Jeremy Choo: Expressing Enthusiasm, Emotion and Empathy

We were introduced to Jeremy Choo after he answered a question we put up on Facebook correctly about how many lens elements were in a jar; however, he never got the notification that he had won a free trip to our May 10 event in time to redeem the award. While he didn’t fly to Germany, he agreed to being featured on the blog- almost as good of a prize, almost.

Jeremy Choo, who’s twenty-four years old, grew up in the city of Georgetown on Penang Island, Malaysia. He moved to Adelaide, South Australia in 2007 to further his studies in science where he majored in microbiology and  earned a degree. Choo spends much of his time in Adelaide but returns to Penang for 1-2 months at the end of each year. This gives him a unique opportunity to document and compare two vastly different cultures with his camera. His insightful images suggest a possible career in photojournalism, but he is modest about his accomplishments. “My interest in photography began in high school—I started out with a compact camera and moved on to a DSLR five years later,” recalls Choo. “I’m currently falling in love with film photography and have been shooting film for the past year. I am just an amateur photographer with a science degree, and I’m currently assessing my options. Who knows, I might end up as a full-time photographer if the opportunity presents itself!”

Q: How has your photography evolved?

A: My photography has undergone constant evolution. I started off doing landscapes when I was still in Malaysia. My genre of photography changed to travel photography when I carried on my studies abroad. After settling down in Adelaide, Australia, I changed my preference to street photography because I was interested in documenting the different lifestyles of people here and comparing it to that of my hometown. So basically the current theme of my photography consists of conveying a tale of two cities, Penang and Adelaide.

Q: How did you become interested in photography and has anyone influenced your work?

A: When I was in high school, I was intrigued by the unique landscapes and vibrant cultures when travelling through countries such as Indonesia and Thailand with my family. It was during these trips that I had the urge to document the atmosphere and emotion of the scene and convey them through my photos. My interest eventually underwent a slight change when I saw the works of masters such as Gary Winogrand, Robert Frank and Steve McCurry. I always set deadlines for myself to learn proper techniques and skills that have let me tell a story more effectively through my photography.

I am mainly a self-taught photographer. I usually learn through books and articles I find on the web and also through trial and error. I usually read articles on a wide range of topics, and I try to observe works from different genres of photography. The intense emotions emanating from photos by Steve McCurry always inspire me to go out and shoot every time I look at them. Besides that, my works are also inspired by the documentary style of Edward Olive.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: Being a self-taught photographer who often sources learning materials from the Internet, I have come across a lot of famous photos that were shot with Leicas. I was immediately drawn to the unique styling of the Leica M and its lenses. It was only a few years later that I had the chance to finally hold an M3 in the palm of my hands during a local photographic market. When I held it, cranked and pressed the shutter, I immediately knew that this was the camera for me. They just don’t make these types of cameras anymore! (Well, that accounts for everyone except Leica!) The weight and mechanical precision was impeccable, and I ended up fondling the M3 for around half an hour before reluctantly letting it go.

Q: What is your camera of choice?

A: A year after fondling that M3, I finally got myself an M6 and a DR Summicron with some extra cash I received for my scholarship, and I’ve shot with it exclusively ever since. I prefer to use a rangefinder over a conventional SLR. Because when I am preparing to take a picture, I am able witness an event happening outside of my frame, which enables me to capture the magical moment when it happens. Besides that, I also really enjoy the “ritual” of shooting and developing my own film. Although it takes up a lot of time, it is very rewarding to see your own work when you have finished developing your photos.

Q: The pictures in your portfolio are all in black-and-white, and you mention that you shoot on film with a Leica M6 and DR Summicron, a 50mm f/2 lens. Why do you find the medium of black-and-white film so rewarding, which film(s) do you prefer, and what characteristics of the 50mm focal length and the DR Summicron in particular are conducive to you style of photography?

A: The main reason that I find black-and-white photography so rewarding is because of the feeling I get when I see my photos for the first time after I develop them. Nothing beats the anticipation when you hold your negatives under the light for the first time to check on how your shots turned out. Besides that, I think that black-and-white photography gives a different feel, a feel that I am looking for in a photo in comparison to color photography. The effects of textures, lighting and contrast are enhanced in black-and-white photography because colors sometimes distract the viewer from the photo. All of the shots in my portfolio are shot with Ilford HP5+, an economical film with great tonal range that is very forgiving during development. It is a great choice for me because I’m just starting out in film photography. The 50mm focal length allows me to approach and fill the frame of the camera with my subject without intruding their private space.

Q:  You mention that you transitioned from landscape photography to travel photography to street photography. Do you think that this represents a natural evolution, and can you tell us something about how it came about?

A: In my case, it does represent a natural evolution. I became interested in landscape photography when I was in high school; my pictures published in my high school magazine mostly consisted of landscapes from different parts of Malaysia. When I carried my studies abroad in my late teens, I became interested in the different buildings, cultures and lifestyles that Australia (in particular, Adelaide) has to offer. I started to shoot anything that was of interest to me, and I would often share the images with my friends and families back home. I transitioned to street photography after settling down in Adelaide. This was because I developed an interest in the residents of Adelaide and their lifestyle, which is laid back compared to the lifestyles in bigger cities such as Melbourne or even Penang, Malaysia.

Q: The images you shot in Adelaide convey a different feeling than those you shot in Malaysia. Can you tell us why you think this is so, and whether it is primarily due to the difference in the places themselves or your approach to the subjects, one as an outsider and one as an insider?

