Music photography is often an overlooked aspect of the music industry by the general public, especially in Singapore. While several names in the Singaporean music photography scene, like Aloysius Lim, Rueven Tan and Ian Lim, ring a bell to the layman, there's one name that doesn't quite get the recognition it deserves: Ryan Chang.
Ryan has made a name for himself as the official touring photographer of Bullet For My Valentine and Ghost, two of the biggest bands in hard rock and metal. With a keen eye for moments in live music that will forever be etched into the memories of concert-goers, Ryan plays a pivotal role in the music industry: Drawing in fans through his art.
We spoke to Ryan about his beginnings, what it's like working with some of the biggest bands in the game, and more. Check out the interview below.
Take us back to the beginning. How did you pick up photography?
I think it had a lot to do with the local music scene. I'm not cut out to be a musician, so moving down the line, what's the next best thing? Being a music photographer. I tried my hand out at the whole thing by going to a few shows with a camera. Eventually, I took it more seriously and invested in more gear. I painstaking studied business but I continued to shoot shows on my own time, for more established organizations.
I was trying so hard to make things happen for myself. I had luck on my side, especially in terms of family. I told my parents that I wanted to head out to America before NS to shoot for the Vans Warped Tour. I wanted to be the Singaporean photographer to show all these bands that we're fully capable of producing good work too. I wrote countless amounts of emails to magazines, both print and digital. I did a cover for Blunt as well, and that was solely from the portfolio that I had of shooting Singaporean bands. After that, I moved to London for university. When I got out there, I hit the ground running.
What're some things you make it a point to capture?
For me, it's all about who I’m working for. I work directly with labels or bands and that gives me two things: A longer period of time to work for the length of an entire tour, or album recording process, and exclusive access, when the band's offstage or in the studio. Producing all those pictures is instantly more important for your portfolio, because you're able to get all these shots that other photographers in the pit are not able to get. That's the kind of work I want to do. Regular press photographers get to shoot for the first three songs, but I get the whole set. I do a lot of research before I work with a band, I watch live videos to study what the band does. There's a lot of backend work.
You're attached to the band on and off stage for months, even years. Were they apprehensive of your presence because you're documenting everything?
I think a good mindset to have when you go in for jobs like this is that you're the least important person in the mix. The show will go on without you. If something happens to the tour bus and a bed needs to go, you're the one who will be sent home. In the studio as well, you're there to document something that's happening because of someone else. I feel like your behaviour is very important. You don't just arrive and start shooting. Get to know them, the whole crew. Talk to them, build a rapport with them first and then you take out your camera an hour after you arrive. Surely if you’re a random photographer that the label sent, the band isn't going to allow you to stand in the vocal booth in a studio. I've reached the stage where I'm able to do that with the people I work for because of the relationships I’ve built.
Can you take us through your rapport with Bullet For My Valentine and Ghost?
I started out with While She Sleeps, that lasted about a year and a half. I made it a point to learn their ethics and their inside jokes, just to help them feel comfortable.That was my first tour ever, so I was super green, and I had to learn all the rules, like you can't shit on the tour bus.
With Bullet, it was a whole new thing. It was a big learning curve for me, working with a big band like that. I was working with a huge crew that used to work with Iron Maiden. They're there to work, not to make friends. They were one of the first few bands that I grew so close to, personally. The band itself was very welcoming and even off tour, we would meet and go to the pub and get drinks. I regard them as family.
I'm with Ghost now. Ghost is the first Grammy-winning band that I've worked with. They're arena headliners. Even more so, the road crew behind the band is focused on putting on the best possible show every night, making sure everything is perfect. Everything’s structured, the record label has a big picture in mind. It's still a bit too early to say. I've only done two tours with them. If there's anything I've learnt from Bullet, it's that sometimes if you're too close to your employers, it's not a good thing. I've been with Bullet for three-and-a-half years, I've been caught in the middle of conflicts. I keep it super professional with Ghost now.
Being overseas for so long, what do you think are some challenges Singaporean musicians face?
