Weaving through the picturesque paddy fields of Yuanyang County in the Yunnan province, a lady sits meekly in a staircase, the warm sun brushing her face as she watches the village wake up to the morning. Moved by the simplicity of the moment, professional photographer, Jonathan Tai, strikes up a conversation with basic sign language and gestures as means of communication. Eventually, he photographs the lady for what she would later share, was the first photo of herself she had ever seen. A year later, travelling back through the same village, Tai personally presents the same lady with her very first photograph of herself.
Born in Kuching, Sarawak, the Malaysian region of Borneo, Tai recalls the surreal experience, explaining how his journey into the world of photography was inspired by its innate ability to communicate raw human emotions and express experiences between subject and viewer simply through a single shot.
Tai was exposed to the world of photography at a young age. Watching his father, a professional wedding photographer, he found himself fascinated with the intricate photographic process explaining, “While other kids were playing with marbles, I was getting lessons from my father to master the craft”.
Gather in a crowded tea house - NIKON D4, ISO2500, f/3.5, 1/100 seconds, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED at 20mm
Following in his father’s footsteps, Tai ventured into wedding photography, describing it as truly humbling, “I felt honoured that I was able to record the happiest moment of thousands of couples”. This ability to translate unfiltered, genuine emotion into a composed and complete shot, as well as his love of travelling, drove Tai to pursue a career focused on human expression.
Throughout his travels, Tai has developed his understanding and mastery of the connection between photographer, equipment and the subject. He explains that capturing true human expression differs from landscapes in that landscapes depict what we can see, externally, whereas human expression photography often sheds light on what we don’t see, internally.
When working with human subjects, Tai stresses the importance of forming a connection with them rather than shooting blindly.
Composition and context are huge influencers on the shot and only once they are understood and appreciated, can the image express the full range of emotion and truth behind it. Tai explains, “I take pictures of people because their life stories are written in the lines of their faces…I want to capture the truth of the moment.”
Discussing his favourite image, Tai recounts his trip to Tibet to the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute- the world’s largest academy for the Tibetan Buddhism Studies. Tai recalls the sheer beauty of not only the infrastructure, but the atmosphere of peace and harmony with so many different stories to be told, and experiences to be captured.
He describes it as “isolated in the valley, at almost 4000m above sea level and 15k away from the closest town…with an estimated 40,000 nuns and monks”.
Old town Market, Yuan Yang - NIKON D3, ISO100, f/3.2, 1/125 seconds, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR at 90mm
Two nuns after prayer - NIKON D3, ISO100, f/5, 1/320 seconds, AF-S NIKKOR 24-700mm f/2.8G ED at 70mm
Larung Gar Buddhist Institute - NIKON D3, ISO200, f/4.5, 1/80 seconds, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR at 70mm
The Culture of Sichuan Tea House - NIKON D3, ISO1000, f/3.2, 1/80 seconds, AF-S NIKKOR 24-700mm f/2.8G ED at 24mm
While Tai encourages aspiring photographers to familiarise themselves with relevant equipment and to be as prepared for shots as they can be; with human experience photography, he highlights the importance of appreciating the full impact of the experience you are trying to convey with your image.
Referring to one experience in particular, he explains how the entire composition and tone of his image was motivated by the touching story and personality behind it, further explaining that it was the emotions moved within him by the first-hand account that inspired it into such a poignant and personal shot.
He describes, “I was transfixed by an old lady sitting in front of her hut sewing strap slippers for sale…she told me she lived in the bare hut with her husband who was incapacitated by a stroke…she would feed, walk and cleans him every day without fail…she needs him for emotional support. He needs her for physical support. They could never live without the support of each other.”
Tai encourages photographers interested in human expression to take pride in what they do and to emotionally invest in their craft. He explains that while taking pleasure in your profession is important for success in any job, for human experience photography, it is crucial.
An image is the reflection of the story it is telling, and the photographer’s interest and understanding of the subject is evident in his work- a lack of interest, even more so. Tai warns not to over rely on equipment and editing, stating there is no substitute for a genuine connection between photographer and subject and that shots will only be successfully executed when one is established and can be communicated.
“The biggest difficulty for me is when I cannot relate to the subject, and when I feel nothing for it.”
As Jonathan Tai continues his journey into human expression photography, he remains humble and open to new experiences, constantly looking, and always ready for the next story to tell.
Born in Sarawak, Malaysia, Jonathan Tai followed in his father’s footsteps of professionally photographing weddings before forging his own path as a human expression photographer. Devoting his time to understanding other people’s life stories, Tai offers a glimpse into his own as he continues to establish himself within the photographing world.