An Eye For The Unseen — Look for certain details in your surroundings that would normally go unnoticed by most people. When you can capture the unseen, it will make your image that much more intriguing!
Some of my best work have come from complete spontaneity. I adore candid shots as they reveal a person’s most pure and natural form within a situation.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Joelle Soraya Batista Iseli. She is a young talented photographer who has been awarded an Honorable Mention in the 2019 International Photography Awards (IPA).
Joelle was also invited to attend the IPA Lucie Awards Gala at the Carnegie Hall in New York City back in October of 2019. The IPA Lucie Awards is one of the world’s most prestigious international photography awards competition.
Self-taught for over a decade, her burning passion has always been ‘Cultural Identity’. She has lived in 12 countries out of the 25 she has traveled to thus far. Her international background and upbringing has enabled her to be open-minded and connect deeply with an array of cultures and their heritage.
She is eager to learn and step out of her comfort zone. She strives to travel the world whenever possible, witness unique cultural events and meet remarkable people along the way who have a zest for sharing their stories. Her aim is to have her work exhibited one day at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Prior to even being able to hold a camera properly when I was very little, I have always had a fascination for photography. There is something so captivating and moving in capturing the essence of the human spirit and a moment in time. Having been blessed with the ability to grow up internationally and constantly surrounded by an array of people from vast corners of the world, I developed an admiration towards cultural identity. In other words, the true cultural heritages and traditions that are dear to the hearts of the people and passed on through generations.
The turning point in my photography career that gave me focus was when I came up with the theme of “Cultural Identity” back in high school for my final International Baccalaureate Higher Level Art exhibition where I used photography as one of my main mediums. I based a large part of the exhibition on two events which I had previously photographed enabling a catalyst which paved the way forward. The first was Moros y Cristianos, a cultural event I photographed in Spain back in 2014. It is mainly celebrated in the southern Valencian Community commemorating the battles between the Moors and the Christians during the period known as Reconquista from the 8th century through the 15th century. The second was The Karen Hill Tribe of Mae Hong Son, a hill tribe I photographed back in 2015 when I went to live with them for a week in the Mae Hong Son province of Northern Thailand. One of the photographs from this collection titled ‘Mother and Child’ received an Honorable Mention in the 2019 International Photography Awards.
When attending the IPA Lucie Awards Gala back in October of 2019, I had the honor of being present in the same room as some of the world’s most illustrious photographers of our time including world-renowned photographers Annie Leibowitz, Maggie Steber, Ellen von Unwerth, Jay Maisel, Stephen Shore, Edward Burtynsky, and Al Bello. However, the journey to being awarded such a title and being invited to attend the Gala at the Carnegie Hall in New York City has been far from smooth sailing. For this I need to give you a bit of context — it all began with a decision I had to make in high school:
Back in high school, I was contemplating between taking the safe and secure career path or going down the road less traveled: “Should I study business/hospitality or the arts/photography?” Despite my love for creativity, I decided on business and hospitality. I applied to 8 different universities all around the world ranging from Hawaii, Switzerland, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, to Australia. These included some of the world’s most reputable hospitality schools such as Glion in Switzerland and the Hotelschool The Hague in The Netherlands. I was accepted into every single university that I had applied to — including one with a partial scholarship in Sydney, Australia. In the end, I chose the Hotelschool The Hague in Amsterdam due to various facets of which included that it was the only program that offered both business and hospitality courses throughout the program.
At the Hotelschool, I was a hotelier student by day and photographer by night and in my spare time. I didn’t lose sight of my true passion. While most students were out partying or hanging out during the weekdays and weekends, I spent most of my time in my dorm room huddled up in my bed working on putting my photography portfolios together and building my website.
The program included a 6-month practical trainee internship. At the beginning of February 2018, I moved to Monaco where I started working at the Front Office at the Riviera Marriott Hotel La Porte de Monaco. I absolutely loved working there. I was blessed with an amazing team of colleagues who helped and guided me along the way. I looked forward to going to work each day as the team maintained a great balance between professionalism towards the guests and merriment towards one another as colleagues.
