There’s no easy way of saying this; we love our work at Public Culture, but there are times when we grapple with our work because our identity is almost... lost in translation. It’s a common problem for start-ups, but it’s especially hard when you’re doing work that involves big words like “community”. People tend to think these jobs should be done for free.
Which is why the both of us immediately felt a connection with Jean and Huiwen who run Logue, a content creation studio that’s trying to change the world one story at a time. Logue recently turned six, and in the time it’s been around the duo have worked on a multitude of projects, including documenting water and sanitation issues, palliative care, and mental health issues.
The two of them juggle schedules that involve jetting halfway around the world on assignment, so we were lucky enough to have a full hour to chat with and learn from them. They gave us so much in that one hour, and we hope this interview will similarly inspire someone to keep with the dream of pushing for change.
[Ed’s note: Huiwen was tied up at a meeting and only joined us toward the end of the session.]
Q: How did you get started?
Before I took a photojournalism class in university, I thought I was going to become a concert promoter. But Huiwen told me that I should learn how to write properly because it’s an invaluable skill to have. I guess the good thing about reading journalism in school is that it pushes you out of your bubble, especially when you’re forced to cover news in Southeast Asia. It reminds you that there are a lot of things going on out there and how fortunate we are, which was also what pushed me to do my own thing. I was in a situation where everyone was supportive of what I wanted to do and achieving my goals. So I just went ahead and did it.
When I graduated I think I was the only one among my classmates who went freelance and it was freaking scary. But I figured I would give myself two years to see how it goes. When you give yourself goals, you’re actually taking the intangible concept of living the dream and framing it in a tangible outcome. The whole thing then becomes very real and you can take concrete steps to actualize it.
Q: So you started by pitching yourself as a freelance photographer.
Yes, when I first started I was bent on being a photographer. It takes a few projects to bring you to a certain point in thought, but I was able to let go of being so photography-focused and see what my true strengths are. For me it’s about bringing people and purpose together and to be able to conceptualize a greater creative vision for each project. But it’s not an overnight process – that definitely took me a while.
Q: What were your initial years like?
I borrowed a few thousand dollars from my mom to get started. I was never paid for my first assignment because the magazine went bust. But I kept my spirits high because I knew I had to rough it out for the first few years. It was almost like an unexplainable force of enthusiasm – I shot everything I could including weddings and events. I also attended workshops to upgrade my photography skills.
I think what got me through the first few years was that I didn’t limit the jobs I took on to what I wanted to do, which was purely documentary work with a social angle. I mean, unless it’s projects that you initiate, it’s really hard to get sustainable funding. A sad fact is that people always expect projects done in the name of community to be free, which is why we’re now more selective about the people we work with. We are thankful for clients who realise the creative value that we bring in.
Q: How do you start pricing yourself?
Definitely ask around – ask the people you’re familiar with and the people you trust. One of the most important things is to know your legal rights as well. The whole idea of coming up with a list of T&Cs is very daunting, but you need to sit down with a lawyer to make sure you’re protected. That way you know what’s yours, and that translates to being more credible when you meet with a client because you know what you deserve.
Start by calculating your own expenses. Look at how much you need in a month and what kind of lifestyle you’re catering for. If you’re looking to own a new Chanel bag every month then obviously you should look at more lucrative trades. You need to know how much you spend in order to know how much you have to make.
When I first started I was just looking for work. For most of us at that age in Singapore, we’re pretty lucky because we don’t have to worry about rent since we still live with our parents. Now I’m at a stage where Logue is not just about me; it’s a company that has to provide for two of us. We have to think about expansion and saving up for a bigger space (we currently work from a home studio).
Q: Did you set financial goals for yourself from the start?
Yes I did actually. I spoke to my friends working at newspapers to make sure that I wasn’t that far off – I had to be realistic about it.
Look at what other skills you’re good at. Sometimes people think they’re only good at one thing and milk it to death but that might not be the money-making skill. If you’re in a comfortable position where you can try doing other things, it’s probably good to experiment because you never know –something else could be your niche.
