Inside The Photographer’s Studio: Chuang Lee Jen

Guiding Light


One of his Sunday morning capture in the kitchen – photo courtesy of Chuang Lee Jen

Come Sunday mornings, as sunlight enters his kitchen and shines on the oven, Chuang Lee Jen grabs his Leica camera and captures that ephemeral moment.

Light too appears at the end of the tunnel, the 55-year-old photography veteran will probably tell you. At 14, he lost the use of his left eye and left hand during a home experiment gone awry. The optimist in him however saw the ordeal as a blessing in disguise that mellowed him down and channelled his energies into photography – his chosen craft since 1977.

And having weathered the trials and tribulations of life, this mild-mannered mentor is encouraging his younger charges at J Studio Professional Photography to take pictures in a different light.

Mention Lee Jen and light photography comes to mind. Why?
I like to record things happening around me, especially when I was growing up in the rural area. I enjoyed my contact with nature; the morning sunlight and the dew on the leaves; and I wondered how I could record these scenes. I found photography to be an appropriate medium and tool.

This explains your sources of inspiration being light, texture and memories
Yes, the greatest lighting teacher is Mother Nature. I am still learning how to mimic natural light with studio lighting.

So when did photography become a serious pursuit for you?
During my student days at Anglican High School, I already wanted to be a photographer. I was active in the school’s photography association, taking photographs during school events. Sometimes, I skipped classes to make prints in the school’s darkroom and I would sell them for pocket money. I was about 15 years old then.

My parents could not afford to buy me a camera. So I borrowed my cousin’s Canonet. I kept the camera for a few weeks until he got worried. He hinted to me politely but I was so involved with taking pictures, I didn’t realise it. I was like a little boy with a toy who forgot to return it to its owner.


Lee Jen’s late father braving strong wind on a cruise – photo courtesy of Chuang Lee Jen

Luckily, my father’s friend noticed my passion and when he bought himself a Nikon, he gave me his vintage 120 format Zeiss Ikon. It came with a fixed lens attached to a bellow that flipped out from the camera body. With that camera, focusing was about estimation, and I relied on the distance scale on the lens. It did not have an exposure meter so I used the exposure guide provided with the film box. Since there were only 12 exposures in a roll of film, I had to make a firm decision before I pressed the shutter.

I did not have a dark room, so I had to develop the 3R prints in a portrait studio. I was very excited when the photos came out. I was self-taught, learning by reading books and magazines like Popular Photography and Practical Photography. Later, I bought an enlarger and did my own black and white processing and printing.

Your younger days also involved a harrowing accident.
That happened when I was 14. I have always loved weapons and I admire the power of bombs, guns and tanks. One day, I was at home and experimenting with making a mortar shell. Just as I was inserting a fuse, it exploded and I was covered with blood. I was trying to hide from my parents. My mother was sad and crying, and I comforted her. Although I lost my left eye and left hand, I have a positive mindset. I even passed my driving test at the first try.

With your prosthetic eye and hand, did you encounter any obstacle when starting out as a photographer?
I was a relief teacher at Anglican High School when I saw a Hagley and Hoyle recruitment advertisement for an in-house photographer. Even though I never felt handicapped, I was unsure if they would employ me. I showed them my portfolio (both personal and commercial-based work) and they asked if I could use a 4 x 5 format camera. I said “yes” even though I had never touched one! They asked me to do a test shot. Because I have read a lot about the camera, I knew the principle of operating it. I passed the test and got the job.

It was not difficult to start out as a photographer in those days. There were less than 10 active commercial photographers and there were a lot of jobs. Taking photographs was not easily accessible then. If you could control the shutter and aperture, and take good photos, you can survive.

Most industry people also associate you with First Photo
After three years at Hagley and Hoyle, I wanted more exposure as I never had the chance to work with art directors and to shoot with concepts. I entered into a partnership called First Photo (which lasted 13 years) and it opened my eyes. For the first time, I had contact with advertising agencies. Being a newcomer, I was very nervous presenting my portfolio to art directors but I learnt a lot from them during photo shoots.


Commercial assignment for On Pedder – photo courtesy of Chuang Lee Jen

Most of my jobs were from recommendations. In the 1980s, I did a lot of editorial work with fashion magazines like Her World, Female and Petticoat. Such work gave me a lot of publicity.

So, what made you give up all that to strike out on your own in 1994?
When a company grew too big, it was hard to be a photographer. We were diversifying and our focus became a bit lost. There were also differences in opinion and I wanted to have my own flexibility and freedom.

There was a personal reason too. When my eldest daughter was in Secondary 2, I took her to the zoo one day. Suddenly, she held my hand and I had a shock. I realised she missed me.

For the 13 years at First Photo, I was a workaholic, working six, seven days a week until midnight. Clients were even willing to come to my studio at midnight to do a photo shoot. Except for my five days of honeymoon, I did not take a single day of leave ; I felt taking leave was a sin! So, I lost a lot of my kids’ childhood and I was not around when they needed me. It was then I decided to make up for it. (Lee Jen has two daughters Chea Chee and Chea Lin, and two sons Chiat Kang and Chiat Yong, their ages ranging from 11 to 25.)