The pivotal moment that completely shifted my career path and did a full 180 on life was when I had an accident several months later in May. In a nutshell, I had dislocated my foot whereby two ligaments were hit and the ATFL ligament partially tore. I was placed on a 6-week hiatus from work, bedridden, facing daily battles with the insurance company for medical claims, and doctors gravely mishandling my case to the extent where one of the principal ER doctors confessed. I nearly lost full mobility in my foot. Despite the injury not being fixed, I returned to work six weeks later to make up for lost time to meet the minimum internship time requirement for the Hotelschool despite great concern from family and colleagues. Juggling between physiotherapy, working in the back office, ensuring my leg remained elevated as much as possible and icing my foot and leg during my lunch breaks, I lasted precisely 3 weeks before my condition worsened and showed no signs of improving. I was forced to leave Monaco and go to Malaysia where my mum could care for me to seek proper treatment. When I arrived in Malaysia, I was on medical leave from my studies and underwent 7 months of intensive care rotating between various doctors offices and undergoing various examinations. Long-story-short, I eventually had to leave the studies and was officially enrolled at the Hotelschool The Hague for 2 years doing a Bachelor of Business Administration in Hotel Management. Although I am much better now, to this day I am still currently on the road to being fully recovered.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
During those 7 months of intensive care, I continued to work on my photography. A saving grace moment occurred one evening when a young man approached me when I was photographing the models backstage at this exclusive fashion show event. He noted that I exuded a passion for photography. After a brief discussion and explanation of my current medical-leave situation from the Hotelschool The Hague, he suggested that I go and have a look at this creative-tech university here in Malaysia to keep my options open. A few weeks later, with my mum and her partner, we drove down there to the aforementioned university with no expectations.
We were met with three people: a university representative and two faculty heads (from the photojournalism and fashion photography departments). After a brief discussion, I showed them my website which contained my portfolios. They were baffled by what they saw and almost didn’t believe it — one had even asked me if the photographs were all mine and I told him yes. I told them to imagine a white canvas and that everything they see there is what I have created from scratch — from the web design, the intricate details, to the photography and editing. What I was presented with next was unforeseen — they offered me a full 100% scholarship on the spot for a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) of Creative Imaging in Digital Photography.
From then on, things have been a wild roller coaster ride but always on the uphill battle. 2019 in particular has been one whirlwind of a year for me. Things didn’t go as originally planned and the transitions were not as smooth as anticipated, but they all turned out much better than one could have ever predicted. Allow me to break this down for you, here is what happened:
At the beginning of 2019, I left the Hotelschool due to medical reasons and accepted the full scholarship offer at the new university in Malaysia. Prior to proceeding with the commencement of these new studies, I needed a student visa for Malaysia. I was forced to leave and go to Thailand to await the processing approval. What was meant to be a mere two or three-week trip turned into a two-month hiatus period in Chiang Mai, Thailand due to internal conflicts between the university and immigration department.
This trip to Thailand was another pivotal and life changing moment. On the day I arrived, I had dinner with an old friend from high school right before he left for Shanghai that same evening. As he was the only person I knew who was in town, meeting up with him was the only plan I had originally. After we said our goodbyes, I was confronted with a scenario: “Do I go back to my hotel room and watch some Netflix out of boredom and remain lost to figure out what to do the following day or do I call a grab and drive across town to a place I have never been to before, to mingle with a bunch of strangers at this international meet up that I had heard of online?” I decided on the latter and completely stepped out of my comfort zone! Let me tell you: BEST. DECISION. I. EVER. MADE. It was an evening of great conversations, fun and laughter — a true eye-opening experience and confidence booster. I believed in the stigma you hear growing up that you should never talk to strangers nor meet up with them because there could be danger. Of course, you do have to take precautions when going into these types of scenarios but it changed my whole outlook on life. Despite the circumstances and uncertainty I was dealing with at the time, I would come to spend the next two months, day in and day out, meeting up with some of the people I met that evening — going for lunches, dinners, on excursions, more meet-ups, workshops and events, you name it. An amazing group of international friends emerged spanning from Chile, The Netherlands, France, Thailand to Malaysia and we remain in touch to this day.
Fast forward to my return to Malaysia two months later with the many more complications and confrontations that ensued, I completed my first semester in just 2–3 weeks with all major assignments, assessments and exams included. I passed with flying colors — straight As across the board. Most had doubted my ability at first of course as I was only able to join the semester towards the end, but I was determined. After everything I had gone through, I did not want to delay my studies any further. I just wanted to get this over with and do it well by achieving the highest marks of the class possible.
