Social Effects — Elaine Li

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Hosted by Edward Barnieh
Graphic by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Elaine Li

Hosted by Edward Barnieh
Graphic by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Elaine Li

Social Effects is a podcast hosted by Edward Barnieh, or as many people know him, EdwardKB. Social Effects dives deep into the world of social media with transparency and in search of what’s lasting in an ever-changing atmosphere.

The effect of social media has had an undeniable impact on our lives, and these conversations allow us to find out more about the background of some of social media’s most prolific creatives, who Edward’s fortunate to call friends, their approach to the craft, and what keeps them up at night.

In this sixth episode of Social Effects, Edward spoke with Hong Kong-based photographer and art director Elaine Li. She shares her perspectives on the advertising industry and her transition away from that world to pursue photography full-time.

I’ve always used Instagram as a platform to share my work and hope that more people will see it and just share my views of the city. I really love Hong Kong. I love traveling. I just want to share my travels and share the beauty of my city. And it still remains the same in that aspect, but then I think because over the years, as my following grew, there is an added pressure that you have to keep posting stuff because people are following you to see your photos. Also you have to post stuff that is up to standard.

At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.

Edward: I’m here today with a friend of mine Elaine Li. We’re going to talk about a bunch of things today including social media, obviously, advertising, and a little bit about where she’s from, where she’s going. Do you want to just talk me through your background?

Elaine: So I was born and raised in Hong Kong in a pretty typical Asian family. I went to a local school. Everything is about getting good results and getting good grades. Then I spent some time in Melbourne, I went to boarding school there for two years and went to college in Chicago. After college I worked in the States for a little bit, for about a year or two and then came back to Hong Kong.

Edward: Where did you work in the States?

Elaine: I worked in Chicago and San Francisco. I was also in advertising when I was there. Then after that I came back to Hong Kong and continued working in advertising.

Edward: Was your degree something to do with advertising?

Elaine: My degree was bachelor of fine arts. I actually went to a really artsy art school called School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They really promote conceptual thinking and fine art and I actually went to the school knowing I enjoy advertising and I enjoy graphic design. But I feel like being in that art school, it kind of helped develop my conceptual skills which you kind of need in advertising. Mixing that with the more traditional Asian, more logical thinking, it really helped me get into the field.

Edward: So you knew you went into advertising at age 18. What was it that interested you about advertising at such a young age?

Elaine: I think it was quite subconscious actually. When people ask me: when did you know you wanted to get into the industry? I think back and I remember in grade 8 or grade 9 in Hong Kong, the art teacher was like: “where can you see reflections of art around town?” Like billboards, paintings, galleries, TV shows. And I remember really clearly that I was the only one who said advertising because advertising is actually a form of art as well. So thinking back to when I watched TV with my mom at home, she would be watching the TV shows and then go to the bathroom when the ads were on but I would actually stay and watch the ads. So, subconsciously it’s something that I guess interests me which I never realized. Then after graduation I was like: oh, it’s actually quite an interesting field. It’s like a mix of the art of persuasion and visual art.

Edward: Pretty sure I can attribute it to Banksy, there’s a quote that says something like: All the best writers are actually in advertising.

Elaine: They’re the best persuaders.

Edward: But also advertising makes more money than the actual content that sits around it. Would you agree with that?

Elaine: I would. I would yeah. I think that’s true to a certain extent.

Edward: While you were doing the advertising, you were also building an alter-ego, another life, Lie-laine! You have huge social media presence.

Elaine: Like you.

Edward: A little bit like me, yeah. So how did that get started?

Elaine: It started last year in college in Chicago. Instagram was a relatively new platform back then. I think it was 2012. Just giving you a backstory, photography has always been a hobby of mine. I was shooting since I was in middle school. And so Instagram came along and my friend was like: since you like photography why don’t you sign up for it? So I did. I just shared really artsy geometry kind of pictures, like photos of staircases and buildings taken with my iPhone onto Instagram and I remember, that was in Chicago, and this random guy who I didn’t know started following me and he started commenting: “These are great pictures” and I’m just like: “who the hell are you? Why are you looking at my pictures? How did you find me?”

Edward: But it was always a public account?

Elaine: It was always a public account, yeah. So I clicked onto his feed and it was actually also a lot of really nice geometric photos. So I followed him as well, and one day he left a comment and he said: “Hey do you want to go out and shoot sometime?” I was like: “Erm…” In my mind I just think that’s kind of weird, it’s like I’m meeting internet friends. What if he’s a creepy person? But his photos were nice and he seems like a nice guy so I just went out to meet up with him and his wife and we walked around to shoot. It was really cold. We went to like it like an area where there’s not a lot of people so I was just really nervous. But he was really nice and he was just telling me about all these apps that you can use, I was like: “What? I just use Instagram filters!” And then he was like: “Do you follow this person?” I was like: “No, what is this world?”

Edward: So this guy opens you up to a world of Instagram?

