Drama at Changi Airport

Friday, October 29, 2010

Those of you following me on Twitter/Facebook had probably saw my update when I said I was being refused boarding because of my passport's renewal date.

I didn't blog about the incident after touching down in the US because I was too tired, still pissed and didn't want to write about this when I was still angry.

Here's what happened.

Last Sunday, Oct 24th, I was departing from Singapore Changi Airport on the SQ12 for LAX.

While in queue for security check I was stopped by a police/security officer after he checked my passport and boarding pass. He insisted that because my passport was renewed in July 2009, it was mandatory for it to be biometric in order for me to visit the US on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

According to the official US VWP website:

* Machine-readable passports issued or renewed/extended on or after 10/26/06: passports must have integrated chips with information from the data page.
* Machine-readable passports issued or renewed/extended between 10/26/05 and 10/25/06: passports must have digital photographs printed on the data page or integrated chips with information from the data page.
* Machine-readable passports issued or renewed/extended before 10/26/05: no further requirements.

My Machine-readable Passport (MRP) was issued in Sep 2003 and renewed after Oct 2006. Maybe the phrasing in the text is a bit confusing, but if someone were trained for these passport checking, he should damn well know that my passport fits under "issued before 10/25/05" and that no further requirements were necessary.

Alas, I wasn't aware of the exact dates and terms until I looked them up during my transit in Narita. 

Before this trip I had travelled to the US four times in the past year, three times from Singapore and once from London. Not ONCE was I stopped or even told that my passport had issues. When the security staff got my passport he went on haughtily about how I was wrong about the fact that my MRP was acceptable and in actual fact I must have a biometric passport. (Where/who could I check with at that point of time, anyway?)

So he dragged me to the boarding counter where the ground staff were, and repeated his dates and my folly, to a counter of staff who knew no better.

One of the girls attempted to reach the US customs but in vain. Shortly after that she told me they were going to take me off the flight, I heard my luggage being asked to be put on stand-by.

You cannot imagine my shock then, never in my years of travelling was I so traumatized (at such a crucial time too, the flight was due to take off pretty much then).

I couldn't help and started crying. The security guy looked away gleefully.

Eventually someone (probably senior?) on the line with the ground staff seemed to have convinced them to let me go, but they reiterated over and over how I was responsible for myself and my airfares if I was turned away at US customs and deported back to Singapore. And that they were going to ALERT the US customs that I was aware that I was committing an "offence" but still going.

I mean, seriously, IF I were wrong and yet maybe I could have had a chance at landing, why did they have to completely blow it by being unreasonable, putting me in a bind that I could do nothing about, when clearly I had no problems the previous times, where was my warning because all previous times had told me I was right? What was the point aside from making me miserable?

And all these time they were doing everything still without ACTUALLY knowing whether my passport was legible or not. Wtf?

In the end I was let on the plane, still crying and angry and scared that I was going to be deported back to Singapore. But after calming down, the more I thought about it the more it felt wrong. I definitely remembered reading that my passport was fine being MRP when I was making my first trip to the US.

During my transit in Narita, I managed to get online to check the VWP website. It was only then did I finally have a peace of mind.

I boarded the flight again from Narita, going through the security and passport check again without any problems; I landed in LAX and passed through immigration smoothly too—my passport was fine.

I still can't believe how horrendous the security guy's attitude was.

I was clearly a frequent traveller and harmless, and yet through the whole time he was being nothing but god damned happy about my misery. Least he could have done was to be human and try to be helpful or understanding or comforting or something right? Really didn't help that the rest of the ground staff were such a far stretch from being competent.

What IF there was an emergency in my family (choyx10000 touch wood) and I was taken off the flight just because someone THOUGHT he caught somebody committing an offence and can finally rake some extra credits for being sharp, WHO is to take the responsibilities here? I can't imagine the pain I could have been in. For all you know I could have killed myself out of guilt for not being there.

I really do wish I'd taken down their names, but I was so overwhelmed I couldn't think. Argh.

I guess part of the point of this post is to serve as a reminder to myself, part as a warning to everyone to be sure to check your visas and passports before travelling—be clear about all the immigration and customs terms, lest you run into problems, or be wronged by poorly-trained security/ground staff/whatever have you.

Changi Airport, it was not cool. I'm beyond disappointed as a Singaporean.

