"I'm a storyteller and a story shaper," says Hong Kong photographer Karling Hamill
Eloquent and self-assured, Karling Hamill commands attention as she speaks.
Eloquent and self-assured, Karling Hamill commands attention as she speaks. Hers is a story of creativity and perseverance, with a diverse lifepath traveling across industries. In 2020, Hamill founded So Lightly Photography, where she works as a professional photographer offering portrait and product photography. She brings a passion for storytelling to her work, alongside an appreciation for the natural beauty of existence that parallels So Lightly's core message. Hamill loves to employ natural lighting and film photography to authentically capture humans in all their minute, mesmerizing details.
An adventurous beginning
Hamill has always been creative. "Being an Asian child, music and ballet is what naturally comes into your life," she says. "I've lived in a lot of places, and I've done a lot of things in my life, but that has stuck with me." Another creative avenue that has been a constant for Hamill is photography.
Throughout her family’s globetrotting, Hamill found inner peace and solace through these lines of creative output. She was born and spent her early days in the UK, where her family was the only non-white family in their district. From there, she spent a lot of time in Malaysia as she grew, later working in Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong, where she is now based.
"I'll never say ‘No’ to a new adventure," she says about living globally.
After a double degree in engineering and psychology, Hamill got her professional start working as a software engineer for a software development company. Then, she moved from programming to program management and design, relishing the creative outlet. She and her partner founded their tech consultancy while pursuing her creative and NGO efforts alongside her corporate work, including singing in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus from her university days until she moved to Hong Kong. "I have always been a curious soul who needs to continually learn, grow, contribute, create," says Hamill.
"Some people have just one passion and are able to focus on that all consuming passion their whole life which is amazing – I've never been that way," she admits. "I've always been a multi-passionate, multi-hyphenate, energetic soul that doesn't neatly fit into one box – and I've come to learn that that's OK. Not all of us are born for just one thing. It's taken me a long time to stop trying to justify to others why I don't have a linear career path – indeed the word 'career' doesn't resonate for me. To me, life is a journey, and my role in this life is to tell and to shape stories. I tell stories best through photography and shape stories best through the other work I do."
Hamill's innovative approach to her life and, thus, work has led her to pursue her strengths in the arts.
"When people ask me what I do, I tell them I'm a storyteller and a story shaper," she says, working as a professional photographer in Hong Kong. She is intensely passionate about letting the people she photographs' stories shine through, capturing them in their unfiltered, honest moments of daily life. Likewise, her product photography brings an equally sincere, empathetic view to her audience through her lens.
"I love building things that better people's lives, that shape their lives for the better so, as I grew older, I began to steer my own path to things that aligned for me and continued to take photos to capture moments," Hamill says of building her professional path. While some may see her roles in corporate and NGO work and photography as disjointed, Hamill sees a link through valuing human stories, human nature and our natural selves. "I have always been a photographer alongside any other role I've had," she shares. "However, I have strengthened my conscious decision to be purpose-led in everything I do and with every organization that I engage with. I am excited to be embarking on a new adventure shortly, which has the potential to positively shape the health of millions of people globally – but photography is my constant.
"I absolutely love technology and building products that shape people's lives for the better, but I also have a huge creative soul which storytelling through photography satisfies – and I have a sense of justice with a relentless drive to better the lives of ordinary humans, which is why I have worked with NGOs my entire life," she shares.
An undeniable warrior streak
Having left home very early, Hamill began her NGO work around age 15, inspired to help those she saw struggling around her and improve the lives of ordinary people without access to resources. She began volunteering with Oxfam and helped organize the first-ever Melbourne Oxfam Trailwalker event. As an adult, she worked as a UN volunteer for the UNHCR, starting with the LibyaNet program when the Libyan crisis struck in 2011 during the Arab Spring. Her work for the UN included establishing the women's network in Uganda and anti-human trafficking work focused in Cameroon.
