Jonathan Tan is commercial photographer, filmmaker and explorer who has lived in the Middle East and South East Asia before settling in the Northern Rivers district of New South Wales, Australia. After a life-changing surfing accident created an inflection point of renewed self-discovery, his sense of adventure and ambitious frames took on new meaning for the role a camera can play in seeing the world.
Semi Permanent: At the very start of this short film, you mention that your practice is less about taking the photo and more about the people in it. What's your decision-making process of knowing when to shoot—when do you stop enjoying it for yourself and actually start creating something?
Jonathan Tan: I've always had a camera in my hand. From primary through to high school…I remember when the GoPro 1 came out, and they’re up to the Hero 8 or 9 now. Anyway, when I first started taking photos I was just keen to snap away. But nowadays I’ll go out on a trip with a bunch of friends, and I just prefer to be in the moment. So I’ll look at my cameras and I’ll just think to my myself ‘enjoy the moment. Try to remember the moment for what it is, not what you think it was when you look back a few years later.’ It gives you a better sense of how you remember it being and how the photo should represent that.
The social media landscape has changed a lot of what I take and what I post, too. In the past I took a lot of photos to post online. Now I find myself keeping a lot of photos without ever sharing them publicly. Those are memories for me and my friends, or the people that were there. That’s more important than sharing on social media.
The short film talks in depth about a surfing accident where you lost vision in one eye. When you look back on the time since then, how has that experience impacted your work both in front of and behind the lens?
Everyone has their own set of experiences and hardships they've gone through. If you’re going on a shoot with someone you’ve never met or a place you’ve never been before, sharing those experiences creates common ground that just makes it easier to work with people.
It was funny, the crew (for Heaps Normal) asked if I had a like a near death experience where your life flashes before your eyes. But I had the opposite; instead of seeing everything that had happened, I thought about all the places I didn’t get to go, the people I didn’t get to meet, and the stories I didn’t get to share. That was my perspective on how everything came out. Maybe that gives the shots more merit, or makes meeting people and shooting places more exciting, because I know how quickly it can be taken from you.
You’ve lived a really interesting and varied life. And it’s easy once you’ve had a few adventures to feel like you’re ‘done’. Is there an end goal for you in terms of what you want to experience?
When you're growing up you have an idea about how life is going to go, and then the more and more you live, you realise how little control you have over what goes on and how you have to embrace spontaneity and life changing experiences as you go through them. I’ve been very lucky and very privileged to have moved around and been able to travel and see different sort of places and experience different cultures.
I can decide what general path I'm going to go down and I've tried to do that. I went to University to study a doctorate in Physical Therapy, and realised that isn’t what I wanted to be doing. So I can change my general direction, but life throws all these curve balls. And my job has been to sort of react to them.
My only goal is to continue to put myself in uncomfortable positions, to continue to follow my dreams and the passions and pursuits that I had while finding time to give back and help other people. No one can do everything by themselves. If I didn’t have my family and friends, I’m not sure if I ever would have gotten out of that [hospital] bed.
What drives me is new experiences. What drives me is putting myself in positions in which I can grow, whether that be moving this place or that place or switching what I thought would be my career path into something else against what society or my family thinks would be a ‘better’ move. That’s the luxury of getting to make your own decisions, and at the end of the day it’s my life, not anyone else's, and I’ll have to deal with the consequences either way.
People can attach themselves to adversity, or intentionally place themselves in difficult positions, because it does raise the bar of what you’re forced to push yourself over. Is there a sense of truth in that for you?
100%. You go through peaks and troughs. When I think back to all the times I felt true resilience or that I was really driving myself, it’s always been through a life-altering event thrown at you, or when someone close to you pushes you. I thrive in situations where I’m challenged. It’s weird in a way, like ‘why do I have to lose to win?’ It’s a strange contradiction in how you think you should live. But I guess it’s just when you find yourself at the lowest lows, you’re gonna shoot even higher than where you were before.
