Originally from Borneo island and now based in The Hague, Dutch Golden Age paintings have had a big influence on his work. In this profile we find out more about his still life process, when he first started using Affinity Photo and how his photography career first began.
You grew up in a small village in Sarawak, Borneo, and now live in The Hague. What inspired you to travel to Europe and make the Netherlands your home?
I moved to the Netherlands at the end of 2012 after securing an international assignment for the company I was working for when I was in Malaysia. The expectation was that I would stay for three to four years in the country before moving on to my next assignment. Little did I know that the move was going to be my last one for the company and that my life would take a completely different, exciting path a couple of years later.
“It was the desire to capture and show the ‘exoticness’ of the western world to my family back in Malaysia that lead me to discover my love for photography.”
When did photography first become a passion for you?
I bought my first camera when I moved to the UK in 1997 to further my study. It was the desire to capture and show the ‘exoticness’ of the western world to my family back in Malaysia that lead me to discover my love for photography. It quickly developed into a real passion and I found myself enjoying taking photographs of people during family visits, gatherings and events. I would spend hours digitally developing the images and putting together a slideshow to tell a story.
“These two images are portraits of traditional dancers from my Tandak Remang series. I did this series with a group of 13 to 17-year-old traditional dancers and their highly dedicated teachers from SMK Tatau, a rural boarding school in Sarawak.”
After 16 years of working in a corporate role you chose to pursue a career in photography and also life coaching, which is another passion of yours. What made you decide to take the plunge?
Upon reflection, I would say that it was a combination of opportunity, inspiration and supportive people, as well as environment that finally nudged me onto this current life path. I was due to move internally to another job by the end of 2015. However, I took the opportunity to take a three-year sabbatical leave to find out and explore what I wanted to do next career-wise. I knew that I always find deep fulfilment in coaching and mentoring others, and therefore, I decided to use the break to get a coaching certification. I also wanted to spend more time building my photography skills—and initially I only wanted to keep it as a hobby. The plan was to return to corporate life by the end of the three-year break. That obviously did not happen. I started coaching and taking clients almost immediately after I started the break and less than a year later I found myself taking pictures for weddings and making commissioned portraits. The transition happened quite fast and I enjoyed the unexpected new adventure tremendously.
“For me, photography and coaching have something important and fundamental in common. It is about making a connection with another person”
What do you enjoy most about your new careers?
For me, photography and coaching have something important and fundamental in common. It is about making a connection with another person—be it the people who view my work or clients whom I coach. In the latter, I enjoy the whole process of building a relationship, maintaining trust and making myself part of someone’s progress towards their goals and ambitions. In this deeply personal process, I see my coach role as a mirror to help the client to connect to their greater self. In a similar manner, I enjoy the process of taking and making images that invite others to connect, not only to the message that I want to express as an artist but also to their own ideas and values. Through coaching and photography, I learned that people’s life experiences are very much shaped by values and beliefs that already existed within them. This is often evident by the diverse reaction and interpretation that people have from looking at the same image in front of them.
Talk us through your background in photo retouching; are you self-taught?
It is pretty much self-taught. I spent time learning through relevant online videos and webinars, which I believe is a pretty normal and common way of learning in these modern days. However, I also acknowledge that the relatively abundant and accessible nature of such platforms and materials, unfortunately, does not necessarily mean that they would contribute to the growth of a photographer as an artist. I remember feeling overwhelmed and insecure at the beginning, after seeing what others can do with the available tools and technology in the market today. And at the same time, it also makes it so easy to fall into the conveyer belt of the prevailing trend and flavour-of-the day at the cost of developing one’s unique style and point of view. I focus my online research and learning on the capability of the tools and techniques that these experts use—but I consciously avoid copying the style and the aesthetic of their works.
We love your still life photography, which is inspired by paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. What do you find particularly inspiring about Dutch paintings from that era?
I am inspired by the high standards that these well-known Dutch Master, such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Willem Kalf and Rachel Ruysch adhered to in approaching their works. They were the innovators in their own right. I initially treated still life photography as a self-study project to learn and apply the earlier traditions and principles that the Old Masters’ applied in creating their masterpieces, such as the overall placement and composition of the subjects, the combination of colours and textures, as well as the deliberate manner in the way they treat light and shadows in order to create a balanced, powerful and aesthetically pleasing image. It is a humbling, grounding and rewarding learning process. One of the most obvious elements from the old paintings that I incorporate in my still life images is the use of cloths and draperies to accentuate the interplay between light and shadows as well as to balance textures and colours. I am also intrigued by the layers of meanings and symbolism that these great artists incorporated in their paintings. The composition, colour and brush strokes are all laid with purpose to deliver a certain message. Perhaps the slow process (and, maybe also due to the limited resources available to them at the time) in creating their paintings forced the artists to be deliberate and purposeful with their techniques. I try to keep all these elements in mind when I create my still life images and portraits.
Can you tell us what photography equipment you use to capture your still life images?
I use a Leica SL with an Elmarit-SL 24-90 mm lens. I light my subject typically using one single light source using the Profoto B1X and a softbox.
