Why you need to sign up for my newsletter

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Every photographer has a self-portrait like this.

I love being a freelance photographer. It’s fun, I get to meet all sorts of new people, it gets me into all kinds of unexpected and rewarding situations, and I get to have lots of freedom (the most important reason why I love what I do).

Early this year I decided I was having a burnout. I had been working nonstop and too hard for too long, it was time for a break. I packed up for a 2-month holiday. I spent a month in Taiwan learning to do nothing, and another month backpacking around Europe, hopping from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Budapest, Prague, Munich…

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People-watching in Copenhagen.

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Experiencing the intense beauty of Prague.

The thing I love most about being a freelance photographer is how I have the freedom to decide that I’m tired, and then the freedom to take the break that I need.

On days when I don’t have a shoot I wake up any time I want. Some days I wake up early to work and watch the morning light filter into my living room. Some days I let myself sleep till I wake naturally.

The sort of freedom I yearn for is not merely physical, but mental.

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Freedom is being able to sometimes do nothing at all, and simply be.

I never wanted to work 9-5 in an office cubicle. I knew it before I ever stepped into one. And of course I had to try it once to see if I was right. 6 months later and I was out, even though I was working at an arts organisation and it was the kind of place where you could legitimately nap after lunch and come in late whenever you wanted and just leave for home later. It was the kind of place that trusted you with freedom, and still it wasn’t free enough for me (I’ll have to admit that in this department I am a little extreme).

So it’s safe to say that I love the work I do now (and my life), and all the freedom that it affords me.

Everyone can have this sort of freedom. All you need to do is choose it. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but the first step indeed is to make a decision on the kind of life you want to live.

I know it’s hard, and there are many mental walls to break down.

But I want to help.

Tomorrow I will send out the first issue of my email newsletter. It’s a humble little thing with a big mission at its heart. With this email newsletter I hope to provide a starting point for people who dream of doing their own thing to go out there and actually start doing. And in the meantime, to build a tribe made up of fellow dreamers and fellow creators.

Come join me.

Sign up for the newsletter below, and I’ll see you in your inbox 😉

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Reaching the next tree

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“I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I was never a huge fan of running until I read the Haruki Murakami book “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”. In fact I have always downright hated it. Running always felt like the most boring sport on earth to me. Just me and my thoughts, pounding on the pavement. And pain – pain in the lungs, pain in the feet, pain everywhere. And the heat. Argh.

But my feelings about running changed almost entirely after I read the Murakami book. In fact I loved it so much I read it twice.

The first time I read it, I was just thrilled to see that the book wasn’t all about running, but also gave a rare glimpse into Murakami’s inner life as a writer. (I like the anecdote about how Murakami, upon realizing he wanted to be a writer for life, decided to ditch all his bad habits and focus on his health and fitness, just so he could live for as long as possible doing what he loves. I totally identify with the sentiment, although I certainly don’t practise it like he does.)

The second time I read it, I suddenly felt a strange impulse to get out and run. So I did.

I began running every day. On the first day I could barely manage one round around the block. On the second day I ran a little further. I told myself that it was okay to run as little as I could manage, as long as I increased the distance – no matter how little – every day.

Slowly, miraculously, I began to enjoy running. It was mainly because the more I ran, the easier it became. And then there were the… sensations. The wind in my face and hair as I ran. The slight ecstasy at the end of every run. And the feeling that I was actually getting better at something I’ve always been really bad at.

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Spending the first day of 2016… running.

Very soon I realized – running has very little to do with the body but everything to do with the mind.

Especially on a bad day, when all you want to do is not run.

On those days, it would suck to think that there were still 2km ahead of me, or 5km. The end point always seemed unimaginably far away.

Unreachable.

Then I began using a mental trick. Instead of focusing on the finishing line, on the vast distance ahead of me, I focused simply on reaching the next tree. As you know, Singapore’s pavements are lined with trees – I’m not sure of the exact distance between the trees, but they are never far apart.

By focusing on only reaching the next tree, I suddenly had a reachable goal. Every time I passed one tree, I was motivated to again reach the next tree.

That was how I made myself run without stopping, even on days when I was dead set on not running.

It struck me – how important it is to just focus on the current step and to set small, short-term goals. The next tree. The next lamp. The next traffic light. Conquer the milestones one by one, little by little. Don’t think about the end. Just relax and enjoy the run while you’re at it.

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Running by the San Francisco Bay Bridge at 7am. Glorious.

The same lessons can also be applied to my journey as a photographer. At the beginning, I did not think I possessed what it took to become a professional photographer. And I could not imagine actually reaching that point.

But I aimed for the next tree.

First I did some lowly paid work for a fashion blog shop. They paid me $150 for 3 hours, if I remember correctly, and I did the gig for months. It was uninspiring and boring work, but in the process I learnt valuable things about how to edit my photos, how to have a better editing workflow, how to balance studio light with natural light, etc. I also shot for a lot of friends for free in return for the chance to learn how to interact with my subjects.

