Sun, May 18, 2008 - Page 13 News List

The eye of the beholder

By Noah Buchan  /  88936

Firevo (打火) crouches and points the telephoto lens between the legs of the young woman sitting on the ground a meter in front of him. She wears a sleeveless pink top, white high heels, short shorts and black stockings that reach just beyond the knees - the kind of night-market chic popularized by starlets like Jolin Tsai (蔡依林).

At first oblivious to the Firevo's clickings, she soon turns and faces him, her expression changing as the aperture clicks in a flurry of snaps. A paparazzo busted after taking a few secret photos?

Quite the contrary. Firevo has paid to participate in a highly structured activity that has exploded in popularity over the past few years. As the amateur photographer lifts himself off the ground, other amateur photographers - nine in all - move in on their muse.

"I do this almost every weekend. It's kind of my hobby," says the 26-year-old, who has the diffident manner of a person uncomfortable speaking with strangers. Put him behind the lens of his Canon EOS D5, however, and Firevo loses all timidity.

The nine photographers signed up online with i-photo (also called lovephoto) an agency that organizes waipai ("outside photography," 外拍) in scenic areas for three-hour photo shoots of amateur models.

A proliferation of "photo album" blogs coupled with traditional Taiwanese ideas of beauty make waipai a popular hobby for many men. Young women enthusiastically sign up with the Web sites to earn extra cash and, possibly, turn an amateur weekend gig into a professional modeling career.

Tim Lai (賴政廷), co-founder of i-photo, says his Web site has signed up more than 8,000 photographers and more than 200 models in the past five years. The site stages 50 such events per month in seven cities throughout Taiwan.

Lai estimates there are at least 30 waipai Web sites in Taiwan, with 10 being as large or larger than i-photo. Though there are no figures that show how many waipai blogs or online photo albums exist, according to Lai, anecdotal evidence suggests the number runs in the tens of thousands.

Lai posts images of models on the i-photo Web site (www.i-photo.com.tw) every Monday night. Signing up for a waipai photo shoot is easy. Clicking on a model's image brings would-be photographers to a page with details such as the model's personal characteristics, body measurements and blood type. Those interested register online by leaving their phone number and a nickname, then show up on the appointed day at the scenic area, pay between NT$700 and NT$1,200, and begin a three-hour photo shoot.

Like Firevo, Bany Hsiao (蕭長城) sees waipai as a hobby. The "40-something" salesman for a semiconductor company says the camaraderie keeps him coming back to waipai.

"It's just for fun, a leisure activity … [with] people who share the same interests. Most [of us] have taken pictures together before and it creates a good atmosphere," Hsiao said, as he and seven other photographers wandered around behind a model.

The camaraderie among the photographers is evident. They joke with each other during the photo shoots and often have lunch or coffee together afterwards.

A mutual interest in the gadgets - many of them top-of-the-line - ensures an ongoing banter. Lai said it is natural for photographers to buy semi-professional and professional digital SLR cameras because, since many of the photographers are engineers or work in the computer industry, they are familiar with the latest technology.

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