Elaine: And he was like: “Oh you should post this many times a day.” Like what? What kind of rules are these and who are these people? It was Just mind blowing. So after meeting him it just opened a whole new world of this Instagram kind of thing where not even my friends or co-workers know and it’s really hard to explain to them, like: “Yeah we just meet up in real life and go take pictures.” And they’re like: “OK… Is it dangerous?” But yeah, it’s really because of him that made me really addicted to Instagram and made me take it more seriously. Back then it was just like taking cat pictures or whatever but then that’s when I realized I could actually use Instagram as a platform to build a portfolio. I was in college. I was also looking for jobs, so that helped. It’s also a way to get my photography work out there and also keep this hobby going. It was actually very much because of Instagram and mobile photography that really ignited this passion back.

Edward: Well, while you were building that portfolio. You took the opportunity to come back to Hong Kong, is that the short way of putting it?

Elaine: Yes, the long way is my VISA got denied.

Edward: I didn’t know if you wanted to say that.

Elaine: It’s okay! Yeah, it was quite funny.

Edward: So you left the US. You’d already made some friends on Instagram in Hong Kong. And you obviously we’re coming back to the city you’re from, so you knew a lot of people and then you decided to continue this passion as well as get a job at Ogilvy, right? And then you were appointed art director straight away or were you promoted to art director?

Elaine: I started as content designer at Ogilvy, Hong Kong. I was doing that for a year and a half and then switched to art direction.

Edward: Can you explain a little bit about the difference and what your job is?

Elaine: Ogilvy & Mather is a really really big global company. Back then they hired me as content designer because they wanted to build a content team. A few years ago, the word content does not even make sense. Like what does content even mean?

Edward: Right. And this is 2013?

Elaine: This was 2013. Yes.

Edward: Yes. Wow. Sorry to interrupt but just to say, how many times a day you hear the word content now?

Elaine: Content creation, it’s like a thing now.

Edward: So you were told you were going to be a content designer.

Elaine: I just wanted to get into advertising. I’ll just take it, it doesn’t matter. So yeah I was content designer and honestly even at the office not a lot of people know what that means, what’s the content team? Back then Facebook was already quite mature but still not a lot of clients got it. I think that also continues now. Not a lot of clients really understand what exactly they need to do on Facebook. Yeah I was hired as contant designer basically doing a lot of social media posts for Huawei, for Standard Chartered, Toblerone and just some other random brands. I did that for like a year and a half and I actually got a little bored of it. So I was debating whether to continue doing this or do something else.

Edward: I think I remember that time.

Elaine: So I talked to another team, another department who did bigger ad campaigns. One of the creative doctors there saw my work and he really liked it. So I had the chance to join his team and so I switched from being a content designer just doing social content to doing bigger stuff as an art director. So before we worked a lot on Nike and now a lot on KFC, so say for example for KFC in Hong Kong, they have a new flavor chicken every month. So we come up with the bigger idea, the whole campaign. What the name of the chicken will be, what the key visuals will look like, the TVC, the storyline, the mood board, everything. So it’s a lot more diverse. It’s a lot more 360 than just making social posts. It’s a lot more interesting.

Edward: How do you feel like that has changed? I mean so I know you’ve been an art director since 2014, 2015, something like that? So how do you feel the social media, if at all, has changed what you do in the last three years?

I think social media has affected advertising in a good way because you have so many more different channels and different types of work and content that you can produce. For example, there’s so many mini online films, not just the regular traditional television commercial. That also has a lot to do with how people interact because with TVCs, not a lot of people would complain, but then on Facebook people can just easily comment like: 'Why did you do this? This is a shit campaign.'

 

Elaine: A lot. I think with social media, a lot of basics of advertising like basics of coming up with ideas, coming up with the core idea for a campaign, It’s still the same. It’s more the medium and the channels where you distribute that’s kind of different. The biggest difference would be that back then you used celebrities. But now there’s so many like micro influencers that you can use.

Edward: So does that help? I would say back in the day–I wouldn’t want to put a number on it–but just say you could reach out to celebrity X and everybody knew who celebrity X was. Now you might need to really reach out to 10 mini celebrities. Is this easier or harder to get your message across?

Elaine: It really depends on the campaign. You kind of just need to do a bit more research on the individual, we call them KOLs.

Edward: Key opinion leaders?

Elaine: That’s the term in Hong Kong for influencer. I think social media has affected advertising in a good way because you have so many more different channels and different types of work and content that you can produce. For example there’s so many mini online films. It’s not just the regular traditional television commercial. That also has a lot to do with how people interact because you know on TVC, not a lot of people would complain but then on Facebook people can just easily comment like: “Why did you do this? This is a shit campaign.”.

Edward: So in a way it’s become like a customer service channel as well. You kind of get this instant feedback that weren’t necessarily asking for. Is that good?

Elaine: You can’t take as much risk I think.

Edward: Right, backlash is public.

Elaine: Exactly.