I must thank my homemaker wife Soo Keng whom I married after I started the partnership. We knew each other from church and were match-made by our parents. She was very patient and only dropped hints about my not taking the family for holidays.

During the first year in my company J Studio Professional Photography, I took a month off to visit my brother in New Zealand. I learnt how to put things down. Now, I take about two vacations a year.

How would you define your style as a photographer?
My style is that there is no style; it is not abstract and people will understand my photos straightaway. So my photos may not look glamorous or spicy but a direct photograph can have a stronger impact and communicate faster.

Which aspects of photography do you like or dislike? Doing commercial photography is an achievement when you are able to deliver what clients want and develop things out of nothing. But a commercial job is what people want and they may not agree with you on what should be done.


Lee Jen’s mum (89yrs old) walking back to her flat after visiting him – photo courtesy of Chuang Lee Jen

I love to shoot people, nature and the environment where you don’t have to do any set-up. Shooting the natural self and non-staged photography is my preference.

What I don’t like most is to have my work go through a lot of digital imaging and look heavily touched up. It’s not natural anymore and I do not feel proud of it. Genuine commercial photography needs proper set-up, time and money but clients are looking for a lot of short cuts and are not willing to invest in such set-ups.

Having been exposed to film, what is your take on digital photography?
Technical knowledge of computer software is important but more importantly, you should not get overwhelmed by the technical aspects. Technology helps to make you more efficient but it is a dangerous trap. You tend to make yourself lazy. You still need to know how to light your set as near to perfection. If not, at the end of the day, you will become a computer technician, not a photographer.

In a real photography shoot, the image may need only minor touch ups at most; what you take is almost near to perfection, in terms of the lighting and timing. Sometimes, you wait for a few days for the right lighting and moment to take one shot. It is a real test of a photographer’s skills and patience. Unfortunately this kind of luxury does not come by often nowadays.

A photographer is like a singer: Digital recording may make you sound better but don’t forget to train your voice. One day, you might have to go onstage and sing solo.


Lee Jen relaxing at J-Studio – photo by Jovian Lim

What challenges do you face in running your own studio?
Mainly, it’s how to get enough business to survive. To do this, you have to maintain work quality and good service, in terms of response time, flexibility and the ability to solve problems.

You have to pick yourself up during difficulty and to look at things positively, like do you see a glass as half empty or half full? I live a down-to-earth, basic life, with just enough to spend. This is partly because I am not a businessman; I just enjoy my work.

Also, you must have good colleagues; I call my staff my comrades. Our company’s philosophy is that there’s no boss, everyone’s in charge of his or her post. They know their responsibilities. The company is run by everybody. They have the freedom to develop themselves; they set their own limits.

I have been very lucky ; the company has a low turnover rate. We are a bit of a “lazy” company. I believe you work to live a life, and not live to work. I want everybody to have their own life and I encourage them not to work very late. We are generous in sharing our profits and it’s not just the photographers who get the credit. But when the company suffers, everyone gets involved too.


Fashion shoot on Lake Srinagar in the 80’s – photo courtesy of Chuang Lee Jen

What are some of your proudest or memorable work?
I have many that I am proud of but I always remember my earlier editorial fashion shoots. I was given a lot of freedom to decide on the concept and lighting. The models, clothing and stylists were good, and we got to shoot in exotic locations.

Why did you join the PPAS?
The life of a photographer is one of a lone ranger. Networking is important in getting to know the other members, so that there is a good exchange of experience and techniques.

It is also good for professional photographers to get together as a force to fight for their rights when they are abused. Copyright is still a tough issue ; it’s recognised but not practised. We are still fighting a long battle to recognise the artist’s creation as an intellectual right. It’s a tough situation because if we don’t accept the client’s terms, we might lose a lot of jobs but it is unfair to the other clients who are paying you for the copyright use of your photos.

You have been in this line for over 30 years. What drives you?
I take things easy. If there are things that I can’t achieve, I don’t take them too hard. I never realise it has been 30 years until people ask. I don’t feel I have grown older until I hurt my back when I carry the heavy equipment (laughs). I have a great job.

And what do you hope to achieve as a photographer in the near future?
I hope to maintain my passion for photography in the long run. The business is full of ups and downs. Sometimes, there is a low season and you get worried. Then there are too many jobs and you get stressed up.

As a balance to my commercial work, I would like to produce a coffee table book of my personal works, including the casual shots I took during free time. I would need to sort them out first. Many years ago, I thought of having a solo exhibition but there is so much work to be done. So I am not sure yet.

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A shot into mirror with his youngest daughter – photo courtesy of Chuang Lee Jen

My family life is top priority, especially when you get older and see life in a different way. Family and friends are more important now and seeing life is so short and there are so many disasters, you don’t want to take them for granted. Happiness is in your control. You can choose to be happy or sad. Remember, you have a switch; even if it is hard to turn, you have to try.

Written by Sim Jui Liang