History Channel Asia’s Photo Face-Off pits amateur photographers from the region against Justin Mott, a professional photographer based in Vietnam, and each other. By Ruben Luong. Photo by Vinh Dao.
In the first episode of History Channel Asia’s Photo Face-Off, 36-year-old Hanoi-based photographer Justin Mott accepts defeat to the first of his five opponents, 22-year-old Singaporean student and amateur photographer Tan Jia Jun.
”I didn’t think I was going to lose,” Mott, who has seven years experience in travel and portrait photography, recalls. “In my mind, I was cocky. I thought there’s no way I’m going to lose to any of these dudes; I shoot everything: wedding, commercial, editorial, food. And that dude beat me.”
The episode, which premiered in September, is 25 minutes of high-pressure photography in Singapore: a speed challenge in a restaurant, a theme challenge at Supertree Grove and an extreme challenge shot hanging from precarious highwires.
Mott, the show’s resident photographer, continues his way to the home countries of amateur photographers from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam in the ensuing episodes, facing off in a similar set of challenges to a panel of judges.
“I’ve worked for major publications and most of my work stems from The New York Times and doing assignments on the fly,” he says. “It entails getting a call, flying into the country, getting something special, working under pressure.”
“So I thought, ‘All right, cool, this is what the show is all about: quick challenges, don’t have a lot of time.’ It’s an extreme version of an editorial nightmare assignment: get in, get access, get a creative shot, do it under pressure. The show is do it in five minutes, not five days. It was an exaggeration of my real version in real life.”
Although his contenders are considered amateur, three out of five are former winners of the annual Canon Photo Marathon Asia. They’re all competing against Mott for an all-expenses-paid photo assignment in New York City and a trip to the Canon Photoclinic in Japan.
“In photography, you’re always competing against yourself, unless you’re like a wire guy from the AP shooting against Reuters,” Mott says. “For me, I’m usually not going head-to-head against anyone else. I’m shooting for my editor. But this show made photography a sport.”
On the show, the pro and amateur are thrown into unpredictable situations, whether it’s photographing bull races in Indonesia or portraits of elephants in Thailand. They’re given anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes, depending on the challenge, to get their perfect shot.
“The show had a tone of playfulness and seeing how you react to this stuff,” Mott says.
“In Malaysia, we had to photograph these honey bees. They didn’t give us gloves. I got stung four times by bees and I lost that episode. It’s a macro shot, so you have to get close. I got stung five minutes into it. And I just kept getting stuck, and I tried to compose myself and get a good shot. I couldn’t help but think, I’m 105 kilograms and the only thing that stopped me on that show was bees.”
The final episode – before Mott becomes the judge and amateurs face-off with each other – brings him back to Vietnam. He faces off with fashion retail owner Hoang Thi Lan Phuong in bobbing basket boats in Hoi An.
“Whether I win or not in the episode,” he says, not wanting to reveal the results, “Vietnam is huge for me for my pride. I finally felt what the other contestants felt. They were prideful. The guy in Thailand, for instance, wanted to win because he was Thai. Everyone felt that. So I went up against the Vietnamese woman, I felt proud and told myself I want to win.”
It’s a thrill to watch the pride and competitiveness of pro versus amateur in these wild challenges, but the show also teaches techniques and strategies – basic but helpful tips on how to adjust your ISO settings, for example – to all viewers.
Moreover, viewers learn about different camera types that are featured and suited to each challenge. To suit the highwire challenge in Singapore, for example, the photographers were given a Canon PowerShot X Mark II, which is good for shaky situations.
“People are interested in photography more than ever,” Mott says. “It’s more accessible. It’s not like before when we had to understand the science of it in a dark room. It’s ‘Oh, go take a picture’ and ‘Don’t just take a boring picture, take a better picture’.”
“Everyone can take a beautiful picture and tell a story,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter if you’re an amateur or a pro. It’s the right moment, right time, a little bit of luck and you can take a beautiful image.”
Photo Face-Off does not broadcast in Vietnam, however episodes with subtitles can be viewed online at