Conversation with photographer Alvin Lim

I met Alvin Lim back in 2010. At the time, he was producing a film. Since then, Alvin has shifted more into photography. I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with him in Singapore before he embarks on a two-year stint in Europe. 

Below is a conversation I had with him over dinner. 

If you’re going to do work as an artist, then I suggest you be hungry to be questioning the accepted paradigm, the sure thing about the medium or certain issues that you want to talk about. Right now, to me, art cannot be done for art’s sake.
— Alvin Lim

Q: How did you get your start?

A: I was doing a diploma in Film Sound & Video at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

Q: To people unfamiliar with Singapore, is Ngee Ann Polytechnic a high school or a junior college?

A: It’s a vocational training school after secondary school here. A vocational training, a film school, training you to be proficient in filmmaking.

Q: But they don’t train you for film producing though, which is quite different.

A: No, it’s film directing, pretty much the technical stuff.

Q: How did you end up being a film producer?

A: Well, not immediately, my major in school then was Sound actually. My major modules were in Sound. Producing was not the first thing that came to mind as a career option. In fact, at the time, I don’t think most people know what a producer does. Everybody knows what a director, actor, cinematographer do, but not for a producer. To most people at the time in school, a producer was usually a girl who’s good at managing stuff. In that context, I wasn’t good with that at that period of time when I was 17 to 20.

Q: How did you transition from sound to producing?

A: Producing didn’t arrive that early. It was sound, then photography, and then producing.

Q: Photography, not cinematography?

A: Photography, yeah. There was a compulsory module in school which is basic photography. I barely passed the module. Then, 3 years later, I finished my core modules and I had a lot of time to fill in my electives and at the time, I don’t know why, I wanted to do photography as an elective in school. So I kind of beg my way to the same lecturer who gave me a “D” grade for my basic photography. I spoke to the program chair and course leader and they let me do it. So, it was great and it was quite defining. It changed a little bit because my interest shifted from sound to photography. At the same time that I was doing that, I was actually volunteering to do live sound mixing in an auditorium for about 3000 people so I was involved in live sound. But a year into it, I realize that it’s not what I wanted to do so I kind of stop pursuing sound production and just went to photography. But, I haven’t answer your question, what was my first film, have I?

Q: [laughter] No, you haven’t. 

A: My first film is actually when I was in school at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. We have a graduating film at the end. Everyone had to do it. I was a sound designer and music composer for our final graduation piece. I was basically in charge of all things related to sound. It was a 15 minute film.

Q: What’s it called?

A: It’s called The Soldier, set in Singapore during World War II, exploring the brief bond formed between a Japanese and a local soldier.

Q: What happened then after The Soldier?

A: I went to NS (National Service), which most of us did at that time. That was defining again because halfway through my training, I was injured and I was not combat fit. Then, I had a decision to make as there was an opening in two different departments, the film unit in the Singapore Armed Forces, who was in need of a sound engineer, and the other opening was with Pioneer magazine, a monthly magazine that is circulated to servicemen and anyone who subscribed to the military stuff in Singapore. The magazine came back to me first and so I got posted to the magazine to be a photographer and that’s pretty much it. That entire time that I spent there sealed the deal for me because I knew at the time that whichever path I took, after National Service, I was pretty sure that path would be the one that I would carry on and continue doing for a long time. I knew I was going to be doing photography after I finish my national service. I was going to move into photography and might even do journalism.

Q: During that time, you were about 20-22 years old. Once you got out of NS, then you started producing?

A: No. I was still doing photography. I was doing freelance for two years but still kept in contact with former classmates who were still working on films and they would be looking for me to do on set photography for them. So I was still more of a photographer than a producer. It’s only in 2008 when I suddenly decided that I wanted to jump back into productions.

Q: Why?

A: It was through a project. A friend of mine came to me with a proposal to do a short film and a photo exhibition to raise awareness about HIV / AIDs. So, I was like, I know the perfect person to collaborate with, my friend from school and I contacted him and we’re like, yeah, let’s write a script. So, it’s another short film. That’s the second film I did. So, two short films now.

