Founder of CAPTURED Singapore
#InsideCAPTURED is an ongoing series which showcases the team behind CAPTURED and behind-the-scenes of the team at work. We kick off the series with a chat with Edwin, founder of CAPTURED, on why he started it, and what his aspirations for the collective are.
What is the story behind Captured and how has the journey been so far?
In 2011, I had returned from Nepal, where I had freelanced as a documentary photographer for two years. Starting afresh in Singapore wasn’t easy, despite five years of national press experience and two international awards under my belt. The business of photography is quite different from other aspects of photography. You need to understand what a client needs, what is a fair market rate to quote, and also, how to deliver your services. In the first place, you need to figure out how to land clients! This can be very scary, especially for newcomers.
"Life as a freelance photographer working alone can be debilitating for the soul, and I wanted to find kindred spirits who shared my passion in visual storytelling.
I must confess that I was lucky. After covering the General Elections of 2011 as a personal project, my photographs went viral on social media and suddenly clients came and ask me to shoot corporate projects in black-and-white documentary style. That was a turning point, and business slowly picked up, with one project leading to another.
But life as a freelance photographer working alone can be debilitating for the soul, and I wanted to find kindred spirits who shared my passion in visual storytelling. So in 2012, through my alma mater (Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information at NTU), I found Zakaria and Juliana, and asked them to join me in the collective’s first incarnation - Captured Images. They were both starting out as professional photographers, fresh out of university. Both had journalism background, and a sharp sense for documentary, so I thought we would work well as a team.
Our original mission was simple: “To develop the commercial capability of photographers without compromising on their personal vision”. We believe that photographers should spend most of their time creating new work, instead of worrying about paying their bills and negotiating for deals. Together as Captured, we started building our corporate portfolio by leveraging on each other’s strengths, as well as chasing passion projects that involved teamwork, such as playing editorial directors to the National Day Parade 2013 Committee, and also Island Nation.
As we grew our clientele, we expanded the team to six. However, we never compromised on our ideal, always hand-picking photographers who share the Captured ideology - personal artistic pursuits alongside corporate work.
As a collective, how do you work together to deliver on corporate projects?
We have working principles that guide the collective forward. For example, we strive for Captured to contribute towards a minimum of 20% of revenue for its photographers, and not to engage its members as full time employees. This keeps photographers on their toes, and encourage them to build up their own reputation and unique selling points even as they leverage on the strength of the collective for both assignments and camaraderie.
At the same time, our clients work with familiar and reliable faces whom they can trust to deliver. This is markedly different from agencies who rely on a pool of freelance photographers purely based on availability and pricing. We don’t work this way. We believe that clients should be able to rest their minds when assigning a job to Captured, and expect nothing less than 110% in terms of delivery.
Can you share the 3 images that define the current moment in your life and why?
First, it would be the cover image of my book “Paradise”. This image was made in 2009, a year after I began my journey as a freelance documentary photographer. It reminds me of the saying: “No risk, no gain”. This applies very much to my personal work, since documentary work calls us to reveal to others what they cannot see.
Second image would be the cover image of Transit. Once again, this reminds me that photography is 99% sweat, and 1% talent. For this work on the commuters of Singapore’s trains, I spent almost all my free time waiting at train doors to make these collective portraits of a nation’s commuters.
Lastly, would be my image from the Elections. It speaks to me because this set of personal work had given me the initial push in corporate work. Till today, I find that clients refer back to our personal work to know us as photographers. This harps back to the Captured ideology for our photographers - personal artistic pursuits alongside corporate work.
You are a documentary photographer and known for dealing with issues of human displacement and lost sense of identity. How do you reconcile that with a genre such as that of corporate photography?
To create my documentary work, I often travel to extremely difficult environments which test the mettle of a photographer. I learn how to adapt to local cultures, negotiate adverse conditions, while retaining a style of photography that tells the story. [add my BTS image of Pakistan in shawl kameez]
With corporate clients, I transfer this practice to their projects to deliver a brand of photography that is at once beautiful, yet authentic. I call this “corporate reportage”, which involves photographing controlled subjects in a free-flowing manner akin to documentary photography. This is different from most forms of commercial photography, which requires, among other things, mood boarding, elaborate lighting and prop setups. Instead, we work directly with clients to understand their story and deliver photography around their story idea, adhering to the truth while making it all aesthetically pleasing.
