Published on 29 June 2017

Credit: Ernest Goh

Photographer and visual artist Ernest Goh shoots formal portraits of animals to reconnect with nature.  

By Melanie Lee

38-year-old Ernest Goh knew he wanted to be a photographer at 15 after watching National Geographic documentaries on TV.

“I would see this guy going around taking pictures of animals, and I thought this is a pretty cool job to have. The idea of being able to explore the world with a camera really appealed to me, even before I understood photography as an artistic process,” he recalls.

Goh pursued this ambition by studying Visual Communications at Temasek Polytechnic, working at The Straits Times for a few years as a photojournalist, and pursuing Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths College in London. His foray into animal photography started in 2010, when he collaborated with Panasonic on a photography project.

“I was looking for a subject to photograph with a Panasonic camera. My father is a fish enthusiast, so I decided to shoot his fish. I really liked how the images turned out,” he says.

From there, Goh decided he wanted to shoot more fish. He e-mailed Kenny Yap, CEO of integrated ornamental fish provider, Qian Hu, and within five minutes, Yap replied him with a green light to his request. Goh photographed over 50 fish at the fish farm, and this collection was eventually published as The Fish Book in 2011 by Epigram Books.

“This experience taught me that you have to take a leap of faith for a personal artistic project. Don’t worry too much about whether people would think it is good, or whether it will make money. I just knew I wanted to shoot fish because it made me happy,” he muses.

In 2013, Goh decided he wanted to shoot pheasants in Malaysia. He had heard from friends that there was this guy in Terengganu who kept several species of pheasants. However, when he got there, he found out that the guy had gotten rid of all his pheasants and was now into chickens.

“I was really quite disappointed at first. But then the Malaysian guy brought me to see the ayam serama – ornamental chickens who take part in beauty pageants every month. Hiao hiao (vain) chickens: now that’s interesting!” he says with a laugh.

Credit: Ernest Goh

For the next 1.5 years, Goh went back 15 times to shoot these ornamental chickens while juggling commercial work. These portraits were eventually published as a book titled Cocks in 2013 by Epigram Books.  It was later picked up by international publisher Harry N. Abrams in 2015 and is now sold as Chickens in the US, UK and Australia.

“These photos were featured in a popular photography website and went viral very quickly. I think what interested people was that these images are not manipulated and that the cocks are so naturally flamboyant,” he says.

Goh’s latest project is a photography monograph of therapy horses in collaboration with the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA Singapore) for their 35th anniversary.

“You would think that such huge animals would be aggressive but horses are such sensitive creatures. I shot them against a coloured background and at first, they refused to step on the backdrop. The trainer told me that the horses think the coloured area is a hole! I wanted to show this timid side of them in my portraits,” he says.

Credit: Ernest Goh

Besides fish, chickens and horses, Goh has also shot goats for an IKEA advertisement (a kid peed on a sofa) and orangutans for Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SCOP) in Medan, Indonesia.

“When I shoot animals, I start to remember my grandmother’s kampong. It was there that I first connected with nature – running around the countryside poking chickens or catching spiders. I shoot animals on a clean background because I want the viewers to see them as they are – sentient, expressive beings whom we can connect with emotionally.”

Credit: Ernest Goh

You can view more of Ernest Goh’s animal photographs here.

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