She isn’t just making her way around the world, she’s capturing it. Photographer, Su Shan Leong (SSL) is the founder of KNOTS, a publication that shares the stories of creative individuals. Local Wolves got the chance to ask Su Shan what it’s like to be a photographer in the UK, necessary travel tips, and running her own online publication.
You’re still a student, how do you make time for travelling, staying consistent on social media platforms, and taking photographs?
SSL — Yes! I am an undergraduate at the University of Leeds majoring in Fashion Marketing. Honestly, it is quite surprising how I manage to prioritise my time on university assignments, gallivanting around the world, updating my social media (mainly Instagram) regularly and taking photographs. A lot of my fellow university friends are quite amazing but how I do it. I am still trying my best to cope with all these things going on around me. Firstly, my calendar is filled with events and deadlines of all my assignments. Then I work my butt off to finish everything a few days before the deadline. Hard work and fewer nights out is the trick! For me, I always set my priorities straight, and I will get everything done. With regards to the gallivanting around the world, I have a list of cities that I want to travel before I graduate from university. Hence, I just travel alone if I do not have friends to visit with. If I am travelling with my college friends, we plan like three months in advance. Yup, I have my summer vacation scheduled for this year! It’s going to be an exciting one! Oh for photography, I just mainly shoot around Leeds when I am free which is hardly the case now. If I am chilling in a café, I will take a hipster photograph of my food. If I am wearing a chic outfit, I will take my #OOTD, and won’t be judged because I am a fashion student. That’s how I keep up to date with my social media and photography.
Do you prefer shooting digitally or on film?
SSL — Oh no, this is a tough question! I started digital photography back in 2012 when I had the chance to travel around central Europe with my family. I did not have a smartphone or a DSLR back then. Throughout the trip, I had to borrow my mother’s iPhone 3 to shoot on. It’s embarrassing to bug her to lend me her phone however that was how I train my eye for photography. My proudest selection of photos I took was up the Swiss Alps (Mt Titlis) because of the breathtaking landscape which consists of clear blue sky and fluffy white snow. I had a great time shooting at Mt. Titlis and had a massive snowball fight with a bunch of my tour mates too! Film photography started a year after, one of my friends in school was playing around with her Lomo La Sardina and LC-A camera, and I fell in love with her photographs. I started saving up and got my first ever film camera which is the Diana F+ that uses 120mm film. Eventually, I got myself a professional Canon AE-1 Program with a 50mm lens from eBay, which I still use till this day. Back in February, I took my film and digital camera to Amsterdam, and I shot on my Canon AE-1 more than my DSLR, which reminds me I need to develop my three rolls of film soon. I love shooting on film because of the raw and authentic vibes. Not only that, the thrill of shooting on film cannot be replicated when I shoot digitally. I only have 36 shots to get it right, and I can’t see the photographs till I developed it which meant I have to be precise in the composition of all my photos. This help to build up your basic techniques for photography. Oh and let’s not forget about the gorgeous colour tones of the film which is what drawn me to it. Kodak 160 is my favourite roll of film to shoot on without a doubt because the colours and skin tones are stunningly gorgeous! Also, I shoot on my polaroid camera especially on my Instax 210. This camera has travelled to countless of countries from Canada to Japan, and I have collated a staggering amount of polaroids. My plan with this is eventually to have a whole wall of beautiful landscapes and memories in my very own flat. So, I would say film photography always, and I am still trying to perfect my technique on it!
You’ve travelled all over the world, how has that had an influence on your photography?
SSL — I would say travelling around the world has exposed me to different architectures, landscapes, and cultures which have honed my eye. I will try to think of creative shots that would be distinct from the rest. But, I wouldn’t dare to do crazy shots like standing on rooftops or a cliff because I am terribly afraid of heights. I may have to try to overcome this fear because I see a lot of amazing photographs that come out of it. A quick story about what I have mentioned above, I recently went to Isle of Skye in Scotland a week before Christmas with my primary school friend studying in Exeter. I was overlooking the breathtaking view of Scotland from Quairang, which the bus managed to drive up. When we finally reached the top, my dear friend ran all the way to the cliff. She asked me to photograph her, but I have to take it 2km away with my zoom lens because my legs were shaking so badly. Argh! #BloodyScaredOfHeights
What’s your favorite city you’ve been to?
SSL — Oh no, I have been to so many cities, and now I only get one choice. Hmm, I would say my recent trip to Amsterdam, Netherlands because it was the first time I travelled alone without my family or school trips. Initially, I was supposed to hitch to Amsterdam raising funds for the refugee council, but I had a museum exhibition event to attend on that very day. I decided to travel to Amsterdam even without hitching, so I booked my flights and went for it. It was the most exhilarating and intense four days of my life. I met my friend who hitches all the way from Leeds, United Kingdom and we explored the city together. We spent a full day at Zaan Schans to see the iconic windmills, and was stopped by one lovely little boy who had an obsession with my colorful unicorn hair. He said he loved it with the cutest smile on his face which made my day. My friend said he might have a crush on me. Bless him. Oh, we went for an afternoon stroll at Vondelpark and of course not forgetting all the delicious European food too! Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities that I have travelled too because I have never felt more at home. If you look beyond what Amsterdam traditionally offers (prostitution and drugs), you will find that it is an amazing city to live in. It is easy to navigate around, and I adapted pretty quickly to the city. I stayed at Joordan which is where I find the most beautiful and authentic part of the city. Located in my area are the famous canals and there is a crazy amount of hipster cafes, restaurants and individual designer stores around my vicinity. Not only that, the locals (Dutch) were all so kind and friendly, and I never felt a sense of discrimination which I have unfortunately received in some cities. Since I am an artsy individual; I love the fact that there were countless of museums for me to visit which I did!