Edward: One of my favorite comedians, he’s a comedian writer called Charlie Brooker and in the UK, if something bad happened on TV, whether it was a TV show or a commercial they’d be like: “There were 900 complaints about this commercial to the Advertising Standards Board.” And this comedian was like: “Well, say 50000 people watch that. That actually means 49000 people were fine with it.” And that was before the Internet, the news would take those phone calls seriously but now because it’s just so out there, this instant feedback–we’ll get to this on Instagram but right now like with commercials–you’re saying it leads to less risk. It’s a factor when you’re actually doing the campaign. What would come back to bite us or what would people think.

Elaine: I mean for ideas that we have to come up with for social campaigns, definitely. That’s kind of just like basic common sense that you have to think about what possibly will people think about this. I think you just have to think about the idea in more detail. It’s good or bad because there is a possibility of backlash but at the same time if you do this really nice video and it goes viral in a good way, you feel really good about.

Edward: Yes I was going to ask you about that. I was going to say, is it more satisfying to do social campaign and get that feedback? I know in my industry, it’s quite similar to yours in that at the end of the year, awards are handed out and as a result of that the industry sometimes makes things that it knows will be up for some awards. But what’s really important is still the feedback from the people that you’re advertising to.

Elaine: Everyone’s different but for me personally being able to influence and impact people is more important than awards. I feel like that’s kind of the same with Instagram for me because people are like: “Oh you know you guys have so many followers.” I just think having a lot of followers is really nice because it brings us a lot of opportunities to work with brands and to work on cool campaigns. But it’s really the comments that matter to me. Sometimes I see a message or I get a message or I see a comment where they say because of my photos I want to travel to Hong Kong. Or, it’s because of your photos that make me realize that my home is actually such a nice place to live in. So these comments really make me feel like I’m doing the right thing.

Edward: Yeah. Do you ever try and replicate what you’re doing in advertising with your social media or with your Instagram. So do you ever think about that emotional response and how am I going to get it out of people?

Elaine: To be honest, not really. Maybe subconsciously.

Edward: Does it ever feel like work? Because it seems like even talking to you now, I’ve know you for like three years, maybe four. But hearing you now makes it sound very much like Instagram is a micro version of your job. Putting content out there every day and hoping that there’s a response from that content. Whether it’s an emotional one or not, just some kind of response. Does Instagram ever feel like work?

Elaine: Sometimes. I think the difference is that at my job as an art director, you’re consciously thinking about how would this make people feel. Does the key visual reflect the product? Does it make people feel this way? We’re doing a Christmas campaign, when people see this ad do they get that Christmas warm feeling? You really think through a lot. But for Instagram it’s a lot more chill. I don’t go through as much thinking, it’s more like: yeah, this looks nice, I’m going to post it.

Edward: You don’t do a moodboard?

Elaine: Unless it’s for a sponsored post, I need to. But if it’s just for my own pictures, I don’t think about it as much to be honest. If I do, it becomes work and it becomes not fun and I wouldn’t want to keep doing it. That’s kind of why I still kept photography as a side thing and not a full-time job.

Edward: Speaking about your Instagram from 2013, from the geometry and the stair to where we are now, how do you feel it’s changed?

Elaine: I think initially and until now actually I’ve always used Instagram as a platform to share my work and hope that more people will see it and just share my views of the city. I really love Hong Kong. I love traveling. I just want to share my travels and share the beauty of my city. And it still remains the same in that aspect but then I think because over the years my following grew, there is an added pressure that you have to keep posting stuff because people are following you to see your photos. Also you have to post stuff that is up to standard. So now the slight difference is that I do think about whether this is a good enough picture to be shared online. Or is this just like anyone can take this. So there is a bit of thinking behind that which kind of relates back to what you were saying about whether you think a lot in terms of what you post on Instagram is similar to advertising. So yeah, one of the only differences is that I consider whether the photo is good enough.

Edward: It becomes advert for your life in a way, like you just said about your posting your travels…

Elaine: It’s like branding.

Edward: Yeah it’s your brand. It’s like OK I’m going on this trip and what do I want people to see of me on this trip? What do I want people to see when I go to this country? Yeah totally. I have the exact same thing. You just think: well is that good enough for people to see? In a nice way it’s like: I saw some amazing thing. I hope I can show it to people in the same way that I saw it, but then on the flip side of that you can also reach a stage where you’re like: oh I really love this. Are a lot of people are going to like this or should I just not show them this? That is the change I find. If I was to personally look back over four years ago, I didn’t think so much about whether people were going to like it or not. I was just like I’m just going to show them this.

Elaine: Yeah. I mean I don’t know if it’s good or bad thing. I actually really like my older work more because they’re more raw.

Edward: Older as in what? Describe it.

