Five years ago, Aik Beng Chia started photographing the streets of Singapore, providing an authentic look at the ordinary lives of Singaporeans. Today, he is one of the most followed street photographers on Instagram, and a published photographer. It’s a meteoric rise for someone who started photography with nothing other his iPhone 2G, and still only uses point-and-shoot cameras.
Can you tell us about your background?
I was born and raised in Singapore, and work as a Graphic Designer in an advertising agency. I’ve never had any formal training in design or photography — these were skills that I taught myself over the years.
I’m a late starter when it comes to photography. I only got into it five years ago, and had zero experience with it before that. Naturally, my background in design has influenced my photography in the way I compose my shots, and the way I look out for shapes and forms.
You had no prior experience with photography, before you started five years ago?
Zero experience. I was an illustrator, going by the moniker Pixelmunky. You know how writers get writers’ block? I had an illustrator’s block. I decided to find something else to work on, and it was photography. The iPhone was the only camera I had, so that was what I used. I didn’t care about the megapixels and the technical aspects. I was only interested in the photos I was capturing. Even today, I don’t use a DSLR. Pass me a DSLR, and I’ll use it on Automatic mode.
What projects have you been working on?
I’ve been working on a project called SingKarPor, which is what Singapore sounds like when spoken in Hokkien. It’s made up of snapshots of everyday life, which were taken on the streets of Singapore over the past five years.
The project culminated in a month-long exhibition at K+ Gallery, which presented a carefully curated collection out of the thousands of photos I’ve taken. It included a special feature on the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore. It was an event that saw an unprecedented outpouring of emotions from the normally reserved Singaporeans. The book for the exhibition was designed by Kinetic and published by Math Paper Press. It’s currently stocked at BooksActually.
SingKarPor continues to be an ongoing project for me.
What is the motivation behind SingKarPor?
SingKarPor started in 2010. Back then, the idea of travelling and photographing had gotten into my head, but I never had the opportunity. When I met my mentor, he had this advice for me. If you can’t shoot your backyard, how would travelling make you a better photographer?
I work in advertising, and I’m used to seeing everything casted beautifully. It’s been done to death. I want to photograph things that are real and honest; capturing life in Singapore in a way that isn’t staged.
Singapore is always changing, especially on a superficial level. I’m searching for the essence of being Singaporean — our constant identity. I want to make a visual record of that while I’m still alive, for my children and the future generations. It might not be all that interesting right now, but many years from now it will be a piece of history.
I started photography late, and wish I had started much earlier. Then again, it doesn’t matter because other photographers were making records of those times.
What is your process for starting a new project?
It’s not a deliberate process. I don’t sit around and go, “This is what I’m working on next.” It happens organically as I observe the world around me, when I find something worth recording. It’s a process of discovery.
Many of the projects I’ve done were unplanned. For example, the Random Uncle and Auntie series happened simply because I enjoyed photographing them. There was so much character in them. In contrast, I was seeing models everyday in my job and became indifferent to their beauty. Five years down the road, I realised I had so many photos of these uncles and aunties, and it became a series by itself.
Sometimes you don’t realise there’s a common theme behind your work until much later.
Exactly. That’s why I don’t restrict myself to a particular style of photography, whether it’s street or landscapes. I just photograph anything that connects to me.
What was the spark that started you off in photography?
It was a movie, In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-Wai, that inspired me to take up photography. I was fascinated by the cinematography, and the attention to the little details that we tend to overlook. When I watched the movie for the first time, I fell in love not so much with the content of the movie, but the way it was filmed. I must have watched it over ten times by now. In fact, I just watched it a few days ago and I still wasn’t paying attention to the story! I guess in a subconscious way, I try to capture my photos with a similar, cinematic feel.
I love movies, especially those with a certain artistic flavour. Drive is another one that is beautifully composed. There is a scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that really speaks to me. Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) gave up a shot that he waited days for, because he wanted to savour the moment. I don’t think many photographers do that anymore.
Letting the shot go?
Yes. Everyone is so caught up with recording the moment on their cameras. There are times when I see a shot that will make a great photograph, but I don’t take it. I just enjoy the moment. You have to let the shot go from time to time. For instance, I was at the New Year celebrations, and the fireworks started. Everyone had their phones and cameras held up to their faces. I didn’t take a single shot. Dude, it’s the fireworks. You should enjoy it.
One of the biggest challenges in street photography is overcoming the fear of photographing strangers. How did you overcome that?
It was difficult at the beginning, I took awhile to get over it. I overcame the fear by buying a Boba Fett helmet, and asking strangers to pose for a photograph while wearing it.
You really did that? What kind of reactions did you get?
Oh yeah, I did a series on that. My aim was to overcome the fear of asking. To make it even harder, I decided to ask strangers to put on a helmet for a photograph. I got rejections of course, but some were amused and up for it. I had photos of Boba Fett eating chicken rice, Boba Fett queuing up at MOS Burger, Boba Fett at 7-Eleven, and so on.
What are some of your most memorable experiences as a street photographer?
There were many. It all comes down to meeting strangers, getting to know them, and just talking about life in general. There was a lady I met in Little India, Madam Tan. She was over a hundred years old. Every year, I’d take a portrait of her and give her a print. We would have a conversation over coffee, and she would share her life experiences. Unfortunately, when I went back this year, her daughter told me that she had passed away. Looking back at the portraits, I miss her smile.
The whole experience was memorable because it was a world without strangers kinda thing. The whole family invited me into their home, and we would chat over coffee. It felt intimate.
How do you fit photography into your schedule?
I’ll shoot at any time that is made available to me – before work, during lunch and breaks, after work, and after my kids go to bed. I fit photography into my life.
When I started shooting on the streets, I’d get frustrated when I couldn’t find the images I wanted. I got over it by not even thinking about it. Now, I just enjoy walking and observing the world around me. I let the photos come to me. Even if they don’t, there’s always another day.
What makes a great photographer?
I believe it’s not important to be a “great” photographer. It doesn’t matter how many likes or followers you get on social media, or how many awards you win. Photography is a long journey — what matters is why you’re shooting.
Who are your favourite photographers?
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Kevin WY Lee from Invisible Photographer Asia — I attended his mentorship workshop. He has helped in the way I photograph. I’d go to him for advice when I’m working on serious, personal projects; not the day-to-day, random stuff.
What is your go-to camera gear?
Currently, I’m using an iPhone, Fujifilm X100T and Ricoh GR. They are all compact cameras.
What is your top advice for aspiring photographers?
Don’t rush. Take your time to photograph things that you feel connected to, not what you feel you ought to. Observe life in front of you. Have fun and enjoy the process. Most importantly, shoot who you are and not what others want you to be.
Philosophy you live by:
Be honest in what you do in life.
This article was submitted via Vulcan Post’s submission page, and was first published on Create to Inspire, a digital magazine by Ubersnap that features interviews about creativity and courage, with the best creators in Singapore. The original post can be read here.