Yiqin and Bernice were our secondary schoolmates who never prioritized grades. In fact, there were three classes in our cohort dubbed the hopeless kids – we were in one and they were in another. But like so many young entrepreneurs we’ve met, Bernice and Yiqin prove that you don’t have to do well in school to have a successful career. Both Bernice and Yiqin have now started their own businesses – Bernice runs iwwi, a wedding photography studio, and Yiqin fronts both Lightsauce Pictures, which specializes in wedding videography, as well as Optical Films, responsible for corporate video projects. On top of their day jobs, the two also joined forces to start Beyond the Border, Behind the Men, a project that celebrates the Bangladeshi migrant worker community.
Q: You guys weren’t exactly photography buffs when we were students. How did you get started in the field?
Yiqin (Y): I studied Literature when I was in Uni, which is kind of unrelated to what I’m doing now. But when I was still a student I was interested in film and how movies are made, so I decided to do an internship in a production company when I was still a student. From there I got to know a few people in the industry, and so I would just work and help them out at their shoots. Over time I began to freelance (while I was still studying). I actually tried to search for a ‘regular’ job when I graduated but it was a half-hearted affair. During that time I was still freelancing occasionally, so I decided to give it a go and turn my freelance job into my full-time career. I gave myself six months where I tried to get a steady stream of jobs… but that didn’t happen because I wasn’t from the industry and wasn’t well-connected.
But I was lucky enough to meet people who pushed me in the right direction. I started in wedding videography because it’s one of the easiest and most widely available jobs around – someone always has a cousin or a friend getting married. After a while I got to know more people in the industry and had more jobs lined up, so I started a wedding videography business at the end of 2012 called Lightsauce Pictures – just to formalize things.
I was also interested in doing other genres in film so I started to dabble in other forms like documentaries and corporate films. I started another company, Optical Films, specializing in corporate videos, in January 2014.
Bernice (B): I did Sociology at NUS and when I graduated I knew I didn’t want a 9-5 desk-bound job… but I didn’t know what to do. I did know that I didn’t want to jump into a job just because my peers were working so I gave myself some time. I travelled for half a year and went to Korea for half a year – and it was my time in Korea that I really started getting into photography. I found myself enjoying photography; I would travel for a few hours just to go to another city to photograph, so I thought it’d be really cool if I could turn what I enjoyed into a career. I started to dream about becoming a photographer, and then reality hit me – how would I land jobs without a photography background or the right network, and how would my parents react.
So while I was still in Korea, I wrote to the award-winning Lightedpixels , a top-tier wedding photography studio, and asked – very humbly – for an internship. I didn’t know what to expect because I had no formal training but the boss wrote back and offered me a place immediately.
When I returned to Singapore 4 months after that, I did a 3-month internship with them before starting iwwi. I was also interested in doing documentary photography but I didn’t know anything about it, so again I emailed another photographer, Edwin Koo. We met for coffee and he was very helpful… he didn’t speak to me as a mentor but as a peer.
Q: How did your parents react?
Y: My parents would nag all the time. It wasn’t always negative though, sometimes it would be ‘you need to get a job’ but other times it was ‘do you have jobs this week’ – I think they just used to wonder why I was at home all the time. They wanted to know that I was being productive.
B: Yeah I think like Yiqin’s parents, my parents always hounded me to get a proper job. But I told them I needed time to do my internship, and after that I told them I wanted to do photography full-time. I think they used to feel it wasn’t a proper job because of the instability of the job.
The first three months were very rocky – I would sometimes earn less than 1k a month – but it didn’t matter to me because my costs were lean; I was working from home so if I had no money I would just eat at home. I didn’t feel like I had anything to lose but my parents took a while to come around to the idea because they saw my cousins and their colleagues’ children working ‘regular’ jobs and I was just doing my own thing.
They started to feel differently when I began inviting them to photography events and they saw the work that I was doing. They started to trust that I was responsible.
Q: So your parents are now okay with what you’re doing?
B: Yeah, after I told them how much I earn! Sometimes it’s frustrating because my relatives ask me why I won’t get a proper job but I know they’re being realistic. I figured that if I wanted them to be accepting of what I do, and supportive, I’d have to sit the naysayers down and share my work with them.
Y: I still get nagged at all the time. It’s just our parents’ job to nag, but if you understand where they’re coming from you just let their nagging go.
Q: Talk us through your start-up costs. We know buying equipment can be pretty pricey.
B: I started with the basic model, and my pay went towards upgrading my equipment.
Y: I didn’t have any cameras so I rented my equipment. Usually the first year is pretty rough because you can easily spend 20k or more on equipment – and you don’t even realize it.
Q: How about clients? Had any difficult ones yet?
B: Thankfully I haven’t met any yet. I’ve been very lucky because my clients and I are like-minded.
