Violinist William Tan, who is also an acclaimed underwater photographer with an international fanbase, tells Mavis Teo more about the allure of wildlife photography and why protecting the welfare of his subjects is so important.
To many in the audience at one of Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO)’s performances, first violinist William Tan may just be another key member of our nation’s flagship orchestra. However, to the scuba diving community – locally and internationally, and particularly, the underwater photography scene – William is an esteemed wildlife lensman.
When William is not playing his prized violin, which was made by master Italian luthier Camillo Camilli in 1737, he puts his finger dexterity to good use as an underwater photographer. Perpetually zipping around the world, the 58-year-old keeps a fine juggling act between his musical career and his other lifelong passion, deftly switching between violin strings and camera settings, tails and wetsuit.
Not only has William published two award-winning underwater photography books together with other contributors – Silent Symphony and Gorontalo: Hidden Paradise, he judges at photography competitions, and speaks at diving and photography expositions alongside other internationally renowned peers like David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes.
A highly sought-after instructor for photography expeditions globally, he sells out workshop spots on cruises and dive resorts alike – even in the most far-flung places. For a few years running, William has also served as the ambassador for macro (extreme close-up) photography at ADEX (Asia Dive Expo), which is the biggest and longest-running diving showcase in the region that spans several countries, including Singapore and China.
Self-effacing and genial, the reluctant “celebrity” shies away from the limelight even though his many sponsorships by brands ranging from Canon to Fourth Element would suggest otherwise. Although the number of his Facebook followers has reached 5,000 – the maximum allowed by the social networking site, he refuses to set up a Facebook Fan Page or keep up an active Instagram profile, despite the urging of others.
Instead, William simply deletes inactive accounts in his “friends” list on a regular basis – to allow photography enthusiasts waiting to connect with him to do so. He frequently posts new photos from his latest trips and shares pointers on his pet topic.
Son of the sea
In 2010, William was given a good-natured ribbing by Lan Shui, the former SSO music director from 1997 to 2019, who was later conferred the title of Conductor Laureate upon his retirement. When introducing the violinist to the audience, Lan Shui said, “This is William Tan. When he is free from his diving trips, he sometimes comes back to play with us.”
Until today, William chuckles at this memory – one of many cherished ones he has with the orchestra, for it is where he literally grew up. Music wasn’t the original plan, though. As a triple-science student at the-then Hwa Chong Junior College, he had his sights set on a career in medicine before an opportunity to study music at Johns Hopkins came along. Having learnt the violin since the age of 11, he could not pass up the chance to train professionally at the private university, which had by then absorbed the renowned conservatory Peabody Institute into its framework of campuses for some years already.
In 1986, the former Public Service Commission scholar graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a Bachelor’s degree in music and began his career at the SSO where he started his career as a trainee in 1981. So great was his love for music, William stayed on after his eight-year bond had come to an end.
While William has loved marine life since childhood, it was in his university’s home city of Baltimore that his fascination grew. He would while away free time by gazing at the sea creatures at the National Aquarium. Back in Singapore after graduation, he was inspired by the experiences of other SSO members who scuba dived for leisure – including three members of the original T’ang Quartet. “Other female musicians started learning diving as well, and I decided I had to get fit too,” he says, recalling the decision to pick up the sport in 1994.
Whole new world
As the late oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau famously said about the appeal of the underwater world: “The sea, once it casts its spell,
holds one in its net of wonder forever.” And William would prove to be a happy victim.
Of the countless amazing anecdotes he has to share from his nearly 30 years of adventures, coming face-to-face with such dangerous and deadly creatures as tiger and bull sharks, saltwater crocodiles and blue-ringed octopuses is just par for the course to him. Instead, one encounter with the reclusive dugong in the remote Alor Archipelago of southeastern Indonesia is his “craziest”, involving a dugong whisperer and a male dugong in heat.
“Divers were not allowed in the water during the mating season, and all three professional photographers on our boat would have to shoot from the surface. Due to our constant pestering, the crew finally agreed to let us enter the water, on the condition that we will hold onto the outrigger and never let go. The dugong appeared, swam towards another male photographer, grabbed him and tried without success to pull him off the outrigger. Then, it started to hump the poor man!”
Despite the thrills, the addictive vortex of underwater photography is not one without dangers. Very often, photographers venture out of safety zones without realising it – all in pursuit of that prized shot. “Photographers who think they will never run into trouble are fools,” adds William, who has his own fair share of close shaves.
While following an endemic deep-water angelfish for a face shot in Ogasawara Islands, Japan, he did not realise the fish was going deeper progressively – and so did he as he trailed behind. “I kept telling myself to hold on for one more minute for the fish to turn around,” recounts William, who had stayed longer than what was safe at that depth.
“By the time I gave up and ascended to 20m, I had nine more minutes of decompression to clear and no air. The rest of the dive group had already ascended – except for a couple who had stayed behind. They shared air with me and helped me to the surface safely. If not for them, I probably would have died there and then.”
Dignity and respect
There is a dark side to the underbelly of underwater and wildlife photography that William is keen to highlight. So addictive is the rush from getting a coveted shot that photographers, including professionals, have been known to bait their subjects or manipulate pictures. While there are many like William who advocate respect for wildlife, it is not an uncommon practice for people to trap or bait animals for that trophy shot. According to William, the latter group would sometimes band together and intimidate those who speak up about it.
The bullying William once experienced was so bad that he had to report the harassment to the police on two occasions. “I was judging yet another underwater photo competition in Indonesia in the early 2010s when I found the images entered by a participant suspicious. Another veteran photographer agreed with me that it was impossible to obtain such shots without manipulation,” he says.
Further checks into the metadata of the photo proved their misgivings right. Somehow, the culprit got wind of the judges’ suspicions and retaliated by requesting that the winning participants and William be disqualified. “Not only did he ask the magazines I was shooting for to stop working with me, he even got people to bully me on social media and issue death threats. I stood my ground. The prize-giving ceremony went on as planned. This photographer didn’t win.”
No one would have expected such a highly respected figure in the field to be so turned off by unethical practices that he gave up diving for a while. But he did, for nearly two years.
“I didn’t touch the camera again until 2012, when a diving friend dragged me to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and put a long lens in my hand. That was when I discovered the beauty of avian creatures.”
Even though baiting was then less prevalent in the avian photography scene here, things have changed a decade on, to William’s dismay.
Just last March, while at the Hampstead Wetlands Park, William witnessed some photographers obstructing a baby Buffy fish owl from returning to its nest from which it had fallen on a rainy day. It went on for an entire day – just so they could get more photos. “The frantic mother was not even allowed to get to her baby because there were photographers trying to frighten her away by snapping their cameras at her and blocking her.”
While such ugly behaviour still prevails, the shutterbug finds consolation in the increased awareness against baiting among photographers worldwide: “Things are improving because more people are speaking up now and educating others. If you create enough interest in people to do something good for the animals, then the struggles and efforts are worthwhile.”
He adds, “I get a lot of people coming up to me at dive presentations, telling me this: ‘You talked about the animals; the others talked about themselves.” By having his heart in the right place – through placing the welfare of his subjects as his priority, William has won over a legion of followers who will, hopefully, continue to uphold and promote good wildlife photography etiquette.
This story first appeared in the August 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.