When Bob left his job at Lianhe Zaobao after a decade, it was for a good reason. Finding out that his son was autistic changed his priorities, so he gave up stability in favour of flexibility to spend more time with his son. This affected his photography in ways that he did not expect.

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The birth of the Fat Farmer

Today, Bob runs his own photography and videography creative house, and with the help of his team, he manages to juggle his commercial work and spending time with his family.

As for his company’s quirky name, the Fat Farmer, it all started with an office romance between him and his wife. “Her name is Hui Hui and our colleagues would call her Huay Huay, which means flower in Hokkien.”

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“When I started wooing her and walked to her desk often, people would call me ‘the farmer’, and the nickname stuck.”

“I was still thin back then but when I started the company, I got a little rounder, hence the name – The Fat Farmer,” he chuckled.

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The fruits of his labour include commercial success; shooting corporate collaterals, events, weddings, and editorial shots for major celebrities the likes of Donnie Yen, Andy Lau, Stephanie Sun and even Jackie Chan.

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“He’s so nice,” Bob said about Jackie. “He would ask me what I needed and he would accommodate every time.” Comparing the veteran celebrities to the younger ones, he did note that, “some of the younger local artistes are actually trickier to work with because they think that a star needs to behave in a certain way.”

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“However, to be honest, sometimes the most difficult ones are the talent managers. They treat the celebrities like a god or goddess.”

His choice of gear when’s on the job is none other than the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. “We do both photography and videography, and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is super at both,” Bob revealed. “The Canon EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM is very good for portraits, sometimes capturing even more details than my essentials – the Canon EF50mm f/1.4 USM and Canon EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM lenses.”

“My Canon EF50mm f/1.4 USM allows me to capture photos under almost any light setting. It’s perfect for my corporate or celebrity portrait shoots where I’m usually working on a tight timeline, and light set-up may not be available. It also produces great bokeh effects, which work well for portraits!”

Discovering projects close to his heart

After finding his work at the newspaper a little monotonous, Bob started exploring doing solo exhibitions. In 2003, ‘Have a Little Faith’ featured the cultural practices of the Sikh and Jewish communities of Singapore.

Canon EOS 5 film camera

His second exhibition, ‘One Room Flat’ highlighted the grim living conditions of the elderly in rental flats. “It’s always out of curiosity,” he said. “And I’m always drawn to the elderly because I think I can help them.”

Speaking about the numerous awards under his belt: “It started when I covered the Singapore Arts Award as a newspaper photographer. I looked at the pictures in the exhibition and thought they were really nice. I thought to myself, ‘maybe I could join a competition next year?'”

He did, and snagged the Juror’s Choice in the Philip Morris Arts Awards in 2005, and started winning a slew of other prestigious accolades internationally.

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“This made me realise the truth about that saying – if there’s a will, there’s a way.”

His most recent project is a little closer to home. His wife was recently diagnosed with nose cancer and has just finished a round of chemotherapy treatment.

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The series, which he uploads onto his public Facebook page, is a non-judgmental and intimate look at his wife’s therapy process.

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“When my wife was diagnosed with nose cancer, of course, I cried non-stop every day for 2 weeks. But I realised that instead of hiding her condition, we needed to share it with our friends so that they can come over and give her a hug,” Bob said.

“So far, I think that’s the best way to handle such situations.”

“Maybe 5 to 10 years later, I will look back at this and see how much we have gone through,” he continued. “This also helps others. It will become a collection of stories to share with people.”

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Human stories play a major role in Bob’s photography, alongside social awareness and activism, especially in topics that are often neglected.

“I think a photograph that serves a purpose is a good picture.”

“It’s okay if it’s out-of-focus, or if the horizon isn’t level; as long as it touches the heart and it serves a purpose, it’s good for me,” Bob firmly stated.

“Even if you can take a picture and tell a story, but it’s only your story, the audience will move on. That is why if a photo brings a tear to their eye, then the purpose and impact has been served.”

Canon EOS 5 film camera

And when it comes to purpose, there’s none closer to his heart than sharing the candid truth about his son’s autism.

Accepting his son’s condition with wholeheartedly

Speaking to Bob, one is struck most by his candour and ease with which he shares his stories.

“When Jun Le was first diagnosed with autism, it took us a few months for us to really accept it. It took quite a while for us to share his condition to colleagues, to friends and then to the public,” he shared.

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”The first time I talked to strangers about his condition, I felt a sense of huge relief.” And this open-hearted and generous sharing may have prepared him for the many unexpected turns of events in his life.

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His uncensored and open approach has been a magnet for support. When he published an honest visual diary called “Our Better World”, documenting the everyday reality of his life with Jun Le, it brought him the influence that he didn’t realise was pivotal to healing and strength.

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“Even though I just wanted to document the pictures of Jun Le,  sharing them openly has given me a lot of positive energy and support, from parents with special needs children to even more standard families highlighting what my son could do that their kids couldn’t.”

This project not only became an informal community for people with autistic children but also created a platform for people who want to learn more about the condition.

Speaking about his workshops where he teaches special needs children (and some adults) accompanied by their parents, he professed, “I’m privileged to get in touch with autistic people from all age groups, which helps me to prepare me for my son when he becomes older. One day he will become 20, and another day he will become 30. And because of this opportunity, I learn a lot in return.”

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“I started this because, as active parents, my wife and I create activities to engage our son. I want to turn these workshops into opportunities for families to enjoy a community activity while allowing the autistic to learn to interact with strangers.”

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His priority, of course, is spending time with his son. With his colleague’s blessings, Bob takes breaks from work during the school holidays to make sure that Jun Le spends all his time exploring and learning about the world around him.

In fact, there was once when his son brought up that he wanted to go ‘Chalk Farm’ when vacationing in London.

“We were wondering what Chalk Farm was. Then, when we arrived in London, we found out that there was a Chalk Farm train station,” a surprised Bob said. “It turned out that the oldest lift in all of the train stations was there. He went there, looked at the lift blissfully, and left content.”

 

All this culminates as a life learning experience for Jun Le.

“Hopefully as he grows, he will start to learn to communicate what he wants to the people around him. That is my biggest wish for him this Father’s Day.”

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When asked what he does the most with Jun Le, Bob laughed and said, “play!”

“Sometimes before he sleeps, he’ll go ‘papaaaaa, where are you?’” Bob recollects. “And then when I go to his bedroom, he will just say goodnight and sleep.”

On how it has changed him and his photograph, Bob suggested,”I think it slowed me down.”

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“Because he is slower at learning, I need to take things a step at a time. And because of that, it slowed down a lot of other things in our lives. When you work in the media industry, everything happens so quickly. My wife and I are ‘kanjiong spiders’ (Singlish slang for anxious people), but this slowed our entire lives down.”

Bob believes that “in a certain way, it made me observe things more, and made me more sensitive to the human experience. You start to appreciate a lot of things that are in front of you.”

It’s obvious from photos of Bob and his family that they’re always living fully in the present and enjoying every moment.

Teaching photography to those with special needs, fulfilling last wishes for hospice residents; Bob’s quest has become a legacy of goodwill, hope, and most importantly, purpose. But beyond the noble actions and active change-maker, he will always be loving husband and father first to his flower and son.

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Witness the intimate portraits and stories that come alive under Bob’s lens on his website.