Behind the lens of Singapore’s favourite ballroom photographer – Uncle Bernard

If you ask any ballroom dancer who’s their favourite Singaporean ballroom photographer, more often than not, you’d expect to hear the name ‘Uncle Bernard’ popping up frequently.

Mr. Bernard Ow, also affectionately known as “Uncle Bernard”, is the homegrown talent behind these classic and refined photographs.

How it all started

Uncle Bernard’s pursuit for his passion in photography first began more than twenty years back, originating from film photography. However, it dawned upon him that the learning process was tedious and time consuming due to the long lead time required to develop the photographs to visualise the results, as compared to the ability to review your photograph shots instantly in modern day digital photography.

So we questioned, what exactly does it takes to achieve these brilliant photos? We managed to get Uncle Bernard to spill the beans over some Strawberry Oolong Tea and Black Coffee at The Populus, Outram Park.

His first child, also his photography subject, was the first key driver for his passion. Like any doting parent who didn’t want to miss the significant growing moments of the little one, he was prompted to make a hefty investment in a 3-megapixel Casio digital camera, widely recognised as one of the most advanced camera of that time. From then onwards, he assumed the role as the appointed photographer for family photography.

His passion in photography also amplified in tandem with the dance endeavours of his daughters. It was at their competitions that he realised, even the most advanced point-and-shoot digital camera was incapable of best immortalising the many lines and moments of the dancers in the ballroom.

The challenges of shooting in a ballroom

When he finally got his first entry-level Canon DSLR to manoeuvre the conditions of the ballroom, he described it as a steep learning curve as he was then adapting to the manual settings of the DSLR to match the unique and challenging environment conditions in the ballroom. Even so, the focusing speed, ISO and light sensors of the entry-level DSLR fell short at delivering the desired photos of his expectations.

“The unique and challenging conditions of the ballroom are (1) dim, low-lighting (2) constantly changing lights and (3) fast moving dancers” – Uncle Bernard

After countless upgrades and research, he settled for the Canon 5D Mark III as it was capable of delivering the desired end product. It was certainly a big investment as the Canon 5D Mark III was also the second highest-tier of Canon cameras used by professional photographers when shooting athletes.

Furthering his craft for these friendly faces

As time passed, his photography subjects extended beyond his daughters to feature fellow dancing friends and plentiful dancers were pleasantly surprised and appreciative of the photos he took of them. The appreciation, happiness and satisfaction he received from these dancers further fuelled his passion in dance photography, propelling him to take his craft into a different level and to develop his own unique style.

Uncle Bernard describes his style as one that expresses the synergy of capturing the moment, movement and action. He emphasised that it certainly is a more challenging and risky style as it may result in many blurred photographs. Naturally, it was not long after, budding dance photography enthusiasts began to approach him to seek his advice. He revealed that the secret to exceptional dance photographs are not solely dependent on equipment, but results from the combination of

equipment, skills and a bit of luck. 

While possessing knowledge about dance does help prepare the photographer, he highlighted that you can never predict what’s coming next. This is largely due to the erratic nature and actions of competitive ballroom dancers who are constantly working with their partners against competitors through the use of floor craft whilst trying to impress the audience and judges.

Regarding dance photography, Uncle Bernard reflects that it’s really very much like the art of dance. People only see the dance, they don’t know the intricacies behind the dance – the countless arduous practices, heated partner discussions and many more. Likewise, people don’t see what’s behind a single piece of photo.

To further enhance his skills, he attends photography workshops held by Canon and actively interacts with the professionals to keep updated with the best equipment and practices in the market. Amongst his many takeaways from the exchanges with industry professionals and specialists, including safari photographers who shoot in South-Africa, as well as otter photographers, he noted the importance of

understanding one’s subject to take better photos.

And this certainly is not limited to the dancers’ best angles and choreography.