Make sure you’re in the know of what’s out there. It’s very ironic, but sometimes when people start their own businesses they completely pigeonhole themselves. They lose their sense of place and they’re out of touch with whoever’s around them, and that’s not the point for most of us to begin with.
Q: At what point did you know that there was a viable future for Logue?
There wasn’t really a point, it was more like little rewards along the way. My final year project was a starting point where we got a grant and travelled to nine countries during the school semester to write a book. I think that really fuelled my desire to write meaningful stories to bring about change. So the first turning point was the Iceland project where I worked on a photo series and value added by writing an article which made the cover page of Straits Times Life!.
The second turning point was when I was sent to Puerto Rico in 2010, also to work on a similar photo series. That same year the Lien Foundation commissioned us to produce the Children of Mekong, a series of short films on water and sanitation issues in Asia. This led to After Cicely, which I worked on in 2012 also with the Lien Foundation. We filmed in five countries including Mongolia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. The story follows five women who help people die better, and for me it was a dream project that really grounded my vision.
We were later commissioned by the Institute of Mental Health and Temasek Foundation to work on a series of short films on communities affected by natural disasters. We covered how survivors recovered from disasters like the Sichuan earthquake and Mount Merapi’s volcanic eruption.
Q: How did you begin that relationship with Lien Foundation?
I had coffee with the communications manager of Lien Aid (the Foundation’s water and sanitation arm) in 2010 and asked if I could put together a proposal for the team. It started from there and I am immensely grateful to her for that plate of fries we shared at Dome café.
It’s important to take initiative; if the client tells you that they’ve always worked a certain way, you can’t expect them to switch overnight and do something completely different. But I usually study what the client has done before and tell them, this is what we can do, would you be keen to try it out?
Don’t be shy, but be selective with who you approach. When you first start out it’s very easy to take on any work comes your way, but I’ve had very nasty experiences too. There are clients you’ll want to hang on to, so you make sure that you both grow together in vision. That was what happened with our relationship with Lien Foundation. When we first started working together in 2010, we had to produce six short films humanizing the water and sanitation issues in Asia. We thought about what we could do to add value to their work on the field, surpass their expectations and raise the bar for ourselves. At that time Huiwen was in between jobs so she came to help me out, and I roped in another classmate. The response to that project was good, and that’s how we started building our reputation for the kind of jobs we wanted.
Q: What is in Logue’s future?
There’s a need to refocus. In terms of income stream it’s no longer just earning wherever we can. We can fall into the trap of being comfortable after a while. But we’re now focusing on improving our craft of content creation and working on projects that excite and impact. We are also trying to land bigger projects with a regular income stream and not just one-off gigs. I think working on bigger projects helps to sharpen your creative vision, and you really get to think about how you can apply your journalism skills to plan content and do more like manage a team.
So the direction we’re heading in has scaled up from the original vision of just using photography to “change the world”, though I think it’s still important to walk the talk and be in touch with the ground. Like they say, “do more, talk less”, and I think doing more has put me in a position where I’m more confident of sharing my views with a client, put the right team together and to be aware of the flow of the production process.
I would love to eventually own a space bustling with energy, that houses both a café and a studio where my co-workers and I can do what we do.
Q: What are some of the lessons you’ve learnt?
Look beyond Singapore – I like to trawl the net to see how people elsewhere are doing it. In places like the US, Australia, and London, there are people who have been able to make a good living out of work with a strong social angle. The circles here are so small – if you’re a designer you know everyone else, and so does your client. Ask yourself what kind of new ideas you can bring to the table. Constantly push yourself to learn and read widely to think of how to innovate your craft. We all read about million-dollar companies in these articles, but the true value lies in the philosophy behind, especially when we’re at the start of a very long journey. Live the lifestyle and be an example to your co-workers.
Q: Do you have any mentors?
