiration for me should I take up colour photography down the line.

Q: You shoot exclusively with film. Is that more of a stylistic choice or something deeper?

A: I love film. I shoot mainly black & white. I love the workflow of it — taking my time, developing the film at home, hanging them up to dry, etc. Basically the whole process hasn’t been a chore, but rather quite therapeutic.

Film to me is simplicity. We live in a complicated modern environment that is so fast paced here in Singapore, and shooting film for me just seems to slow things down. It keeps my photography work simple and I enjoy the workflow process. I like my film work grainy, dirty and gritty, which is a reflection of life where nothing is perfect.

Q: What is some advice you would give to aspiring street photographers?

A: When you are on the street, don’t just shoot blindly. Take your time, see, feel, breathe, smell the street, be aware of your surroundings. The power of observation itself would get you 90% of the shot.

Thank you Gary!

-Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Rangefinder Singapore visit: www.rfsg.asia.