A: The different feeling that images from these two places portray is due primarily to the different cultures exhibited by the people from these two cities. Adelaide is heavily influenced by European culture while Penang is influenced by the diversity of racial communities living there. When I am photographing in Adelaide, I look for certain western themes or structures that would improve my image and try to wait and capture the decisive moment. Conversely, the vibrant cultures of Penang always fascinate me whenever I go back home. I love to attend and document the different festivals in Penang whenever possible, as well as documenting the lives of the people that I meet on the streets.

Q: Your striking image that includes posters in the center and an old man smoking on the left  has a “Mondrianesque”, kaleidoscopic feeling. How did you come to take this picture, where was it taken, and what do you think it expresses about the society it depicts?

A: This image was taken at an alley near Central Place, Melbourne, which is famous for its graffiti and cafés. I came across this graffiti of a shady man smoking a cigarette on the hidden side of an entrance, and I waited for the moment to happen and took the shot. It just so happens that the lines that were in the frame divided the photo in half, hence the kaleidoscopic feeling.

As for the second part of the question, I feel that this image represents the dark side of society. It shows that there is sometimes a person who is waiting for a chance to pounce and take advantage of the unwary.

Q: Your Asian image showing a temple or historic structure in the background and a man with a motorbike in the right-hand foreground has a timeless quality and could have been taken 50 years ago. Do you agree, and what does it mean to you?

A: I agree that this photo has a timeless quality due to the absence of color and any elements that might give away its age. The temple in this image is called the Temple of Goddess of Mercy, and it is one of the historic structures of Penang that make up the UNESCO heritage site of Georgetown. This image means a lot to me as it holds memories of my family’s annual visits to this temple. Many families from the Chinese community of Penang have been going to this temple for generations in the month of January to pray for the well-being of their respective families.

Q: Your behind-the-scenes image of a puppeteer is both amusing and solemn at the same time. Can you comment on this and tell us why and where you shot it?

A: I shot this image during the Chinese lunar New Year festival that was held in Georgetown, Penang earlier this year. The state government had organized a huge citywide celebration with open houses and hundreds of booths showcasing traditional Chinese art, clothing, games, food and even music in conjunction with the festival. The puppet show was one of the performances that garnered a huge crowd. Most of the viewers were middle-aged adults and the elderly as these performances bring back childhood memories since they were their primary source of entertainment. They did not have any forms of entertainment that we have today, such as computers or televisions. When a puppeteer was in town, families would bring their children to watch the traditional Chinese puppet shows where they depict adventures of heroes of the Chinese folklore.

These traditional puppet shows are a dying art since the younger generations are unwilling to acquire the skills required to be a puppeteer. Because of this, the puppeteers were mainly made up of old people. I tried to photograph this scene in a way that conveys a solemn feeling because these might be the last few years in which we can enjoy a type of entertainment that has been passed down by people from our previous generations.

Q: There is a wonderful intensity and enigmatic quality to your image of an Asian man operating some sort of machine and holding an undefined thing he is gazing at intently. The graininess and the blurred action help to create a sense of immediacy. What’s going on here, what shutter speed did you use, and do you see this image as some sort of archetype?

A: Penang is famed for its food, especially foods from street vendors. The man in this image is a street vendor selling sugarcane juice. We usually get our sugarcane juice in the form of chilled packets in western countries such as Australia, but people in these parts of the world prefer to drink it fresh. It’s a really popular drink and there is usually a large queue in front of these stalls. The juice vendor makes his juice by passing one or two stems of young sugarcane through a mechanical crusher that crushes the sugarcane. The juice is then collected at the bottom of the machine and served fresh to the waiting customers. I love the intensity of the subject’s gaze as he was focusing all his attention on the process because he was doing everything at a really fast pace. I can’t really remember exactly what shutter speed I used to take this shot but I guess it was around 1/15. I don’t see this image as an archetype because I have seen similarly composed shots. However, none of these utilize slow shutter speeds to emphasis immediacy.

Q: Have you ever considered shooting with a Leica M9, which is basically “the M6 experience” in digital form? Also, since so many street photographers these days prefer shooting with a 35mmm or 28mm lens, have you ever considered experimenting with a wider-angle lens?

A: Shooting with an M9 has always been my dream! It is, in my opinion, the best digital rangefinder system currently in the market. However, this fine piece of photographic equipment is still out of my reach for the time being as I still can’t afford one with my measly student salary. It would be my goal to own and shoot with an M9 or the Leica Monochrom in the future, and I will work hard to reach that goal.

As for the second part of your question, the thought of shooting with a wider lens, such as 35mm or 28mm lens did cross my mind when I was deciding on which lens should I select to accompany my M6. In the end I chose to stick with the 50mm as it suited my style of photography. I have shot exclusively with my DR Summicron and M6 for almost a year now, and I feel that this action has tremendously improved my skills in photography. I do intend to experiment with a wider lens in the near future as I have seen great photos that were taken with lenses that offer a different perspective in street photography.

Q: Have you settled on street photography as your primary genre? And how do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next 5 years?

A: I have settled on street photography as my primary genre, and I am very passionate when it comes to street photography. One of my main aims this year is to showcase my portfolio on a proper website since posting on Flickr and Facebook do not adequately represent my work. I will continue to work on my current “one camera, one lens” project. I plan to carry out some reportage work on the next Bersih movement back in Malaysia as it is a subject with great significance to me as well as to people back home. I truly enjoy photography since it has been my passion from a very young age. and I will strive to improve my skills and enjoy photography going forward!

Thank you for your time, Jeremy!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of Jeremy’s work, check out his Facebook and Flickr account.