Social Effects — Lee Yik Keat
Hosted by Edward Barnieh
Graphic by Nate Kan
Audio by Nate Kan
Photos by Lee Yik Keat
Hosted by Edward Barnieh
Graphic by Nate Kan
Audio by Nate Kan
Photos by Lee Yik Keat
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 seventh episode of Social Effects, Edward spoke with Singapore-based photographer Lee Yik Keat. As a completely self-taught full-time photographer, he shares how he got started and more importantly, how two years of mandatory military service changed his creativity and photography.
Shooting black and white back then allowed me to filter out all the colors in all the images. So it allowed me to just focus on framing, composition.You're finding subjects something to tell the story without worrying the additional factor of colors because if you put colors in an image, you have to worry about many other factors, so it came at the right time because I was just starting out.
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: Hi everyone. I’m here today with Yik Keat from Singapore. Yik Keat is an amazing young creative that I first met four or five years ago. Right, something like that?
Yik Keat: Yeah, long ago through Instagram.
Edward: Yeah, that’s right. Noticed his amazing photos, we’ve met up many times in different countries and shot together, and I’m going to hand over to you and let you introduce yourself a little.
Yik Keat: All right. Thanks. I’m just turned 23 a few weeks back. Just finished next national service. I’m from Singapore. Photography for me started as a curiosity. It didn’t start as a passion. So how I started was probably five or six years back when I was doing part-time delivery with my uncle.
Back then, I had my iPhone 4 or 5 and then Instagram just launched back then. I created an account, scrolled through pictures. asked people because their images were really nice what device they used to take pictures with. I would have imagined a good camera. 80% answered iPhone.
So it’s super crazy. I had iPhone 4 or 5 and then with that, Instagram and my free time delivering stuff all around Singapore, I started shooting things that attracted me.
Edward: Yes, was about to say, what hit you first?
Yik Keat: Yeah, it comes to me very naturally. It’s not hard on: beautiful buildings in Singapore. I was attracted to a lot of minimal stuff. So buildings with staircases, great art, decorations, walls, stripes, grids.
Edward: So, good design, would you say?
Yik Keat: Yeah, the design of architecture, so I was very heavily into that and through that over maybe half a year or so. It made me develop a little bit of creativity on how to compose images, how to frame subjects, how to frame certain things to get that perfect shot.
So that was the first half of my first year and then after that, I started shooting black and white for half a year. Yeah.
Edward: Oh! Didn’t know that. What drove you to do that?
Yik Keat: I think it was I started seeing lots of black and white images. Maybe it was trending back then on social media and I thought to myself to try some black and white high contrast images or visuals and I got hooked on to it.
I shot black and white for a good six months. And actually, that was very a very crucial phase for me. That was actually one of the most important phases in my photography timeline. Why I say that is because shooting black and white back then allowed me to filter out all the colors in all the images. So it allowed me to just focus on framing, composition.
You’re finding subjects something to tell the story without worrying the additional factor of colors because if you put colors in an image, you have to worry about many other factors, so it came at the right time because I was just starting out.
So it’s taught me heavy basics on all the photography techniques. And then I got bored of it because I wanted to add some colors to my life after six months
Edward: And Singapore is very colorful. So I thinking it must have been hard to maintain that black-and-white thing when, man, the more I go to Singapore, the more I see how colorful some buildings are.
Yik Keat: It is, yeah. So after that, I realized I need to add colors back to my images and then and then, bam. After 6 months, everything to my eyes just blossomed after I shot everything and I edited them on my laptop and my computer. Because for 6 months, my brain was tuned to just see black and white and gray and then now I add color, so I got heightened to everything. I guess it had a great positive impact to my photography career timeline.
Seeing colors like never before and then started using them to convey emotions, to convey a certain style and story to the people and audience that I want to reach out to. So this whole part was actually a very memorable and important phase in my timeline.
Edward: Yeah more than I realized. Man, when it’s almost like you deprived yourself of color, so that when you got it back, you would appreciate it a lot more, right?
Yik Keat: Yeah, and with all that I have been focusing on color for a few years. Experimenting with different color schemes and finding complementary colors in real life photography and noticing colors — these two in general have allowed me to see things in a different way. Everybody around the world, 70-80% of them when they come to Singapore, it’s to shop, see touristy places and that’s where I want to put Singapore on the map.
Edward: You just said what I wanted to say myself, which is that for me personally. yes, that shopping thing that you did say: that’s a lot of peoples’ first thought when they think of Singapore.
Yik Keat: Way too many shopping malls!
