Tantalum: When shooting you have the opportunity to see the visual outcome. What do you find to be the most difficult when bringing a team of artists together to create a cohesive look?
Cyril Ma: For me it's during the initial phase of pre-production when I'm trying to illustrate some inspirations and concepts from the moodboard to the rest of the team as I explain the story through text or verbally. Since not everyone interprets things the same, I try to ensure everyone's on the same page before I let the concept grow, so to speak. Surrounding myself with dedicated and talented individuals also paid dividends as they usually get it very quickly and, more importantly, help the idea grow to other points of view that might've been even better than my original one that I hadn't considered before.
Tantalum: What or who would you say influences your work?
Cyril Ma: Oh gosh, that's a hard one to answer as I keep my eyes peeled on a lot of things that goes on daily. I think a lot of what influences my creativity are things that go on around me everyday. The weather and the seasons, the economy, the human condition and just overall vibe I get from society. If you need me to name names, then definitely the works of Nick Knight and Solve Sundsbo are hugely inspirational to me at the moment.
Tantalum: When sending your work out for the world to see, what do you hope your element of the project says to the viewers?
Cyril Ma: If I need to explain every piece of work I put out, then I think in a way I’ve failed as a visual artist. It may be cliché, but I think photographers prefer to let the work speak for itself. More importantly, seeing and hearing what the audience feels after they've seen your work is key. Sometimes it help us grow artistically too because what they take away from the work are angles or messages that we had no idea we would be conveying. But to answer your question, all I hope for when people see my work is they can say, "Yeah, I can see where he's going with that" or "Perhaps this is what he's looking to do." Basically any response would be better than, "What was his point?" I would feel I failed as an artist if that was the general feedback received.
Tantalum: What was the best piece of advice you were given when starting out?
Cyril Ma: Keep shooting, keep asking for critiques but more importantly be my own worst critic. People can love or hate my work and that's fine because there are two extremes on the emotional scale and that's the key -- to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. It doesn't always have to be a positive response, but being hated on is better than having your work elicit zero response from the audience.
Tantalum: Who took the time to teach you the art early in your career? And what was the most valuable lesson they taught you?
Cyril Ma: I’m originally from Hong Kong, and my uncle there was a fairly avid photographer. He showed me the basics whenever I'd go back to visit as a kid. Editorially I have to give my thanks to John Thawley. He told me (and anyone else that'd listen to him) that as photographers we really should keep the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" close to heart. Every picture should be a story, and if in a series of 8 photos the viewer still can't get the story that I was trying to tell, then it's back to the drawing board to see where the improvements need to be made.
Tantalum: As an editorial artist, what do you feel is one of the biggest mistakes beginners tend to make?
Cyril Ma: I still need to keep this in mind for myself, but these are most things that I see from beginners. They get comfortable with one way or one style of shooting and stick with it and don't push themselves hard enough to make mistakes or get outside their comfort zone. Whether it’s technically or artistically, I think that statement holds true. The other thing is they don't edit enough, and by edit I don't mean post-production in Photoshop. What I'm talking about the entire process before they even snap a frame. The eye for detail could be learned if effort is put forth and sometimes it's better to put the camera back down to have a think and reconsider rather than forcing it and wasting a frame. Digital has caused newcomers to become lazy and they just shoot, shoot, shoot, praying for a miracle. But I don't think these mistakes are exclusive to beginners; I remind myself of those points every time I look through the viewfinder.
Tantalum: What have you learned from your experiences shooting fashion spreads?
Cyril Ma: The more effort and time I put into pre-production, the smoother the shoot and the better the results. Altering my workflow and then putting more focus into pre-production has made a huge positive impact into my work. The other thing I've come to enjoy is the freedom we have as photographers when shooting editorials. I consider fashion photography a form of social dialogue (or a monologue depending on how you look at it) and the technical aspects of photography are definitely lower in priority than artistic merit. Knowing when to let team members run with their own vision of the overall idea and when to be more assertive and bring people back on track. It's a fine balance between killing creativity and letting an idea grow and improve. The final, and probably most important, lesson is knowing your target audience before shooting. It can save a lot of headache and prevent a lot of anxiety.
Tantalum: How has the experience of working with a team to complete a project benefited you?
Cyril Ma: I love to hear what everyone has to say during the planning stages of a shoot. I don't know what other photographers are like when it comes to their projects, but for me I love to hear what fellow team members have to say and then consider how their input could be used with the overall story to make it better. If it means making a concession to build a better shoot, I'm all for it as long as my own point of view and style doesn't get too muddled.
Tantalum: How would you describe your artistic style?
Cyril Ma: I don't think I really have a style, nor do I think as an artist one paints a style for themselves. It's more like the audience sees enough of our work and then come up with an interpretation which then translates into whatever style it happens to be coined to us. A lot of my work is influenced by my emotions and mood at the time and I don't really let what's right or wrong dictate what I shoot. The beauty about being a photographer is being absolutely free to create what we want with the light source we have available to us at any given time. In a way, we create our own little world with every frame that we shoot. To paint myself with my own "style" at this point in my career wouldn't allow me to enjoy the creative freedom that I'm feeling at the moment, something that I am not quite ready to give up yet.
Tantalum: Words to live by?
Cyril Ma: If it doesn't feel strange, I haven't changed. To improve is a form of change, and I always look to get outside my own comfort level to do that.