A massive following on Instagram cements Varun Thota’s status when it comes to social media. The designer and photographer who grew up in Macau recalled taking pictures of planes and publishing his images with the hashtag #mytoyplane as the catalyst that changed the course of his creative career. Varun believes that walking around and getting lost in the city is the best way to capture extraordinary images that tell a story beyond what is plainly seen by our eyes.
Tell us about yourself and your connection to Macau.
I’m originally from India but grew up in Macau and lived there for 16 years. I loved my time in Macau—I think the community part and friends, everyone is friendly and warm. My family was there too. I’m now a designer in Hong Kong. I moved over because I found a job. The city was a big opportunity for me to explore and I was motivated by design and very passionate about it. So I took the chance two and a half years ago. I’m a designer first and a photographer second.
How did you get involved with photography?
I really didn’t do well in art during my younger years, I was more into IT at university and I fell in love with web and mobile design. I moved back to Macau and hadn’t found a job and I wanted to pursue my passion for design. I did a start-up and freelanced in design. I continued to teach myself. I didn’t know anything about photography. I just had an iPhone. After living in Macau for several years, I was having a hard time meeting people in the creative industry, so I got interested in Instagram and fell in love with that community. Everything blew up after that, that was in January 2012.
Photo walks are basically a group of people taking photos (mobile photography) at a certain place. Macau had a few of them. We would have a meet-up and share the love for Instagram and learn from each other’s photos and shooting styles and discover more about the place you live in.
How do you feel when you’re in Macau? How does the city of Macau speak to you in terms of shots?
There is beauty in chaos. I just explored and took photos and just walked around and got lost. Macau is really small and you see everything. I wanted to see a different side of the city. I wanted to find a different shot even if it’s the same popular place.
Do you have a favorite photo you’ve taken of Macau?
Do you find that your content is dictated by the audience because of the following? Is there a certain pressure?
I try not to look at numbers in terms of engagement, but it’s kind of hard not to pay attention to it. I’m not going on trips to please my audience. I’m going to focus my photography on architecture as that’s my forte. But I want to explore more people and places and human elements in my photographs and if people don’t like it, that’s fine. I’m trying to expand my skill and that’s mine. I don’t have to stick to a pattern as it’s related to my Instagram growth.
How important is social media for brands and businesses?
There’s a plus side of social media for brands because every age group is using it and it could be any platform. So it’s a good thing to explore and help you as a brand. But don’t be consumed by numbers, people will start to notice you do it for the numbers and only some people get away with that. For me, social media helps me as I am still trying to build my brand.
What makes a great photo? What advice would you impart to anyone starting up in photography?
Do research on basic photographic composition, alignment of a photo, tools of the camera. Use basic mobile photography and pay attention to details. For Instagram—make it your own, have your own style! Don’t follow what everyone else is doing. Everyone has their own processing afterward. Look into VSCO and Lightroom and find a way to change up the photos. Learn from others and go out and explore. Keep your eyes open and look around. That taught me to notice finer details around me from a different perspective.
What is the best location to take photos in Macau?
I think Penha Hill—you’ve got a view of Taipa across the bridge and a really good view of that entire area. If you face the other way you see the old Macau and the fort on top of the church and mount fortress as well.