Carolyn Strover is an interesting mix – third culture kid (TKC), professional photographer and single mother of three swave-boarding teens. Verne Maree met up with her at the Singapore Botanic Gardens apartment that is also her studio.
Where are you from?
I was born in Japan of a German mother and a British father, and raised there, so I’m a native Japanese speaker. When my parents split up, my mother took me to Germany, where I learnt German, finished school and did a bank trainee programme that I hated. Germany is very German, you know. It’s lovely, but a little humourless; you almost know at 28 what you’ll be doing when you’re 65.
After moving back to Tokyo, I got married and had Max (now 17). Then we moved to New York, where Isabella (15) and William (13) were born. Incidentally, at the time of the 9/11 attacks, we lived in an apartment right next to the World Trade Center. Through our window, we saw it all: the planes going in, and the subsequent collapse of the twin towers. We ran outside and up the Westside Highway, and then weren’t able to go back to our apartment for three weeks.
What brought you to Singapore?
My ex-husband’s job. After we separated ten years ago, I decided to stay on – partly because he was the father of my children and was still living here at that time, but mostly because I loved the place.
Raising my children single-handedly has given me real purpose in life; in fact, I relish having the freedom to bring them up my way. They’re wonderful. Even when they were quite young, I’d take them travelling; and at home we’d have lots of fun with messy stuff like finger-painting. I’ve always loved to play with them.
Bringing up children can be hard work, whether you’re single or one half of a couple, and I know how lucky I am to have the support of my unbelievably good helper, Erlinda. I travel a lot for work, and to expand my photo-journalistic portfolio, but that’s never a problem for her.
Where is home now for you and your children?
Max was four years old, Isabella was two and William was just four months old when we came to Singapore, so this is really the only home my kids know. As for me, I’m a true TCK. It doesn’t matter to me where I live. I have family in Germany, and I have a British passport. Two of my children have US passports, while the third – who, like me, has never lived in England – has a British passport. To confuse things further, they attend the Canadian International School and are studying Mandarin!
How did you become a photographer?
It was a hobby for some time, but in a sort of epiphany 10 years ago, I felt strongly inspired to photograph my mixed martial arts trainer. He looked like a Buddhist monk to me, and I wanted to shoot him in a Zen position. So I bought a Hasselblad from a friend, took the shot, and that’s where it all began; the commissions started coming in.
Before long, I felt I needed a studio. With a tiny inheritance, I rented, gutted and painted a 2,000-square-foot loft in Tan Boon Liat Building. Then I bought lighting and other equipment and started renting it out for photo shoots – mainly for magazines like Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. I called my business Havoc, and enjoyed running it for eight years. When the rent became too much, I closed that business down three years ago and decided to work from home.
What does it take to succeed in your profession?
To become a photographer, the most important thing is to ask questions and to practise, practise, practise. Also, it’s 24/7: I work over the weekends and I work in the evenings. Recently, I shot Maria Sharapova for Porsche from 6pm to 9pm, followed by a backstage shoot at the F1 Amber Lounge fashion show from 10pm to 2am, and then stayed up all night photoshopping 20 images to have them ready by morning.
I like doing simple stuff, too: black-and-white, using just one light. Much of my work is pregnancy shots and families – I love working with children! – and also product and corporate shots.
I’m in Singapore by virtue of my own Personalised Employment Pass, and that’s what my children are registered on. That drives me as much as I’m driven by my love for the kind of work I do. What started off as a hobby became a business, and now it’s a necessity.
How do you convert your living room into a studio?
All the seating and the coffee table can be easily moved out to clear the space, and I have a backdrop that comes down from the ceiling to separate the main room from what was previously an open balcony.
Tell us about your furniture.
It reflects my personal style: I don’t like fuss or frills – everything must be functional, but also sexy. That’s why I’ve been interested in Mid-century Modern designers since I was a teenager: they strove for clean lines and functional forms, using new materials such as stainless steel and plastics.
For example, these two Le Corbusier loungers have an adjustable metal platform that’s separate from the top (which was originally covered in pony-skin); and the industrial design of the two Marcel Breuer black leather and chrome chairs is stripped to the minimum. My coffee table is by Japanese-American designer Noguchi; its glass top is easily lifted off the hinged and foldable base.
I can’t have anything in here that’s too big or sofa-like, as it has to be moveable. And that’s not only for my work: Isabella and William like to clear the space to play swave-board hockey in here!
What are you looking forward to?
A few years ago, I promised myself that I’d travel to one completely new country every year, and that promise has taken me to Australia, to the Czech Republic and to Cuba. This January, I’m going to Lhasa, Tibet, to photograph a couple of festivals. I can honestly say, though, that despite having so much on my shoulders, despite being so busy with my work and my children, there’s a small part of me that feels I’m on holiday every day.