Greetings, new readers. Please note that this piece was published in 2015, some years ago. Some changes in what is verifiable, what sources are still live on the web, and so on, is to be expected. I stand by my general position that Mr. Thein has tended, at least at times, to at least exaggerate some aspects of his careers. Still, this piece exists more as a historical note than anything resembling contemporary analysis.
If you're just here to hate-read this post, here's a few other items for your angry misreading pleasure: one, two, three
I've also said some nice things about your hero, but I leave them for you to find.
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.