Today, Hamill sits on the Board of Hagar International – an organization that works against human trafficking through every avenue, from education to rescue, rehabilitation and job placements. "It's been interesting working with the UNHCR and UN-affiliated grassroots organizations alongside banking, insurance, energy companies," Hamill says. "There are many similarities – I can tell you that the bureaucratic frustrations are indeed very similar.
"The difference is in the level of funding and the motivation behind the people you work alongside. It is immensely satisfying to know you have moved X number of displaced people from an unsafe area to a safer area with all the logistics of medical care, sanitation, clean water that entails. And immensely satisfying to see a woman rescued from slavery now earning her own income on her own terms."
An unwavering love for photography
Hamill decided to create So Lightly Photography while recovering from cancer in 2020. "I never feel right without my camera, and it brings me so much peace," she shares as a Hong Kong photographer. "I will always be a photographer."
The name So Lightly was an extremely personal choice for Hamill.
"Of course I'm obsessed with light, and I feel like my entire life has revolved around its absence, its presence, its form," she says. "When I was diagnosed with cancer and discussing the surgery, my surgeon talked to me about the possibility that I would need to talk through a voice box because my tumor was touching my vocal cords. As a long time singer, my voice represented so much to me – the feeling of peace singing in harmony brings, self expression – while I was pretty stony-faced about my diagnosis to that point, when he talked about losing my voice, that made me panic and I lost it."
"I remember what he said so clearly, 'Don't worry. I am a brilliant and talented surgeon, and I will tread ever so lightly with your surgery. Ever so lightly.' That became a mantra for me in the weeks that followed. When it came to naming my business, it was an easy choice to make."
The values of her company are "Adventure, Authenticity and Connection."
"I would say the three words to describe my journey of building businesses and products are still 'Adventure' and 'Authenticity' – but I would add 'Grit.' The ability to pick yourself up and keep going when obstacles come your way cannot be emphasized enough. Resilience is the key."
Her father was a photographer, too, and he gave Hamill her first camera. Hamill recalls always being fascinated by light, whether watching dust mites float and trying to catch them as a child or lazily watching sunlight filter through leaves in the backyard. "I have always been obsessed with capturing moments and trying to capture a feeling in a frame.
"I paint with light through my camera," shares Hamill. "Both photography, the act of looking through the viewfinder and singing in harmony with an orchestra and other voices puts me instantly into a state of calm and a feeling of rightness. I'm not great at traditional meditation, but I find photography and singing to be a form of meditation for me."
A strong entrepreneurial spirit
When forming a business, Hamill always asks herself, "If I put something out into the world, how is that going to affect another human at the end of it?" In terms of turning her photography passion into So Lightly, she says that the feedback she received from those she photographed motivated her, fueling her love of portrait photography.
"I've been told many times that I have a talent for bringing out the best in people and making them look not only beautiful but also like the version of themselves they still recognize and want to be all of the time.
"I love telling stories. I love being a memory keeper. I like capturing moments in time, feelings in time. Words are not enough to describe the feeling; sometimes art comes close – but I find photography is the best medium to convey feeling and emotion," Hamill shares.
"I also find it so important to capture the ordinary things. When I was diagnosed with cancer and contemplating what death meant, the things that I would miss out on, I found that it was the ordinary everyday moments I imagined missing out on that hurt the most. It wasn't the big things – it was the little moments, and I love capturing these." She loves to photograph families in intimate spaces so that when they look back on their photographs, they are brought back to that particular moment in time. "It's the off-guard moments that reflect best who you are. I love capturing sneak peeks into your life and giving those moments back to you so that you can cherish them."
Hamill believes that a lot of people underestimate and undervalue themselves and shy away from photography. She wants to help people recognize that "it is your lived experience – everything you have overcome and achieved in your life that has brought you to this very moment – that should be celebrated."
Her vision for So Lightly revolves around memories.
"I want the stories that So Lightly tells to make you feel and to take you back to the time in your life [when] your photo was taken." Hamill aims for her photographs to be authentic and empowering, giving her subjects "a sense of adventure, of connection, of realness.”
She explains, "Most of all, I want to give you memories to keep that remind you of this time in your life, of how beautiful you and your loved ones are."