A few weeks later, in the summer of 2019, I did contemplate whether or not I had made the right decision. Thus, my mum encouraged me to apply to photography competitions. Being a student and practically broke, I decided to look into it regardless. All I could afford, at most, was just one or two entries. After researching, I thought to myself why not just go and apply for the best one and see what happens. I submitted two single entries to one of the world’s most prestigious photography competitions: The International Photography Awards (IPA). If you look at their website, the IPA is like the Academy Awards or The Oscars in the world of photography.
One evening a few months later, I was pondering and scrutinising the decisions I had made up to that point as I didn’t feel I was advancing. Shortly after, I saw the Instagram stories of the IPA’s official Instagram page. So many people were posting that they had received 1st, 2nd, 3rd place and Honorable Mentions. As I hadn’t received any notice, I felt down and bummed but patted myself on the back nevertheless for trying and thought to myself that at least the payments made will go towards charity (The Lucie Foundation). For the fun of it, I decided to check my inbox again — still nothing. Now Gmail, as many of you may know, automatically sorts through your incoming emails into different tab folders. I looked through all of them and sure enough there it was in big bold letters it read: “Congratulations, you have been awarded an Honorable Mention in the 2019 International Photography Awards!” I could not believe it. I opened the email and sure enough, it was true. I had also been invited to attend the IPA Best of Show Exhibition in SoHo, Manhattan and the IPA Lucie Awards Gala at the Carnegie Hall in New York City on October 22, 2019. Overjoyed, I took a few moments to let it sink in and then proceeded to call close friends and family to share the incredible news. As I had only come across this email mid-September and the events were to take place less than a month later, the necessary arrangements were made last minute and I left Malaysia for NYC on October 10th. Taking the travel time and jet lag into consideration, I took a two-week hiatus mid-semester in order to make the trip worthwhile.
New York City was a dream. It has always been a place I have long wanted to go to. The city was hustling and bustling with art and music pouring out of every street corner and subway line. The fast-paced lifestyle and ambitious atmosphere spewed from the people’s drive and determination to succeed in this city. I was fortunate enough to stay and witness the true side of NYC with the help of some truly remarkable friends. In addition, I met some truly amazing and incredible people and had some truly amazing and unforgettable experiences there.
At the IPA Best of Show Exhibition, I met the Advertising Photographer of Year who invited me to go work with him on projects in his studio the next time I find myself in London. I was also approached by an art curator who was fascinated with my work. He was in awe that a person as young as I could produce such work. He’d asked me if I had an agent, if I’d ever had my own solo exhibition and I kindly responded that no at that point in time I was still a student studying and living in Malaysia. He couldn’t believe it and kept saying “How have you not had your own solo exhibition yet? You need to have your own solo exhibition. Your work is amazing. It’s fantastic. You and I need to talk.” A few days later he invited me to attend a private event for professional architects and interior designers — a design showroom cocktail crawl within the vicinity of The Flatiron Building. He introduced me to gallery owners, art directors and curators who also showed interest in my work. Shortly before I left NYC, we set a meeting to discuss how I could have my work showcased in his gallery. Due to the timing and logistics, the best option available was to take part in the exclusive upcoming group exhibition a few weeks later in November and so it was agreed.
The IPA Lucie Awards Gala was a night to remember. Although there wasn’t as much interaction between everyone as there was during the Best of Show Exhibition, it was still a magical evening for me. It was the first time I felt such an overwhelming appreciation for the work that us photographers do and go through to present our final masterpieces to the rest of the world. There within the theatre, I found myself among the world’s greatest photographers who shared the same passion for the profession. In euphony, we all acknowledged and celebrated the accomplishments of others with great respect and admiration. Joining in the celebration, was a dear and remarkable friend I had invited to the event as a thank you for letting me stay with her for part of my time in NYC. Another friend was unable to make it, so with the spare ticket and extra seat next to me, I dedicated it to my late grandfather who passed away many years ago for I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for his support.
