It is love at first sight when I see the photos that Kerry Cheah has taken. The mum of two, who is also founder and chief photographer of Red Bus Photography, captures the essence of people and moments in every frame, making each static shot seem like a living, breathing encapsulation of life.
Mad skills? Definitely, and one that Sony Singapore is celebrating this coming International Women’s Day, by exhibiting Kerry’s work in the [email protected] store from 9 March to 5 April, along with the work of other female photographers who inspire and tell unique stories with their pictures. But being a mum and a photographer has not been the smoothest path to take, Kerry tells us. She is sometimes categorised as a ‘momtographer’ — “not a term I wear with pleasure”. This is used by some photographers to denigrate mothers who get a camera to photograph their own kids, and then move on to take photos for other families, Kerry explains.
“Implicit in ‘momtographer’ is the idea that being a mum pervades every aspect of a woman’s life, even her occupation,” says Kerry. “There is an underlying (and still prevalent) assumption that women perform specific roles in specific ways.
Men who have children are rarely asked who is taking care of the kids while they are out at shoots. There is no inference that someone must be picking up their slack while they are neglecting their duties at home. They are after all, at work — where they are meant to be.”
This is not to deny that photography can be a very demanding career. It requires sacrificing time with family and friends. But this should be a personal choice for all photographers, unhampered by societal expectations. Yet the dominance of male photographers in genres such as photojournalism and commercial photography gives me pause,” Kerry muses.
Kerry Cheah: Mum, photographer, both, more?
Thankfully that pause did not cause a complete stop in Kerry’s photography journey. After her second son (now six years old; her first is eight) was born, Kerry’s interest in photography took off. “I had dabbled in it before, but it really clicked when I became the living embodiment of the ‘mom with a camera’ cliché, stuck at home with two children and looking to entertain myself,” the ex-civil servant and strategy consultant shares.
I believe that we are all capable of wearing many hats; there is no need to qualify one hat by referring to the presence of another. I am a mum to my kids, a photographer to my clients, and hopefully a friend to both. There is no ranked-choice; I inhabit my roles as befits the situation.”
Indeed. As women, mums, sisters, spouses, and more, we play multiple roles, often at the same time. For this story, however, we’ve asked Kerry to put on her photographer hat, and let us take a deep-dive into her photography style manual to learn how to turn our trigger-happy shots into something that is (hopefully) Kerry Cheah-worthy. Read on and learn, mums!
1. The Living Environment
The living environment is a big factor in my images. I try to document all the living spaces that are important to a family, especially those that they spend time together in. For this family, I wanted to photograph all three children on the bunk bed. However I was limited by how much room I had to back up to get my shot. At the same time, I noticed that there was a great view through the window. This was that the children would be familiar with while going about their daily lives.
I composed my image with this in mind and waited for an interesting interaction to happen. Little details like the toddler just learning to climb; the older brother relaxing on his bunk; the stuffed animal that the sister was using to tempt her younger brother… These were the reasons why I chose this frame over others.
Pro-Tip: When choosing your perspective and ‘moment’ to photograph, look out for the ‘bigger picture’ that gives a sense of place, but also the smaller details that make your image highly personal.
Relationships are at the very heart of my work. I strive to preserve connection above all else. This can be done through big gestures or small touches and through looks, both fleeting and lingering. When I met this family, I was struck by two things. Firstly, how active and involved the grandparents were. Secondly, the delight they took in the company of their grandchildren. When the granddad hopped into the pool, I had to decide quickly which direction to photograph the merry group from. I had hopped into the pool with them, but could not move around as easily due to my camera. I wanted an image of the granddad’s unbridled joy and hence chose to focus on his expression.
Pro-Tip: Seek to document memories of how your family members connect with each other and with their environments. Instead of interrupting the moment by asking them to look at you, zone in on a particular interaction that speaks to your heart.
3. The Quirky
I love quirky images that make the viewer do a double–take, to pause and try to figure out how the image was taken or why the image seems to subvert our sense of normalcy. This was an ambitious shot because of the challenging light conditions. In addition we only had a minute to take in the art exhibit (part of the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the National Gallery).
The actual image creation was very straightforward – I am sure many Instagrammers have photos of the same mirrored exhibit. I knew that I wanted to capture the expression on my children’s faces when they first peered inside. Hence I positioned myself on the opposite end. Catching the reflection of myself with my Sony camera was a bonus, I just had to choose how to compose the image to put the focus squarely on my children while popping myself in as an unexpected surprise.
Pro-Tip: Look for mirrored surfaces, windows and puddles of water (e.g. after a rainstorm) to get creative with reflections. And do not feel embarrassed to take your camera out in public places!
Some photographers love clean and minimalist images that convey a message immediately; I am on the other end of the spectrum. I love complexity and layering, cramming different elements of a story into a single frame. This image was made at a newborn shoot. In my experience, older siblings command the lion’s share of attention even though such shoots are commissioned to celebrate the baby’s arrival. Mom was trying to get her newborn to nap while other members of the family were hamming it up to keep the older sister entertained.
I moved around the room to find an angle where I could get both sets of interactions in the same frame. Once I was satisfied with my angle, I waited until there was a physical connection in both the foreground and background before I took my shot.
Pro-Tip: Try to create interesting tension in some of your images by setting up contrasting expressions or interactions in the same frame. Capturing action and reaction in one image is also a rewarding approach, although it requires you to be particularly fleet on your feet!
Conveying a sense of motion is one of my favourite ways to add ‘life’ to an image. I noticed a mum sitting on the floor, catching a breather while her daughters literally ran circles around her, filling the room with peals of laughter. I could have chosen to freeze motion and photograph the little girls mid-run, hopefully with big smiles on their faces. However, I was particularly drawn to their movement in contrast to the mom’s stillness, their excitement in contrast to the mom’s moment of zen. I chose to keep my shutter open and let the girls blur into a whirl of giggly fun.
Pro-Tip: 1/30s is a good shutter speed to try and get motion blur when children are running, while keeping the outlines of their bodies in a recognisable form.
What are some of the growing up milestones we should not miss documenting for our children?
- Their first everything! E.g. first solid food, first smile (if you can catch it), first steps, first trip to the beach, first day of school
- How your child behaves during daily activities – e.g. how s/he laughs or cries during baths, how s/he grips the colouring pencil, how s/he eats
- How your child and loved ones relate to each other – e.g. through daily care activities, story time, playtime
What kind of camera would you recommend to first-time parents?
It depends on how interested you are in photography, and how much you are willing to invest for the long-term! If you are a complete novice, a simple point-and-shoot or even a sophisticated phone camera will be sufficient. As you become more proficient, look for something that you would be willing to carry around, yet does not compromise on sensor quality or speed and accuracy of autofocus. My workhorse for clients and personal everyday use is the Sony A7 III. I also love the small but powerful Sony RX1R II for travel. Its compact frame hides a superb lens and a nimble sensor.
:: Specially for SingaporeMotherhood readers ::
Book a family photography package with Kerry Cheah of Red Bus Photography and enjoy:
- Extension of Simple Session (from 60 to 90 minutes)
- Extension of Adventure Session (from 120 minutes to 3 hours)
- Extensions include all additional edited images as high-resolution digital files.
- Offer is valid for bookings made by 30 April 2020 (though the shoot can be held anytime).
Quote “Kerry Cheah X SG Motherhood” to enjoy these offers!
See more photography by Kerry Cheah at Sony Singapore, [email protected], from 9 March to 5 April 2020.
All images: Kerry Cheah, Red Bus Photography