The Intellectual Property Issue

We also touched on an important and pressing issue, which is copyright and its implications. It is a matter that requires further education and awareness amongst the ballroom community. For starters, it is important to understand that the copyrights of the photographs belong to the photographer, as much as paintings belong to the painter, until they are sold. However, the convenience of sharing digital photos via social media has resulted in individuals reposting these photos as their own in an unauthorised manner without the permissions from the photographer. Uncle Bernard shared that most of his photos could be shared by the dancers with appropriate acknowledgment and credit of his work to him with his permissions.

Alternatively, individuals may also choose to support him in his craft by purchasing the original copies of his photos. This ultimately promotes a more sustainable relationship and eco-system for dancers and dance photographers. He has also been referred and commissioned to shoot for other dance forms and is eager to explore further opportunities with commercial entities in this art form.

His recent photos at the Singapore Open Dance Championship 2018 was also picked up and featured by the Singapore Tatler on their Instagram account.

His favourite series

When asked about his favourite series of photos shot, he shared that it has to be the Singapore National Tertiary Dance Championship held at CHIJMES. He expressed that the very authentic architecture and unique character of the venue complimented the essence of ballroom dancing.

We also took the liberty to share our favourite few picks of his recent masterpieces.

We’re sure you share our sentiments in saying that these photos certainly do justice to the dancers, and that we also look forward to more of these soulful photos.

Till then, let’s make sure that we support the craft of our homegrown talent by sharing these photos responsibly with the right permissions, and or, buying their masterpieces.

All photos belong to Uncle Bernard, follow his Instagram and Facebook account for more inspiring dance photos! Dubbed BOWVisions, other than being the initials of Uncle Bernard, he hopes to convey his undeterred and Bold visions in his interpretations of these beautiful dancers on the floor.

Uncle Bernard is also available at @owbernard.  Written by @skyetzk and edited by @heyzellll.

 

Where is Kavin going?

With so much in the air about where one of Singapore’s youngest up-and-coming Amateur Latin ballroom dancer is heading to and the reasons behind this move, we thought, what better way to find out than to ask the young man himself.

We managed to squeeze some time out of Kavin’s busy schedule on a cool Wednesday noon. Decked in his signature black fitness outfit and always ever-candid self, Kavin tucks into his well-deserved lava cake and sips some mocha while we got him to spill the beans.

  1. We never got to ask you about yourself, could you share a little more on when you started Latin ballroom dancing, and how did that pan out for you since Primary, Secondary, Polytechnic and during National Service?

I started dancing since 9, and I didn’t let my friends know, I kept it from them and only my best friend knew. It was not until Primary 6 when I performed for the school and my then schoolmates found out and teased me and all, which was something I didn’t want and was trying to avoid.

Eventually it got better. People in Secondary, Polytechnic and NS, people had a different and positive perspective of ballroom dancing.

Since we’re on this, what would your advice be for the young ones and their parents who want to pursue ballroom dancing?

I would say, tell them the truth, don’t lie, don’t be afraid, just do what you wanna do. Don’t let that 30 seconds of laughter or teasing bring down your lifelong dreams and passion.

 

 

  1. Is professional Latin Ballroom dancing a career choice for you? Have you been busier with your Latin ballroom coaching?

Yes, it is! I’ve been busy with private and group Latin ballroom dancing. The classes are conducted very much based on the individuals’ preferences, from there, we would drive them towards their goals. I used to have a fixed mindset and approach of how and what to teach them. However, there’s a need to adapt and approach them with their preferences in mind, and thereafter, nurture their interest in dancing. So, it’s important to ask them, what do they want to learn? For example, connection, leading and following, and how there are many ways of interpreting it, the movement of the spine and etc.

 

  1. We heard that you are headed overseas to further your craft in ballroom dancing. What prompted this move and why?

In October 2017, there was already an idea to train overseas. After Blackpool, the idea of training in China came when Ernest, a close friend also in dance, spoke to me. We personally felt that the Chinese dancers were much better in terms of skills and technique as compared to the others.

