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How I got that: Franky Tsang

In our first Head On Backstage interview, Franky Tsang tells how a free portraiture session for his yoga teacher and her mother resulted in the image that took out 2010’s People’s Choice Award.

Franky Tsang’s yoga teacher Denise loves to tell stories – a trait he can well relate to as a photographer.

One story in particular caught his ear and made him think while he should’ve been meditating. Recently, Denise received one of those dreaded calls.

Her 91-year-old mother had taken a bad turn and was not expected to live much longer. Fortunately, when Denise arrived at the nursing home it was a false alarm. Her mother was sitting up and assertively demanding her next cup of tea. But the experience had affected her strongly, causing her to reflect on how her mother’s life would close and how she’d be remembered.

When Franky offered her a portraiture session it was an offer too good to refuse. “She was excited,” Franky recalls. “Her hands were shaking. She told me since her mother’s situation has been like this a friend had told her to get photos. But she didn’t have a camera.”

On the day of the shoot Franky chose to travel light and intended to capture a natural portrait of the two, bringing a camera, a reflector and an assistant to the nursing home.

“I spent a lot of time building a relationship with the mother, I sat by the side of the bed, knelt down and tried to ensure she was comfortable with the camera.”

As the shoot went on Denise’s mother grew tired. Her eyes closed and her hands reached out to find her daughter. They made contact with her head, then her hand. A moment was charged, the shutter released.

Franky knew immediately he had caught something special.

“That particular moment was really touching. Even some of the nurses told Denise that they felt something was really happening in that room.”

Though it wasn’t her favourite (she prefers one that shows her mother laughing like a child) Denise was excited to hear Franky’s picture had been entered in the Head On Portrait Prize.

“When I told her it made it into the finals she was barracking for it, saying, ‘Go Mum!’”

Since winning People’s Choice, Franky has continued to work on commercial and personal projects. When choosing a subject he steers toward work with a human element that contains a story.

“I believe that as a portraitist how you communicate with the subject is the most important part. How are you going to communicate with the subject to get the shot you want?

“Most people don’t feel comfortable in front of the camera. When I have my camera in my hand you can feel the atmosphere is different. People might just sit up straighter or fix their ties. That is not the real them. How are you going to bring the real them back out? How you do that is a challenge, it changes constantly and I’m always trying to do it.”

See more of Franky Tsang’s work at

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Image detail: Gary Ramage