Updated: Jul 6
I have always been creative.
When I was pursuing my degree in the United Kingdom, I constantly looked for artistic opportunities where I could explore myself creatively. Poetry, photography, drone videography and even modelling had been areas of my experimentation over the past few years. However, there existed pressure rooted from the stereotypical Asian-parents’ perception that art-related careers would not bring financial stability. Thus, I only dared looking at my fun creative work as a side passion from my ambition of a ‘serious’ career in banking. What boggled my mind then was how, throughout many of our artists' careers, they have remained strong with their passion in art despite challenges of the times, limited resources and societal pressures in the Malaysian community.
I returned to Malaysia in September 2022 shortly after my graduation. I came home with a degree in Economics, but left behind my creative ventures and prepared myself for a corporate-oriented mindset. Yet, to my surprise, my new neighbour, James Quah, is an experienced dance photographer and light painter. Being a multiple-genre dancer himself, James was in awe of motion and wanted to experiment with capturing motion using photography. His effort in this niche genre then won him the grand prize for the ‘Dance With Us: Motion Across Cultures’ Photo Contest back in 2011. He has since been the first-pick photographer for The Dance Society of Malaysia (TDS), which strives to create awareness and encourage appreciation for dance through events and dance competitions.
That piqued my interest about his career and experiences. How did a photographer pursue his passion, while fulfilling other realistic needs especially finances, which is much prioritised in our community? And so, I very obviously got James to share about his creative ventures. Euan: How did you first find your passion in dance photography?
James: I used to have a small camera, always with me. It was not till 2004/2005 that I owned a DSLR camera and started to capture dance. It’s usually for TDS, even now. The image below was the one and only clear photo that I took with my Nikon D70, out of about 200 plus shots taken. This was the beginning of James Quah Dance Photography.
In fact, I started off with dancing first, since 1980. I went from cultural, to ballroom (all the 10 dances), rhythm tap, Argentine Tango, adult’s ballet and salsa. That was my advantage in dance photography. It took me more than a year to learn how my camera worked but my experiences in dance made it easier.
Euan: It is believed that common stereotypical Asian perspectives, especially from parents, discourage chasing one's passion and instead prioritising on financial stability. What do you think?
James: I always advise to keep photography as a passion/hobby/interest, especially to students. Be good at it BUT getting a proper job achieving financial stability should be a priority. I was an aviation maintenance planner and photography was a side thing. Without a doubt, photography is an expensive game generally. And in the initial stages of your life, salary matters, money matters. If you start out in certain agencies where you don't get technical work or good monetary returns because you are inexperienced, for example you are assigned sidekick tasks like moving equipment, cleaning and buying drinks, all with low compensation, it might kill off your passion in the long run.
So I suggest you get a proper job using the qualifications you obtained from school and save up money. Use your weekends to pursue your creative passion and try to be the best in your field. That would build up your fame, opportunities will come to you and that’s when you use your savings on better equipment such as lenses that suit different functions.
Euan: How competitive is this industry?
James: I noticed that these days people like to ask their young relatives who happen to have a DSLR to take photos for them, thus saving on photography cost. I mean, it’s their choice. But professional photographers would know the proper composition and are experienced enough to capture the moments and things to look out for. So, people who recognise this would still contribute to the demand for photographers.
But photographers also compete in prices. I had friends who only wanted to take photos for passion, and wouldn’t mind not getting paid; even I used to not charge. Yet, this behaviour disrupts the market. So I made it very clear to my friends, I would need to charge everyone. Does whatever I charge suit your budget or whether it is competitive, it’s your decision.
Euan: How do you make yourself stand out?
James: As I always shoot in the dark without flash, capturing a dancer in flight, in live performances or competitions, I always put myself into the performance as though I’m part of the cast. Occasionally, you can see me swaying & moving to the music, while clicking away.
Euan: How did you juggle between aviation engineering and photography, and your many other passions?
James: When I started my job in aviation engineering at MAS, there was just work; dance performances were only for corporate functions. That time it was all within the MAS compound. When I joined TDS in 1988, the cultural troupe had just dissolved, and so I started learning ballet for about 8 months out of curiosity. I would work in the day and attend ballet classes in the evening. Then I went on doing ice skating for about 4-5 years, before I moved on to ballroom dancing, trying out all the 10 dances one at a time while allocating certain days for Salsa classes too. So, day time was WORK and thereafter was all dancing.
From 2004/2005, I had my 1st DSLR Nikon D70, and started learning photography. I couldn’t quite get the exposures right so I started to chit-chat with press photographers for tips. About 2 years later I started taking dance photography more seriously. It was manageable between work since concerts and performances were usually during weekends and at night. Sometimes, I just had to take Annual Leave in order to fulfil requirements for TDS events, for example press releases during the day. This also depended on the urgency of the event as well. When I started ballroom dancing, I slowed down in ice skating. Work had a 5-day week while dance and photography had a 7-day week.
Now that I have retired from engineering, there are home affairs, urban planting, photography, cosplaying for Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club and Bonsai art. Occasionally, light painting photography too, which I have started since 2010.
I am surprised too, how I managed all those juggling and yet had a clear mind when I took the ISTD Ballroom Dancing exams for myself and also as a dance partner to others going for the exams too. It is challenging to balance work and passion. However, if you know your priorities, all should fall in place. You win some, you lose some.
Euan: You are a Jack of all trades! How did you normally decide to start something new, for example light painting?
James: Just go and start first. If I like it then you’ll see me expanding it the next time I do it. Say, try out a new idea or give the old way a tweak. There are only 2 of us in light painting now. It started off when my friend, Sean Liew, wanted my help and I went for it. Some people did come along on and off. But they were only there to handle the camera, then played around with the lights and asked when our next outing was. You hardly see progress among these people making their own light painting tools, or bringing new ideas to the table. After all these years, it’s still Sean and I in the light painting scene, making our own tools. People need to take more initiatives. If they are truly enthusiastic, it will be reflected in consistent innovative actions.
James’ beautiful photos of dancers fluttering like butterflies on stages are captivating; his excellent light photography even enhances his portfolio further by capturing flying flames across the photos. His experiences and breakdown of his way manoeuvring through challenges in his artistic career and the Asian societal perspectives inspire me immensely. That is a beacon of hope for me that passion in creative ventures can still be pursued despite having a ‘serious’ job. It is possible to have the best of both worlds, if we could manage our time and priorities efficiently. After all, if we are genuinely passionate about something, what could stop us from doing it?
Photos by James Quah.
Euan Thum, Journalist, Charisma Movement 22/23.