Elaine: Maybe when I was shooting with iPhone, I was just posting stuff simply because I just wanted to post it. I know it contradicts a little bit with what I was saying before but I think a lot of my older photos are a bit more raw and more real. And with this kind of bigger following you also have this responsibility of what you post as well because like I used to be really into rooftoping and urban exploration and I can just post whatever. But now because there’s more people following, it’s almost like what you post, people are going to see it and copy what you’re doing. It’s almost like there’s a social responsibility.

Edward: There’s a social responsibility but also do you find that there’s a creative responsibility as well as in: right, I have this following now, and I may notice that what I do will be followed by thousands. Do you feel a responsibility to keep pushing forward and doing new things? Because I know I do. Even though I can’t sometimes, I may have reached my creative ceiling but I often feel personally that I’m like: OK this is the same as everybody else now. I hope I can see something different or do something in a slightly different way.

Elaine: Yeah definitely. And I don’t think that is necessarily just with Instagram. I think as a person who pursues a career in the creative industry it’s kind of normal for you to keep wanting to push and keep wanting to do something different because if you’re doing something that’s the same as everyone else, that’s not creative.

Edward: No, it’s copying.

Elaine: Yeah. So it doesn’t just apply on Instagram, it’s also advertising, it’s also… I don’t know, if you’re a director or a photographer or a painter. I think you’d want to have your own style but at the same time push forward because then you will keep growing. If you keep doing the same thing for 20 years, that is your style but that’s just super boring.

Even with brand collaborations and stuff, it also just happened, to be really honest. I’ve heard people say that for the younger generation, some of them want to be a YouTuber when they grow up or want to be a KOL when they grow up or want to be famous on Instagram. But when we started it was like: 'Oh, this brand wants to work with me. Okay, I’ll just try it.' It’s a lot of trial and error, whereas now it’s a thing.

Edward: Yeah but I saw this thing today, just this morning, a quote from someone who said that social media has made it okay for us to keep pushing out work at an unnatural rate.

Elaine: That’s true. That’s actually quite true.

Edward: Right now we’re looking out of a window at Hong Kong and you can probably see thousands of houses and thousands of windows. If you can imagine how many people right now are creating content for something right now and that is okay. We’re totally used to that. But is that good?

Elaine: That’s actually a really good call.

Edward: I’m going to find the exact quote now. Well, the actual quote is that thirty crappy ideas and not as good as two or three amazing ideas. What are your thoughts on that? No pressure.

Elaine: I really agree because when people ask me how many photos I post a week, I try to post once a day and to a certain extent I feel like I’m producing work for people to consume. It’s a consumer culture, it’s not really art. I don’t consider myself an artist, I don’t consider myself a proper photographer.

Edward: Should do.

Elaine: I’m just someone who likes taking pictures and I post on Instagram. People follow it and it’s great that some people are inspired but in some ways I feel like it’s also for people to kill time and consume. I look at people scrolling on Instagram on the MTR and honestly they only spend like zero point two seconds on your photo. Nobody’s going to spend like an hour analyzing the picture. I know some people would do but the mass don’t. So to a certain extent I feel like Instagram is part of consumer culture where we’re just making this “content” for people to just digest.

Edward: Micro-consume really quickly and you become a content monster that people are taking in when they have a spare minute.

Elaine: Sometimes I feel like that, sometimes I’m just like whatever. I’m someone who just like thinks about all this random stuff but then when it comes down to it I actually don’t really care.

Edward: But you know what’s cool is that any time you’re thinking like that, like it’s just this zero point two second thing, like you said earlier, those comments will pull you back. A comment from somebody that says: “I remember when you did this”, and that thing is like six months ago and you’re like: “Oh my goodness, someone did look at my picture from more than zero point two seconds.” And it kind of makes it all worth it in a way. Yeah I know exactly how you feel. Found the actual quote: “Social media has made it look okay to constantly produce work when it’s actually unhealthy to be forcing ideas out and producing meaningless art. Let your ideas flow because three amazing ideas are better than thirty crap and meaningless ideas.” I wouldn’t want to put a number on it because you wouldn’t want to stop someone who can actually come up with thirty amazing ideas but there’s definitely a feeling from me, not from you but in general, of a factory of producing content that is happening on a global scale. So you follow two hundred or three hundred people. That’s nothing compared to the number of people out there that every day create some piece of content that they want consumed. Nobody’s doing it just for them otherwise it be a private account. Do you know where that’s going to go? Is this the way that life’s going to be from now on?

Elaine: If I knew I wouldn’t be here.

Edward: Basically I want you to tell me when this is going to end.

Elaine: I don’t know where this is going to go. I just know that Instagram is not going to last forever. It’s like any social media platform. So for me–since I know this is not going to last forever–I just want to take every opportunity I can within these few years. Maybe in five years or even a year or two it’s going to explode and something new comes out. Who knows? So for me it’s just trying to grasp every opportunity I can do something cool with. Back to what you were saying about the social media content thing about producing thirty crappy things compared to three good things, I do agree as well but at the end of the day, despite us having this ldeep conversation about numbers, about consumer culture, at the end of the day photography is still something I’m passionate about. I actually enjoy the process of shooting more than posting. The process of getting a shot and capturing a moment, the process of meeting up with friends, going to a rooftop and shooting for me is more important than: “Okay. Did I get the perfect shot to post on instagram? Is this going to get 10000 likes?” So at the end of the day it’s still something I enjoy. It’s not like I’m doing it just because I have to.

