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  • Writer's pictureKaisern Chen

Portraits of Kao Ming Ming

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Although he was talking about hockey, that is my approach to photography.

As a camera user and industrial designer, I use many camera systems with different formats but still experience the same curiosity whenever a new camera is brought out. My primary medium format systems in these digital days are Phase One IQ backs on Hasselblad H camera and Alpa12 and Phase One’s own XF100 for studio work.  When Hasselblad X1D introduced in 2016, I immediately bought one to use as a portable solution medium format digital system. I prefer it over Fujifilm GFX50S which I found had somewhat dated concept although I do not question its capability and image quality. When the 50R model released, I thought it would be a medium format street camera with its zoom lens, so I got one, along with 45mm, 110mm, and 32-64mm zoom lenses.

A couple of days later I met Gao Ming Ming, a young Chinese woman from Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province who was traveling backpack-style in Bangkok, Thailand. I noticed her not just because of her pretty face but her calm and confident manner which I found intriguing, so I started talking to her.

I found Gao was 23 years old and speaks only Chinese. She was on her third day in Thailand. We exchanged names and where we came from and then I asked her why she was in Thailand. I learned that she had been traveling alone in northern India for two months and then in Bangladesh for two weeks before landing in Thailand. She did her travel primarily with a smartphone as her travel translator, guidebook and payment system (Chinese WeChat Pay and Alipay) with a 65L backpack and traveled by local bus or train, often on overnight buses between cities. She described them as: “That kind of bus that has endured war and where every part shakes when it runs and when it is not running all one can smell is the fumes.” She stayed at budget hostels everywhere. I know it is not easy for a woman to travel alone in India and it’s probably even tougher in Bangladesh, mainly because of the way she travels, so that ignited my interest. I started to think about taking some portraits of her and also test my new camera so I asked whether she would be interested in having her photo taken. I told her I am an industrial designer and a photographer and showed her the photo gallery of the pictures I take on my smartphone while offering to buy her another cup of coffee. She declined the coffee but accepted my invitation for portraiture.

The pictures I showed her were those I shot at Bangkok Railway Station so I asked her whether it would be okay to meet at the train station at 7:15 am the next morning for coffee. I explained that I wanted to start shooting early because the light would be better and it wouldn’t be as hot then. She took a few seconds to say yes because she probably doesn’t get up that early!

I told her ahead of time that in some situations I might touch her hand or part of her body to adjust her pose to get particular angles and she shouldn’t take it as anything else. Then I asked what she would wear and advised her that anything bright or with a print will not look good on my pictures. She told me that she had some dresses from her trip to India and she would pick one in a darker tone. Finally, we exchanged our WeChat ID on the phone, and she asked me to send her the location information before I left.

I woke up early the next morning to go to the train station to get some morning shots of travelers. Around 7:05 am my WeChat received a message from Gao saying she was already at the station, so we went to have a coffee before the shoot.

Over coffee, I told her what Wayne Gretzky once said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” I said I had expected her to say no to my invitation to shoot her because it is the answer I would expect my daughter to make to a stranger. I said I wouldn’t be upset if someone declined my invitation and would only regret not asking at all. And the rest are the pictures.

At the Bangkok Railway Station

Here I took the first picture I did for Kao Ming Ming, it was simple, and I wanted to have the train, main terminal and passenger platform to form a strong sense of location, so I asked her to stand on the tracks for this picture.

For the second shot, about a minute later, I thought I might as well shoot her in the opposite direction of the first shot to have full coverage of the train station and its busy tracks and workshop. 

Then I thought I should have a straight forward shot of her looking at the camera, also to try my new Fujifilm GF 100/2 R LM WR for the Fujifilm GFX50R, so I picked the spot and had Gao Ming Ming stand to close the sunlight to have this image.

As I continued to explore the spot to shoot, I asked her to follow me with a small distance so that I could turn back and observe the composition of her inside the train and the light, and this is one of the shots.

The next shot is rather straight forward. With this picture I have Kao Ming Ming sit on the train floor close by the door for the sidelight on her. I suggested her to pose so that she is not only the main subject of the picture but also bridge to connect outside and inside together and have her hand rest on my camera bag to make the image looked relaxed.

Shooting portrait is very much like industrial design to me because of all the elements have to be integrated and complement each other seamlessly. Skin texture and profile of the subject react to light and shades in the surrounding; the balance of all the colors inside the frame and the minute detail of the expression that sets the mood of the final image; all to be blended appropriately in a fraction of a second. And it has to be done spontaneously, and swiftly, or it became stagnated, and the rhythm of shooting lost as does the fun.

Next image is a little more challenging to shoot because of her dress today, although love, difficult to show some female line of a young woman, the way I prefer. But as we gained more acquainted, I was able to help to organize her dress so that it appeared tighter on her to give her a more feminine presentation.

From the same spot with Gao Ming Ming stand on the bright-mustard wood panels that contrast with her skin and dress very well.

A somewhat close up one, I was tempted to switch to use the GF 110/2 R LM WR on my GFX50R for this shot but decided to stay with GF 45/2.8 R WR so that I have a good sense of space and perspective.

I thought it is enough for today besides I am ready for another coffee so we head back to the coffee shop inside the main terminal and this is the last shot at the train station, that day!

Gao Ming Ming is a lovely person in life, in front of camera and on the computer screen after I saw the processed files and I would be fool not to ask her for more shoot! Which I did.

A couple of days later, on December 8, 2018, we are meeting again at the Bangkok railway Station...

Mural restoration in progress at Wat Kamphaeng Bang Chak, Bangkok

December 18, 2018 Hua Takhe Community, Bangkok, Thailand

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