I think the age-old sentiment of how NS will hinder things is true. People overseas don't have enlistment. The peak age to start a music career is when we enlist. If you're good, and lucky, you get spotted, and signed and the rest is history. That's exactly what happened with Bullet. Another thing I think hinders local bands is the social norm of having a career, getting your own house. I think another issue is geography. Touring Southeast Asia is expensive because you have to fly everywhere. And you can only tour that circuit every once in awhile.
What do you think bands here can learn from international bands about the way they carry themselves?
I feel, with how accessible everything is nowadays, people want their bands to be perceived as being at a certain level instantly. Let's say you have a band that formed half a year ago, and you have one or two demos, you're releasing your third soon and you post a teaser for it on social media, with the countdowns and all. You build all this hype and then, you release a shit song. All that effort could have been used to stay in the studio for longer to make a better song. I feel like foundation is something that people here don't think about. Basically it's all about the song.
Let's take Wormrot for example. They don't do flashy teasers and countdowns. But they're signed to Earache, they’ve played Glastonbury and all these huge festivals around the world. And they did all of that without a gimmick and extensive promo because they write kickass music. That's the prime example of what Singaporean bands should strive to emulate.
How important is a visual element to a band's career?
My role working with Bullet was to try and rebrand what the band is. It was always about making them look bigger than they already are. They're playing at Wacken Open Air to 80,000 people. When it came to them, my conversations with the management and the band were always about using the pictures with the most number of people and how big the production is.
With Ghost, I think I was very lucky. I'm the band's first touring photographer. This is a band who is all about image, they have all these amazing production and costume changes, which is only accessible to people who actually go to the show. The magnitude of how big the shows actually are hasn't been maximised because the band never really had all these photos to share. Now with a tour photographer showing the world all these productions, and all of these photos being distributed via online galleries and magazines, more and more people are seeing this. I'll give you another good example: Rammstein.
If you think of Rammstein, you think of 'Du Hast'. But if you've never seen Rammstein live, or seen live videos, you would never know that Rammstein is so much more than that. They have pyro for every song. I feel like Ghost is now at that stage, where they can do stuff like that, and they can truly maximise that potential. I think a lot of people don't realise that a touring photographer is a business investment. It is the photographer's role to take shots that are able to draw people in and bring in more concert attendees, which brings in more money for the band. So yes, I think the image does matter, absolutely. But so does the product, which is the music. Those go hand in hand.
What would you say is the single biggest moment you've experienced?
I had to shoot Bullet at Wacken with 80,000 people watching the band. My legs were shaking but it was important for me because in front of all those people, I was reminded that the band could've picked anyone to shoot for them, but they chose me. I think all these legendary festivals and getting the chance to be a part of them is a defining moment for me. At the end of the day, it's not being able to shoot for a specific band, but rather the fact that there's a reason for me to be there and I made it happen.
What's the vibe of the bands like backstage before they hit the stage?
A very common thing that happens is that they totally shut off from the world. The walk from the dressing room to the stage is tunnel vision. Everything else doesn't matter, they’re super focused because they have to remember the order of the songs, how many count-ins there are. I think one of the hardest aspects of music photography is offstage, right before the show. You can't distract the band and ask them to pose a certain way. You need to work with what you get. To a certain extent, you can control what shots you get during a live show you pick the moment. It even makes me feel anxious, even if it's not my show. I also have my own pair of in-ears with metronomes because I have to know then the pyro goes off, when it's at a certain height that will look the best in a shot.
Have there been times when you've taken photos of them backstage and they've asked you to delete them, or anything of that sort?
No. I feel like the reason for that goes back to how I approach photography. If you form a strong bond with the band, there's mutual respect, so you know what not to shoot. I have images in my possession that no one will ever see, not because it's incriminating, but because it's unflattering – it does nothing to propel the bands forward. They know those images will never see the light of day because they trust me.
What is one piece of advice that you have for those who want to do what you do?
Definitely make things happen for yourself. While the misfortunes of having to deal with NS and whatnot are true, don't make those the reason to not even try. E-mails are free, don't be afraid to send out e-mails. If you get rejected, send another email to someone else. Go out there and make it happen. Don't sit around and wait for opportunities to be handed to you, because they never will. If anything, you will lose out if you don't make it happen.
For more of Ryan's photos, check out his Instagram page.