After traveling for more than 30 hours I returned to Malaysia and after just a few short hours of sleep, I went straight back to university attending my 9 A.M. class and carrying on to finish off the semester. Now despite having missed 2 weeks of classes, I finished off the semester with straight ‘A’s and a 3.94 GPA. Meanwhile, I was simultaneously organising myself with the art curator I met in NYC to take part in the exclusive group art exhibition. The Artifacts 2019 exhibition took place at the One Art Space gallery located in Tribeca, Manhattan, New York City. This was a curated show and invitation-only based whereby the artists featured were hand-selected by the art curator and art director personally — it was not open to the public to apply. I was delighted and honored to have been selected. With an extension, the show ran for a full 2 weeks where I exhibited the Fire and Ice series from Fête du Citron, a cultural identity event I photographed in the small French town of Menton back in 2018.
2019 was a cataclysmic turn of events shooting straight for the stars — from the uncertainties arising from changing my bachelor degree, to completing a full semester in just 2–3 weeks, to receiving an Honorable Mention in the 2019 International Photography Awards, to going to New York City for the very first time, to taking part in the exclusive Artifacts 2019 exhibition at the One Art Space gallery located in Tribeca, Manhattan, to finishing off my second semester with a 3.94 GPA despite having missed two weeks of classes to attend the IPA Lucie Awards Gala at the Carnegie Hall in NYC.
I am a big believer in that everything happens to you for a reason. This whole experience was definitely a blessing in disguise. It was a year of breaking old habits and patterns, embracing change, learning to go with the flow of life and believing in your faith. If you set your mind on something and stubbornly believe in it, your possibilities will be endless.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the most creatively amusing memories that I can recall was when I converted the back of my tiny wardrobe in my dorm room at the Hotelschool into a ‘white studio backdrop’ for professional CV headshots using the natural light coming from my window as my only source of lighting. This was during the time where all of us were applying for our first internship via proper job applications, hence most students needed a professional headshot for their CVs — a problem presented itself and I provided the solution. My fellow classmates scheduled their sessions and one by one they came in for a quick photoshoot session. I took the matter seriously and was a professional in my own right ensuring the uniforms were neat and straight showing no wrinkles, strands of hair were set in the right place, minor outfit changes were done to see what works best, etc. Each time I did a shoot, I’d have to move my whole bed out of the way. All of this for just €3 — an unlimited amount of photos and editing included! Which now in retrospect is peanuts, but it was a good learning curve. To be honest, at the time I didn’t really know how to use Lightroom or Photoshop yet so I actually edited the photos in Preview on my (mac) laptop.
The key lesson here is to not be afraid of making mistakes, just go for it because that is how one learns. You have to make do with what you have even if at times you have to fake it ‘till you make it! Own it with confidence and people will believe you. The minute you doubt yourself, others will see it and will lose faith in your ability and capability to complete the task — words to live by. Nowadays of course, after learning the proper techniques I am much more confidently skilled in the different Adobe softwares which includes Lightroom and Photoshop. Nevertheless, the customers were happy with the CV photos they received in the end so it was a job well done on my part and I delivered what was promised.
What do you think makes your work stand out? Can you share a story?
What truly makes my work stand out is my unique style and the way that I capture the essence of the soul of the person or character that I am photographing. This evokes a powerful alluring feeling in the viewer which draws them in further and warrants a keen interest in discovering the true story behind the photograph.
The story lies in my international background and upbringing, having lived in 12 countries out of the 25 I have been to thus far, becoming open-minded and deeply connected to an array of cultures, and the ever evolving aforementioned story. Each year is a new chapter, filled with countless tales and adventures in this book I call ‘Life’.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The road to get to where I am today has not been easy at all. On the surface, most people will just see your overnight success, but they don’t know about the mountains and obstacles you had to overcome through blood, sweat, and tears to get to where you are today. Even though your journey may be rough, remember that it’s always darkest before the dawn. Remember to keep moving forward no matter what happens, even if you’re having an off day. Just get up and make your bed. The small victories will eventually lead to the bigger ones. Consistency is key.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are a few people who have helped me along the way and that I show my deepest gratitude towards:
- To first and foremost my mum as without her, I truly wouldn’t be where I am today. As a single mother, she has overcome so many obstacles while raising my brother and I. Her story in itself is a truly remarkable one and I’m eternally grateful for how far we have come.
- To my grandparents who have helped us along the way.
- To Jj, for always being there for me through thick and thin, making sure I’m okay, having my back and making me laugh.
