verticallifemagazine 09.04.2024


The Red Bull Illume

The Red Bull Illume is so much more than a competition. As a freelance photographer, it can often feel like a lonely pursuit. We dedicate so much of ourselves to our craft in remote locations, and it’s rare that I ever get to spend time with other creatives in the industry.

But every two years, the Illume extends an invite to the top 50 finalists to gather for a few days. In 2023 it had been 10 years since I last made the top 50 stage in Hong Kong (2013 edition). I had forgotten how special it is when we all gather.

The 2023 edition brought together the finalists in Sölden, Austria. As soon as I stumbled in my jet lagged state through the icy doors of the hotel, I was handed a beer and immediately immersed in conversation with colleagues I hadn’t seen in years.

When I look back on the 2013 competition, I remember how desperately I had hoped that I would win my category, and how deflated and dejected I was when I didn’t. Competitions can be a difficult emotional journey as they bring a special platform to celebrate work and extra recognition to the artist.

My younger self would place too much importance on competitions, as I was seeking validation for my work. It’s a dangerous place to be mentally if one puts too much pressure or expectation on such a subjective thing. Over time, I came to realise that competitions are best treated as a bonus. They can be an incredible motivation, as they push me to make sure I have a new body of work before the next edition of a competition.

Coming into 2023 of Red Bull Illume, I truly had no expectations. I had just a single image to enter and it felt like a hopeless dream to think that this one image could make it to the finals for such a fiercely competitive award. Fast forward to the winner’s ceremony, and I was a complete nervous wreck.

My category was announced early in the evening. My heart was pounding outside of my chest and my hands were shaking uncontrollably. When my name was called out over the speaker it was an incredible moment. I wish I could tell my younger self that such a moment was to come.

The dust settled for barely a moment before I realised that I now had a 1 in 10 shot to win the whole thing. It was an agonising wait throughout the evening, and an even more torturous process as they teased the unveiling out as long as possible. I thought on stage that I would fall apart in jigsaw pieces as my heart was pounding so hard. Sweat was pouring out of me. It was a surreal moment when I was announced as the overall winner.

Even now, months later, I still find the whole experience quite surreal. One memory I’ll keep with me for life is when I saw my close friends in the crowd and the pure joy and stoke on their faces as they cheered.

There are many times in the pursuit of a creative career that I question what on earth I am doing. Is this worth it? Why is it that I’m willing to put myself through so much uncertainty to continue to carve a career as a photographer?

But the award helped bring back the confidence that I can create work that engages an audience and a wider community who also believes in my work. One of the best compliments I’ve received about the lighting crack concept is when others recognise what a unique idea it is. I have heard from fellow creatives that it sparks their imagination and that they are using this project to inspire their own new ideas.

In a sea of content that often disappears into a digital vortex, this image has been one of the greatest gifts of my career.