Interview with Melissa Toh, Featured Photographer for ISSUE #19 EXIT

I love looking through your photos on your website because they seem to be snapshots not just from one life but many; I can’t categorise them as just cityscapes or naturescapes or portraits or action shots. What is your favourite subject, location, and time of day to shoot, if you can narrow it down?

I find it hard to categorise my photos too! But I do tend to shoot a lot of things that happen on the streets as I travel. My favourite subject would be anyone/anything that makes me feel a genuine emotion. [My favourite] Location is anywhere with access to plenty of natural light. Time of day will definitely be the magic hour – dusk or dawn.

When you’re taking a portrait, what are you looking to capture?

People are mostly beautiful in their natural, unassuming state. I think it’s exceptionally beautiful when someone lets their guard down for a few seconds and you get an unfiltered look into their heart. That would be what I strive to capture in a portrait – those few seconds of vulnerability and unadulterated emotion.

What was your first experience with a camera? Can you tell us about a personal photograph that means a lot to you, that you can describe from memory?

My first experience with a proper camera with manual settings and everything, if I remember correctly, was a little overwhelming. There were a lot of buttons and things to be considered which at the time I was completely unfamiliar with. It was a lot of going back and forth between the instruction manual and experimenting on my own.

There is this one photo that I shot in New York – the first one of my journey there, in fact – that I can remember very clearly and [which] resonates deeply. I had just arrived earlier that afternoon from Malaysia, which is literally the other side of the world from NYC. That night I couldn’t sleep at all. It was a combination of the buzz of being in the big city all by my lonesome, and of course jet lag. I stayed up watching as the sun started to rise behind the buildings of Manhattan and it was such an amazing feeling. I took my camera out and took a picture from the window. Now every time I look at that photo I get really warm and fuzzy feelings, and memories of a grand adventure.

On your website you describe yourself as a photographer, filmmaker, aspiring colourist, songwriter. How do these interests influence the others, and what is the difference for you in expressing yourself in different mediums? 

If we were to go in order of what came first, songwriting would be it, followed by the other more visual-based activities. For as long as I can remember, I’d always wanted to sing and write songs. It was how I expressed myself and tested the extent of my creativity.

Then came filmmaking, which is a medium that allows for the marriage of images and sounds to create a multidimensional experience. The soundtrack of a film can heavily influence its mood and direction. In that sense, taking a still photo can be a bit more challenging because you only have that one frame to tell your story, without the assistance of music to influence emotions, or the luxury of movement to help reveal further information. All of these things lead to me telling a story.

I generally get lost in the moment when I’m writing a song or taking a picture. When I’m doing either of those things I feel elated being by myself and revel in my aloneness, instead of being lonely. Making films is a slightly different process because it is almost always necessary to keep in constant communication with other people in order to successfully produce a complete story.

You seem to travel a fair bit. What’s your main gig these days, and where are you based? Also, what’s an example of a “workday” for you, however you define that?

I almost always say yes to a job that involves travel. You learn so much when you travel and go on little journeys. You see so many different perspectives and meet all these different people with different lives from your own. I am currently based in KL for the most part. I freelance and often work with The Spacemen, who are stellar people, just out of this world! I’ve also recently started working with Pegasus Film, who are wonderful and welcoming and [as] warm as a good hug.

How do you know when something’s come to an end in your life? How do you know when to walk away from something?

Honestly, I hate endings. It’s always hard to let go of something good, but sometimes you’ve just gotta let things run their course and go with the flow. Sometimes it’s not really goodbye forever – it’s more of a “See you later” kind of thing, so thinking that helps when I have to face a supposed “ending.”

How do you normally say goodbye at a big party or gathering full of people? And what’s the grandest exit you’ve ever witnessed in your life?

I will try to hug everyone goodbye. You either hug everyone or you don’t hug anyone at all. Otherwise people will think you’re stingy with your hugs. Unless that party is full of drunk strangers whose names I don’t even know. I can’t recall any memorable grand exits, but when I witness a good one, I’ll get back to you!

Find more of Melissa‘s work and where else to find her online here

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