Q: What’s the second film called?

A: August 29th. It was in collaboration with Health Promotion Board of Singapore. I co-wrote the script with him. I co-directed with him. After that short film was done, I was doing a documentary photography on the HIV positive patients in Singapore.

Q: It’s a documentary or a photography? Sorry, I’m a bit confused. 

A: The short film is narrative, a fictional narrative. Other than that, there was also a documentary photography that I was doing on my own. So, it’s one campaign, but two projects. I was involved in both the short film and the documentary photography. That was 2008 and that’s when I went back to school, to Chapman University Singapore to do producing.

Q: Why producing then? After you’ve done photography, why not cinematography?

A: Like I said, initially in school, the producers then were known for mostly being girls because they’re more organized and can do those things better. After doing freelance photography, running my own show, sole-proprietor kind of way, I had to do a bit of scheduling and budgeting and planning on my own. And for some strange reason, at that point in time, I realize that I actually enjoy doing it. I realized that, yeah, I can do this, which was not something I could do years before, not when I was in film school and not when I was in NS or even when I was fresh out of NS. So, it came quite late, this whole sense of organizational awakening.

Q: [Laughter] That’s great, I like the term “organizational awakening.”

A: [Laughter] It came quite late and the chance came for the Chapman program - Creative Producing, which sounded good. There was a chance to go to LA to do an internship. It was a two year program. The professors were from Hollywood and they have a lot of experiences. In hindsight, it was a really good choice to be in school for two years. I got contacts and learned a lot of things in the Hollywood perspective, but I think it’s good, to always have that perspective so something to aspire to in comparison to the industry in Singapore. I particularly learned a lot from them.

Q: After August 29th, you became a full-time producer?

A: No. I was financing my own studies when I was in Chapman so I had to still work as a photographer.

Q: Photographer for the magazine?

A: No, the magazine was just for NS. I was doing photography for whatever jobs I have. At the same time that was happening, I was bringing in jobs to my friends’ production company. Same friend that I was collaborating with for August 29th. He had a partnership with my other friends from film school. So, I started to bring some work to them. The next work I brought was music videos for a local musician. Again, collaboration, but I was doing the lead producing and pretty much everything. The producers here [in Singapore] generally does everything from creative producing to line producing.

Q: Why did you have to find the financing for a music video? The client should have given you the funding.

A: No, the client is a local person and he doesn’t have the financial backing. So I had to look for money to get the video done.

Q: Your client is the musician?

A: No, the client is not a musician. The client is an organization where they decided to use the musician. It’s kind of a tie-up with the musicians so they’ll do promo for them as well. So, I kind of manage to tie all these things together. I found that person who had the power to say yes to give some money to make the music videos. My part was to just get the music videos done.

Q: How many music videos did you do?

A: Two! That was during the first semester of Chapman. 

Q: Do you like music videos? I’m only asking because music videos is also how a lot of filmmakers and producers get their start.

A: It was fun. I wasn’t the director so I didn’t get too much of the creativity, but in terms of story ideas, we again collaborated. We pitched the idea to the organization.

Q: Were you ever interested in directing?

A: No. I could direct my shoot for photography, but I find it difficult to direct for film. I just don’t have the sense for it. When you’re directing for stills, you’re only getting that one moment. That one shot. But when you’re directing for film, it’s a lot more collaborative and I think that goes back to the question, “Why did I go to photography and not cinematography?”. One reason why I went to photography after sound major and not do film stuff for a while is because photography gave me room for creative control and basically, I had to answer only to myself. I could do something with minimal intervention. I could do what I want to do and get it out as a form of art or visual communication piece. I like that. At that point in time, I wasn’t too interested in collaborative work because I found it too emotionally taxing at times.

Q: You produced your second film. You did some music videos. Then, when did you shift again from not producing to pursuing an MA in Photography?

