Ask any artist, designer, or visionary – the last place they’d ever want to to find themselves is in their comfort zone. Born, raised, and based in Singapore, photographer Wai Kay has captured distinct moments of life from beautiful dishes at fine-dining restaurants, to natural disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan. Known for his versatility, it’s only a matter of time until he finds himself in an entirely new element, camera in hand. Until then, hear what Wai Kay has to say about authenticity, pressure as inspiration, and three people he’d most love to work with.
How does one describe authenticity? These days, the word itself seems distant, due to its absence in our world today. From food, to people, photos, or clothes, it’s difficult to find something truly raw and original. Photographer Wai Kay is one of those rare gems, who truly values and consistently pursues authenticity in his work and daily life. Fortunately for him, by staying true to his self, he has discovered beauty in disaster, absorbed the heart of a culture through a single plate of food, and captured life as it is through his camera lens.
When and how did your love of photography begin?
I first picked up a camera when I was 9. If I don’t remember wrongly – it was the Kodak Ektra. The camera fascinated me, because this piece of equipment could paint a realistic picture with the click of a button! I loved photography, but I wasn’t extremely passionate about it. What held me back was the cost. Buying a camera was one thing – to add on the cost of film and developing that film was another. So, for many years I was happy getting by with occasional opportunities.
Up until the early 2000’s, I had simple exposures volunteering at school and managed some gigs at weddings – all shot on film. In the early 2000’s, consumer digital cameras were more affordable, and that’s when I decided to pick one up and experiment with it more intensely. Digital was a game changer because you could try all kinds of shots without the fear of wasting your money on experimental shots. After using my basic digital camera for a while, I decided to up the game and got a higher-end camera with full manual function. This camera was actually a birthday gift from my then girlfriend, now wife. With this second camera, I began to shoot products like guitars, jewelry, accessories, food and other subjects. The rest is history.
Can you describe both your personal and professional style/aesthetic?
With my personal work, I try to make it a point to shoot it as is. Post work done on images stays within exposure, color and – at most – adding some noise for texture. I make it a point, because in today’s context, we no longer look at a situation in a picture and say “how did this happen?” but rather “is this photo real?” Photos have lost their authenticity.
For commercial work, I still try to apply the same principals – the photo must look natural and realistic. However, post-production manipulation of the image to achieve objective is usually unavoidable, since client’s needs and requirements come first.
What do you like about working with food? What are the challenges?
I like to shoot food – mainly because the set is small. In terms of logistics, it is less complex. My style on food photography has a natural look and feel – I hardly do any composite work or elaborate afterwards. I get the shot I want in camera, and then need very little post-production time. The challenge is the process of getting it right on camera, especially when there is no food stylist. Items like ice-cream (especially yogurt), soufflé and anything that changes its state quickly are killers.
What is your most unusual source of inspiration?
If you ask unusual source, then it would be pressure. I am challenged and inspired to overcome when placed under pressure. This does not apply to photography alone.
From you work, please select 1 or 2 of your favorites and tell us the story behind them.
Wow. This is going to be difficult. With food, it will have to be this turkey I shot for SuperNature. There isn’t any grand story behind it. But I love this picture because during that season of my career, I loved shooting low-key photos and have always wanted to apply that to food. However, low-key does not go well with most people in the food industry. This shot was one of the rarer opportunities.
This other shot was taken in the Philippines. I was there with a medical team to provide medical aid to Typhoon Haiyan victims. I was in a van traveling along the coastline and saw this fisherman. I instinctively shot it. I love this one, because it represents my style, and the fisherman going back to work is, for me, a symbolism of a country overcoming a disaster and getting back to life.
Singapore is often referred to as a melting pot. In what ways does living in such a diverse culture inspire you?
I have to say that I am blessed to be born in a place where we have such wide variety of food. It’s one thing to have a wide variety, but really another to have them so close to its authentic taste. Japanese, Russian, Mediterranean – you name it, and you are likely to find it.
It’s because I have been exposed to such a variety of food that I am also aware of the culture behind it. When it comes to photographing a certain genre of food, I know how to style the set to make it relevant. After a while when you are familiar with the rules of how these foods and cultures interplay, you are able to break these rules and still make a strong image.
3 of your favorite spots in Singapore?
I have photographed many fine dining restaurants. But if you ask me for a favorite spot to eat, that will have to be any local hawker centre serving Hainanese chicken rice! No specific place. Any one will do. Next, would be Pasir Ris Park, close to where I live. I love the nature. Finally, but not the least, my home. This is the place I find rest and spend the most time with the people I love.
3 people – living or dead, fictional or not- that you’d like to work with and why?
Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. All of which I hope to indulge in their photographic visions.
5 things you can’t live without?
My family, local food, internet, friends, and God.
What’s next for you?
Waiting for someone to read this interview and offer me my next big gig. Kidding. I am actually challenging myself to shoot a new genre. Get myself out of the comfort zone of shooting food, interior, architecture etc. I’m still in the exploration stage.