Edward: You’re saying there’s a commercial work aspect to it that you’re currently taking orders from some people, so already making some small compromises of taking on photography work.
Vivien: Yeah, I think the compromise is just time. Before, if it compromised a good part of my time I would say ‘no.’ But now, I have the flexibility to make certain things I want happen, so it’s almost like me figuring myself out and how much time I want to devote to this and if it’s all worth it and I’m still trying to figure it out. But going back to your question, yes, it’s become part of my work.
Edward: The question I was asking was less about the commercial side of things and more: do you ever feel like you have to service social media now that you have a following of what is it, 230000 followers?
Vivien: I think I’m like 200 short, yes.
Edward: So, I would say that by the time people listen to this, you’ll probably have more than 230000 by the time this thing comes out, but do you ever feel the need to service them with content at some point, like you may not want to post or you may not be in the right mind to go and shoot, but you’re like, “wow, I have all these followers waiting for some new bangers from me.” So, not a commercial job, just the people that chose to follow you. Do you feel like you have to give them something?
Vivien: Yes. I won’t deny that. I’m also trying to figure out…I don’t know if I should be saying this, but I’m trying to figure out what people want to see and I know that shouldn’t drive me but I’m thinking about it.
Edward: This is a brand new consideration. I don’t want to get all high and mighty and say that we are artists, but I would say that in any artistic pursuit, I don’t think in history, the feedback has been that instant on the work that you create and you barely have time to take in that feedback before you need to deliver more work. I don’t if I just used the word need. I can’t remember, but it sometimes does feel like—so we’re dealing with whole new problems that if I put to a photographer from 20 years ago, they wouldn’t know until the exhibition hit, and maybe even after the exhibition, whether the public thought it was nice, but we get this feedback every time we put a picture up and it’s very easy in accepted wisdom to say: “well, you shouldn’t care about what other people think. Just do your own thing.” But I think, at a conservative estimate, probably every 15 minutes to half an hour of your day, you get an opinion from somewhere of another of your work that you’ve put effort into. So how could you not take into account what those people feel?
Vivien: There’s no denying that that has an influence on what I shoot or how I shoot or what I post. Especially what I post, because I don’t post a lot of the things I share. And what drives that decision is partially what I think people want to see. I kind of hate to say that because a part of me struggles with what I want to do and what I think people want to see. So I remember one of my Instagram stories asking—now that they have polls—like, do you want to see more portraits or do you want to see more cityscapes? The majority of people want to see cityscapes.
Edward: How did that poll come out?
Vivien: I think only a quarter of people wanted to see portraits. That’s actually more than I expected because the engagement I have on portraits, unfortunately, doesn’t reflect that quarter.
Edward: It’s a real eye opener. I did something similar, I did a poll and I can’t remember the exact question, I think it was: do people want to see more portraits or not? And I was actually quite shocked at the number of people that I know who said ‘no.’ I’ll never get that feedback again, but it was really good because on that day, I don’t think people realized that I would see their individual vote. Everybody knows now. So I got some very eye opening responses from people I know who just said ‘no,’ they don’t want to see more portraits from me. So you start to wonder whether that affects you, or do you like shooting that so much that you won’t affect you?
Vivien: I mean, ‘thank you’ for people who gave their opinion. But I think what I took more of that from that poll was, “okay, there’s people who like my cityscapes and that’s fine, and I really really appreciate that and I cherish that because that’s what you sign up for.” So I can’t deny that and I’m like “thank you, thank you for still believing in what I started with, but I’m also looking for something to develop and grow and try.” So going back to what I’m trying to say is I didn’t take anything too personally from the imbalance of expectations, if you will. I think what impacted me was the feedback that said ‘do both.’ And I’m like, “oh okay, that’s nice because what can I do that’s both?” So I think going back to the point where I only know how to shoot architecture and architecture is my thing, that could be something really special and particular to my style. After almost a year or two of shooting portraits, people are beginning to define my portrait style. I did an interview and they were like: “I’m absolutely amazed by your portraits because you combine cityscapes and architecture with it so well and you stick your models in these incredible spaces that are very architectural and geometrical.” And I think that’s slowly beginning to define a new style which I really like, but I’m not limiting myself to that. I think what I’m trying to say is it’s interesting because when people say both portraits and cityscape it’s not mutually exclusive, it can be both.
