I love summer, especially summer in Capri.
The sky was blue, and the water even bluer. And I could see as far
I was lying in a deckchair on the roofsteps of Villa Malaparte,
waiting for my model, Linda Evangelista.
Say it aloud: Linda Evangelista. Then say Villa Malaparte. Hear
that? They even rhyme.
The shoot was for La Perla, the famed lingerie brand and choice
attire for the rich, famous and tasteful. For the next season, they
had decided to go with skin tone, for everything ranging from thongs
Linda was late but I was not bothered. She is a modern-day Goddess
and it was only right that I waited patiently.
My three assistants, who had accompanied me from Napoli, to Positano,
to Almafi, had been perfect angels. Young, nubile and voluptuous,
they were handpicked not just for their looks, but also for their
expertise in photography. Before, in between and after shoots, they
gave me massages and served me lemoncello gelato.
The lyrics of Summertime, so beautifully written by Ira Gershwin,
played repeatedly in my head.
“Summertime, and the women are easy … Summertime, and
the clothes are skimpy …”
Finally, Linda showed up and stepped right in front of me. She disrobed
Alas, all dreams have to end.
Wouldn’t that be an ideal life? Get paid to shoot the world’s
most beautiful women while enjoying escapades to all the lovely
Imagine how my life would have been different, if the book that
caught my attention 20 years ago, was David Bailey’s The Lady
is a Tramp, and not Don McCullin’s Hearts of Darkness.
In all my years in photography, I can count the number of fashion
shoots assigned to me on one hand, and still manage to dig my nose.
Some of my bosses actually thought it would be dangerous to let
the models near me, thus relegating me to the last on the waiting
list for such glamorous jobs.
When I finally got my first break in fashion, it was to shoot a
range of ‘auntie’ clothes, with a 40-something model
who was actually a businesswoman. In my desperate attempt to inject
some fun into the shoot, I instructed the stylist to use a strong
tape to tighten her top. Needless to say, my first fashion shoot
was also my last.
I waited till I became the head of the photography department to
take my ‘revenge’. Using new powers bestowed on me,
I assigned myself to be assistant on some of the better fashion
Once, my job was to hold the hand of a beautiful actress while she
tried to balance herself. The photographer had to lie that I worked
Who cares about rank, power or ego, when I could be up close and
personal with these darlings?
Seriously, I will be the first to admit that I am not cut out to
be a fashion photographer and this has nothing to do with the fact
that I have devious motivations.
It has more to do with that fact that I prefer the naturalistic
look over scenes that are manufactured, and that I have no patience
In a recent public talk, a well-established fashion photographer
told the audience that he sometimes dramatises a straightforward
shoot into a day-long elaborate affair, just to make the client
feel that his high fee was justified.
Another photographer told me there were occasions when she insisted
on re-shooting, just to make her clients think that she is an exacting
professional who has higher standards than everyone.
Since becoming a freelance photographer five years ago, I have insisted
on not accepting any jobs that required me to work under an art
director. I have also rejected all jobs that required me to present
Polariods to art directors sitting in deck chairs, under coconut
trees. Neither will I do jobs that require me to hook up my camera
directly to a computer.
Often, all I need to get started is a very good brief, and the freedom
to shoot my way.
But artistic freedom comes at a high price. I have been ruled out
of many well-paying jobs because I was depriving some people of
the opportunities to look important.
On at least one occasion, I encountered clients who loved my personal
reportage work but thought that the only way I could achieve them
was if they peered through my viewfinder for every take.
Sometimes, to the shock of my clients, I told them that I would
cut my fee if I could be left alone to do my work.
Get it right: I don’t hate art directors, creative directors
or account directors. Neither do I hate any of my clients.
What I believe is that not everyone is cut out for the same thing
and if one has a special strength, one should exploit it to the
fullest. It is perfectly ok to shine in one genre and avoid things
that we don’t do well.
Pele was a great striker but Rooney is only OK. Beckham should just
stick to being Mrs Spice.
I work best without assistants or art direction, and that is how
I should work.
A few months ago, on a hot sunny afternoon, I boarded a cab with
my bag of lights, tripod and cameras. The cabdriver was so happy
to see me that I wondered why.
“Wow, you photographer ah? Got one Singaporean in New York
make sixty thousand dollars a day you know. Photography very ‘ho
dan’ (make good money) is it?”
I could not be bothered to respond or make some talk. I was on my
way to shoot a very important subject - my only nephew - and the
job was pro-bono. I don’t make even $60 in some months, but
I love what I do.
It is also myths like ‘photographers get lots of girls’
and that ‘England will win Euro 2004’ that make the
Now if you would allow me, I would like to go back to Linda.
column first appeared in Grain Magazine.