Working with Heaps Normal has bought to light this change in consciousness that we at Semi Permanent really identified with. They made a 0% alcohol beer but weren’t particularly patronising about it. Essentially, you don’t have to be sober to drink it, and you don’t need to drink it if you’re sober. It aligns with this emerging mindset that you don’t have to do things how they were done if they don’t make you feel great. Which raised this broader question about what ambition should look like for young people today. What do you think about bracing for the future?
I guess I can say what I tell my youngest siblings. For people older than me, it wasn’t uncommon to study one thing, find a job, and stay in that job your whole life. But we have options, and these are options that our parents (who laid the path for us) find very difficult to comprehend. So it’s hard for me, and them, to comprehend what the next steps should look like. But I think it's to do with learning about yourself through your own experiences and your own trials; then understanding how the world is now and how it should be in the future. My job now didn't exist 10 years ago, so what's the next job going to be?
Understanding what you want to do and understanding yourself so that when you justify a a decision—for your career, family, relationship, whatever—it lets you push your ambition higher and higher. Everyone can achieve what they want to do. It just takes a bit of courage and a lot of time to figure out and navigate how you're going to get there.
Then, the way you think you’re going to get there isn’t necessarily how you’re going to get there. You’re going to get things thrown at you that you don’t expect, and you’ve got to roll with the punches. But if you know where you’re meant to be, it just takes time and a bit of determination. If you have those two things, you can do whatever you want.
There is this disillusionment that pursuing your passions must be at the cost of everything else in life. But I think if you bring the right amount of empathy and hard work to it, you can have it both ways. You might not be loaded financially, but you’re not selling your soul either. It feels like that’s evening out in a sense.
It definitely is evening out. Even when I was doing my doctorate, it was a pretty big gamble to take on an internship in the creative field. Having never worked in it before and having paid tens of thousands of dollars to be educated in another field only to say ‘you know what? I just don't see longevity here because I have to make the call now or I’ll be stuck in too deep.’ I just knew that I had to do it or I would regret it. I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror and say ‘you know, your parents worked to give you the opportunity to do what you want. So why do what other people want, to please other people, when everyone before you has worked to give you the option to do what you want to do.’ That's a very hard thing to explain to your parents but it would be disrespectful if you didn’t try.
In Zoe’s short film, they mentioned that if you cant see yourself represented, it’s hard to see yourself exist. Was there someone that played that role for you, and do you think you play that role for someone else?
I don’t know if I'm that for other people, but I can say for sure that I've had my own journey as a Southeast Asian person in Australia as well as an expat. I would hope that my brothers can see some of that; how your personal actions impact on other people. Like, when I was in High School, I remember so clearly trying to assimilate in such a fashion that other Southeast Asian kids would get bullied, but people would say to me and say ‘Jono’s not Asian, he’s Aussie.’ And that felt like I’d finally made it so nothing would happen, which was purely out of self-preservation. I look back on that quite ashamed that I thought that was ‘good’.
But now at work, we hire a lot of third party talent and crew. And it’s tough to get Southeast Asian representation in this content. So much so that if I go on a shoot and I’m the designated photographer, I’ll set the settings and jump in a few shots. Or if we have a shoot that doesn’t have Asian representation I’ll have a word or volunteer myself to do it. You don’t think about these things when you’re growing up, but they’re so important.
And what do you think needs to happen in the industry to accelerate that?
I think it’s just conversation. One of the best things about moving overseas and going to an international school was realising that everyone is no different from the other. Culturally, religion-wise, what they eat or drink… We’re making judgment calls on people based on what's inside, not what's outside and I was privileged to have experienced so many different cultures and living in this mini-UN where your best friends are British, Nigerian, Vietnamese and so on. And it’s like…this could be Australia. It’s the same thing. We’re all from everywhere and once we start making judgement calls on what’s inside, we can start to understand why it’s important for other people to be represented too. That can be so easy, just based on simple discussion and conversation and understanding.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.