A: While we were in the creative producing program at Chapman, our graduation piece was to have a business plan for work. In school then, two other friends and I, managed to get options from a guest speaker at Chapman. We got the options done, basically practiced whatever we had learned. It was kind of timely as well in terms of how things go about. By the time we graduated, we had two commissions for telemovies. We just created our own company and we got our first jobs — back-to-back telemovies for Okto, a media channel in Singapore that’s mostly targeted at teen and children programming, based on the options that we did for the speaker that was in school. Lots of connections going around.

Q: Yeah, everything is coming together.

A: Yes. So, we worked on the two telemovies and I produced them both. My partners are writers so they took one story each and I was producing both projects. After the wrap for the production of the first telemovie, I switched hats to the second one to do pre-production.

Q: What was the movie called?

A: The first one was called Super Duper Smartimizer, about a device that makes this kid really, really smart. The second one was Christina and the Runaways, which is a musical.

Q: I remembered this! I visited the set one day. It was at the ITE.

A: Oh, yes! It was when we were doing the concert scene. So yeah, it was a musical. That’s a lot tougher to produce as compared to the first telemovie. A lot of coordination.

Q: But you already had experienced with music videos, so in a way, you sort of know what to do.

A: Yeah, everything came together, music production and sound production. 

Q: So after the second telemovie, then what happened?

A: After we wrapped production for the second telemovie, I left the post-production to my partners and then I had an overseas photography gig that I needed to attend to so I left. I went to Europe to shoot wedding photos for my client. We were shooting in Sweden and Paris.

Q: Nice!

A: After the shoot in Paris, I carry on my journey. I did my first backpacking trip in Europe.

Q: Which year was that?

A: 2011. I traveled for two and a half months in Europe then.

Q: Did you pick up French?

A: No. The French weren’t too friendly in Paris. I was just traveling, it was quite fun traveling alone. Went to 8 countries then. It was really fun. Then, I came back. While I was abroad, we got commissioned for TV series for Okto.

Q: Congrats!

A: Thanks, but I came back and I had a different direction. I decided that due to certain conditions of the local industry, like it’s not being ideal for people who are above the line, I decided to go back to photography. Doing the telemovie, I was re-introduced to how tedious it can be to work with a bunch of people who have different ideas, directions, ambitions, aspirations, while still delivering the product. Again, the collaborative process of filmmaking, which I forgot how difficult it was, and plus the fact that I had some personal reservation about the local film industry in terms of longevity. I started to jump back into photography. Then again, I was always doing photography, whether its photography on set or freelancing.

Q: So you were always a photographer.

A: Yeah, it’s always been a parallel track. It’s interesting because both medium are photographic, just one is moving and one is still. It’s always moving in parallel. It depends on what hats I need to put on for which project, then I’ll just put it on. I think it’s complementary to me. It’s not something that is distinctly separate. There’s certain skillsets that’s non-transferable but I’ve always been a photographer. Producing just came along. 

Q: Given your reservation about the local industry, how is it different for a photographer? You think the photography market is better for the local market here? More robust than the film market?

A: To a certain extent. I paid my school through photography. Even in London I was still doing photography work. I have experience and a certain clientele, people always calling me back for work, so yeah, I think it’s more robust. I’m running my own show. I take the jobs I want. Things have changed a little bit since then. DSLR is cheaper and a lot of people are getting in and charging a lot less for things. It’s much more competitive now, but you still can make a living if you have enough experience and contacts. 

Q: You started in Sound, so have you stopped being interested in Sound? What happened with sound for you? I know that you realized you didn’t want to do Sound but, you were interested in the beginning so has all of that left or is it still there dormant?

A: I won’t do it as professionally. It’s still with me. We have to go back even before polytechnic, I was in the school band. I was a drum major, playing music.  When I was 13-16, I was contemplating to be a musician so the Sound thing kind of complement that move, being a Sound Engineer and being a musician. That kind of work.

Q: That means you’ve always been interested in the arts. You never consider jobs that Asian parents usually push for like doctors, engineers, finance, any of that?

A: I could’ve been an accountant, I was quite good at it. Until the school changed a teacher and the teacher was not that effective in teaching and my grades dropped and then I gave up on it. I could’ve been an accountant because I was good at it.

Q: But you weren’t interested in it. I mean, you were good at it, but you didn’t like it. 