My biggest mentors are my clients, and I’m very grateful for that. We have completely different backgrounds but we always share the same goal – to create a successful project. I come in from a creative arts background with a certain perspective, but they come in and ask me about things like messaging, brand value, objectives etc. They’ve really helped me understand how to improve my own message by sharpening my story angles and incorporating their perspective into my work. I think the best form of mentorship comes when there are actual deliverables and you are held accountable for.
Q: People are always talking about how the first few years are the hardest. How hard would you say you worked in your first few years?
I actually think I’m working harder now. In my first few years I took on a lot of smaller projects and I spent a lot of time trying to build my portfolio. And of course that was hard work too, but it’s a different sort of mindset now. Because we’re now building a studio and I’m not only working on photography, we’re spending more time thinking, planning and looking for work. There’s definitely more stress and responsibility involved.
[Ed’s note: Huiwen drops by after finishing a meeting in the vicinity. We exchange introductions before wrapping up the interview.]
Q: How did you guys meet?
Jean (J): We actually got to know each other when we were 15. We were on rival bowling teams then.
Huiwen (H): Yea we’ve been acquaintances since we were 15 but it wasn’t till our final year in university that we worked together.
Q: Jean, when did Huiwen join you and did you know it was always going to happen?
J: I think I always knew she would join me eventually, but I never asked her from the start because she’s very talented at business writing. I think it’s good to always work with a close friend who’s skilled in other areas, simply because if everyone is talented in the same area, there’s a limit to how far we can push things.
After graduating, Huiwen went on to work for The Straits Times and Bloomberg in Shanghai. When she started to feel like her work wasn’t what she wanted to do and her parents were pressuring her to come back, I told her to join me at Logue.
Working with Huiwen has been good because we’re quite the opposite of each other. I like to talk to people but she’s usually more quiet and reserved. And when she has an idea, it’s BOOM. I like that we share the same values but differ on perspectives at times.
Q: Do you guys fight?
J: Yea we fight all the time! We always have differing views.
Q: So how do you guys resolve your fights?
J: I let her win because she’s smarter.
H: We talk a lot and we try to justify things from our own points of view. We always use our idea wall in the office to rationalize our arguments.
J: Yeah, we go back to using a list of pros and cons because sometimes you just need to get your feelings out of the way and look at things very simply.
Q: Are you guys responsible for different things?
H: In the past we used to think that there always had to be an extra set of eyes in every project, so we both played fairly equal roles but our roles overlapped all the time. So recently what we’ve decided to do is to take leads on each project; Jean is the film and photography lead and I’m the creative strategist. It makes our roles clearer for the clients but we still spend a lot of time working on projects together.
J: Yeah, what we usually do is to each conduct our own research and then come back and present our ideas to each other. There’s a lot of homework involved.
Q: What’s your learning process been like when it comes to convincing your clients of your creative vision?
H: I think it boils down to having a body of work to show them, and being able to explain your entire creative process to them. Everyone has a different aesthetic and sense of purpose, so our job is to convince them to see things from our perspective and explain why we think a certain story will work.
Q: What is success to you and do you think you’ve achieved it?
J: For me success isn’t a definition but a lifestyle. It’s a day-to-day feeling we get from working on projects. I personally impose physical goals on myself but I prefer to be guided by feelings when I think about success. Success isn’t a particular income level or a particular material item to me; it’s always a state of mind.
If we have to put it in material terms, it would be to have the means to keep doing what I’m doing and get better at it.
H: I think a person’s definition of success shifts from year to year according to their expectations and experience, but right now I think that success is having complete control of my own time and being able to choose the projects that we want to work on. From a work point of view I think that success is being able to convince your client of your creative direction and for them to trust that your creative vision will work for them.
Q: Describe each other in three words.
J: I know what you’re going to say. Fat, funny, and fantastic.
H: No. Idealistic, strong value of self-worth, and good-hearted.
J: Smart, witty, and good-hearted.