Edward: And once it’s gone we won’t take photos anymore, that’s not going to happen.

Elaine: Right, I’m still going to be producing work. I’m still going to be taking pictures whether I share it or not. There are millions of photos that I don’t put online but it’s just because I enjoy taking them.

Edward: I want to go back to something, I can’t believe I didn’t think to cover it but I don’t know how much you want to talk about it. Rooftoping. I mean we can talk about this as much or as little as you like but I remember you’ve told me before, but i want you to share your first rooftopping… I want you to share the lock codes to the doors of the rooftops in Hong Kong. No, your first rooftop experience. I mean you’ve told me before, it’s really cool. And then what that led to?

Elaine: Well, a bit of backstory. This is also going back to Chicago. With that one guy I met in Chicago, we exchanged contacts and then he was like: “Hey I’m meeting up with some people and going to this abandoned candy factory in the South Side of Chicago” which is the ghetto area, I was just like OK, I have nothing to do, I’m just going to go anyway. There were like five of us, that was my first mini Insta meet. So we went to this abandoned candy factory, it was actually where one of the scenes from The Dark Knight was shot and we went there–I didn’t know what I was getting into–we were there and I realized that you’re actually sneaking into the place, you’re kind of trespassing.

Edward: Oh You didn’t know that when you met them?

Elaine: Not really. I tried to google it and it’s like oh cool it used to be a candy factory and now it’s abandoned. So we went there, all over the candy factory there were gates and you just can’t get in. So we actually had to climb up to a train track that has trains passing by regularly and then we ran across the train track, got right next to the candy factory and climbed over a fence to get in. So I was like OK this is kind of cool. And then we went into the candy factory and it was just filled with graffiti and old factory stuff and there was even some leftover explosives from the Dark Knight movie shooting. And I’m just like: oh my god I lived in Chicago for four years. But I’ve never seen this side of the city. Chicago is a really beautiful city. You see the nice buildings and stuff but this abandoned part, it’s actually really interesting. It reflects the history, it’s almost like a mirror like a flipside of the city. You see a different side of the city. And so we were shooting there for like two or three hours. We walked out from the main gate thinking there’s no one. As we were walking out these two big guys got out of a car and then they’re like: “What are you guys doing?”.

Edward: Oh, were they security?

Elaine: Yeah and it was in this ghetto area. I’m like: “Oh my god we’re not gonna go home.” And they called the police and they got our IDs. I was like: “Oh my god, I’m going to get deported.” I was on a visa, and police came and there just like: “You guys are kids, just go, this is not a safe neighborhood.” You know, that experience just got me addicted and got me hooked to urban exploration because it’s just such an interesting experience to see a different side and also the adrenaline and running away or being caught and stuff it’s like, oh man I’m badass, I’m not that goody goody that I grew up being trained to be by my parents. So after that experience I went on Google and searched ‘urban exploration’ and found out about rooftopping. And I came across these two guys, Andrew and Javen’s work. They did rooftopping and they went on crazy adventures in Hong Kong. They’re like OGs in Hong Kong. So I saw their work and I’m like oh my god, I grew up in Hong Kong and I’ve never seen these perspectives before, I’ve never seen these angles. How are they getting these pictures? I contacted them and then when I moved back here I was like, “If you guys go can I go and shoot with you guys?” And so I met up with Andrew and this Russian guy Vitali who is famous for his on the roof videos. We met up, we went up to The Masterpiece in TST, it’s like K11 and it’s basically one of the tallest buildings on the Kowloon side and we went up there and I’m just like holy shit what is this? This is the first time seeing Hong Kong from this angle. I think it was maybe 60 or 70 stories high. It was just us, we were there for an hour, we were taller than the helipads. The feeling of being up there is just… It’s really chill because when you’re on the streets in Hong Kong it’s really busy, it’s really noisy, there are cars beeping and everything, but when you’re up there you’re all by yourself, you’re looking down from the top to the street and you see all these little people in little cars, it’s like you’re the king of the world like you’re really looking at the density of the city from high above. So that was one of my very first experiences in Hong Kong and that also just got me hooked. Since then I’ve just been trying to find new spots that other people haven’t been to, I’m trying to find unique angles that no one else can shoot. This actually impacted my Instagram in a certain way because on Instagram I’ve been sharing cityscapes and street photography or whatever. But because of rooftopping and back then it was quite new, and I was doing these dangerous pictures sitting on the ledge. It was such a new idea. It was quite new on Instagram, it’s not a new thing that people do, it’s just new on Instagram.

