Focusing on the Win!

Focusing on the Win!

Have you ever dreamt of being caught in the middle of an epic Starcraft II battle?

Or imagine yourself as a Jedi knight from the Star Wars universe? Or even a staff sergeant from the warzones of the game, Battlefield 3?


Well, those are some of the scenarios that photographer, Zaki Ahmad has found himself in. An avid hobby photographer, Zaki scooped home the 11th SAFRA Photographer of the Year title last Friday (19/4). The self-professed film and gaming enthusiast was modest about his win. His breath taking photo series about National Service (NS) was inspired by the popular video game, Battlefield 3. But make no mistake, it was no easy path to victory.

As in every underdog story, Zaki faced numerous challenges before taking home over $5000 worth of prizes. It was an uphill task from the get go. Having only learnt about the competition two days before deadline, Zaki had to combat the logistical nightmare of assembling his talent and materials to make his vision into reality.

Furthermore, he was also out to prove a point. As a sergeant himself in his NS days, Zaki experienced first-hand the important role that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has in society. He sought to pay tribute to the valiant men and women of the SAF by encapsulating the NS spirit in his thought provoking images.

This heartfelt dedication is reflected not just in the series but all of Zaki’s photographic works. He currently runs his own photography studio, The Art of Mezame. Some of his recent works include a collaboration with gaming giant, Razer on a Starcraft II themed photo shoot. In addition, he has also produced a series of Star Wars themed photos.

Hence, it was my pleasure as I managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule for a little chat.

Tim: G’day to you Zaki! Might I ask what compelled you to take part in SAFRA Photographer of the Year?

Zaki: I have never taken part in a photography competition before but thanks to my girlfriend, Zahara, and my mother, I decided to give it a go. They were very supportive of me joining this competition and encouraged me to try. I wasn't really confident at first because I have only started photography again just last year - I took a hiatus from photography for a few years (I had to focus on my day job and studies). I also thought that joining the competition would be a good way to learn more about photography and see how my works match up to others'. To be honest, it was a pretty last minute decision to join the competition. I think I found out about the competition just 2 days before the initial deadline. It was really challenging making the mad rush during the days leading up to the Chinese New Year weekend.

Tim: What was your inspiration behind your winning entry of photos? Did you draw on your experience as a National Serviceman?

Zaki: Personally, I think there's just too much negative publicity on our boys and girls in the army lately - with the recent posts on STOMP, complaints by the public, etc. I thought it is necessary to pay tribute to those who sacrifice their time and energy to ensure the country's a safe place to live in. The reason why I chose to showcase a specialist is because I think there's just too much emphasis on being an officer. I understand that being able to train into a commissioned officer can be a huge impact to a soldier but I think people need to know that every soldier, man or woman, is an integral part of the entire army. Furthermore, the specialists are the ones who bridge the gap between the officers and the men. It would be great if the public can recognize the importance of the specialists' roles.

Sergeants are not just there to "tekan" people. They are there on the ground to ensure that trainings go smoothly and safely.

Every army recruit wants to go to OCS or is at least encouraged to go to OCS. Not much attention was given to SISPEC. My 2 brothers and I were all instructors after graduating from SISPEC and we came to realize that the specialists - the sergeants - they're the ones who make things happen. So I thought the credit towards specialists was just long overdue and this photo set is a tribute to them.

Tim: Did you face any difficulties bringing your concept to print?

Zaki: It was really tough from the get go. With only 2 days to the deadline, I had no choice but to work with limited time and resources. I was thankful that my brother agreed to help model for me. Everything was shot in the living room and because of the upcoming Chinese New Year weekend, most shops that carry the cardboard mounting services or selling those boards were closed and I needed those boards for mounting as they were part of the competition's rules and regulations! Conceptually, it was a little difficult as I had to really pull out the 'intensity of the SAF soldier' in my brother's expression. It was also difficult because I have never done a photoshoot where the model had to put on camouflage cream and don the army uniform. I think one of my biggest worries was that I didn't want to bring any dishonour to the SAF soldiers out there in my bid to show support for them.

"What if I shoot it wrong?" "What if it doesn't do justice to the SAF soldiers out there?" These were my real worries.

Tim: Did you expect to win the top prize upon submission? What were your feelings when you learnt of your victory?

Zaki: I didn't expect to win the top prize at all upon submission. I was actually thinking, "Let's just join the competition for fun and see how it goes." But when I learnt that I was picked as a finalist, I got really excited. I was pretty much over the moon when they announced I was the winner.

The quote of the day would be "I don't believe it." It was totally unexpected!

Tim: Why do you think photography competitions such as SAFRA Photographer of the Year are useful to local photographers?

Zaki: I think competitions like these are useful to local photographers because it gives everyone an opportunity to foster more meaningful friendships and networking between photography enthusiasts. Furthermore, it is a good way to test their skills. This competition also acts as an avenue for photographers to see what others are capable of. I have learnt a lot from them. In the post awards ceremony, I met up with several photographers who do photography for a living and they showed me some of their works and it made me realize that there is so much more to learn!

Tim: Do you feel that you have grown as a photographer after this experience? How do you think this will help you in your future projects?

Zaki: Certainly! Right after submitting the photos, I realized that there were some flaws in my works. I would have to learn to do better. I would have to be more careful with my post-processing especially. Personally, after this experience, I also felt a tinge of regret. I regretted not pursuing photography all the way and taking a hiatus of a few years. I could have learnt a lot back then but I didn't. It's time to fix that now and work harder and smarter.

Tim: Would you like to share with our readers a little on your next project?

Zaki: I have always loved working with movie and gaming enthusiasts so my next project will showcase familiar characters from various genres of movies and games. SAFRA readers can go to www.facebook.com/theartofmezame to view previews of my upcoming projects. Ever since I took up photography again this year, I am working towards trying out unique stuff I have never tried before. The next project will always be a bigger challenge to test myself.

Tim: Who are your favourite photographers?

Zaki: I really love David Hobby's works. It was from his Strobist Lighting 101 blog that I learnt a lot about lighting. When he took up DigitalRevTV's challenge on shooting with a cheap camera, it got me thinking that it was never about the equipment (as long as it works). Zhang Jingna (better known as zemotion) is also another of my favourite photographers. Her fashion shots are just breathtaking.

On Facebook, I follow Joel Aron (whom I met in Singapore a couple of years ago) and Brian Lim. Joel Aron's fashion photography works truly inspire and Brian Lim's attention to detail in cosplay photography is just amazing!

Back in polytechnic, I took up a short photojournalism course by Wayne Umehara. I owe it to him for sparking my interest in photography. I've seen his commercial works which he shot on his medium format cameras and they were truly breathtaking.

Tim: The debate continues among photographers regarding film and digital; where do you stand on the issue and why?

Zaki: Personally, I think it does not matter whether you shoot with film or digital. Both have their merits, pros and cons and it is up to the photographer to take advantage of the pros and produce awesome results. I think what matters is how you feel about your shots. My former lecturer, Wayne Umehara, has taught his students including myself to "shoot from the heart" and to "feel your shots". Although I acknowledge the importance of having decent equipment, I stick to what I learnt from him because I think that's way more important.

*Photos courtesy of The Art of Mezame

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