Then once I did a terrible job at shooting the interiors of a construction company’s headquarters, and that was how I learnt to become better at photographing spaces.

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Running in Taipei on a rainy day.

“For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

So yes, here you are reading this and wanting to become a successful designer, illustrator, writer, photographer… and thinking about what a mammoth task it is going to be. You almost want to just forget all about it and go back to finding a new job (or hiding in a hole).

Well, it IS mammoth. You have this mountain right in front of you that you need to scale. If you contemplate the entire distance it takes before you can reach the summit, you might just give up here and now.

But if you think only of the next step, the next pit stop, the next camp…

Who knows, maybe you might just get there someday.

Passion vs Reality

What are you passionate about?

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Books, books, books

I’m SUPER passionate about books and reading; spending time at home alone, eating good food; being with people I adore and love; learning new things and becoming better everyday; sleeping in on lazy rainy days.

I’m quite passionate about swimming, writing, photography, Japanese design, Brutalist architecture.

I enjoy traveling, watching movies or a good TV series (like The Good Wife), listening to music.

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I enjoy traveling to Japan way too much…

I love technology and I love reading about how businesses (particularly small businesses) work.

As you can see, photography is only one of the many things I love to do in this world.

I meet people and often one of the things they like to say to me is, “It’s so great that you are doing what you love for a living!”

And then they want to listen to me talk about how to find that one passion in life and turn it into one’s work.

But there is no such thing as that ONE passion for most of us. Most of us are interested in various things to different degrees, and we like different things at different times. This is a crucial point to remember and recognise as you embark on your path towards turning your passion into reality.

In the startup world they like to use the word “pivot”. To pivot is to switch your business model to something else once you realise it’s not working. That can entail completely moving on to a different product.

An entrepreneur who started out selling furniture might end up creating a digital publishing company that sells e-books, after realising that brick-and-mortar rental is too high these days to make a retail furniture store business practical.

If you are an aspiring painter who lives to paint and wants to make your mark in this world as a celebrated painter, what I just said might sound blasphemous to you. And that’s because you are probably not who I am writing for.

I’m writing for people who are interested in escaping the shackles of conventional employment, and who want to create their own reality by making a living doing what they enjoy.

And that entails thinking like an entrepreneur.

If photography had not worked out for me after my many years of failing at other things, I would have similarly pivoted and moved on (as for when to move on, that’s a topic for a different day).

In a perfect world, I imagine I’d be very happy opening a bookstore. Then I can talk, think, breathe and live books 24/7. After all books are my biggest passion in life. But would that make me happy in the real world? Not necessarily.

Firstly, I might not actually be any good at running a bookstore, so the whole experience might not be very fulfilling for me. Secondly, I am also passionate about being financially secure. If opening a bookstore (my biggest passion) means being in debt (not a big passion of mine), then I might need to reconsider doing it.

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Owning a bookstore like this would be nice (photo credit: Atlantis Books)

(However, if I am so passionate about opening a bookstore that I can endure being in debt, then I should probably still go ahead and do it.)

So you see, this “passion vs reality” thing is shaping up to be way more complex than it seems…

To keep things simple, it really boils down to this:

What is your top priority in life?

You have to be very honest with yourself. Is it the pure pursuit of your craft? Is it being able to earn a good living doing what you love? Is it a mixture of both (which, in my opinion, is the best way to live)?

If it is the latter, you will need to stop seeing the world in black and white, in neatly separated categories. You will need to think less like a starving artist and more like an entrepreneur.

You will need to be flexible.

You will need to change with the times.

You will need to be willing to move on from things that don’t work.

You will need to work damn hard at being an actor because you think that’s what you’re really passionate about. And after a few years of backbreaking (and heartbreaking) work you will need to switch paths and work damn hard at maybe becoming a chef (because that’s what you love to do too) after you realise that being an actor is simply not going to work out.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

After all, if you are afraid to fail at things, you will never succeed (unless you’re a forgettable one-hit wonder).

So good luck, my friends, and let’s keep failing together until we succeed!

A Simple Day

For years I dreamed of doing something to spread the idea that happiness can be very simple. It didn’t materialize until last Sunday afternoon, when my friend Cynthea and I finally organised a little event titled “A Simple Day”.

It was glorious.

The location was at an old black and white terrace house in the middle of nowhere (it’s Cynthea’s studio space on a normal day). We had invited three guests to share their stories with us.

Madi, who told us about his fascinating journey to discover his purpose in life; Lionel, who shared tips and ideas about how we can all find financial happiness; and Daniel, whose uproariously funny and also moving talk reminded us to live a life of simple gratitude.

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A Simple Day of good vibes, good people and good stories

Friends and strangers came. People we had never met, friends we’d not seen in a long time. Everyone gathered in a little room, listening to stories that put a smile on their faces.

After the event ended, people came up to us and told us how inspired they were by the afternoon.