Edward: It was shown to a new audience for the first time.

Elaine: And so I started posting pictures with me in it doing this relatively crazy stuff and that boosted my Instagram following a little bit because I realized that I established another identity, not just a photographer but also this crazy girl who does crazy stuff.

It's simply because I was curious and also because I had a holiday and I wanted to go somewhere close by. So I was like, why not? North Korea is one of those places I’ve actually wanted to go for a long time because it’s such a secretive place and it’s a country that everyone talks about: It’s so dangerous. Nuclear bombs. Everyone talks about it but noone seems to really know.

Edward: I think it was the start of… I mean maybe it wasn’t the start but it was a different slant on photography as you say, and it kind of showed that Instagram wasn’t just about photography, it was about different communities of people telling their story visually basically, and urban exploration is one of those communities. So it’s almost like you accessed a new set of people that may not have been interested in apertures and this kind of thing but the daredevil side of things really appealed to them.

Elaine: Yeah and also thinking back it’s like I built a brand for myself as being the crazy rooftop girl rather than just being behind the camera. So this was something that I find quite interesting which is that people started following me because of my actions, not really because of my photography work.

Edward: Right. How did you feel about?

Elaine: I mean, I didn’t think much back then.

Edward: Yeah it’s so obvious now, you’re right. I never thought about it either but it’s so obvious when you look back. You had two distinct followings, people like she’s this aaredevil, and then you had people who were just like she’s a really good photographer.

Elaine: Right. For a while I didn’t want to be pigeonholed to be that rooftop girl in Hong Kong. Getting messages like: “Hey take me over to a rooftop.” I was kind of struggling a little bit between like what kind of photos should I be posting? And people were concerned about safety and stuff. I did think about it a little bit but that didn’t stop me from shooting and doing my thing.

Edward: Which is how it should be.

Elaine: Yeah. I mean we talk about all these things but to be honest, when I actually shoot I don’t think about it.

Edward: No, it’s something to think about for later but when you’re doing it or if you were to call me and say: “let’s go here and do this.” I wouldn’t sit there and wonder what the social responsibility was before I go.

Elaine: Exactly. Yeah. You just do it. If you think too much you’re not going to end up doing anything. I think it’s just quite interesting having this kind of branding and identity thing. It’s almost like those lifestyle bloggers where people follow them because of their lifestyle. For me I feel like my audience, people follow me not just for pretty pictures but it’s also kind of buying into me as a person. It’s like an alter ego because you know me in real life, I’m just kind of stupid. But then on Instagram people are like: “Oh my god she’s so cool and badass.”

Edward: Yeah I know what you mean, it’s cool, it is cool though. There are so many people that would kill for an alter ego and what you’re basically saying is that you did it without trying.

Elaine: No I’m not saying that.

Edward: Sorry let me rephrase it. You weren’t even aware you were doing it.

Elaine: I wasn’t aware. it’s not a conscious decision.

Edward: Yeah but it just happened and it’s awesome.

Elaine: You made me sound like I knew where I was going.

Edward: It just happened and now you have two personas.

Elaine: Almost yeah, pretty much. Even with brand collaborations and stuff, it also just happened, to be really honest. I’ve heard people say that for the younger generation, some of them want to be a YouTuber when they grow up or want to be a KOL when they grow up or want to be famous on Instagram. But when we started it was like: “Oh, this brand wants to work with me. OK I’ll just try it.” It’s a lot of trial and error, whereas now it’s a thing.

Edward: It’s a viable career choice now. Yeah.

Elaine: Like I want to get free cosmetics, I want to get free clothes.

Edward: I still remember the first commercial job I did. I remember thinking and saying to my wife Jess: “Should I do this, is this right?”.

Elaine: “Is this too commercial for my feed?”.

Edward: This is a really weird thing but I do want that free bags so I’m going to do it. I remember like it was yesterday. Again, going back to what you said, I didn’t overthink it.

Elaine: It’s just when this opportunity gets thrown to you. Why not? For me a lot of the time it’s like: why not? I’ll just try it. If it doesn’t work I won’t do it again. If it works then I’ll keep doing it. It’s a lot of trial and error and it’s actually quite a good learning experience. It’s quite a fun experience. I guess for you too when you started Instagram, it’s not like: I’m going to be famous. I want to post pictures to be Instafamous.

Edward: No way. It wasn’t even a word. It’s such a normal word now.

Elaine: We sound old right now.

Edward: Yeah I know, we sound jaded. I wanted to talk a bit about some of the places you’ve been. You’ve been to some of the coolest looking places, especially in China. We went to Zhangjiajie together but for me you’ve been to places like Chongqing and then you recently went to a place that was Guangzhou. Another place you’ve been recently is an island off Shanghai. Earlier you talked about how you take photos and you’re lucky enough to do cool things. These are the kind of cool things that you’re talking about. What was an interesting place that you’ve been that you probably wouldn’t have thought to go a couple of years ago?

