5 Lessons on Success from the Life of a Legendary Advertising Photographer

5 Lessons on Success from the Life of a Legendary Advertising Photographer

There definitely is not a single road to success but coming from the 40-year experience of this veteran advertising photographer, there are definitely things you should keep in mind for a successful career.

Though probably unheard of for most western photographers, John K. Chua is one of the most respected names in advertising photography in the Philippines and in Asia. Chua began his career as a freelance photographer at the age of 23, first covering significant events in the country and later on building what would be the most accomplished advertising photography studio in the country.

A very descriptive portrait of John Chua whose career was filled with moments on different kinds of edges all for the sake of getting the right shot. (Photo by Kathy Chua-Grimme)

I met John Chua during the last decade of his colorful photography career. He was a visionary who was best known for shooting architecture, food, special effects, aerials, and cars. I was 21 years old when I first met him, 2 years shy of how old he was when he started. And though I had an Idea about who he was, I had no idea how much impact he would make on my photography career and even life in general.

A Sample from John's car photography portfolio

The following points that I will share with you come from the combination of stories I’ve learned about the man’s life and from the last few conversations that I had with him on his hospital bed before he passed due to complications of cancer in January of 2018.

1. Never Consider Yourself a Master

One of the most amazing things I noticed with this photographer was that he never stopped seeking new knowledge and skills. John started photography in the 1970s and when I met him in 2011, I would often see him at public workshops, listening to people much younger and much less experienced in the craft than he was. Before drones became so common, he would assemble various Quad-copter drones and install point and shoot cameras on them to cater the quality that he needed for his aerial work.

John Shooting aerials on a small plane

Throughout his 40-year career, he learned to be a licensed pilot and even did a cross-country flight on an ultralight plane (which he describes as a kite with a lawnmower engine), learned to Paraglide while holding a full frame DSLR, he took the initiative to be a volunteer caretaker of the local zoo’s elephant and even flew all the way to Sri Lanka to learn how to take care of his best friend, Maali. He evolved from the shy twenty-something year old Filipino-Chinese lad to a man in his 7th decade giving a Ted talk after teaching visually impaired kids how to shoot. Learning was always automatic for him as he knew he needed an open mind to learn and do the things he wanted to accomplish. He never snubbed an opportunity to learn even when all the people around him already believed that he could do anything.

2. Find a Job You Love and Never Work a Day in Your Life

People who don’t know John Chua that well would think that he was a workaholic. But if you knew him and have been infected by his enthusiasm towards photography and everything around the craft, you would know that he just really loved his job so much that he wouldn’t stop even on days that he was under the weather.

John and Maali the elephant (Photo by G-nie Arambulo)

John was known to be a strict mentor. Photographers whom he has taken under his wing would often recount the instances wherein he would hand them a cloth and put them in charge of making sure that the tires of the car they were shooting were spotless. This was his way of teaching them how to pay close attention to detail and that achieving such masterful images would require one to do a good deal of dirty work. This was how Chua trained some of the best eyes in the industry.

Rice terraces of the Ifugao (Photo by John K. Chua)

3. Give Your Photography a Higher Purpose

In 2008, Chua was shooting by Manila bay when he encountered a mother with a child who had autism. It was his first time to meet anyone with such a condition and he thought to bring them over to the zoo and have the young man, Ian, meet the elephant. He went on to photograph them as they enjoyed the day at the zoo. Ian’s family loved this experience so much that Chua was able to convince them to get Ian a camera of his own. A couple of weeks later, people would find Ian’s photos on the cover of the local newspaper and be amazed by the different perspective that he had of the world.

Ian, a young man with autism (Photo by John K. Chua)

This coincidental event gave birth to an advocacy project called “Photography with a Difference (PWD)” that would later grow to over a hundred photography exhibits illustrating the life and giving awareness to people with special needs. The project has touched lives of people with autism, Down Syndrome, visual and hearing impairments, rare disorders, and even kids with cancer. The man who worked inside a studio for most of his life built a legacy out of his desire to use photography to make people happy.

Photos by John K. Chua from various Photography with a Difference projects

John Chua also had a big heart for a place called Banaue and its neighboring towns that make up the province of Ifugao. It was in the seventies when John was encouraged by a writer named Harvey (who would later be his wife) to visit and photograph the place, its people, culture, and the iconic rice terraces that were once named as one of the wonders of the world. Four decades later, John would still drive up north to the province and reconnect with all the people he had met there. In 2013, after decades of damage caused by various calamities, the rice terraces of the Ifugao needed a repair beyond what their discouraged spirits could enable them. John saw this as another opportunity to use photography to make a huge difference, this time for culture and heritage. Together with Canon Philippines (for whom he was a brand ambassador at the time), John initiated the "Bachang" advocacy project that involved weekend trips organized by volunteers to work hand-in-hand with the Ifugao people in rebuilding the beautiful rice terraces of Batad. After less than a year, both the rice terraces and the spirit of the people were restored.

Photos from the Bachang advocacy by John K. Chua

4. Hard Work Shapes Your Success More Than a Degree Does

One of the interesting things about this highly respected photographer was that for a period in his life, he wasn’t quite sure if he finished high school. He came from a simple family. He later on mentioned that he indeed finished high school and attended a couple of days of college. He later found photography and took a different path that was fueled by passion and the support of his wife, Harvey, even with only the equivalent of 20 dollars in his pocket.

A photo from an award winning campaign shot by John for a paint company

Throughout 40 years in the industry, he never said no to any project and never backed down on any challenge. This self-taught photographer even confessed to accepting work that he had no idea about and spend the following days learning and mastering whatever he needed to do. He would often tell stories like these about his first try at shooting cars inside the studio and how he basically winged it after over 30 hours of shooting and struggling to shake off self-doubt. He recalls that this was the most instrumental moment that lead up to him building his very own car photography studio and later on becoming the most sought-after car photographer in the country. No formal training, no books, but only a strong desire to learn and determination to deliver.

5. Don’t Aim to Be a Successful Photographer, Aim to Be a Successful Person.

This was what John Chua told me on the last time I visited him before he passed. At the time, I was in the middle of shooting my first big architectural photography project and he was telling me that I shouldn’t let my fear of failing stop me from achieving what I wanted. He told me to define my success not with the money that you earn from photography, not with the name that you make for yourself, not with the gear that you dream of having, but solely with how happy you are as a person.

If you live your life comfortably and are able to provide for your family, if you wake up each day loving what you do and are able to pursue the things you are passionate about, then you are successful no matter how much money you have in the bank. 

Story and photos shared with permission from John K. Chua's family

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11 Comments

Robert K Baggs's picture

A beautiful tribute to a bonafide legend.

Mallikarjun Katakol's picture

Thanks for writing and sharing, very inspiring.

Steve Wood's picture

Thanks for this - someone who really understood life. If only we had politicians like John Chua!

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

Glad you like it!
Not-so-fun fact: politicians got threatened by his popularity from his various advocacies.

Alvin Telan's picture

Thanks for sharing. Not just a very good lensman, but a very good man. You will always be remembered by your advocacies sir John.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

glad you like it :)

Wacky Masbad's picture

That part there about PWD brought out a tear or two. It reminded me of that PWD workshop we did here in Davao with sir John and ma'am Harvey. Always an inspiration, sir John is.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

We'll definitely keep that flame burning :)