Cynthea and I were overcome with a happiness that wrapped around us like a warm, fuzzy blanket. We knew people needed to hear about the idea of simple happiness, but we had no idea how much people needed it.

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Cynthea and Jan, meeting for the first time

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Daniel, before his extremely entertaining and engaging talk

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Friends, old and new – thank you for coming!

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A Simple Day is definitely not going to end at one event. It is a community, a tribe, an idea, a seed, and hopefully a movement.

A movement about what?

A movement about happiness. And not just happiness, but simple happiness.

We want to spark conversations about how little it takes to be happy. We also want to keep all our events and activities entirely free. In a world where everything is a transaction, we want to keep A Simple Day free for everyone to be a part of.

Society imprisons people with its rules and expectations. It tells you to achieve certain things, behave in certain ways. And it tells you to (endlessly) buy things. We want to put a stop to all of that in our own way.

(And for us, it’s an amazing feeling to be doing things we are passionate about in exchange for not money but smiles on other people’s faces! It’s the most liberating and free feeling in the world.)

“Simple happiness” isn’t always self-explanatory, but I think Daniel summed it up very well for us when he used this phrase during his talk –

“Enough is plenty”.

*

I had met Cynthea serendipitously a few years ago at an event; a few months after that we bumped into each other while we were both eating alone. The waiter had seated us next to each other. I think we were both a little apprehensive at being seated next to an acquaintance with whom we now had to make small talk, but we needn’t have worried. We spent the next 3 hours talking about everything under the sun. We talked about happiness. About depression. About our work. About how to find meaning in the things we do. Everything.

And now here we are, trying to change the world together (into a happier one!).

Read more about A Simple Day and what we do at our Facebook page.

And join us next time if you are free!

How to shoot for a top international magazine

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The current issue of Monocle

When I was still a newbie photographer, I really, really wanted to shoot for Monocle. I thought it would be the coolest thing in the world to do (since Monocle was, to me at that time, the coolest magazine in the world). And I knew it would be useful for my budding photography career to shoot for such an influential publication.

The problem was, how do I actually get my foot in the door?

I remember thinking to myself at the time, “So many photographers want to shoot for Monocle. They probably already work with a whole stable of existing established photographers. Why would they commission me? And how do I even make them realise I exist?”

I decided on the simplest solution. I emailed them!

Hi David,

I got your email some time ago regarding the featuring of Casual Days, a magazine I published awhile back, on your Monocle radio show. Just wanted to let you know that the magazine is currently on hiatus, but if and when a new issue comes out I’d love to send you a copy!

Also, I am actually a photographer based in Singapore, working in and around Asia. Here you can see my portfolio of work: http://rebeccatoh.com/

And here’s a link to my photo project “Creative People + Projects” where I meet and photograph creative people I admire around Asia: http://creativepeopleprojects.co/

If your magazine should need a photographer in this region, and you find my work suitable, I’d be more than happy to help / collaborate.

Thank you and have a great day!

PS: Keep up the good work on The Urbanist! Monocle 24 is a breath of fresh air!

Best,
Rebecca

David got back to me and told me to email their photo department instead. And the rest is history. I have since worked with Monocle on many of their editorials in Singapore and Malaysia, and I have also been commissioned by their parent company Winkreative to work on bigger commercial projects.


One of the portraits from my personal project, Creative People + Projects, that I started early on before I became a working photographer

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One of my commissions from Monocle – an advertorial of Singapore Airlines for one of their issues

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Winkreative sent me to Okayama in Japan to shoot a project for Lexus

All the jobs above and more (and many thousands of dollars in income) came from my simple decision to ask.

Some lessons there:

(1) Sometimes the best solution is the simplest. To get a potential client’s attention, sometimes all you need to do is knock on their door.

(2) Before knocking on their door, though, you will need to already have a portfolio of work that suits the style of the magazine or the client you want to shoot for. To get that portfolio of work, you probably need to spend some time working for free, either on your own personal project or with smaller companies who are willing to let you shoot for them before you even have a decent portfolio. So go hustle!

(3) It’s not a catch-22. Big brands and companies are more willing to work with new photographers than you imagine. You don’t need to already be established, although, like I mentioned above, you DO need a good portfolio. And you can create that portfolio easily by shooting work that you want to be hired for on your own time. You want to be hired by Adidas? Shoot the kind of stuff Adidas puts out in its campaigns.

(4) One opportunity will lead to more opportunities. Because I shot for Monocle, potential clients who are looking for a similar aesthetic have stumbled upon my portfolio through Google. Or they might have read about me on the bio page of the magazine. Or someone might say to a potential client, “Hey, you know that photographer? She has shot for magazines like Monocle. She must be good.” Your credibility as a photographer builds from things like this.

(5) Apply the age-old adage of “Ask and you shall receive” to your life. You will be surprised at the opportunities that people are willing to give you.

Finally, in the spirit of this important lesson, watch this amazing talk by Amanda Palmer about the magic that happens when you have the courage to ask.