Project Refresh by Young NTUC: How a Photographer Made His Living in the 1980s

Today, most people can take photographs and make it look good without (too much) difficulty.

All you need is time, dedication, and photo-editing programs like these and their snazzy presets.

But rewind a few decades ago and the photography scene isn’t as glamorous (or easy) as it is today. No digital cameras, no photo-editing software, just your own skills.

So how did photographers back then ply their trade?

Meet Mr Burhan

We met him at his Tampines flat through a volunteer programme by Young NTUC and North East CDC called Project Refresh.

He’s old and seasoned by life, but he could still remember his days plying his trade as a photographer.

Back then, they didn’t have Photoshop, nor do they have digital cameras where they can see what they’re taking almost immediately.

His collection of vintage cameras

Instead, they have to understand lighting, angles, shutter speed and exposure intimately.

And they can’t see what they’ve shot. When it’s time to develop the photos, they calm down their pumping hearts and watch their hard work take form.

And if it’s a bad shot? There’s no sorry ah, retake.

Props Had To Be Prepared By Themselves

Examples of Mr Burhan’s previous works

If you were to take a look at the pictures above, you’ll be thinking, I can do that too. Some crop, smudge tool or a filter preset. Easy.

But imagine for a moment that you don’t have Adobe Photoshop, and you can’t edit your photos before developing.

The only way you can get effects like these is if you get creative with your shots.

Memories of a Photographer in the Old Days

Mr Burhan fondly remembered his days working as a photographer.

“I had to ride my motorbike and carry a bunch of curtains and props with me. When I look at the skin tone, dressing and the appearance of the couple, I’ll play around with angles and backdrop to create the effort that I want.

“We had to work closely with the makeup artist to get the best photographs we can out of the session.”

He even made his own curtains to function as the backdrop for most of his projects.

Sessions back then lasted a long time. Setting up, adjusting, depending on your naked eye and instincts. His longest photography session was from 4:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. the very next day.

It all depends on how many clothes the couple has.

It’s All About Creativity

Look at the lady of the universe. I was hard-pressed to believe him when he said he did it without technology.

But he did.

Put the bride in front of a dark-coloured fabric splattered with paint. Shine the light in a way that it seems like there’s a light in the far off system.

While ensuring that the light is reflected well enough to illuminate the subject too.

We can now do this easily with lens flare but back then, it’s all about the lighting.

He discovered this idea accidentally, he said. But he thought it looked so good he just had to convince the bride to try it out.

His Advice:

The basics always apply. Understand the basics. Shutter speed, framing, exposure and all. If you’re willing to learn and practise the craft, you’ll grow as a photographer in no time.

No matter how bad you are at the beginning.

Or, at least, that’s what he told me when he peeked at the photos I took. Well-played, Mr Burhan.

Project Refresh By Young NTUC

But that’s the thing about the older generation: they have gems of wisdom that we can use in our lives today.

But regretfully, we tend to forget about them.

Which is why programs like the Young NTUC Project Refresh is a good initiative for them.

Initiated by Young NTUC in 2016 to encourage active volunteerism and to create an accessible platform for different groups of volunteers, the 12th edition of Project Refresh was held on 20 Jan 2019 to help spruce up the homes of low-income seniors within the North-East District.

About 1,000 volunteers from different places helped to clean, declutter, paint or replace the furniture for 95 household units in Tampines.

Interested in finding more about this noteworthy cause? You can find out more at their website here.

After all, as people once said, giving money to the needy isn’t the only way of helping out. Giving your time, talents and services is pretty useful to these lonely people too.

This article was first published on and is written in collaboration with Young NTUC.

This Singapore love story set in the 90s shows you why you should never wait for tomorrow. Watch it without crying: