Remembering Phil Sung, My Partner From Schooldays Photography
This is such tragic news, I can’t believe I’m actually writing this; but from personal experience, I know only too well that hearing about your loved one from the viewpoint of non-family members can enhance the memories that will become the lasting link to the life they lived.
I first got to know Phil at Hilbre Secondary school, a larger than life character who stood in the playground at break times, moving from side to side on his feet, hands in trouser pockets with an infectious and almost mischievous smile on his face. Phil was a natural observer with a gentle karma, happy to stand and watch playground life go by, stopping people to talk as they made their way to whatever destination the school day demanded. The first thing anyone noticed about Phil, was his obvious Oriental descent and generously proportioned body size! Unfortunately, being the back end of the 1970s, there were a handful of morons who saw Phil’s different appearance as an opportunity for dumb racist jibes. However, being streets ahead in maturity, eloquence and wit for his meagre years, he was more than capable of deflecting the cheap taunts directed from feckless life-forms incapable of functioning beyond their weak prejudice. Even better, Phil would handle this sort of flak still smiling, showing the immense strength of character he possessed.
In 1980 I got my first 35mm SLR camera, a cheap Eastern European Zenith model with a poor-quality lens and manual exposure metering! As a young photography buff, it was the best I could afford on a paper-round but it was no match for the fancy Japanese models way out of my budget. Still, as my first ‘serious’ camera, it was a great tool for realising my photographic ambitions and it would occasionally accompany me to school, though gathering little interest from the other kids who saw it as a boring. The first time Phil saw me with my camera in the playground marked a change in our awareness of each other; just like me, Phil owned an SLR camera and had an interest in photography.
Before I knew it, he was over to me asking questions about my clunky Zenith: what lens did it have? Did it have an exposure meter? Could you buy different lenses for it? Did I prefer shooting in B&W or colour? Did I use any lens filters? Did I develop my own films? Clearly, he was as passionate about photography as I was and our joint interest separated us from anyone else in our school year – or maybe even the whole school. In a very short moment, I had gained a new friend and photography partner.
The next day, Phil brought his camera into school to show me, a somewhat more impressive model than my Eastern Block effort. He had a new Canon SLR, complete with Zoom lens and all mod-cons built into it, clearly putting my camera to shame. Despite his superior equipment, not once did he try to Lord it over me or make me feel inferior about my cheap gear. In fact, if anything, Phil made an effort to play down his own acquisition, telling me it was only an “ok” camera and he’d “got it cheap in Hong kong.” What he fully understood though, was not the importance of the price tag on the camera, but the ultimate creativity of the eye looking through the viewfinder. Before long, we were spending time after school or at weekends taking ourselves into Hoylake, Meols or West Kirby in pursuit of creative photography. We would also plunder the school and local public libraries for books on photography and darkroom techniques, the latter subject being our next goal.
As it happened, Hilbre School had a darkroom on site, unused and mothballed due to the lack of interest in the subject or a teacher willing to volunteer to get it operational again. Because my mum was head of the Art department, she managed to pull a few strings getting us permission to use it, unsupervised. We were the only two photography nerds in the school, both prefects and trusted, though I suspect it was more Phil’s involvement in the venture that swung it rather than my connection. The teachers seemed to actually respect Phil more than likely due to his mature, respectful attitude to the school environment, evidently lacking from the rest of us mischief makers. I was quite immature in comparison, but our serious interest in photography was a mutual leveller and an equal meeting of minds. Eventually, I acquired a Darkroom of my own at home and Phil would come to my house to develop and print his shots. Even when visiting out of school hours, his impeccable manners didn’t drop and he insisted on calling my Mum ‘Miss’ in her own home! She eventually encouraged him to be more informal when visiting,”you don’t have to call me ‘Miss’ out of school!” she would insist, “only if you’ve really sure it’s ok, ‘Miss’” he would reply!
The Summer of 1982 was the last time I spent any time with Phil as we had just left school and September would see us go our separate ways. I went to Withens Lane Art College to study art and photography and I think Phil started to work in the family business. On odd occasions I would bump into him in Hoylake and he’d ask me how my college course was going. I would tell him that he should be there with me as the photography classes were amazing and with a hint of resigned sadness, he would say that he was needed at the family business. When I saw him in about 1984 he asked me how the coursework was going but by this time, I had dropped out early. I explained to him that the first year was great because it was all about photography as an art form, the reason for our unlikely pairing in the first place. But the second year was about photography as a commercial pursuit which meant the creative stuff out of the window and we were forced to learn about ‘bread & butter’ – photography, weddings, family portraits, industrial photography, baby portraits etc. With a confused look on his face he’d say, “they want you to photograph factories and babies?“ Clearly not the subject matter we were interested in.
After that we drifted into our own lives, me moving out of Hoylake and I assumed Phil was still living in the Hoylake/West Kirby area. A few years ago, just for the hell of it, I decided to beat my ‘O’Level in photography and study it at ‘A’ Level. This took me out and about with my new digital SLR camera, invoking memories from those 1980-82 school years on photographic outings with Phil. I hoped we would eventually meet up again after our 30 year gap and catch up to discuss photography in the digital age. Sadly, this was never to be and I find myself sharing this personal obituary to my photography partner with whomever may find this page. The 30+ year silence remains unbroken, but the happy memories sharing creativity with the affable, always smiling Phil Sung will never be far away when I raise a viewfinder to my eye for the sake of creative discovery.
Until we meet again…