Edward: Absolutely. My anecdotal evidence is that there are people that if they say cityscapes, they mean “do not put a person in the cityscape.” For me, I have a feeling that you can—whether it’s for a renewal of followers or whether it’s…I don’t know how to get the point across—you can get people to like whatever it is you like, if you’re passionate and good enough at it you may find new people to come along. They may not come along fast enough but…
Vivien: Yeah, now it’s a different discourse because how are you going to build up the momentum again? Given that now it might not be as organic anymore.
Edward: Yes, so it’s about how you find that. I mean, if there was a holy grail for Instagram, it’s obviously shooting what you like, when you like. The Holy Grail could actually be posting when you like as well and then everybody loving that. What I find is that me and you, we’re both actually quite diverse in our photography and it keeps me sane and I’m sure you love that as well, you’re not sticking to one thing, actually that’s a hindrance in terms of the followings that we have and that’s why we get these poll responses that are quite diverse because people have followed us for very different reasons. Even in the short time you’ve been shooting portraits, probably the people like your portraits, you probably have followers that like your portraits exclusively. I think that will be the silent minority of people who won’t like your cityscape. You won’t to see them because the majority like a cityscape. It works both ways. So we’ve maybe got some silo’ed fan bases. There’s something else I want to talk about in the back of my head because we had this conversation once and this is where I want to come back to talk about Rem Koolhaas which is… I mean can segue in from this thing we talked about about design and social media and I wanted to talk about creativity. I want to talk to you about whether people are taking their influences from social media, particularly Instagram, and how you see that changing design today? I mean interior design, I mean architecture of buildings. Architecture of buildings is probably the biggest one because that’s something you need so much more funding and investment to be able to look at a picture and say I want it like that, but on a small scale you’ve got interior design, you’ve got fashion—streetwear and things like that. How do you see that going especially in the year that you’ve had your own company? Have you seen trends that have come from social media on a global level?
Vivien: Yeah. I think the way that I was influenced to go to a building and shoot it, the kind of allure to portray it in the same way as the original person that I saw. I’m definitely tempted to succumb to that. In terms of when I design, I take inspiration from other people and I use Pinterest a lot and a lot of time, it’s a dangerous thing because it’s almost very interbred, these ideas. If you’re not careful, you replicate them. I think what I’m trying to say is that eventually, I think my answer to that—long story short because I think about this all the time and I get asked all the time—how do you be unique in this environment where things proliferate at an incredible rate? How do you be forward-thinking, how do you be cutting edge, how do you be innovative? I think my answer to that would just be personal style. There’s nothing more unique than your character, you. I’m trying to also seek that out, like who am I? What is my work like? Because working in a corporate environment in a big office, sometimes it’s hard for that to shine through. It could be small, but I want it to define me now. This is why I have my own studio and this is a journey that I’ve decided to take. I think this can withstand time, personal style can withstand any kind of external influence that you are tempted to replicate. I think a lot of it is being true to yourself, knowing what you want. We talked about posting for your followers, I see this image from one person I follow and it does incredibly well, should I go and copy it for that exposure, or do I stay true to myself and do what I believe in? That is a constant struggle I’m going through and I’m trying to find out for myself.
Edward: From a design point of view, I won’t have the exact quote, but I think it’s Rem Koolhaas that highlighted…It started with airports, he said airports and hotel lobbies started to look very similar wherever you go in the world and we had this conversation a few months ago about coffee shops. Coffee shops wherever you go, we went to Helsinki, I then went to Taipei, I’ve since been to a few other places in Europe and Asia. Anyone listening to this can probably say the same, essentially coffee shops are starting to look exactly the same around the world. They’re having exposed lightbulbs and wooden tables and quirky, kitsch mugs and menus on clipboards. But that’s what I’m seeing everywhere and I think this has come about through globalization and the social media, I’m not saying it’s a bad style, but as a result of this are we missing out on some local creativity that may never see the light of day because they’ve been globalized?
Vivien: That’s a very important question.
Edward: What did I say, coffee shops? But what do you think about people’s houses and stuff?