Edward: Yeah, and I hope that people have told you this — I feel this personally and I hope you’ve heard it a lot — that you have shown Singapore in a light that many people haven’t seen. Hopefully you’ve heard that from other people.
Yik Keat: Yes, I’ve heard and I’m always always thankful for everybody that has told me that and that’s my main purpose. I’m very happy.
Edward: Was gonna say. Is this one of your goals?
I would like to encourage everyone to take a second look, observe what’s around you. There’s always something to see, something interesting. And you can not shoot it. Document it in your brain, which makes it more exciting. And by observing more, you get more knowledgeable about your own city, your own culture.
Yik Keat: Yes. I’m very happy people realize that because Singapore is very small, so I want to put this small little red dot on the map by telling people no matter where you are in the world, you go to work, it’s your everyday commute. Most of the time, you just go through your normal commute and don’t take a second look.
I would like to encourage everyone to take a second look, observe what’s around you. There’s always something to see, something interesting. And you can not shoot it. Document it in your brain, which makes it more exciting. And by observing more, you get more knowledgeable about your own city, your own culture. Open up your eyes. See more.
Edward: Absolutely. Yeah, totally agree. So with that in mind, that you’re trying to drive people to look at different things, what is your creative process? I know you mentioned complementary colors and things like this. What kind of things are you thinking of that will make people see your photos with emotion in a different way?
Yik Keat: It’s an everyday battle. My creative process can change today or it can be a totally different thing tomorrow, but usually what the main motive of my visuals for people to recognize or to see is that there needs to be something that captivates them. There needs to be a story behind it.
If it’s an environment or a new city, I will search it up online. I will do massive research and if I’m at the city or in a certain place. I’ll walk around and talk to the locals. This is one little trick that I always do is take the public commute, observe what they do on the train, on the bus or whatever commute they use.
It’s very cool whatever they do. I’m always observing because that’s the real culture over there. That’s because it’s their everyday life. They do that every day. It’s important to see what they do every day and not just go to touristy places where it’s filled with tourists and you don’t see the real part of the of the world, of the city.
Edward: So wherever you go, you’re trying to give people who may not have been to that place — or even if they have been to that place — you’re trying to give people a sense of what it’s really like to live there. As opposed to just visiting or some superficial view.
Yik Keat: Yeah, and after all of this, y’know, I have to get cliché pictures sometimes of a certain country, like landmarks and whatnot. That’s where the Internet is so powerful. I use the internet to search up landmarks and scroll through social media of whatever composition or framing that other people have shot. I try to do something different, to compose a different image, put a subject inside or anything so that it stands out more.
Because this is what I wanted to talk about: social media is a double-edged sword. It’s full of information, but at the same time, it’s very saturated. So you need to stand out for people to have just those extra few seconds to look at your work, what you compose.
Edward: Absolutely, you kind of got even less than a second. You’ve got almost a scroll.
Yik Keat: Yeah, one quick action and just like that, you’re gone. And those extra few seconds might help you in the future. It may not be now, but it can help you in the future if you’re doing full time. It may attract clients’ attention. That few second is very crucial. So I always do my best to bring out the best and try to give a different perspective. Try to stand out from millions of people around the world trying to do the same thing.
Edward: Right, right. That’s a good way to think about it. One thing you mentioned that was about doing something for the clients, but also doing it for other people at the same time. Do you still feel like now that you’ve been doing this for five years —
Yik Keat: Six years.
Edward: Six. And you are very successful on social media. I know you want more! (laughs)
Yik Keat: Everybody wants more! (laughs)
Edward: You’re already very successful and you’re getting commercial work, but are you still feeling you’re doing it for yourself as well?
Yik Keat: Of course. All in all, balance is is key. It’s very important because being a full-time photographer means you have to do certain jobs that you don’t like but pays the bills, puts food on the table. You can’t do all that all of the time because it burns you out. You need some time to just let your mind run free, shoot things that you like, balance it out. So to your question, I always try to balance no matter how busy I get.]
An example would be if I travel overseas for commercial work, I will always request clients to give me an extra two or three days for me to have some free time to explore around the local culture, interact with people, get some shots that I really like that aren’t for work just for myself personally and that’s very important for me. If you just go there for commercial work and you come back, you don’t experience this city yourself and I wouldn’t say you have been to that country.
Edward: That’s a good tip! As you were saying, I was just thinking: dude, there are a lot of up-and-coming photographers looking to be commercial. Have you got any other tips for them like that? That sounds like one I’ve never actually heard before! Just to take an extra couple of days on your commercial job to shoot things that aren’t commercial.
