Singaporean photographer sacrifices stable pay, lux living & hot showers to get close to locals, wildlife

Singaporean photographer sacrifices stable pay, lux living & hot showers to get close to locals, wildlife
PHOTO: Caroline Pang

SINGAPORE - She stands on the banks of the holy Bagmati river in Nepal's Kathmandu Valley, watching as mourners dip a swaddled body into the water three times.

Cleansed, the body is then laid upon the funeral pyre and set ablaze - not in a private chamber, but publicly, for all and sundry to see.

Photo: Caroline Pang

49-year-old freelance photographer Caroline Pang just witnessed a sacred Hindu death ritual at one of the country's Unesco sites, the Pashupatinath Temple.

Tourists are drawn daily to the public cremation services at the temple, but few are permitted to stand among bereaved family members. Photography is allowed at a respectful distance.

Photo: Caroline Pang

The Singaporean PR was invited by a Nepalese friend to observe the last rites of the latter's deceased grandmother - an experience she described as both humbling and intriguing.

Ms Pang is no stranger to intimate encounters with locals during her travels.

As a freelance photographer, she is constantly on the prowl for lesser-known tidbits; preferring to venture into local communities rather than contend with lingering as a tourist at the edges.

Dressed in khaki pants, a dri-fit shirt and sandals for the interview, Ms Pang added that some of her assignments took her to remote villages where showering was a near impossible task.

While most may squirm at the thought of not showering for days, Ms Pang says the photos and experiences on the field make it worth it.

On the rugged road

She had once backpacked with her guide in Myanmar's Shan State to photograph the Pa'O tribe. The journey was hardly a luxurious one but it opened her eyes to another world.

"We stayed in a large wooden house with no form of insulation in the freezing night, except for an open fire which the host started in the middle of the house," she said.

In the Pa'O tribe, women don turbans, puff on cigars and tend to the crops. The tribe is predominantly Buddhist, but certain parts of the community still practice animism.

Intrigued by how a singular religion was practised differently across Asia, she decided to visit Bhutan in 2015 to understand Vajrayana Buddhism.

Singaporean photographer captures gorgeous scenes in Bhutan

Grand fortresses and dzongs aside, she observed that the festivals had phallic references. Ms Pang recalled one ritual which involved naked dancers. Folklore has it that monks building a temple had to strip and don masks to chase away demons obstructing their work.

Another festival she attended was led by an atsara, a religious jester, who mocked the audience with crude jokes. Traditionally, atsaras are the only ones with a license to make fun of religions, often using overt and explicit ways to promote Tantric teachings.

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Although initially embarrassed by the public display of nudity, Ms Pang was later informed that feeling ashamed was part of a cleansing process.

Since 2015 she has made three self-funded separate trips to Bhutan. To overcome the costly fees there, she conducts photography workshops during these visits.

She has also recently collaborated with national carrier Drukair to publish her photo essay on their in-flight magazine.

Making it as a freelancer

With hundreds of thousands of images amassed over the years, it's hard to believe that Ms Pang first stumbled into photography by accident.

"I had to build up stock images for visual storytelling while working as a tour operator in the 80s. When it comes to a job, I'm very hands-on. So I just picked up the camera, and went out to shoot about issues, wildlife that are important in Borneo," Ms Pang said.

As travel photography took on a more pronounced role in her work, Ms Pang was soon inspired to go solo as a freelancer in 2006.

Photo: Caroline Pang

She has met and learnt from several acclaimed photographers from National Geographic like Tim Laman, on the road. In fact, Ms Pang took on the habit of carrying around a portable photo printer after a fellow photographer from Montreal encouraged her to.

Ms Pang said: "I learnt from him that many people like the street vendors in Nepal, have never had their photo taken before. So I make it a point to speak to them, understand their story, shoot their photo and give them a copy of it."

But Ms Pang's travel photography is more than just a frivolous chase. She makes sure to engage in at least one pro-bono project each year.

Eco-tourism and pro-bono projects

As a former tour operator based in Sabah, and later an employee with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Ms Pang recognised the rich biodiversity of the Kinabatangan River, and proposed to develop an eco-friendly initiative there.

"Eco-tourism was still relatively new back then. So I had to learn how to work with the local community. There's no point in going to a destination and not knowing the local feel of things," Ms Pang told AsiaOne.

What transpired after years of shuttling between Kuala Lumpur and Sabah, was the Kinabatangan-Rasig project - an initiative she started with the villagers from Sukau to safeguard a wildlife corridor.

Photo: Caroline Pang

Photo: Caroline Pang

The corridor serves as a migration route for the endangered Borneo pygmy elephant, and is a project close to her heart as a Sabah native.

She has since taken her pro-bono initiatives beyond Borneo and into the remote hills of the Tamang Heritage Trail where the Tamangs, an ethnic minority of Nepal reside.

"Some communities there have started sustainable eco-tourism efforts. I use their services, and in turn, they use mine - they will ask me for travel photos to advertise their trails," Ms Pang said.

Not all about the money

Her foray into the freelancing world isn't lucrative. Ms Pang revealed that tour operators pay her around US$300 (S$427) per pax for each participant in her photography workshops. But participation rate is not always consistent.

Besides conducting these overseas workshops, she contributes to magazines, Getty Images and travel agencies.

She has also started a new website asia360.photography, to document her photo essays across Asia.

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But for the wildlife and environment enthusiast, you can't put a monetary value to everything.

"When you want to take soulful pictures, you must take the effort to get to know people. Travel photographers don't earn much. You're always going around on your own.

"It's not just the landscape that matters, but the people, the culture, the environment that makes the whole story."

debwong@sph.com.sg

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