A: No, I was interested in it until they changed the teacher. Then, the interest was gone. You’re right though, it’s mostly been the creative things — music, sound, film and photography. A thing you didn’t know, the film school wasn’t my first choice. My choices were then quite “Asian”. I studied Electronics and computer engineering for one semester. Two weeks into the course, I hated it and wanted to get out, but I had to finish the entire semester because I wanted to transfer from this engineering school to film school, but they won’t allow me to leave, I had to finish a semester and I had to score as well. So, I had to endure three months of engineering. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do soldiering. I was really bad at it.

Q: How about writing? For film, you collaborated a lot, that means you have ideas. You ever consider writing or producing something of your own work? Has there ever been a project, that’s like, “this is mine”?

A: August 29th is somewhat that. Other than that, not really. Part of creative producing is being able to identify good story, emphasis on good storytelling structure and most recently, my classmate and I collaborated again to see if we can work on something. He wanted to do his first feature. I used whatever I learned at Chapman to complement whatever idea he had. We came up with an outline for a feature, not sure when he’s going to bring it up for the development grant, but that’s something I written.

Q: Is August 29th your favorite film that you worked on?

A: No, I don’t think I have a favorite film to be honest.

Q: Come on! Really? So, you like all your work equally?

A: No, I don’t like them equally.

Q: Which one do you like least? Was there a film that you would have done something differently?

A: At that point in time, it was the best that we could do. In retrospect, I don’t like any of them. I’m in a different stage of my life now and when I look back, I just think…

Q: It could’ve been done better?

A: Well, at that point in time, no. At that stage in our lives, that’s the best we could do at the point in time. I don’t like them now because it feels like, yes, they could be better, and at this point in time, it could be better so I don’t like it. Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure if I’m being hard, I think I am being hard. I don’t hate it. I won’t say it’s my best film, not like I’m Christopher Nolan and I would say that Prestige is my best film.

Q: How about photography?

A: I have more favorite things in photography.  I think, right now, my favorite piece would be my graduation piece from my MA work. The MA was another turning point in my life. I think I mentioned this before, the MA from London, the University of Westminster, it’s a Masters in Art in Photography Studies. The program does not deal too much with the technical stuff. It’s actually more about photographic theories and it’s something that I had no idea existed when I was here, working as a professional photographer. I was looking for a change, I felt that I was hitting a ceiling here. I could not break out from certain limitations, like I hit a roof and I couldn’t break through the roof.

Q: Creatively or technically?

A: Creatively. I couldn’t think of anything else that didn’t seem too contrived in terms of the conceptual work I was trying to do. Everything seems a bit trivial and childish. I was looking for a way to improve myself, increase the capacity that I can in that area. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I was going to the MA course, but once it started, the first few lessons, I knew I was in the right place because every lesson was pretty much mind-blowing. New tools for me to learn to craft the message behind the photograph and London and Paris is pretty much the birthplace of photography. They have a long history and university departments that are specialized in photography.

Q: What’s your graduation piece called?

Alvin Lim's graduation piece -  Keys

Alvin Lim's graduation piece - Keys

A: It’s called Keys. It could mean many things and the reason I’m happy with the work is because it deals with the things I learned in the course. One of the things is a theory called semiotics, the study of signs. Keys was based on that idea. Keys, when you hear it, you’ll think it’s keys to the door, but actually the work is a still-life work that is based on the computer keys — keyboard keys. So, there’s a play on words as well, semiotics and that’s part of the whole process. In fact, the keyboard keys itself has certain symbols as well which have their own meanings. I felt that I was able to conceptualize and yet have a very workable framework, there’s a certain kind of rigor to it to a certain extent. 

Q: You’re technically a self-taught photographer, right? You had a photography course, the black and white, but it wasn’t a degree in photography. After your two courses, you were pretty much self-taught.