Elaine: Growing up traveling, I’ve always loved traveling. I think a lot of people want to go to places like Iceland, Greece and Europe. Those are places I wanna go as well. But I think Instagram actually changed me in terms of the destinations I want to go to because say for example, a lot of the European cities, a lot of the the U.S. cities, you’ve seen so many pictures of them on Instagram. I’ve seen so many pictures of them and it’s really beautiful, it’s really interesting. I’d love to visit those places someday. But then, everyone goes there. It’s almost like because I see so many pictures I feel like I know how that place looks. So it kind of doesn’t make me want to go. I’m kind of someone who just wants to do the opposite of other people.

Edward: And you want to discover new things?

Elaine: Exactly. The curious type. So these days I want to travel to places that not a lot of people have been to. Especially in China because Instagram is such a western country-driven platform. Most people on that platform I guess are like U.S., Europe, some in Thailand, some in Australia, but predominantly for my following at least, It’s also a lot of Westerners. I want to go to places that not a lot of people have been to, not a lot of people have been exposed to and share those places and share my experiences there to my followers on Instagram so that they can see: “Oh wow I didn’t know that China actually has this amazing place, I didn’t know this, I didn’t know that.” So I’m more interested in discovering these under-discovered places on my own and then sharing those pictures with audience rather than going to this country: this, this, and this are places I’m going to shoot.

Edward: And you’ve seen them before.

Elaine: Yes but I’m going to go take the exact same picture.

Edward: Yeah. So one of the most undiscovered places that you went was North Korea. I mean I’ve been with you a ton of times where people have just come out and said: “You went to North Korea. How was that?” So, why did you do that?

Elaine: Honestly it’s simply because I was curious and also because I had a holiday and I wanted to go somewhere close by. So I was like why not? North Korea is one of those places I’ve actually wanted to go for a long time because it’s such a secretive place and it’s a country that everyone talks about: It’s so dangerous. Nuclear bombs. Everyone talks about it but noone seems to really know.

Edward: They have a preconceived notion or a media representation.

Elaine: Exactly and I think working in advertising, I know how media works. Like whatever media says is actually quite influential, the same as advertising. And so I had the opportunity to go there with a tour group because you had to go with tour groups and it was with a Hong Kong tour group and that group called Glow Travel is actually a startup. It was by two young guys who are like my age like 26, 27, Hong Kong guys, super young and he’s also very passionate about like going to places that people normally don’t go to. Especially for Hong Kong people. Everyone goes to Japan, Hong Kong people just go to Japan over and over and over again and I don’t want to go. I just don’t want to go to the same places. I want to go to places like Tibet, Mongolia, North Korea, Ukraine, places that are under discomfort. And so I went with Glow Travel. I talked to the founders. And you know it seems like a pretty good agency to go with. And so I went simply because I was curious. Going there was quite an experience because you don’t have internet, you lose connection. You just don’t have anything. You’re pretty much cut off from the rest of the world. The experience, how shall I put it? It’s really hard to explain and I feel like every single word I said, it’s quite sensitive, so just give me a few seconds. So when you go to North Korea you basically are disconnected from the rest of the world. You’re just there to experience the country and you’re just looking and observing and taking everything in.

Edward: Your senses are boosted because you don’t have this square brick in your hand.

Elaine: Exactly, on the trip no one had their phone in their hands. I mean you’re allowed to, you’re allowed to take pictures.

Edward: But without Internet it is kind of pointless.

Elaine: Yeah, and we’d take pictures from time to time but it’s not like you’re staring at the phone. It was quite a nice experience in that sense. So one thing that I took away was that you really should just put down your phone sometimes to really notice things around you. The second thing I realized was how much media actually affected me in terms of my perception of this country. So I went in there thinking that everything is fake, thinking that everything that is shown to us is fake, people are all actors, the houses there just like a flat piece of paper you know, maybe it’s not as crazy but you do have a very strong preconceived idea of this country. So I went in with that and the first two days I was actually quite nervous, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do or what I’m not supposed to do. So I remember really clearly, I think the first day or the second day we went up to the observatory tower where you can just overlook the whole city. And there is this guy, this really old man who just came up and started talking to me in Korean. I was like: “No Korean.” And in my mind I’m just like, are you allowed to talk to me? Why are you talking to me? What are you trying to say? I was just being really defensive. Am I allowed to do this? But then I got the tour group leader who’s North Korean to come over and to translate and he just wanted to ask where we were from. He was just curious about us as much as we were curious about them.

Edward: But your ideas of what he was going to say, you put your guard up.

Elaine: Yeah exactly. I kind of wanted to take a selfie with him but I wasn’t sure if I can. So it was just like a lot of my mind just…

Edward: Struggling because of what you thought was going to happen as opposed to what was actually happening.

Elaine: Even walking along the streets, like say we saw a girl with a puppy. It’s like: “Oh my god they have puppies in North Korea? They’re allowed to have pets?” It’s so normal. They’re just everyday people, they just happened to have a pet but it’s like: “It’s a pet in North Korea!” Everyone just started taking pictures. It’s like: “There’s flowers!”.