Y: There are different types of ‘difficult’. Sometimes it comes down to miscommunication and mishandled expectations – you mean one thing but your client has a completely different take on the idea. There were times when I was very frustrated but you learn not to take it personally.
Q: Do you have any role models who have shaped your career?
Y: I have friends who have been very helpful by providing feedback. There are people I look up to in the industry – I don’t know them personally, but their works inspire me.
B: I wouldn’t say he’s a role model, but I respect Edwin Koo a lot because as it is, there aren’t many documentary photographers like him in Singapore. Plus he’s got a great eye and lots of passion and that’s something I admire.
Q: Okay let’s talk about Beyond the Border, Behind the Men. It’s a great project. What first sparked your interest in migrant workers?
B: When I was still in university, I had a friend who would share about his volunteer experience at TWC2. So I thought I would check it out for myself. Initially I was a bit apprehensive because I had never sat at a table with so many South Asian men before. But I realized my fears were unfounded because they were incredibly hospitable and good-natured, and soon I found myself looking forward to Wednesdays (when I would volunteer).
Q: So how did you two end up working together on the project?
B: Well we were classmates in secondary school but we didn’t really keep in contact after that. It was only when we were in university that Yiqin asked if I could help her out at one of her shoots. She knew I was volunteering with an NGO, TWC2, at that time and briefly asked me about migrant workers because she was considering making a film. That project didn’t take off and it was only after a while that we touched base again.
After I graduated, I wanted to share stories about the migrant workers because I felt there was a disconnect between what I knew and what the general public perceived. I was completing my photography internship then and decided to start on the project since I had time on my hands.
I kinda leveraged on the medium I was more familiar with – photography – and I pitched the project idea to Yiqin. Initially she was quite skeptical about it and asked lots of questions but she eventually came around to the idea.
Q: Have you guys gotten funding for your projects and how did you know where to start?
B: Yes we have. I knew of a guy, Xian Jie, who did a commissioned project on dementia, Before We Forget. So I wrote to him – yes I do it a lot – even without knowing him personally and asked if we could meet up because I wanted to find out more about how he got funded. He told me about Our Better World, a new organization at that time, and I asked for his contacts and an email connection.
I was totally new to proposal writing so I winged it and thankfully, they gave us a grant to cover our production costs. [Ed’s note: Bernice and Yiqin travelled to Bangladesh to film Going Home, a short documentary following the lives of three Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore]
Later on we wanted to hold an exhibition and a screening at The Arts House so I looked around for a second grant, which I naively thought would be much easier to find. After a lot of research we successfully applied for funding from National Arts Council – I remember my proposal had to be more formal but we also had something concrete to show them, which made the application easier.
Subsequently we applied for funding from National Youth Council and Migrant Workers' Centre for other projects like an outdoor screening at The HUB and an outdoor drama production in Little India. To date we’ve received about 20k in funding.
This year we’ve been commissioned by Asia Research Institute to work on a project where we’ll be returning to Bangladesh.
Q: Congratulations! You guys are doing a great job. Now something that we ask everyone about is their idea of success. What do you define it as and do you think you’re successful?
B: I think I’m successful in that I’m able to do something that I’m passionate about and that makes me happy.
Y: I think the fact that I have the freedom to do what I want is a success in itself. Different people have different definitions of success; to me, it’s to have the freedom of choice. Success is a constant journey, not an end point, and it’s something that you’ll always have to work on.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time? The both of you mentioned that you cover weddings to pay the bills – is that something you’ll still want to do at 30?
B: I actually like doing weddings; I like that I can split my time between weddings and my own documentary projects. In 5 years I hope to have a solid body of documentary work that I can show.
Y: I hope there will be a proper structure and shape to my businesses.
Q: What is the greatest career lesson you’ve learnt?
B: Don’t be afraid to ask. That’s honestly how I learnt what to do and when to do things – by just emailing people and asking questions. Other than that, I think it’s important to start with something that’s close to your heart – people will be able to see your sincerity.
Y: When I first started, I didn’t really like to be out there talking to people. But over the last two years I’ve learnt that meeting new people isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Q: And following your greatest lessons, what’s the biggest tip you’d give to someone who wants to start their own business?
Y: Don’t be afraid to ask or seek help. I was apprehensive to ask for help at the beginning because people in the industry can seem aloof, but once I asked them for help everyone was willing to share their expertise with me. It may seem like you’re taking away their knowledge, but the community is always ready to share what they know with you and help you grow.
B: Take a leap of faith… but make it a calculated risk. When I started I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of jobs, but I had enough savings to tide me through that period so I wouldn’t have to ask my parents for money. Make your career something that you plan for.
Q: Finally, just because we know how you guys were like as teenagers… what would you tell your 16-year-old selves?
B: I was never a good student but I wouldn’t tell myself to change – I think my rebellious teenage phase has made me a more resilient and persistent person.