How do you choose the theme, subject matter and composition for your still life shots?
I enjoy all the four seasons in the year. It is one of the reasons that I love living in Europe. My still life image series shows the passage of time in the course of a year. Often, I am inspired by objects from the markets near where I live or paintings that I see on a visit to a museum or topics of conversations with people. The ideas stay in my head for several days before taking their proper shape that I can translate into a picture. I then pick specific technical or artistic elements of the composition as a challenge to be addressed in the image I want to create. For example, I challenged myself to make a compositionally interesting image of the pineapple without relying solely on the obvious shape of its crown and texture of its skin.
We love the use of butterflies in your skill life photography. How do you incorporate them into your images?
I used real butterflies, purchased from a local taxidermy store, in almost all of my images. I had them propped up into position with art wire, needle and rubber putty, which I would then remove in post-editing. Very rarely, I composite a butterfly or two in post when I feel the addition is necessary to strengthen the composition of the image.
We were thrilled to learn that you use Affinity Photo to retouch your images. How did you first discover it and what made you want to try it out?
I discovered Affinity Photo rather by chance. I was looking for a video on skin retouching on YouTube and one of the recommended videos listed was about a photographer showing the use of Frequency Separation in Affinity Photo. The interface of the software and the process step seemed to be very simple and intuitive, which persuaded me to download the trial version on that same day. I didn’t even wait for the trial period to end before I made the actual purchase.
What tools in Affinity Photo do you find most useful?
I use Curves, Black and White adjustment, Brightness and Contrast adjustment (mainly to add ‘glow’ by applying certain blending mode) and Shapes (to create layers of subtle tones to colour grade as well as to create cohesively blended images when I do composites) almost consistently in both of my still life and portrait editing steps. I also use the Frequency Separation quite a lot for skin and texture editing work. Overall, it is the simplicity of its interface that makes Affinity Photo my preferred editing tool.
How long does it take you to complete a still life image, from initial idea through to completing the final edits?
It takes on average between two to three days for a new idea to mature from a spark of inspiration to a final, edited image. Once I have a rough image sketched in my mind or on paper, I look for the right props to bring it to life. By now, I am able to set up the light pretty quickly through many practices. However, I deliberately take my time in creating and refining my composition. The final editing step is usually a pretty quick and straightforward process once I have the ‘look’ and ‘mood’ fixed in my mind.
You also specialise in portrait, wedding and family photography. What would you say is your favourite subject to shoot?
When I started to learn drawing, I spent hours sketching and drawing portraits from magazines or pictures of family members. Portraits of people is still my favourite subject to shoot up to this day. There is something greatly satisfying about being able to capture a snapshot or certain emotion that hints to a story beyond just a beautiful image of them. I would use my lighting and post work to complete the story that I want to convey through the portrait.
Do you have any favourite photographers who inspire you?
I admire Annie Leibovitz for her dedication and personal approach she takes in her photography. The trust and mutual respect that she built with her photography subjects come through strongly in the images she creates. There is something very grounded about her personality that resonates with me too. I also remember being captivated by Phillip Toledano’s emotionally-charged series of photographs from Days With My Father when I first stumbled upon them a few years ago. I can still recall a number of images from memory and they bring about strong emotions within me every time. I also learn a lot from studying the works of photographers such as Dan Winters, Vincent Peters and Chris Knight particularly in their technique and skills in lighting their portrait subjects. And finally, I am also easily inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of local fellow photographers around me, whom I have been fortunate enough to either meet or work with.
What are your interests outside of photography?
I love cooking, which is quite handy when I end up with a basket of strawberries or mushrooms at the end of my still life photo shoots. I have a small collection of fountain pens and I am working on learning and improving my Spencerian penmanship.
Where would you like to see yourself in five years’ time?
Early November this year I had my first still life photography exhibition I called Sulung (which means “first child” in Malay, my mother tongue). It was one of the defining moments in my career as a photographer. It is my goal to do more exhibitions and publish books to showcase my works within and outside Europe, including my home country Malaysia. I see myself doing more commissioned portraits both from my own studio (I am currently working from the living room of my small apartment) with a dedicated team of people and travelling abroad for assignments. I would also love to combine my coaching skills and photography by coaching and mentoring new photographers.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone wanting to make a career from photography?
Passion comes first—that is the fuel that you can always rely upon. Never do things (or not doing something) out of fear. Take your time to learn the fundamentals and the “right” technical skills—“right” in the sense of fit-for-purpose set of skills and tools that can help you to push your unique ideas forward. Get feedback from someone who understands your goal and sincerely wants you to succeed. Know that your unique style or niche are to be found within you. You will know you have uncovered your unique style when it feels natural and effortless (it is much harder to copy others!). Learn about the business and approach it with professionalism as well as discipline. Build and maintain good relationships with people around you. Allow yourself to be limited by physical constraints, it will nurture your resourcefulness and resoluteness. However, never limit yourself in terms of what you want to achieve.
Visit www.kuswadihedeirphotography.com to see more of Kuswadi’s stunning work or check him out on Instagram.