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BY THE TIME Kevin Lee first picked up a camera to start shooting seriously, he was in his 30s. Now, the 44-year-old runs Invisible Photography Asia (IPA), an influential seven-year-old platform for photography and visual arts in Asia, which organises events, exhibitions, workshops and shines a spotlight on emerging photographers in the region. IPA has teamed up with organisations such as the Angkor Photo Festival, Photo Bangkok Festival, Photo Kathmandu, Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film, National Museum Of Singapore, Singapore Heritage Society, and Leica Camera Asia Pacific.
Mr Lee was born in Fiji, to Chinese parents who had sent him to study at the University Of New South Wales, where he graduated from the College Of Fine Arts. After working in the branding and advertising industry in Sydney for about a year, he moved to Singapore and eventually started IPA here.
In his free time, Mr Lee works on his own photography projects, where he explores the "Singapore aesthetic" and the "Singapore story". One of his projects called Public Notice - a series of pictures taken of notices hung up around the country - was featured in last year's Singapore International Photography Festival.
Having worked in Singapore, your adopted city, what's your view of it?
I think Singapore is a young country still trying to figure itself out, and I'm interested in that narrative as an artist. I don't know what the Singapore aesthetic is, but I'm trying to find that out by looking at things that people don't often look at. Discovering little side stories keeps me making work, because while those may not make the news, they keep the city interesting, and make it less one-dimensional.
What role do you play in the photography scene with IPA?
I was working on mostly commercial projects, but seven years ago, I decided to actively allocate a bit of time on a daily basis to work on IPA. In the first year, I was just writing articles and reaching out to photographers I admired from across the region to connect with them and showcase their work. In the second year, we started getting some traction, possibly because many of the existing platforms were mostly international - Europe or the US - without a real Asian focus. So we made a conscious effort to look at Asia as a region, and write in English so it's accessible to an international audience.
IPA brings visibility to the work that Asian photographers or artists are doing. Usually, when we look at photography role models we tend to look at the West - like we do with a lot of other things. I'm trying to play a part in shifting that, creating our own heroes, sort of, while giving emerging talent a platform to showcase their work.
In this context, how does the Singapore scene compare with the region?
On the commercial front, we do really well. A lot of photographers are doing really great work. But if you look at photography that's non-commercial, more art-making and self-initiated, only a handful of people do it, and they juggle it with wedding shoots or corporate projects. In other countries, you see more people doing this full-time. Of course they aren't earning good money, but they manage to survive by pursuing very personal projects that do very well.
There are many factors to this, though. For one, Singapore is expensive, and we're a much more closed-door kind of society. Nothing much happens out in the streets, so it's very peaceful, but stories don't come out as much. You know what's going to happen today and tomorrow. Someone throws an Ofo bike into the river and it's huge news. Compare that to the Philippines with its very different social, cultural, and economic landscape. There's a bigger tendency to reflect, which shapes the creative process.
It's good and bad. It's good that we're comfortable and life is generally better here. But on the other hand, being comfortable tends to breed complacency.
What big issue in photography are you most concerned about now?
I think the world sees photography as a sunset industry. Photo teams have been cut down, and even in the commercial field they're finding it tough to compete because the value placed on an image has decreased as everyone is making images and the tools have become so accessible. A guy can just run down to the shop and buy a camera and start advertising his service shooting events or weddings at really low rates. It's the same with newspapers, because photography falls under media. The problem is how do we reconcile this and what's the next step.
What can photographers do about this?
It's an inevitable evolution. For photographers, artists or writers, the only thing they own and control is their own sense of authorship and who they are in terms of the type of work they make. End of the day, people are still looking for opinion leaders, and experts, so building that brand, and becoming an expert in one field is important for riding out the turbulent times.
Look at local photographer Darren Soh. He has become an opinion leader and expert on HDB flats, history, heritage, and buildings that are getting demolished. He may keep shooting the same thing, but people see him as an expert in it. I didn't ask to see his bank balance, of course, but from where I stand he's riding out the storm because he's become The HDB Guy. And people always need experts to refer to or call upon for advice, services, or whatever. So that's probably the most practical thing I can think of to do.
What advice do you have for young aspiring photographers?
After a recent workshop in Manila, one of the participants with a stable well-paying job in telemarketing approached me. He felt like quitting and diving straight into photography. But I told him not to, because what happens is that your motivation would be driven by finances.
Photography and art are vocations that are different from a 'regular' job. Creativity cannot be spun out of financial duress. A lot of great masters succeeded because they started out making decisions based purely on what they believe is truly creative without having to stress over shooting a wedding to pay the bills. So my advice would be to not rely on being an artist to put bread on the table when you start out, because the choices you make will be very different. They are usually very safe choices. And before you know it, 10 years will pass and when you look at your portfolio, you will realise it's not why you started in this industry to begin with.