Montblanc - A Story to Tell. II

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Art director: Ceres Chung
Photography: Zhang Jingna
Producer: Valerie Lam
Styling: Furqan Saini
Hair/Makeup: Joanna Koh
Models: Michalina Glen & Anthony Caracciolo/Mannequin

Done in June with my favourite AD Ceres Chung for Montblanc Indonesia~

Ceres and I have a certain mutual understanding when it comes to aesthetics, from models to clothes down to the opinions of papers used while browsing a catalogue. The peeps at Montblanc as usual were patient with us through the many location and setup changes. I couldn't have been any happier to work with such a team and as always it was a great pleasure shooting together. <3

Daniel Landroche

Monday, October 18, 2010

I met up with the very amazing Richard Pier Petit while I was in L.A., two weeks before I came back to Singapore early last month. I don't have a lot of photographer friends since I'd always been on my own, so it was really nice meeting someone who's so talented and laid back, and just talk about shooting.

At some point we talked about why I rarely photographed men, Richard then mentioned some boys from Ford LA with looks I would probably love. I was a bit skeptical because I rarely see the kind with beauty I look for, so when I received Daniel Landroche's photos they surprised me.

With some luck and many thanks to Ford's Chandra, I managed to squeeze in a shoot with Daniel just the day before my flight. I'm really glad we shot together, it was beautiful.

Photography & Styling: Zhang Jingna
Model: Daniel Landroche/Ford LA
Photo assistants: Conan Thai, Matthew Chretien
Long cardigan with straps from Gadget Grow

Special thanks to Chandra at Ford

Equipment and Where The Money Comes From

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

People discover my work everyday, and often times I hear assumptions about how my images must be accomplished a large boatload of money. It would be very nice if it were true, so for those who struggle and wonder, I hope to share a little of my background and story with you.

I bought my first camera when I was 18. It was a Canon 350D with kit lens that cost roughly 1000USD. I paid for it myself.

Growing up, my family wasn't very well off. My parents argued about money, and often. I remembered once when I was 4 or 5, I was so scared and angry in the next room when they were fighting, I swore to myself that day, that I'd become financially independent as soon as possible and then forever, so I'd never be a burden or need to rely on anyone again. Ever.

When I was 8, I started doing little arts and crafts things to sell to classmates at school—hand-carved eraser stamps, drawings, embroidered birthday cards. When I was 15, I made Singapore's national air rifle team. This allowed me to win prize money through winning international championships and games. I saved what I received from the Sports Council's yearly reviews, happy that I could pay for my own food now. And sometimes, I'd spend some on artbooks which I think were fundamental to my artistic development.

The savings grew and stayed mostly untouched. It was enough to know that I lightened the burdens my mother carried in bringing up my little sister and me on her own, even if just for a little bit.

And then when I turned 18—not that I buy into birthday significances too heavily or anything—I thought, hey, I've been saving for a while now and I'm kind of interested in trying out photography, and just maybe, it's ok to get something for myself this one time. So I bought the 350D as a gift for my birthday.

Fast forward a few years, these days, a second hand entry-level DSLR goes for less than US$500. Sets of older, but very usable models are even more affordable. For someone new to photography, the latest models of cameras aren't a necessity in my opinion, so I think this sum is rather manageable. (For example, if I saved the 50 cents of allowance I had each day from primary school, it would only take me about 3 years. And since it's not something pertinent to my survival, I think that's pretty okay.)

As for students, with the popularity of photography, I want to believe that most parents would be happy to purchase a new camera for their child in return for good grades and/or behavior. If they won't, a few weeks of part-time through summer break should do it too. Just don't splurge on parties, clothes, coffee, alcohol and all the stuff that suck cash away. At the end of the day, it really boils down to how much we want something and if we're willing to work for it.   

I also find it pretty cool to think about how I could work to get something I want for myself. The process of it is like a dedication and you'll treasure it so much more when you've bought it with your hard-earned money.

Here are some shots taken using the 350D + kit lens with natural/ambient light:

Shot at my school's garbage dump for easy clean-up post-shoot. Nothing to do with Twilight whatsoever.
Self Portrait - The moment after
Days of Our Lives
Headphones are Stylish.

The Kit Lens

I had some questions in the beginning, just like everyone else—whether an expensive lens would make my photos better, whether getting strobes would help, whether working in a studio would make a photo more awesome, whether any or all of the above were really absolutely necessary in taking good pictures.

Sure, all of these things definitely make a difference, but as a beginner with barely trained eyes, there was a lot to learn with just the kit lens. 18-55mm is a pretty good range, so after a friend's advice, it was what I stuck with for a long time.

