Her movements around the camera are slight, albeit deliberate, as are the model’s under Tina’s direction. When we select the final photos, we choose based on the details, like the model’s upper-body positioning, the hint of a smile, the way a strand of hair blows across her face (the fan is directed with precision). On set, there’s not a crease in the backdrop. If the props are too distracting, they’re cut.
The make-up doesn’t just have to look right, it has to “feel” right. The feet, our shoes, stay in the same spot with each look (because they are carefully placed that way), as does the lighting. The lighting is perfect, because she spends the time to make it so. Perhaps, a painstaking amount of time when you’re on a deadline; but it’s worth it. Sometimes, you have to respect the time, and you must always, always respect the artist.
Tina Chang was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with her family almost 30 years ago. During her fine arts degree at the University of Alberta, she discovered a love for photography. But it was fashion photography, a niche industry in the Edmonton market owned by only a handful, that became her obsession.
“I’ve always been interested in beautiful things,” Tina explains. “And the fact that I can actually work with beautiful people and clothes, that really attracted me. I used to buy a lot of magazines and look at the photos in there. I had a major interest in fashion, because, to me, fashion does not only make people feel good, it makes people look beautiful, whoever they are, whatever they do, and it’s also about creating a little bit of a fantasy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a real-world kind of thing. I can make my own reality, and I can justify why I do what I do.”
After graduation, Tina assisted local photographers and volunteered her time with local designers and models, driven to absorb as much as she could and build a portfolio of work. She took courses at NAIT and interned at the Department of Creative Services at the U of A, and, later, became a staff photographer there. Connections were made, and one lucky day, one particular photo editor shortlisted Tina for a job at a weekly magazine in Abu Dhabi, over 7,000 miles across the world.
“He said, ‘Tina, I’m moving to Abu Dhabi.’ And at that time, I wasn’t even sure where Abu Dhabi was, except for, you know, Garfield,” she says, laughing. “But I was really looking to go somewhere else to do fashion anyway, to see the world and do some work. So, I thought, why not? Thinking I wouldn’t get the job, because I was apparently competing with a few people from Toronto, London, and the States. And I thought, wow, I’m from Edmonton. Definitely not going to happen. But again, I thought, why not? I’m not going to not take the risk.”
Three to four months later, Tina arrived in the Middle East on a high. “I was really excited. I mean, I was actually going to a job where I was going to be doing fashion, and getting paid a great deal of money, and plus, there’s no tax; a lot of people go there to save money. When I arrived, it was probably one of the nicest months in the Middle East, so it was nice coming out from -23C in Edmonton to +23C. And I saw the beautiful sea!”
A week or two later, “It started to feel real,” she says, but the realities of a new culture weren’t so forgiving. “I was panicking a little bit, because nothing was familiar, and I was living in Abu Dhabi, which is very conservative. It’s nothing quite like Dubai at all. If I wanted to go into a local cafe or whatever, a couple of them just told me I couldn’t be there because I’m a woman. When I was taking taxis, the drivers would constantly ask, ‘Are you married? Can you bring me to Canada? Can we get married?’ And I’m like, seriously?!” She shakes her head, aghast. “So, I quickly learned how to drive. Thankfully, they drive on the same side of the street there as they do in Canada, but I was a little nervous because the traffic was crazy. I was like, oh my God, I’m going to die here. But I’d rather be on the roads than constantly harassed by the cab drivers.”
Further, she marvelled at the display of wealth: “There’s supply and demand, because there is so many people. They don’t buy anything at H&M. They hop from Chanel to Louis Vuitton. It’s just how it is. Even furniture and cars, it’s crazy. […] They make so much money there, they are in a bubble. They go to brunch–and I’m not talking about going-to-brunch-here, brunch. Brunch there means fancy. Lots of alcohol, exotic food. Week after week, buying stuff that you would never really buy back at home. Everything is brand and labels.”
But pushing through the discomfort and culture shock was, arguably, the best thing Tina did. She worked overseas for six years, travelling across the United Arab Emirates, to India, and on location in Paris and New York, shooting luxury fashion brands like Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci and Tiffany & Co., and editorials for magazines like Grazia, Harpers Bazaar Arabia, Luxury, L’Officiel India, Marie Claire Middle East, and Rolling Stone Middle East.
“There are lots of amazing things that I experienced during that time that will always be dear to me,” she says. “There are certain things I love about being in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and the fashion work is amazing. It was fun, it’s still fun, and it’s getting bigger.”
“One year,” she reflects, “We were shooting in the desert so much that my editor actually said, ‘No more desert shoots’! Now, I crave it. But it was quite beautiful. There are beautiful beaches at the hotels. The one hotel that I’m really in love with, and where I would love to shoot again, is the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. Even the Queen, when she comes, the royalty, they stay there. (I don’t even want to know how much it costs to stay there.)
They have these individual suites where everything is beautifully decorated. And you go, wow, I don’t really need a set designer. Everything is there, and there are different rooms that you can play with. But when we shot, they didn’t charge us anything to stay, because we gave them credits and it’s a magazine they really like. And sometimes hotels are so nice, they’d actually give us a good lunch. So, it was incredible. I can tell you, I was really, really spoiled.”
It sounds romantic, luxurious, like a dream, even. I ask the question we all want to know.
“So, why did you leave it all behind?”
“I didn’t really like who I’d become.”
“I worked all the time. I remember one day I was rearranging my portfolio because I was going to London to see some agencies, and I looked at it, and put all my tear sheets on my bed, and I thought to myself… damn, this is all I have. Just pieces of paper. I’ve got no one to hug, no one to love. I can’t go for coffee with these things. Yes, I’m very happy I accomplished a lot when I moved to the Middle East. I took a risk, I wasn’t scared, I just did it. But I thought, this is not what I want anymore.”
Tina’s return to Edmonton was met with rampant excitement from the local fashion community, although perhaps she was unaware. At Poppy Barley, we jumped at the chance to see our shoes through her eyes. As she spends time with family and begins to feel the return of her old self, she’s also been reminded of the challenges in making fashion happen here.
“Being back is frustrating; I can’t get this, I can’t get that. There’s not a ton of stylists with the same passion. People just don’t have the same connections. It makes it really hard,” she admits. “It’s quite different when it comes to a stylist and fashion director in Dubai, because they have the resources and maybe they can actually get the resources, or find the resources. They can never say no. They just say, ‘Why not?’ And I love that attitude. When people go, ‘Why not?’ instead of, I can’t do this, I can’t do that. It’s already done. When you say ‘I can’t’, you’re already not seeing the possibility of what can be done.”
“I’m adjusting,” she continues. “I’m not saying I’m not. And I’m not saying I won’t go back. […] But at this point, I think I contributed something to the Middle East as far as the Dubai and Abu Dhabi fashion scenes go. I was probably one of the few doing fashion when I was there. So, according to people who were in the industry, I’d started this fashion thing. I’m not taking all the credit, but I know I did something that kind of triggered something else. Now, there are more people going there, and more people asking, ‘Why not?'”
Why not. Because you have to start somewhere.