As a relatively young collective, what are the challenges you and your team have faced?
The world of photography we face today is rapidly evolving. Digital photography has opened up practice to many people. Some people think that everyone is a photographer, so why waste money hiring someone else to do it? It is true that many people own professional grade cameras today, but it is also true that “it is not the camera, but the person behind the camera that matters.”
That’s why we focus very much on the individual strengths of each Captured member, and the synergy of a collective with diverse talents. We look at everyone’s personal work, and try to match each photographer’s personal aspirations. We constantly scrutinise industry trends, and ask ourselves, what are the fads, and what are the trends, and what are the game-changers.
For instance, in 2014 and 2015, we started getting requests for “instant photography”. Basically clients that ran events wanted to have an instant photo booth that made prints for clients. This trend was already taking over wedding photography. We asked ourselves, do we move in this direction? In the end, we didn’t, because we figure that clients should hire us for our personal brands and styles, not for expediency. If they do hire us, it is because of what we can capture.
But the same cannot be said about the trend of HDSLR videography. We started getting requests from clients if we can make short video clips for them. We decided that the industry is moving in this direction, and embarked on several upgrading courses to level us up to the industry standards. Of course, we are very clear that Captured is not a production house, but we would like to give clients the flexibility of capturing videos - which is an important means of communication and storytelling in the wired world today.
You are now a team of 6. what do you look for in a team member when you are looking to grow?
Personal work and artistic ambitions. There is a saying that the most expensive resource in the future will be talent. I cannot agree more.
However, when looking for a new member, I am not looking for a technical photographer who can light the most elaborate setup or a famous photographer who has shot every celebrity in Hollywood. I am looking for passion, which is often reflected in the quantity and quality of personal work a photographer has done. In the photography world today, talent can only get you so far. You need a certain doggedness to stay in this career to continuously produce what we call “cultural capital” i.e. personal work. After all, success is 99% sweat and 1% talent. So I’m always looking for people with the right ambitions, fuelled by the right dose of passion, and tempered by the right attitude to life.
"Till today, I find that clients refer back
to our personal work to know us as photographers.
This harps back to the Captured ideology for our
photographers - personal artistic pursuits alongside corporate work."
What do you think is the biggest misconception about corporate photography?
I think many people think that corporate photography involves a step-by-step process, starting with ideation with a creative agency, to looking for the right photographer. Actually it doesn’t have to be done that way. Sometimes, this can be an inefficient way of doing things because eventually what you need is great photography that tells your brand story. Thinking of photography as something at the end of the pipeline can be disastrous, because it means you are leaving the most important decision to the last.
We would advise that you start by shortlisting a few photographers who can possibly convey your brand story the best, even before engaging a creative agency, if you are intending to use one. By looking at their portfolios and personal work and biographies, you start to get a better sense whether this is the right person for the job. Ultimately, just as it is not easy to find a good employee, there is no shortcut for finding the right photographer.
What is next for Captured?
We hope that more clients come forward to leverage on our strength in storytelling for their corporate messaging. Corporate photography can be more organic, less staged, and yet achieve more impact because the images are authentic and sincere. Authentic visual content that adheres to the real story behind the business results in more compelling annual reports, collaterals and social media content for our clients. This will be our main drive going forward.
At the same time, we look forward to our next epic passion project, following the success of Island Nation as a visual documentary, a record of history and a social mover-and-shaker.
As an artist collective, Captured members will also continue to encourage and support each other in producing more personal work, because a collective is only as good as each members’ creative pursuits.
"Corporate photography can be more organic, less staged, and yet achieve more impact because the images are authentic and sincere."
Do you have any dream clients?
I would say that there is no such thing as a dream client, because as service providers we also need to have the sensibility to accept there will always be real-life limitations, e.g. budgets and corporate branding. But we have had the privilege of working with fantastic clients, who have now become friends. Here's what we observe:
A great client has a clear message, but also opens up the possibilities for the individual expression of the photographer
A great client sees his or her photographers as artists, and this perspective is often reciprocated in the form of a 110% delivery in terms of results from the photographer
A great client works with the photographer(s) as a team playing on the same side, offering clear objectives while understanding that ground conditions may modify the deliverables.
Often this is about teamwork, and a client is in fact hiring an ad hoc team member to accomplish the goals through a photography assignment. At Captured, we understand this, because we are team players ourselves.