When did you realise that photography was your true passion?
SSL — I understand photography was my true passion when I started to get excited about it. I eat, sleep and breathe my passion. You know you have a passion for it when you start shooting, and time passes by. For example, I went on a shoot in London because one of my friends needed some street style shots. I went around Shoreditch and started shooting for her and loved every moment of it. Not only that, I started receiving positive recognition for my work and thought photography could be my passion. Currently, one of my photographs is being displayed at Leeds City Museum for a special exhibit called Faces of Leeds. My photograph is one of the few photos that won the contest out of 500 images submitted which was surprising because that was the first assignment for my elective photography module. Never in a million years did I think that my photograph will be hung and framed in a museum. As photographers, we all know that light plays an important part. The best time I love to shoot is during the golden hours because it is the most convenient time for me. I’d like to call it #chasingsunsets. When you place me in that situation, I get excited and trust me; I will run to the location to get the shots I want. I did that at Tanah Lot in Bali, Indonesia with my family a while back. I ran all the way to the beach in less than 15 minutes from the car park just to get amazing sunset shots that I want. Yup, that’s my true passion for my art.
Has photography always been something you loved doing?
SSL — Answering the second question, I love photography, but I do not think I take photographs that people want to buy and collect. People say “follow your passion” strive for it but you know, it’s tough being a photographer. There are just too many photographers around these days especially with the social media platform – Instagram, a breeding ground for talents. They are all so hardworking and talented in what they do. I have seen so many Instagram creatives that are now professional photographers working for big brands and organization and it’s all because of this application. I think if you are a mediocre photographer like me you can’t make it that far in the highly saturated industry. That is why I doubt my photography can take me far in life and partly the reason why I am looking at other fields in the fashion industry. Sometimes your true passion can’t take you far in life.
If you could sum up your style of photography in a few words, what would they be?
SSL — I am still finding my style of photography. Photography for me has and will always be a learning process. We shouldn’t be constraint by the style of photography because that will not define us. Just explore, shoot openly and creatively. Always remember the possibilities for getting a good photograph lies in the eye of the photographer, not the gazettes and gizmos.
Where are you originally from and how did growing up there influence your “globe-trotter” attitude?
SSL — I am born and bred in Singapore, which is known as the little red dot in Southeast Asia. My country has grown from a third world nation to a first in a span of 50 years! I am proud to be a Singaporean.
Growing up in Singapore did influence my jet-setter attitude because my country is so small spanning 50km from east to west. My country does have a lot to offer, and I do love it, but it doesn’t have beautiful natural landscape like mountains and valleys which I long admired. Not only that, Singapore is practically summer all year round with the annual monsoon season. Many Singaporeans just like me love to get out of the country when it gets too warm and travel to countries with a slightly temperate climate. Yup, that is why I love to travel around the world to see what it has to offer.
How has Instagram played a role in your career?
SSL — I have been on Instagram from the very beginning (2010). Then, it was a platform for me to share my filtered pictures with my friends. Over the years, my Instagram page started to evolve. I created an account just for my travels and through that account. Then I ponder to myself “What are the stories behind those amazing pictures? Is there a platform that story tell their lives yet?” Therefore, I created an online publication called KNOTS. I curate stories knowing that every brilliant photographer and designer has a unique life-story that shapes their works. The website features interviews with creatives such as Nicole Eddy, Andrea Dal Soglio, Elijah Emerald, etc. on Instagram. However, I am planning to take it to the next level by making it into a digital publication in a couple of months’ time. We will be curating our content that has some relation to Singapore but also keeping this unique feature that fans of KNOTS gain their inspiration.
What do you hope your photos convey?
SSL — I hope my travel photos will inspire others to globe trot around the world. Well, I do appreciate them liking my photos on Instagram, but I want them to see and explore the cities on their own or with their loved ones. It is magical to travel, experience new cultures and sometimes this cannot be captured in a single photograph.
You seem always to be somewhere new! What are some travel tips/necessities you can give to readers?
SSL — Aww, I take that as a compliment yeah! I will list three tips/needs especially when you travel alone:
- Always keep an eye of your belongings! Keep it near you at all times! Do not ever carry a bag pack and place your wallet in there. I learnt it the hard way. On the last day of my trip in Amsterdam, I put my wallet on top of my scarf in my bag after shopping at the first store. I only realised I was pickpocketed when I entered the fifth store. I never expected it, and I was alone, my friend went back to Leeds a day before. I lost everything except my phone and passport. I had never felt this afraid in my life. I couldn’t get from the train station to the airport because I needed to purchase a ticket. Thank god, my aunt had a fellow friend residing at the South of Netherlands and she travelled all the way to the capital to help me out! When we met, she told me she hasn’t been to the Amsterdam for a few years but made her way up for me. Aww, bless her!
- Photograph your memories! That means bringing a camera or using your smartphone and capturing all the sights you see. However, do give yourself a “digital” break once in a while so you can take in everything with your eyes and lock it in your memory. Sometimes some situations are worth not capturing.
- Immerse yourself in the local culture! Get lost and explored the city. Take their public transports like trams, buses or simply take a stroll to your destination. Through that you will find magical alleys, stunning architectures, hipster cafes, meet amazing locals and have the time of your life.