Yik Keat: And for in the commercial world, everything needs to be on the first try. Very very rare that a client gives you a second try. You need everything to be spot on. You need to nail it. So for many upcoming photographers, aspiring creatives, you don’t have the rope; you don’t have someone to guide you on all these things.
If you do it alone, you just graduated or you just want to try out, there’s a high probability that you will fail the first try. So great tip and it’s what I’m doing now is: you should get a mentor. You can get it through networking, knowing people, those who have been in the field for a long time for like 20, 30, 40 years.
Also get a great production team to back you up because you can’t be jack-of-all-trades. In the commercial world, there’s so many tiny little details: makeup, wardrobe, everything. It’s good to let the best of the best handle many tiny little things and you just focus on creating. Focus on shooting, let them handle all the backend stuff and that’s how it should be because if you try to juggle everything alone before you go to the shoot, you’re already burnt out and you won’t be at your best creatively.
All that creativity. it’s very important. You need to save every bit of juice to make it so that you can use all of your juics for the shoot. It will be wasted if you use it for business and like everything, so it’s good to get a mentor, someone who can guide you and show you the ropes.
And also, with all that, you should also be aware of what you create and put out online because treat every image, treat every visual that you put online as your portfolio because when you put it up, it’s there forever. So put in 101%, be serious from the very start. And when you create your own Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, treat your own social media as your own company, as your own baby. You manage everything. You are a CEO of your own social media.
Yik Keat: And be very mindful of what you post and be very mindful of the tiny little details that you do online because you feel like people are not watching, but actually there are many people watching.
If I travel overseas for commercial work, I will always request clients to give me an extra two or three days for me to explore the local culture, interact with people and get some shots that I really like that aren't for work. If you just go there for commercial work and you come back, you don't experience this city yourself and I wouldn't say you have been to that country.
Edward: Of course, of course. And especially when you’re big. But I feel like that although it seems like, as I mentioned earlier, you just have a scroll, people have these days I find have incredible memories.
People come to me and I’m sure they come to you too, they’ll come and talk about a specific photo from two or three years ago. Even crazier and I’m going to name check Nick Liu, a friend of both of ours. One time I was in Singapore, he was talking about an area that I should go to and then I said, “I know, I know. I’d love to go. I’ve never been.” And then he said, “actually, you have. Because I saw it on your Instagram story. You did a boomerang of it.”
I didn’t know where I was when I took that Boomerang, but he not only saw my Instagram story but six months later, he could recall where I’d been at that moment. Yeah, and that is where we’re at. So as to your point and it’s a very good point: it may seem like life is flying by and everything on social was just happening and forgotten, people are hanging onto things if it’s important to them. If you make it seem important to them.
Yik Keat: That’s true. That’s where that’s where creating visuals that has more impact, has more meaning is important, so that it will resonate to people more. They remember more of what you. Do try to stand out. Don’t drown in millions of people at the same level.
Edward: True, true, true. Good words.
So with that in mind, I want to move on to something that is going to be cool to talk about because it’s very unique for you in the creative field. You have, as you mentioned in your intro, just finished two years of national service.
Yik Keat: Yeah.
Edward: You can probably speak to it more than me. I want to speak about many things to do with this and get your thinking on it. But even beyond the creative part, for people that are listening that aren’t necessarily aware of how it works, if you could give people indication of what Singapore national service is, why you do it as a nation and then what your feelings are on it.
Yik Keat: Right. So national service is two years. It’s mandatory for all males out there. It’s a very personal thing because different people get allocated to different jobs while serving the two years, right? So some people may like it a lot and they choose to continue the path in which they will sign a contract and then you can extend for years months etc.
Sometimes you get allocated to some jobs that unfortunately, it’s mundane where you don’t like it and that was my case. And to add on, I do creative work, so something mundane hurts me so much. It’s like being in a jail cell and it kills your creative process and so every day is a constant struggle.
And throughout these two years, I would say I have tried to maximize all my time to gain a portfolio for when I came out of the army and it’s also very hard. I understand for all creative people out there in Singapore trying to survive while serving the nation and it’s not easy. So in summary of these two years, I was basically doing security for the Air Force.
It goes round the clock 24/7, so it goes by shift work. I am on site for two full days, so I have to stay inside 48 hours and then I come out for another 48 hours. And when I come out after 48 hours, I can do pretty much everything. I’m out of the camp and that’s when that 48 hours is always crucial to me.
