Life through a lens
Gigi Kwan chose the road less travelled for her career, and her choice has enabled her to reap rewards
From the time she was a teenager, Gigi Kwan, photographer and joint founder of Loop Studio, knew that she didn't want to have what many of her friends described as a 'normal' job.
Instead, as a self-motivated individual Ms Kwan decided to develop a career where she could put her artistic skills to work. But, as she discovered, becoming a successful photographer requires more than a keen eye, creative confidence and artistic inspiration.
Growing up in Canada, where she emigrated to from Hong Kong in 1989, and graduating from York University, Toronto, with a master of fine art degree, she was encouraged to pursue her artistic freedom and personal expression.
'When I returned to Hong Kong in the mid-1990s and showed my portfolio to editors and agencies, they thought my work was too personal and asked where my pictures were showing the latest Hong Kong fashion trend and photos of celebrities,' said Ms Kwan who specialises in fashion, interiors and portrait photography.
She said she found these attitudes to her work limiting, and very different from the approval of individual artistic expression she was used to in Canada.
Not one to give up easily though, Ms Kwan continued her quest to become a professional photographer and she taught art in schools and completed a master's degree in art from the then Hong Kong Polytechnic.
It was while she was teaching that a chance meeting with Ringo Tan, a Hong Kong photographic icon, paved the way for a two-year hands-on grounding as Mr Tan's photographic assistant before she set up her own studio.
'Ringo not only shared his knowledge and skills with me, he introduced me to the actual business of photography, which involves winning clients and working out the cost of running a business,' said Ms Kwan, who recalled the hardest part of the job was carrying heavy lighting equipment to and from assignments.
Ms Kwan's interior designer father and art appreciative mother encouraged and supported her drive to become a photographer. 'My parents have always been supportive of me and my sister who works as a fashion editor, and only ask that we are committed to what we do,' she said.
Only once did her parents express concern when she briefly considered becoming a war photographer and travelling to conflict areas. 'My parents thought that war photography should be left to adventurous young men and was no place for a Chinese woman,' recalled Ms Kwan, whose early photographic inspiration came from a teacher who encouraged her to take black and white pictures which she developed and printed in the school darkroom.
These days, like most professionals, she uses digital camera equipment, which she considers requires less talent because lighting balance and composition can be controlled through computer programmes. Being somewhat of a traditionalist though, she enjoys creating personal work on film stock and printing her own black and white photographs.
Believing that her experience of Chinese and western cultures has broadened her approach to photography, Ms Kwan said she tried to inject elements of her own personality into her work while still following her clients' briefs. She also looks for more involvement in projects than simply providing the photographic skills. For example, she takes charge of selecting models, styling and post production work. 'I like to be involved with a project from start to finish,' she said.
She often collaborates with her business partner who specialises in advertising and television production work. 'We don't always agree, but our collective artistic knowledge and enthusiasm does lead to better results.'
Ms Kwan said she enjoyed her work because no two days were alike. For instance, sometimes she works in her studio and at other times on location.
'I work on fashion shoots, brochures and also hotel and commercial interior projects,' said Ms Kwan, adding that organising a location photo shoot can take up to a week.
She also attends client meetings and works on post production presentations with her business colleagues. 'I prefer the creative side of my work compared to the business aspects.'
Surprisingly, for a person who is confident in her abilities and talks enthusiastically about her work, Ms Kwan said one of the most challenging aspects of her job was dealing with clients. 'I find myself talking to clients more from an artistic perspective than a business one. You need to do both to make your business successful.'
She said being one of only a handful of women photographers who belonged to Hong Kong professional photographer associations was neither an advantage nor a drawback. 'Photography is about expression, skills and the will to succeed and has little to do with gender,' said Ms Kwan who found it amusing that some of her friends felt that a career as a photographer fell short of a career in the corporate world.
This is the eighth in our 16-part series on women and men who have entered career paths traditionally dominated by the opposite sex.
Problems with overexposure
Hong Kong and the mainland share many historical associations but when it comes to fashion statements the two can be poles apart, as photographer and joint founder of Loop Studio, Gigi Kwan discovered. After spending several days setting up a commercial photo shoot for a mainland client, the finished product was rejected. The problem was not the photography but what the model was wearing. 'The model I selected was wearing a fashionable skirt and a nice top and a jacket, which in Hong Kong would be considered very sophisticated. My mainland client said the model looked like a prostitute,' said Ms Kwan. Experience has taught her that when mainland clients request fashionable and sexy images, they mean they want nothing too risque. She has also learnt not to arrange early morning photo sessions involving models. 'Hong Kong models tend to stay up late and therefore have puffy eyes in the mornings,' noted Ms Kwan.