Monday, August 10, 2015

Just How Fictional is Ming Thein?

Based on some new information, I've made a few updates, in bold. Ming is, at least partially, fact and not fiction.

Within my recent memory, I've seen posts and comments from Mr. Thein indicating that he had a hard time selling his Ultraprints because he doesn't know any rich people, that the market for professional photography in Malaysia is terrible, that he's up to his neck in work and his clients demand the highest quality, some clients want Ultraprints.

Well, I suppose if you squint it's not necessarily inconsistent? How does he not know any rich people, wasn't he in Private Equity? Anyways, I decided to spend a little time digging deeper. I know, I know, not super healthy.

A caveat: I didn't spend all that much time checking up on these things. It's perfectly possible that on the next page of google results it was revealed that I am wrong. It's perfectly possible that Ming's blog has tons of client photos, if you go back one page further than I did. And so on.

Ming Thein's reputation is of a boy wonder, graduated from Oxford at 16 with a Master's degree in physics. A career in finance or business, about 10 years long, retiring in his mid-twenties to pursue his passion, photography. Now a successful commercial photographer, teaching and blogging in his time between gigs.

The degree(s) from Oxford. Oxford is wonderfully tight-lipped about its graduates, You need written permission from the student to verify much of anything. I don't know if this is a British thing or an Oxford thing, but it certainly places "graduated from Oxford" into the category of uncheckable claims. The Master's degree, though. University libraries, it turns out, hold graduate theses in the collections. Dig up the Bodleian Library catalog at Oxford and type in "physics thesis" for instance, and you'll find a bunch of theses in physics for people who got an M.Sc.

The search for "thein thesis" turns up nothing that could represent a Master's thesis from Ming.

Perhaps Ming only got an undergraduate degree at Oxford, although he has claimed a Master's in at least one interview (link below). Maybe he never wrote a thesis, somehow? Maybe they lost his thesis.

Per comments below, Ming did attend Oxford starting in 2001, which fits with his timeline, sort of.

Business career. Apparently he spent two years in "audit" whatever that is (ages 16-18, about 2004-2006) then three years management consulting (ages 18-21, 2006-2009) than launched a hedge fund which was too stressful (ages 21-23, 2009-2009, the dates here are vague) and then tried freelance photography in London. Then worked for two funds (head of m&a in Asia), and McDonald's (director) in short order at the age of 24-25-ish. (All dates estimated from this interview.) That sure seems like an improbable career for a chap who's educated as a Cosmologist. Not impossible, for a boy genuis who got a Master's at age 16, but then where's the thesis? Also, note, pretty much un-checkable.

Working backwards from the economic meltdown cited in the linked interview, I'm having trouble fitting a 3 year career at Oxford, starting in 2001 and finishing up in 2004 into this. Even compressing the pre-hedge fund career into 4 years (2+3 can equal four, with rounding, after all), I'm still into late 2008 for launching a hedge fund which then tanks.. immediately? Which is certainly would have, late 2008 was a blood bath for hedge funds. Very few were launching and tons were closing up shop. A year or less later Ming's a PJ in London. Possible, but tight.

Successful commercial photographer. Ming doesn't seem to share any client work. There's some stuff from a few years ago in his portfolio that appears to be client work. Maybe Malaysian rules are stricter? Kirk Tuck frequently shows client work on his excellent blog, subject to certain restrictions. Also, compare the google results of "kirk tuck photo credit" with "ming thein photo credit". The latter turns up pages of Ming's blog and flickr, and a few friends pages, but I didn't stumble across a single thing that looked like paid work.

Ming posts something upwards of 20 pictures and 10,000 words a week on his web site. He makes videos teaching people how to shoot and process photos like his. He travels around the world doing workshops, occasionally. He has a family. He spent a bunch of time developing the Ultraprint process, and is, I suppose, constantly refining it.

When, exactly, is he doing this commercial photography gig? 20 personal photos a week, even not very good ones, represents a day or two's work, all by themselves. His writing is sloppy, but it still takes time. He clearly spends several hours a week replying to comments on his blog (count the comments, look at the timestamps).