My First Light

Something else that was interesting to explore was working with a single light source. I got myself a second hand 1kw Arri hotlight from a friend for US$500, and experimented with it plenty and learnt lighting that way. You'd be surprised at how much you can do with just one light alone. (When I had jobs, I rented Profotos, Bowens, and Elinchroms.)

Here are some shots done in my family's living room with one light. I always had to clear our sofa away, but it made just enough room for all of these:

This Side Up.
Newspapers are Good for You

Other Lights & Lenses

A cheap studio kit costs less than US$200 now. If you're not going for studio looks, a 50mm f/1.4 (US$350) could be a great investment for ambient/location shooting too. (I use an f/1.8
which is $120). There's a lovely depth of field when the aperture is wide open, and you'll get these really beautiful blurred out backgrounds and bokehs. (No examples with the 350D here, I didn't get a prime lens till much later.)

All in all, in the first year, I'd say it's mostly about learning framing and how to work with what light you have than anything else.


The technical aspect aside, wardrobe was pretty much just stuff from my closet. It helped that I was doing fashion design and had a bunch of things from sewing classes that were perfect for layering for photography. But if you don't sew, stores like H&M, Uniqlo and Zara offer a wide range of basics you can buy to work with.

I talked about it a little in my fashion photography tips post, feel free to check it out. :D If all fails, (like my super super early pictures) just do self portraits, use the model's own clothes, use no clothes. If you know how to make it work with basic things, imagine the wonders you can do with resources down the road!


Starting from the most basic, there's the usual photo-processing software that comes with the camera you purchase. I knew a professional photographer who used Canon's Digital Photo Professional to process his pictures, so don't scoff at the free stuff. But if you want to move on to Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, or other programs, you are definitely encouraged to try them out.

For me, I use Lightroom for cataloguing and colours because it's super user-friendly for organization and you can use it for processing easily. The student edition costs only US$79. (Lightroom 6 has also just been announced!)

And that's it! US$900 is pretty much all you need to start, and enough to last a while. It's not free, but it's nothing so astronomical that you can't work and save for if you want to make an effort. Like the saying goes, "If there is a will, there is a way."

I hope this post helps and clears up some of the mysteries! You are also totally allowed to judge my bad PS skills on these very ancient pictures. 18 feels like a lifetime ago now.

I'll do a part two if anyone's interested to see the rest of my equipment upgrade journey? Now back to packing~~


What Do I Use Now?

Seeing as how I haven't written a part two after four years, here's the quick breakdown on my upgrade journey (see my full gear list below):

After the 350D, I upgraded twice:

1. 5D one year after I got my 350D.
2. 1Ds Mark III one year after the 5D.

I still use the 1Ds Mark III today, 7 years later. 

Update 2: 

Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography, or subscribe to my Patreon, where I create exclusive new content on a monthly basis.

More: my photography articles, and gear list

Some of the product links in this post will bring you to Amazon, where I'll get a small referral fee should you choose make a purchase. This helps with the time spent on articles and the running of this blog, so please consider supporting the website. Thank you!

Fool's Mate: SUGIZO - 月下の神託

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Sugizo - 月下の神託
Fool's Mate, Vol 348, Oct 2010
Interview & text by Sachie Tojo
Photography: Zhang Jingna

Los Angeles (Pg 1-2):
Hair & Makeup: 鈴木美子; Photo assistant: Matthew Chretien
Japan (Pg 3-8):
Coordinator: Chiaki Oshima; Hair & Makeup: Tomoko Ono; Photo assistant: Shunshin

Yay more Sugizo photos~ 

The first shot was taken while I was in L.A. this June.

Sugizo and I met up in Hollywood one day and we discussed about working together again. He knew where he wanted to shoot, so we only had to run through the ideas and outfits.

On the shoot day we drove some three hours out of L.A. for my first trip to a desert. It was so hot the soles of my shoes started coming off at some point and I had to walk around with them flapping all day. -_-

I realized that I probably like shooting in the cold better, though it's probably harder for a model to perform in extreme cold as opposed to heat. (Remember Sugizo trembling as he played the violin for me during the last shoot /sweat)

This one had been more or less smoother in terms of logistics and weather~ And Sugizo's always really nice to work and hang out with. We'll probably go through more photos later when I've a bit more time. :D

The black and white shots were photographed in Japan last December, as the most of you probably already know. Time really flies doesn't it? It really doesn't feel like there'd been much and a good deal of 2010 is already over.

Scans are from the Russian Luna Sea community, stitched together with my original photos for the centre portions that were cut off.