So I always use that as an “execution” part. What I mean by that is when I’m inside the camp, I obviously can’t come out, so what I do is I settle emails, phone calls, everything digital and I prepare and schedule everything and sync it up in my calendar for the execution part when I’m outside. So projects that I have to shoot, I schedule it inside the camp such as meetings and phone calls. And then when I come out, I shoot and edit and do everything that I can do outside and then back to camp again. So it’s a cycle of “in and out, in and out.”
Sometimes it’s very tiring. I get my lows of course and sometimes I run out of juice, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. You have to hustle and then boom, just like that, two years has passed and I’m very happy to be out and be happy to be doing this full-time.
It’s not easy and it’s not easy for others out there no matter what they’re doing because for most people you not only sacrifice your own time. Then while serving the nation, you sacrifice your time for your family, for your loved ones. You spend way less time with them. And while that being said with everything that I’ve said, there are also positive impacts of serving the nation and for me, in my opinion, serving the nation matures you. You think more, you cherish a lot more of your freedom, your time and time is something that I took for granted before the army.
When I went in for the first week, it hit me so hard that time is so important. I had wasted it so much. I didn’t maximize it. I was not productive, so it hit me hard on the first week and I realized I needed to maximize my time and I needed to do everything I could when I was out of the army two years later and also while serving the nation.
So time for me is so important, so crucial no matter what you’re doing. And also you get more discipline.
When I'm [on the base], I obviously can't come out. So I settle emails, phone calls, everything digital and sync it up in my calendar for the 'execution' part when I'm outside. [...] And then when I come out, I shoot and edit and do everything that I can do outside and then back to camp again. So it's a cycle of in and out, in and out.
Edward: So I have to ask, sorry to interrupt. I had a theory before we came here, but now I have two theories! So my first theory was that actually my feelings on your work is that your time and national service actually gave you a different style of thinking and I think it may have been being deprived on a 48-hour basis. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but being deprived of seeing the thousands of images that were proliferating around social media allowed you to actually think in a different way and go in a different direction. And there are a couple of trips you took where I sensed significant change in your photography: Shanghai last year and Tokyo maybe the first half of last year.
I sense that that came — not purely, but there’s obviously lots going on in your head — but a lot of it was to do with there was a way to not to block out the noise. Although it wasn’t the reason you’re in the National Service, but it was a nice side effect, which gave you a totally different style, which was great.
The second theory, which isn’t a theory because you just said it, is the discipline that it gave you. I find that a lot of creatives don’t have the discipline, right? So you’re just creative and something come up and you just do it and then there might be weeks of not coming up with anything and then you just don’t do anything. And that’s almost throughout humankind accepted.
“That’s just how it is. When it comes it comes.” But you have actually almost tamed that through having these 48-hour moments where you couldn’t do anything. Yeah, you’ve managed to move your creativity into specific times because —
Yik Keat: I only have the time to execute.
Edward: Yes, execute. That’s the word I was looking for you .You literally gave yourself time to execute creativity. I love it.
Yik Keat: And I guess I don’t know if really that is that affected me. I can surely say that throughout these two years, the national service gave me that willpower and gave me the ability to shift time to make sure that within this amount of time, I need to do something.
And with that and with discipline, I think right now I’m able to churn out something way quicker and also way more creative than three years back when I was not in the army. It obviously changed my perspective of the world. And I think scrolling back bag through all my old images and my current ones, yes, I can see a huge difference in the way I shoot, in the way I see things. Two years of national service might or might not — I do not know the answer to myself as well — have changed my perspective on seeing things. I hope it’s a good thing, right? The audience likes it.
Edward: 99.9 percent would say it’s a good thing. I’m almost a hundred percent sure it’s a good thing. It’s just not necessarily something everyone wants to go through to get to that creatively. Yeah, just a really nice side effect. It’s good. It’s good. So staying on the topic, not necessary of national service but of Singapore.
I feel like — I don’t want to offend anyone else for saying this, but I feel like you are like the leader of a scene and there are many people walking in your footsteps in Singapore in terms of photography and creatives. But as you yourself have said, Singapore is quite small. When it comes to taking photos of something within Singapore. it’s quite small.
So I know you travel a lot and we’ll get to that, but within Singapore — not just for yourself, but for others that are coming up — what drives you especially if you don’t have the means to travel? And what inspires you within Singapore. I know originally you started out and it was buildings.
