As Singapore takes to the polls again tomorrow, we take a moment to reflect on the (almost?) watershed General Elections’11. It has been an exciting year for us as a country, and for us as a generation.
Today, we speak to Zakaria Zainal (or Zak, as he commonly goes by) and Jean Loo. Both Zak and Jean are alumni of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information (where the RediscoverSG crew are finishing their final year of undergraduate studies), and contributors to GE11: We Were There, a 60-page magazine featuring photos of the General Elections 2011 done in collaboration with Platform, a volunteer photographer group.
We talk to them about the GE11 project, their experiences as young independent creatives, and suss out some advice for young, aspiring Singaporeans who may be considering the freelance route upon graduation.
Jean currently works as an independent photographer, producer and writer, and the last we heard, Zak has just returned to Singapore from his second trip to Nepal to continue a story on the Gurkhas of Singapore that he started while on internship there in 2009.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re doing now.
Zak: I am currently working on an anthology of portraits and anecdotes from the retired Singapore Gurkhas as they reminisce about life in the Lion City — from the 1950s till modern day Singapore. The topic of the retired Singapore Gurkhas and their families is something I have been working on for a couple of years.
Jean: Most of my time’s spent cooking up projects which are of a pretty diverse nature and makes work very interesting. I’ve just finished up a short film on love in Singapore for IDEO, a multimedia piece on dog abuse and abandonment for an animal welfare group, and co-produced a roving exhibition on The Singapore Spirit and National Day Parade. I’m currently “switching channels” to a few other projects like a documentary multimedia clip on Lien Aid (a Singapore-based NGO dealing with water and sanitation in developing countries) which took me to Yunnan, China and another piece on ex-offenders in Singapore looking for a second chance in life.
How did you get involved in the GE’11 We Were There project?
Zak: Tay Kay Chin, my photojournalism lecturer in WKWSCI, had approached several photographers including myself and asked if we wanted to be part of the GE11 magazine, a commemorative publication for the historic elections. Kay Chin was also the picture editor and designer of the magazine and I knew that this collaboration of highly talented individuals would lead to something special. I feel really blessed to be part of this magazine.
Jean: I learnt about the project through Kay Chin on Facebook and things just happened from there. It is very gratifying to be part of such a project with my fellow photographer peers.
Tell us a bit about what it meant to you personally to cover the GE’11 happenings, why you wanted to document it, your sentiments as a first-time voter, was there a story you wanted to tell?
Zak: The elections is an event of great importance to all Singaporeans, including myself. Photography is a method of commemoration—to have people, places and objects from document to memory. And that was what I sought out to do, to have my own photographs and interpretation of the elections.
As I had spent a large chunk of my time photographing events and people in countries like Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, I have been trying to make a greater effort in documenting events and people at home. Personally, these are the things which matter the most to me. The elections was a wonderful opportunity to do so as well as to make meaning of this place we all call home.
Jean: I remember attending a Workers Party rally in 2006 at Serangoon stadium and was completely overwhelmed by the energy in the air. Back then, I hadn’t discovered photography and only had one picture snapped on my old Nokia handphone of myself in the crowd. This time round, I was excited to be able to use my photos to show my friends overseas the excitement going on at home because I wished that they were here to experience it with me.
Particularly, I am a very emotional person and was drawn to the intensity of passion in the air. I wanted my photographs to convey the feelings I felt — whether it was the anxiety in the air at Hougang Stadium on Polling Day or the heart-tugging moments centered around Mr Chiam See Tong. I made it a point to attend rallies to listen to speakers whom I felt for — I find that invisible bond between speaker and listener extremely powerful.
As both of you are currently freelancing/independent creatives, could you share with us how and why you chose to do your own thing after graduating, what are the pros and cons of having chosen this life, and what are some of the most important lessons you’ve learnt so far from choosing this path?
Zak: The independent creative option is probably similar to running your own business. Besides the creative work, there is also a substantial part of quotations, invoices and accounts to manage. It is an avenue worth exploring as you get a bit more freedom to do the work you are really excited about and also get to explore your personal creative vision. It will be good to build up networks and relevant skills sets before graduating and embarking on this journey.
Jean: I’m quite a free-spirited person and realised during my travels earlier on as a student that I wanted to get the most out of life before I die. I realised that photography could be a means of achieving that so I decided to give it my best shot and see where this path would take me. I’m currently in my 3rd year of working independently and there have been plenty of rough moments — To name a few: a lack of confidence, the initial depression of earning way below my peers who took on a more stable job in the media industry, trying to grapple the concept of balancing passion and survival, how to run my skills as business assets… and the list goes on and on. But the beautiful thing about doing your own thing is that you really understand about what it means to “own your life”. I’m constantly fueled on by exciting projects which open my eye to another aspect of life, encouraging friends and strangers from all walks of life who I meet through my work and most importantly, understanding my place in this world to a deeper extent.
Was there any societal pressure for you to choose a more conventional path after graduating? Was it difficult to make the choice to go independent?
Jean: Yes, of course there was. It was pretty cool to be doing your own thing, but definitely not cool when you can barely earn enough to keep your dreams alive. I gave myself 3 years after I graduated to work towards a certain standard of achievements that I mentally set for myself (whether in terms of dollars, travels and happiness.) Glad to say, I’ve achieved what I set out to do 3 years ago and am very excited to continue growing as a young photographer and see what comes along.
The choice to go independent was not easy as I had to give up a job, I had no idea how to make money from it but I knew I was craving for an adventure and was willing to work extra hard for it. Thankfully my parents and friends were very supportive with my “three-year-plan”, so it was pretty much up to me to make it work.
What advice would you give to students and undergraduates who may be considering the freelancing option, either while they are studying or immediately after graduation?
Jean: If you do have a passion you want to pursue — PLAN HARD. I’m a firm believer of planning your passion to make it work for you. Granted that there are certain things beyond our control (I call it fate — angelic clients, people who help you along the way, opportunities, luck), there are MANY other aspects we can control to make sure that we are ready for opportunities that come knocking on our door. Make the most out of your time at university by picking up hard skills that extend beyond your scope of interest, meet people and talk to them, be prepared to work extra hard because you don’t have a large corporation to fall back on. I don’t think it’s a matter of working first or doing your own thing first — but rather find out what suits your character and personality so that you get the most out of whatever situation you’re in.
As an aside, Jean will also be a mentor for this year’s Noise Singapore’s TAP (The Apprenticeship Programme), an excellent platform for young creatives to glean from the experienced old birds in the industry.