Ernest and I wondered, why not China? Since it’s near Singapore also. At this point of time, established UK dance instructors were also flying into China also, so why not?

So, here’s the funny story. Ernest was just casually speaking to me in Blackpool: “Why not speak to Lu Ning, since most of his students are top students”. And so, it happened, Lu Ning was just sitting right next to us, almost like it was meant to be, and from then we started talking, got to know each other, I shared my plans for dancing and further explored the idea of going to China to further my dancing.

After “Youth Got to Move: The Ballroom Edition”, plans were still not figured out, but after the Singapore Open Dance Championship in 2017, I made a trip to China to have a few lessons under Lu Ning and his wife, Jasmine. They were Blackpool Professional Semi-Finalists and renowned judges who are invited for international competitions.

I thought it might be a good move since there will be more exposure for me, in terms of instructional and professional support. This is also an opportunity to train alongside the Chinese dancers, and to be less comfortable. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, because when I’m in it, I tend to be less motivated and determined.

I want to be even more serious, motivated and to be able get the help that I wanted. So, by putting myself in a highly competitive environment where I was no longer near the pinnacle, I could push and pit myself against the best in China.

 

  1. What’s this trip about? How long will it last? And what do you hope to achieve?

This trip is more to improve myself as a dancer, not to earn money or to teach. The initial plan was a one-year plan. Realistically speaking, financially, I can only survive for a year overseas. But in that time, I’ll have to find classes to teach to sustain myself. If it works out, I may stay for a longer period of time, perhaps even up to five years.

What do you hope to achieve at the end of five years?

At the end of five years, I want to return as a figure who not only strives and thrives in the local scene, but also on the international platform. And to return as an inspiration and icon.

 

  1. What about family? What are their thoughts on this decision?

For my Dad, he started me my on dancing, both of my parents actually, and they are supportive, they can see what I want. I guess it would be the same for my sister. Perhaps they are not exactly sure of my choice, but they definitely respect and support my decisions and goals.

 

  1. What’s going to happen to your current partnership with Lindsey?

We did a performance together last Saturday at Tanglin Park, and that was our last dance together. Lindsey was cool and professional about it, she even offered to help as I chase my dreams.  

 

  1. As this is a pivotal moment in your life, is there something you would like to say to your future self?

For me it was always to compete, I’m a very competitive person.

So, to the future self, if you see this, don’t forget the reason why you started. Do not let greed or ego take over you. Don’t forget that Singapore is still your home, and you’ll still have to come back to contribute back to society and the dance community.

 

  1. There are many risks that we take in our lives. Perhaps this is one of the bigger leap of faith that you are taking at this point in your life, what are your thoughts on those who are skeptical? What do you want to say to those who believe in you and are rooting for you?

I’ve had people tell me, that I would still pick the academics over dancing eventually. Majority of the people are very supportive of my decisions and are with me, and I’ve very thankful that they did not contribute to the stress and fear of living overseas, mentally it helps a lot. So thank you!

To the skeptics, **** ***.

 

  1. Was there a question you wished we would ask? What is it?

“What happens if you don’t get the desired end results?” That’s the question I’ve always asked myself. It doesn’t matter, just like in life, as long as you give your best, that’s what matters. If I ever give up dancing for studying, I would have always wondered what would have happened if I’ve made it if I had chosen dance. And I wouldn’t like to live with that question burdening me through my life.

And with that, we promptly ended the interview as Kavin made a sprint to his next class. Certainly an admirable spirit in this burning youth. We wish him bon voyage and all the best as he scales greater dancesport heights in the name of Singapore!

For those who want to catch up with Kavin, he’s still physically present on sunny island Singapore until 11 June 2018. He’ll be back on the major festive occasions such as Lunar New Year and Deepavali. Thereafter, he’s always available on his social media platform @rathnakavin.

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