So we have a narrative that Ming promotes, which appears to be entirely un-checkable, and where checks can be made, the checks come up empty. Are red flags going up, yet?

What about an alternate narrative?

This one probably isn't right either, but let it serve as the other end of a spectrum, with truth, as usual, somewhere in the middle.

Suppose we do not have a boy wonder, but rather a relatively ordinary boy of the same age, with some wealth. Packed off to college around age 18, in about 2004 or 2005, spent 4 or 5 years doing the usual thing. Got a camera somewhere in there. Gets married about the time he stops going to school. Around 2007 to 2009 starts to get more serious about photography. Buys gear, works away at stuff, and after a bit starts to think he's really quite good. Maybe he even gets some commercial work.

He learns the power of popping the local contrast, and starts to post soulless pictures of bullshit on flickr, plays his social media cards right, and gets himself a following.

He writes about the trials of the commercial photographer, based on what he reads in other places for the most part, while simultaneously claiming to be extremely successful himself. He writes about the extreme technical challenges his clients force upon him (and of course how he rises to those challenges). He writes that his clients demand Ultraprints. Since he's made these clients up, they can do anything he finds convenient, including fund his Leica habit.

Now the vagueness and improbability of his business career make sense. The meteoric and uncheckable rise of the wunderkind, which resulted in no rich friends who want to buy Ultraprints. The all-over-the-place career: analyst, consultant, executive, m&a specialist, all in a decade. These stories all make sense as a work of fiction, but are a bit hard to swallow as fact.

Now the obsession with technical details, sharpness, his vague artistic goal of "transparency" and his generally completely non-pragmatic mania for technical perfection make a lot more sense. A scientist, successful businessman, successful commercial photographer would normally have a pretty wide pragmatic streak. You just can't do any of those things without having a good sense of when to compromise. An independently wealthy gearhead, of the other hand, doesn't have to have a drop of pragmatism in him.

I'm just sayin'.

In reality, perhaps we have a relatively ordinary boy, the scion of some wealth. Goes off to Oxford at a young age, does.. some things there. Works in the family business after that doing investment sorts of things under the direction of Uncle Someone-or-other. Then leaves the biz to go be a dilettante, as wealthy scions sometimes do. Does a little commercial work now and then. Inflates almost all aspects of his story a little bit or a lot, but everything is basically based on something true.

It doesn't matter, of course.


  1. Yeah, I have a Master's from Oxford (honest). It's only a first degree that gets converted automatically to an MA (no matter what discipline -you can be a physicist with an MA), because Oxford. We are automatically masters of the arts because we were there. Keep up the good work! HB

  2. Is Oxford still giving out degrees essentially for hanging about the place a while? I know that used to be pretty much the deal, but they've obviously modernized to an extent. Is an MA from Oxford essentially the same as a BA from elsewhere? Do you have to graduate to get it?

    Anyways, Mr. Thein claims a "Master's in Cosmology" in the cited link, which doesn't sound like "a courtesy master's just for attending" but maybe that's what it is. Maybe that's why he's a little cagey about his degrees these days?

    I haven't a clue, really, how much of Mr. Thein's story is fiction. I am pretty confident that at least some of it is.

  3. Andrew,

    This is fun, but you're wrong on at least one count. A little "research" of my own reveals that MT is without doubt an Oxford graduate. In fact, of Balliol College, a very prestigious college, academically. Also, although masters degree courses can be studied at Oxford, they are also awarded to any batchelor degree graduate as a formality on payment of a small fee. Whether MT has a "real" masters or not, I can't say. This traditional award of "free" MAs to graduates of Oxford and Cambridge is quite controversial in these times of high tuition fees, needless to say.


    1. I am curious as to how you verified this? My quick check came very abruptly to a page at that was quite clear they don't verify *nuthin* without a bunch of paperwork, which led me to believe that further direct checking was going to come up empty.

    2. Aha! I bet you used your Secret Alumni Connections!

    3. I have access to the Balliol College Annual Record, which lists MT as an undergraduate admitted in 2001.

  4. Good morning Andrew,

    Re: the Master's degree thesis - - both Oxford and Cambridge are peculiar in the British education system regarding their conformity to the rules!
    They are also noted institutions for allowing 'minors' to attend courses, some as young as thirteen and fourteen years old.
    It has been the coming thing since the late 90s that, in response to the approach that "everyone can have a degree", the Bachelor's degree lost its status as a desirable degree and that the former 4 year-long courses were reduced to three year courses.