- To Cota who has been a guiding angel in disguise. I met her in Chiang Mai, Thailand back in 2019 during my visa run from Malaysia. We were introduced through a mutual friend, also another amazing woman whom I met at the international meet up just a few days prior. With her background in marketing and photography, we hit it off right away. She’s supported me in times of distress while I was faced with uncertainties and adversities during my time there in Chiang Mai and has been a part of my evolving journey ever since. I have learned a lot from her and am grateful that she came into my life when she did.
- To Lesley, another remarkable woman that I met in Chiang Mai, who welcomed me into her home in New York City, enabling a series of unforgettable experiences and introducing me to so many wonderful and remarkable people.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Currently, I’m working on a few projects which include the next Cultural Identity series (e.g. Thaipusam), a mini short film series from my worldwide travels from the last several years and a personal photojournalism project on COVID-19 where I interview my friends around the world to get a first-hand account of the current circumstances they’re each facing in their respective cities and countries. Part of this will be turned into a short YouTube documentary series that I’m creating. All of the aforementioned projects will be featured on my website, YouTube channel and Instagram.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have used my success to give a voice to the forgotten voices of this world. Be it from The Karen Hill Tribe of Mae Hong Son in Northern Thailand, to Taman Megah’s Handicapped & Disabled Children’s Home in Kuala Lumpur, to zest of festivities of La Fête du Citron in the small French town of Menton, to the Muntigunung Community in the destitute regions of Bali. In our fast-paced, globalised and ever-changing world, I find that there is something so special in preserving and showcasing the people and their traditions that are hidden away to be brought only to life by those who know they exist. Take a moment to pause, take a breather, and witness a new world unravel around you that you didn’t know existed — and this is where the beauty of humanity lies.
Can you share “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Take Stunning Photos”. Please provide an example for each.
1) Mutual Respect — As a photographer, it is quintessential that you respect the person you are photographing. For example, when I lived with the Karen hill tribe for a week in northern Thailand, there was a notable language barrier. I didn’t speak Thai but yet I was still able to communicate with everyone through visual gestures. I’d raise my camera hinting at it and they’d either nod in approval or shake their head in disapproval. If someone doesn’t want their photo taken, respect their decision! Don’t fret, there will be other opportunities.
2) An Eye For The Unseen — Look for certain details in your surroundings that would normally go unnoticed by most people. When you can capture the unseen, it will make your image that much more intriguing!
3) Composition — Good composition is key to ensure a visually appealing photograph and the Rule of Thirds are the perfect guidelines to help achieve this. Most cameras have an in-built function that displays this grid. Make sure to place your subject at the intersecting points on the grid. You don’t always have to follow the rules — they’re more like guidelines anyways. Remember to have fun along the way and just do what feels right!
4) Candid Snapshots — Some of my best work have come from complete spontaneity. I adore candid shots as they reveal a person’s most pure and natural form within a situation. For example, if you want to take a photograph of a person with their natural beautiful smile, tell them a joke or just chat and laugh with them to ease them into it.
5) Lighting — This is key. If you are just starting out and do not have access to fancy equipment you can use natural light! For indoor photography, place your subject near your windows. For outdoor photography, look for shaded areas for softer shadows. Ideally, you would want to shoot either in the early morning or early evening when the sun emits the softest light. If you are looking for hard light, mid-day is the perfect time to play with harsh shadows.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Kindness and compassion towards one another. Being open to embrace the unknown and meeting strangers opens a whole new world of unfathomable possibilities. Growing up you always hear “don’t talk to strangers” or “make sure to go with someone you know”. Although these sayings on the one hand do protect you and help you in many unfamiliar situations, they can also limit you from truly embracing new and enriching experiences. I’ve come to realise in recent years that we’ve been programmed to depend on familiarity whereas the true beauty of life reveals itself when you venture forth alone with little to no expectations and seek a familiarity in the unknown. When you throw yourself in the wind and let it gently guide you along the way, you’ll be surprised by the amount of remarkable people you meet with incredible stories. All of whom at their core aren’t actually that different from you and from one another.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Photography IG — https://www.instagram.com/jsbi.photography/
Main/Travel IG — https://www.instagram.com/joelleiseli/
Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCanAm5OxErQ4hrL80ZfyF3g
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!