Vivien: There’s a reason why Rem was saying that about airports because he calls them non-places because they’re so homogenous and it doesn’t matter what country you’re in, they’re the same. I think the world is slowly becoming like that because of this proliferation of an idea, of an image of what a coffee shop should look like. People are starting to ignore their culture and I think Helsinki is a special case because… It’s a good case because a lot of my clients are saying they want Scandinavian design and this is because it’s a place that stays true to their culture, that defines themselves as who they are and now people want it, that’s a style now. I think going back to that, staying true to yourself and who you are and what your background is and what your culture is is very important because only then you are able to define something. So Helsinki was great because it’s almost one of the original places for Scandinavian design, a powerhouse for what is defined as Scandinavian. So that was kind of eye opening because in Helsinki, we thought people really cherished their local talent, people really respected their artists.
Edward: So what you’re saying is if you stay true to your culture, maybe you are the one that expands your design throughout the world?
Vivien: Right, and you’re not the one that’s replicating. I think everyone is unique and therefore, if you’re telling me that I’m not interesting, that’s because you haven’t looked into yourself hard enough. I think every place, every person has the ability to make their individuality shine if you embrace it and if you respected yourself more and I think Hong Kong in a way, I see the beauty in my city, I think people still have to recognize that beauty would not stay if they don’t cherish it or if they don’t preserve it or if they don’t respect it enough. It’s ironic because people coming from the outside see it and people who lived in this environment or grew up
in this environment might not see it. I can’t speak for them because I consider myself lucky because I grew up in a different country and coming back and seeing that Hong Kong is very different.
Edward: Different in what way in that time?
Vivien: When I was younger, I couldn’t answer it. For me it was sensory. It was the smells, the feeling, the humidity, the air. Going home to my parents’ place, what that place felt like, or if it was winter, the kind of chill that I felt was very unique to Hong Kong. I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived in Italy, I’ve lived in, of course, the United States, Canada. Italy is similar because I think a lot has to do with the weather and the central heating and stuff and the kind of hard concrete surfaces that you find in buildings, that is similar because I lived in Rome and in the winter, I had a similar indoor chill to Hong Kong, but what I’m trying to say is every place has its character and I can’t even put in words, that kind of emotional sensory feeling that I always now try to put in my photos.
Edward: Going forward in your design project as well.
Vivien: Yeah, exactly. So Cross Cafe, which I recently completed as Studio Unit, my first project tries to bring back that collective memory of old Hong Kong, but I mean, I’m not just replicating old Hong Kong, I’m putting me in it, I’m putting my style in it.
Edward: And all sensory stuff.
Vivien: And that’s good because I get feedback saying “this is very you” and I’m happy to hear that because I don’t know what made it me because all I knew was I want to put my efforts and my vision in it to realize something that I think should be. The way Hong Kong should sell its culture—not “sell” but really promote or make people realize that we respect our own culture and it’s a beautiful thing—and people are coming for this. People are visiting Hong Kong for this, this beautiful what could be like the neons, the Chinese characters on the neon signs, the kind of tenement building iron frame windows, back alley gates with spray painted numbers on, that’s all very indigenous to the city. I think it’s a shame to lose that because of development or commercial interest and the kind of textures and the grain of the city is gone with that and I wanted to bring that back with this little project.
Edward: I honestly think you succeeded with that.
Vivien: I didn’t replicate it, going back to that, because I didn’t think replication was the way to go because everyone was forward. So my thesis was what is next? What is the Hong Kong aesthetic in the future? For me it’s to preserve what was iconic about it. Not to put it in a kitschy way, but kind of reinvent it in a modern context. How do I make it fit into the culture of the scale of the street? So it’s in a very gentrified area, it’s a kind of confluence of the West and the local culture which is fundamentally what Hong Kong is and it’s perfect because this is a perfect testing ground here for what I think my vision should be because I’m always interested in contrasts. I’m always interested in a chemistry between two very different things. I think something interesting would come out of that and hopefully that is what Cross Cafe is, and it’s only the beginning. I’m trying to strive to get projects where I can continue this thesis. To really promote Hong Kong culture and make people see the beauty of our past and what I grew up in. All the tastes and smells and sensory experiences of the city that are associated with these memories. I think that’s what makes Hong Kong what it is. I think it would be the thing that would withstand all these threats of non-places, of a kind of brainwashing power that social media has for the good or the better. I think that’s that’s my theory for now.
Edward: That is a solid theory, I like it. I think we’re going to wrap up there and I just want to say thanks for coming on the podcast and good luck with Studio Unit which is one year old this week. We just want to see more photos, whatever you decide we want to see, we probably want to see them. All right?
Vivien: Thank you. Thank you guys.
Edward: See you, everyone.