Edward: “Where did they get flowers from?”.

Elaine: Exactly. We went to a supermarket and we were shocked that they had Chinese brands. But then when you take that mindset and put it somewhere else like say imagine someone comes to Hong Kong and are shocked that they speak English in Hong Kong. It’s that level of confusion. Being there, you see these everyday people living their everyday lives, they’re just normal people.

Edward: And you realize media has totally done a number on you. Made you think one thing and you had no idea to check whether what they were saying was true or not.

Elaine: Right. I mean things with nuclear weapons and all the political things. There’s political stuff happening in every single country but that doesn’t represent the country as a whole. In the U.S. there’s always a lot of shootings but it doesn’t mean that every single person in the U.S. has guns.

Edward: Absolutely. I feel it’s something that people need to remember. To be honest, since I moved here to Hong Kong, there are still people in the UK that will ask me things about China like about dogs, “Does everyone eat dogs?” The best way I can put it is just a country isn’t its people. Those news items that you see randomly on youtube do not represent everybody, that represents that news item and that’s it.

Elaine: I mean it’s the same as Umbrella Revolution. I remember you talking about it, people see Umbrella Revolution, they keep seeing that same image of the smoke bomb and they think Hong Kong is dangerous. But we’re just like drinking coffee in a coffee shop.

Edward: Right, like half a mile from the smoke bomb.

Elaine: It really just boggled me about how…

Edward: Media imagery just infiltrates your head and you don’t challenge it, but you basically did challenge it. You went and got your own images. You managed to share them with a ton of people. But one thing we talked about was that even when you told people, when you came back from North Korea, of what you’d seen, people still challenged you, people who’ve never been to North Korea–so only have that media representation–still challenged you on what you saw and were still not believing.

Elaine: That’s quite interesting. I mean I kind of understand where they’re coming from because we pretty much grew up being told that people are actors, everything is fake, people just pretend to smile, stuff like that. And to be honest like there were some cases where I thought maybe they really are. But then there were also some cases where they were just buying stuff from the supermarket.

Edward: They’re just regular people. There’s too much going on here for it to be fake.

Elaine: There was also this one other thing where we were taking the subway. I had some like Subway photos. We were on the subway and subways were cool, certain stations had chandeliers. Actually apparently it looked like Russia back then, which I didn’t know, my followers told me about it. We were taking the subway and all the North Koreans were really quiet. And I’m thinking maybe it’s because they’re not allowed to talk to us. Maybe they are actors. Maybe they’re just there to show that people take transportation. They’re so quiet. Why aren’t they saying anything? Then the week after, I came back to Hong Kong, It was rush hour, the MTR carriage was silent as well. There’s actually some sort of similarities.

Edward: That’s really interesting. But are you saying that you just never noticed–going back to the phone thing–the quiet in the MTR carriage because you’re on your phone?

Elaine: Right. Also, maybe people just don’t want to talk when they’re going to work. Maybe it’s the same for North Koreans, they just don’t feel like chatting. But for me, when I see them not talking, I think they’re not allowed to talk. I just have this added conception of every single action they do.

Edward: Another thing is do they have phones? I guess if you don’t have your phone out, the other thing that you were seeing was probably people just staring into space.

Elaine: Some of them do. In Pyongyang which is the capital, it’s kind of a city where there are richer people, people at higher levels in the government and stuff and higher income I guess. Some of them do have phones, it’s like a smartphone I think, and they have their own intranet. It’s not the internet, it’s the intranet.

Edward: Really interesting. So after talking about places you’ve been, talk a little bit about where you’re going to go? You might be or you are leaving Hong Kong soon, so do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Elaine: By the time this podcast comes out I might be there already. I love Hong Kong, I grew up here and love it even more every time I travel and then come back but I’m moving to Australia and it’s kind of because of personal life. I got a job opportunity there in an ad agency as well. I’m relatively young I just want to try working somewhere else because for me I know I’m going to end up coming back to Hong Kong anyway to settle. So I want to take this time to try something different and eventually I’m going to come back.

Edward: Are you sure?

Elaine: Yes.

Edward: You sound super sure, you’re like: “I know I’m going to come back to Hong Kong and settle.” That’s nice, that’s good to know.

Elaine: So far after all my travels, Hong Kong is still my favorite place to be, despite all these social and political problems. Rent is high, but Hong Kong is still home to me and I think it will always be.

Edward: Amazing. Well, I just want to say good luck with whatever happens and thanks for talking to me.

Elaine: Thank you.


Subscribe to the podcast Social Effects and follow Elaine Li on Instagram and visit her website.

Episode One: Varune Thota
Episode Two: Holly-Marie Cato
Episode Three: Tyson Wheatley
Episode Four: Maurice Li
Episode Five: Vivien Liu

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