A:  Yeah, on the job mostly. Back to National Service, most of the people there were professionals. They’ve been there for a while and part of our work involved being the photographer for the Ministry of Defense so that means sometimes I get to travel. One of the most memorable period of time was in 2004, there was a massive earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia. Singapore Armed Forces was volunteering our resources and expertise to the Indonesian government because it happened so quickly, no one knew how big of a disaster it was. It was a disaster relief operation and what I needed to do as a photographer was to cover this and sometimes have photos that would be delivered to the press, Singapore and everywhere else. So, that was a kind of baptism by fire. I had to deliver the photographs because sometimes I was the only photographer and the media relations needed to forward that piece of news to external news agencies. It’s National Service, so I’m serving my country, but at the same time, it was a training ground for me to be a professional photographer.

Q: That’s a lot of natural light.

A: Yes, it was more documentary or editorial photography.

Q: So, what about your studio work? Studio lighting, was that on the job too? Or did you train yourself?

A: Studio came after NS, when I was freelancing. I was assisting another photographer who was doing his studio work. That’s where I picked it up. Prior to freelancing, everything was street, documentary photography, photojournalistic kind of thing.

Q: What’s the funniest story you have on a film or photography set? Any memorable moments that stood out?

A: [Long silence] On set? A lot of times I was making sure the production is running smoothly, on time, on schedule, and on budget.

Q: That’s a good producer. No one was goofing around? No honest mistake that turned out to be…you know…

A: No, I don’t think we had any of that.

Q: What would be your advice for someone who wants to be a photographer in Singapore or pursue the creative arts here?

A: I think to be hungry. To study more. Practical and theoretical, not just practical theory, you know, not just how to set up lights. To understand the medium and to read more about the history of the medium. It really depends, if you’re a working photographer, there’s certain things you need to worry about which an art photographer would not have to worry about. Right now, as a photographic artist and working in the framework of contemporary / fine art, I’m more concern about having works that would change perspective on certain issues — social issues or something — that will question the boundary of what photography is, or at least to understand what photography is. An example is that in most Asian countries, it’s still quite apparent that a lot of people/consumers/mainstream people, when they see a photograph, they take for granted that it’s sort of the truth, there’s an element of truth in it. Obviously, it’s a representation of a certain event or someone was there to capture the event physically and it’s been seen as evidence or use as evidence for truth. But in Europe, this isn’t the case, it’s been thrown out. There’s no singular truth in photographs. This is something that I only encountered when I was doing my MA. If you’re a working photographer, I say you need to be as hungry as you can to do the best with the things that you want to do as a professional photographer. If you’re going to do work as an artist, then I suggest you be hungry to be questioning the accepted paradigm, the sure thing about the medium or certain issues that you want to talk about. Right now, to me, art cannot be done for art’s sake. I see that art has a social impact, one way or another, or at least bring it to consciousness, certain things that might be swept under the carpet or not talk about or think about. Right now, art that would interest me, would be art that has a little snug of politics, sociology, and something more thoughtful, more intellectual, something more cerebral and yet at the same time, able to communicate something through the art, through the piece, not something too obscure, unless it’s abstract for a good reason, but the framework and method behind doing it is still very important.

Q: How different is it to be a photographer in Singapore as compare to a photographer in Europe?

A: It’s very competitive in Europe. There’s a lot of photographers, more so than in Asia. They have a heritage of photography since the invention of photography. They already have institutions that are training photographers from universities. For us, it’s not as much. In Singapore, there’s only one university that you can major in photography, which is NTU, that’s the only one where you can have a “proper” education. Most working photographers either learned it through apprenticeship or self-taught to a certain extent, on the job learning and then get to a level where they’re very proficient in the work.

Q: But there are advantages to not having such a rich history. In a way, you can start fresh. You can question things that people with heritage might find it difficult to question.

A: I have not encountered that. I have not encountered someone who has not been trained, or anyone, if you talk to anyone about photography, photographic theory, I think they would quite naturally think it’s about the practical theory and not about the theories that are embedded in photography itself. For example, it’s being used as apparatus of power both in colonial time and not. The function of photography in society.

Q: You think, as an art form, it’s more widely accepted in Europe.

A: Yes, for sure. So, photographers here [in Singapore] need to be hungry. 

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can check out more of Alvin's work on Facebook or his personal website

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