Margaret Siu: What's your story?Halbert Bai: My story has been marked by miracles for which I am forever grateful. From the young age of eighteen months, I was raised alone by my single father. At first, we had neither furniture nor a car. All we had was a refrigerator, a stove, and a single mattress. Barely making ends meet, my father worked sixty hours a week in his small clinic. In the evenings, he made our meals and washed our clothes. My dad often says that I was a late bloomer. When I entered the first grade, my English was so poor that my teacher sent me to ESL class. I even thought “and” was a letter that came between “y” and “z” as in “x, y, and z”. Despite these early challenges, I had exceptional mentors and friends. They taught me to read in my father’s clinic or in the school yard; pushed me to grow artistically, intellectually, and personally; and still managed to brighten my journey along the way. I feel that my story is a testament to the power of community. These people lifted me up at the most vulnerable period of my life, opening my world to possibilities that I could not even fathom. In all the work I do, I strive to follow their example of empowering others to achieve their potential.
MS: How did you begin your love of photography and take it to the next level by creating Bai Studios and international exposure? Any plans for the future?HB: It’s funny that most people assume that I loved photography from the outset. I didn’t. When I was just starting out with a simple point and shoot, I thought of photography as a lesser art form—one that required little if any degree of expertise. After all, anyone can press a button and take a photograph. Under the instruction and mentorship of Scott Hunt at St. Mark’s, however, I quickly realized that photography is not only a rich art medium, but also a transcendent form of communication. By understanding the history of photography and studying the masters like Arnold Newman, Ansel Adams, and Berenice Abbott, I came to more fully appreciate the discipline and its underlying historical, philosophical, and scientific underpinnings. I realized that the beauty of photography derives from its simplicity. Each exposure is a distillation of time and space, reducing complex human experiences into single decisive moments. I started my photography business in 2011 selling prints and doing small photoshoots. Over the years, my business has evolved with my work. I learned that the artistic principles and interpersonal skills required of photography translated readily into leading and designing publications, directing and producing films, and marketing and selling fine art. In the future, I hope to integrate my passion for media with my career as a physician to expose inequities and injustices at home and abroad.
MS: Have you used your university's (Penn's) resources to enhance your passion for art in any way?HB: At Penn, I have sought to share my passion for photography. I have given both informal and formal workshops on photography. During my sophomore year I had the honor of presenting a one-time non-credit lecture seminar on professional photography to a group of about forty Penn students by invitation from Penn’s Preceptorial Committee. As the Co-President of Penn Lens, the only university-recognized photography organization at Penn, I lead the Executive Board that oversees the Events Committee, the Social Impact Initiative, and the Photo Division. During my term, I founded the Photo Division that provides photography services to on-campus groups and spearheaded the Social Impact Initiative that leverages the photographic medium to tackle important social issues. I also help organize our annual print showcase, events, and trips.
MS: What is Penn PubCo? Why did you start it and how does it function? Any achievements? HB: The Penn Publications Cooperative (PubCo) is the umbrella organization for undergraduate magazines at Penn. It was founded in 2010 to help ensure the high quality of work you see in all of our member publications today. PubCo primarily serves as a gatekeeper to university funding by the Student Activities Council (SAC), a branch of Penn’s student government. In order for publications to receive SAC funding, they must first achieve PubCo recognition and remain in good standing as PubCo members. We also maintain magazine racks throughout campus to distribute publication issues. Our annual competition called PubCo Awards recognizes and provides large cash prizes for some of the best articles, layouts, and photos that publications produce during the year. Events are held throughout the year to increase readership and engagement. PubCo is controlled by its Board of Directors who are either the Editor-in-Chief(s) or representatives of our member publications. We hold elections annually to determine Executive Board positions. I will be serving again next year.
In terms of accomplishments, as Chair this year I strove to foster a greater sense of community among the publications on campus. To that end, we held our first ever event during New Student Orientation that helped introduce freshmen to Penn’s publications landscape. We created two new Board Positions focused on community. We had a unanimous passage of an amendment requiring PubCo logos on all print issues that brought the publications community together in a unique way. Under my leadership, our annual PubCo Awards took on a new dimension with an inaugural Awards Ceremony. We also have an event sponsored by Penn’s Kelly Writers House coming up. In the two year-long terms I have served on Board, I helped raised a total of $8000 in funds for the organization. These funds were allocated every year among PubCo Awards cash prizes, monthly funding allowances for publications to hold their own events, and internal funding to hold PubCo events.
MS: What's the inspiration behind your photos? Talk about the process of shooting something.HB: The inspiration for my work comes mostly from psychology and philosophy. When I make photographs, I think first about the message or emotion that I aim to convey. I then use tools of aesthetics to draw the viewer in and elements of the scene to complete the narrative. If I’m photographing people, I strive to understand and engage with them. Only then do I pick up a camera and photograph them. More so than any other art form, great photography is all about the process and less about the product.
MS: Any advice for aspiring artists?HB: I would tell aspiring artists to understand the context in which they are producing their work and the context in which their work will be received. Just as in life, producing art requires an understanding of where the medium’s been, where it is, and where it wants to go. Study the masters of your medium, emulate them, and then create your own original work and then repeat. Know the masters’ names and notable works. Imagine yourself in their shoes today. What work would they be producing? How can you add your unique perspective to this storied craft? I find it is only through this iterative process of learning and exploration that you will ultimately find your true artistic calling. Along the way, don’t be afraid to take risks and find inspiration from all facets of your life.
Images displayed in order: Final Frontier, Studio Cup, Identity, Pandora, BW Verdure, St. Marks Square, Golden, Morning Rush
Have any recommendations for the next interview? Let us know! Support our cause!