Yik Keat: So this is extremely important because I didn’t have the ability to travel that much so. I started just in Singapore and everything around it. It’s very small, so there are pros and cons to it. If you think about it, if you are living in a space that is very big, for example Europe or the States where it’s accessible to many different nearby cities, you get tons of space to play around and you are just relaxed about creating stuff.
Because your mindset is “If I want to create this specific visual, I can go to another city and create it. Not in Singapore.” If you’re there, everything is around this small little country. And that’s the good part of it. You have this small little playground. You’ve got no choice. You have to push your creativity. You have to make out something because that is your only space. You are boxed in. Yeah, so it’s a reverse effect for other people which I realized and I hope I don’t offend anyone is that usually when people with a bigger space to play in come to a smaller place, they tend to struggle.
And for us with such a small place, if we are given the chance to go somewhere big to play, we can create so much and there’s so much more things to create, to see and to churn out ideas. So that is the pros and cons to it. So right in my home Singapore, I’m always thinking about this: “There are many landmarks. Many people have shot it. How do I stand out because I want to tell a story.”
I want to let people know that, “hey, you can look at the same thing a thousand times and you can still create something different. You can still see it in different way here.” So that’s my main voice in my head speaking to me that inspires me to create something different all the time, to create something more meaningful which has more impact for the audience. And in addition, Singapore is so small, so that voice is very loud. It keeps telling me because I always go to the same place and you can go to the same place at the same time.
On some days, I don’t get anything. It’s fine, but I always have the discipline to try again and again. And you can fail today tomorrow, it’s fine. But when you get it, it feels really good, right?
Edward: So you’re going on six years of this now, so you’ve seen many changes. We both have. What do you what do you think of the current state of Instagram and social media right now?
Yik Keat: You’re right. I would say social media right now. It’s you know, it’s the same — it gets quicker and quicker. That’s when the tough part comes in. You need to stand out even more because every second there’s people joining in.
Edward: Yes. There’s a few dropping out!
Yik Keat: But way more coming in.
Edward: Yeah, it’s relentless the pace of creativity.
Yik Keat: Yeah, and ability to create something really new is almost impossible now. So what I always do is, like with an ice blend: you take all the good things from other people and you blend it to make your own juice. That’s something of your own.
Yik Keat: That’s what I did for the past two years at least. To maintain my social media and also right now, the “viral” part. It’s going crazy. Anything can be viral. So try everything. Don’t be afraid to experiment. There’s really no harm to try out different stuff and you just listen to the audience, see if the like it or not. If they like it, keep doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it.
And social media now paves the way for everything. If people want to go to a certain place, they scroll through social media for research. Nothing like that in the past so feel like that’s huge responsibility in terms of what you turn out. It’s important that you give the right information, give authentic information perfectly to the audience out there looking at and listening to your work. So take everything with huge responsibility and also because kids nowadays.
They also have social media and it’s so crazy. If you ask a kid right now, maybe three, four out of ten kids will say “when I grow up, I want to be a YouTuber or I want to be a photographer or Instagrammer.” Nothing like that in the past.
Edward: No, no. Yeah, you know, I think I will say to that, though, because we’ve done a lot of that. Thinking about that, about kids and their changing ambitions and aspirations: it’s still the equivalent of saying they want to be a star. The words that they’re using are different. But, if you had asked a kid 20 years ago, a fair percentage of them would have said they wanna be a Hollywood star maybe, or movie star or a singer.
These things are still valid, but they’re just shifted slightly towards social media. So when they say “YouTuber,” it’s the equivalent of saying “you want to be a TV host a TV star” like 20 years ago. Yeah, but this shift is very obvious and it’s not going. As you said, more people are moving to it. Content creation is just moving at the speed of light. I think the number of hours man — I’m going to get this wrong, but that it was like 400 hours worth of content is uploaded to YouTube every hour or something like that.
Yik Keat: Yeah crazy, might be more.
Edward: Yeah, I think so. But it’s crazy enough to make you realize that this very thing that started out as very small is now the mainstream.
Yik Keat: Yeah, it’s it’s everything to kids, to the New Generation out there and even the older generation. So it takes huge responsibility and be careful of what you churn out and social media is a double-edged sword — can be a good thing, can be a bad thing. Depends on how each individual perceives it. And I hope everyone takes it in a positive way not in a negative way for me. I have to embrace this because this is what got me to a full-time job.
Edward: Absolutely. That is a serious thought to end on. I love it. I hope the viewers take from that. We’re looking forward to seeing more visuals of you from, whether they are from music festivals or the street or from the sky or portraits. All of it. Loved having you here. Thank you very much for your time.
Yik Keat: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.