    As so many graduates were being produced, the bar was raised by employers to sift out the wheat from the chaff, with the result that it is now common to have a four-year degree course culminating in a Master's degree, effectively sidestepping the requirements for another two years' study and the production of a thesis.

    It was, in former times, also possible for the Bachelor graduate from O&C to wait around two years after graduating, pay an appropriate fee and have the subsequent Master's degree delivered in the post!!
    No thesis necessary.

    So our Ming might well have qualified for such an award!

    Especially since he's a foreign student, who would have paid handsomely for his education (if he had not won a scolarship), as the British universities will willing accept large sums of money from overseas students in return for reasonably good tuition.
    I'm a product of a modern ("redbrick") university, having had neither the academic standards nor the right social connections to get into Oxford or Cambridge; however, I'm probably better adjusted mentally and socially to cope with the modern world!



  5. Well, degree or no, MT's post made me want to wash my hands. So many 810s, 750s, 5ds, Hasselblads, Zeisses, Leicas, and he's just better than any of them, so much so that some of these cameras are "unprintable"!

    When he says that he can't abide the colour rendering of some cameras, I have to ask, aren't those colours just a completely arbitrary digital representation anyway?

    After I dry my hands I'm going to get my 10 Mp K200D and give it a bit of a cuddle, before I take some more photographs.

    1. Yes, as far as anyone can tell, Ming's take on color rendering is pure posturing. On the one hand, he's just too sensitive, on the other hand his approach to color management is (according to people who should know such things) dumb and crude.

  6. Well called out. He really is nothing more than a low-level confidence trickster. As you point out, the corporate "career" alone rings alarm bells, and his supposedly in-demand commercial photography skills are clearly playing second fiddle to his real occupation, which is that of a gear reviewer.

    1. He doesn't seem to monetize his gear reviews, to his credit.

      If he makes money anywhere in photography, my guess is that it's in education, and that's probably the nub of my weird fascination. I have very firm ideas about pedagogy, which are wildly in opposition to Ming's. I think, frankly, the way he educates is exceedingly harmful to his students.

      His students, almost certainly, do not and never will see it that way. So, in a way, who am I to make these judgements?

  7. A very interesting read. And most curious. Apparently my commercial market bears no resemblance at all to the Malaysian photography market...

  8. Andrew, which languages did you do your searches in? I note on wikipedia that the official language in Malaysia is Bahasa Malaysian. English is stated as a recognised language.

    1. English! But that's the proper language for the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford ;)

      The little googling I did here and there isn't that relevant, I think? I did attempt to find a hedge fund launched by a Thein, and failed. I was able to find a hedge fund opened at roughly the same time by a fellow I know pretty easily. But it's not particularly relevant, because it's perfectly reasonable that a hedge fund opened in the USA would be more widely reported than a Malaysian fund. As you note, it might also have been reported in another language,

      And frankly, for all I know, Ming might have other names, and some of his business activities might be reported under those names? I don't pretend to know how Malaysian naming works, but I would not be surprised to learn that it is different from the American/European convention of FirstName LastName.

      Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, although it's mildly noteworthy as part of a larger puzzle.

    2. I note in a recent post on Facebook he says " the registered name on my computer is my full name not my photography one" (Aug 12). I note his registered address for his website (in KL) shares an address with a hotel (Source Whois Domain names).

    3. Wealthy people sometimes DO live in hotels ;)

  9. Interesting. And tempting. But I don't know if you'd consider this some kind of validation, at least of his academic credentials:

    1. Thanks! There's really no doubt that he went to Oxford for a period of time, starting at quite a young age. Obviously he's quite bright.

  10. well, he's a big shot with hasselblad now. guys like these, with some brains and probably some wealth and connection, they go places.
    me, who probably started with photography while he was still in diapers (and hailing from the same country), still hanging on to my day job, with the most commercial thing being doing microstock.