A conversation with Rebecca Toh, photographer

20 December 2017 - Interviews

“Attention without feeling is only a report,” writes the American poet Mary Oliver. “An openness—an empathy—[is] necessary if the attention [is] to matter.” The soulful sensitivity that Oliver speaks of is perhaps the very allure of Singaporean photographer Rebecca Toh’s work. Affecting and intimate, her best images call to attention the deep aliveness of simple moments, revealing the mundane in all its beauty and vulnerability. “[Photography is] a passport that somehow allows me to open hearts, open doors,” says Rebecca. “With a camera in my hands, I somehow have the permission to walk into people’s lives…to ask questions and have conversations.”

Sapporo by Rebecca Toh

Like many freelance creatives, Rebecca’s road to becoming a successful photographer was filled with years of struggle, which she chronicles on her blog in hopes of encouraging others in similar positions. At 21, she dropped out of university to start a cafe. When it closed its doors two years later, she dabbled with various pursuits such as freelance writing and magazine publishing to find “a way to feed [herself] without having to do a 9-to-5”. But the jobs didn’t pay well. At 26, she decided that she would try to become a photographer. She started personal photo projects while taking up low-paying photography jobs. A year later, she got her big break: a cover shoot for Esquire and a lifestyle shoot for a condominium.

“It takes patience, lots and lots of hard work, some creative thinking and…a slight disregard for what society thinks of you,” she writes. “It can take years…but it’s all worth it. No pain, no gain.”

We speak to Rebecca about photography, overcoming self-doubt and her advice for budding freelance creatives.

The Mindful Company (TMC): What gives you energy?

Rebecca Toh (RT): Solitude. Being alone allows me to clear my head, generate new ideas, and literally allows me to recharge. I'm a textbook introvert! Also, the idea of being able to create things in and for this world gives me energy and motivates me to keep working and creating and living. And being alive on earth itself - the mystery and magnificence of being a human being constantly excites me.

TMC: What’s your secret life hack?

RT: It is the realisation that one doesn't need to be happy all the time; it's totally okay to be unhappy (or even downright miserable) sometimes! So nowadays whenever I feel down, I tell myself that it's completely okay to be sad or unhappy or unmotivated once in a while. That takes the sting out of my bad days, and ironically results in more and more good days! I hardly ever feel super down anymore. It's a very healthy attitude, in my opinion.

Portrait of a stranger at the traffic junction, Tokyo by Rebecca Toh

TMC: In moments of self-doubt and adversity, how do you build yourself back up?

RT: I'm not sure how. I think I have an in-built mechanism that allows me to forge forward even in moments of self-doubt. A misplaced sense of self-confidence, perhaps? And when there's adversity, I just think of it as being a normal, natural part of life. So that helps me to move forward again and again.

TMC: What does success mean to you?

RT: Without a doubt, success means the ability to be near things and people and places that make me happy, and having a sense of meaning and purpose. That is all.

TMC: Name a fear that keeps you up at night.

RT: It used to be the fear of the people I love dying, or me dying of cancer or in a sudden accident. But now this doesn't bother me as much anymore because I have come to understand that fear is pretty pointless. Life happens regardless, so I might as well spend more time living (and enjoying my time with my loved ones) than be paralysed by fear. This still affects me once in a while, but not as much as before.

TMC: What trait do you most value in others?

RT: Kindness.

TMC: What trait of yours are you most proud of?

RT: Perhaps it's my confidence in my ability to sculpt the kind of life I want to live and my deep-rooted belief that nothing is impossible.

TMC: What would you tell your 20-year-old self that you wish you knew then?

RT: Enjoy every day. Don't spend too much time worrying or being fearful.

From Alone in the Universe, a photo project by Rebecca Toh

TMC: Share a quote that gives you strength or peace.

RT: "In this stage of my life, I know I'm ill. I know ultimately this disease is not curable. But I also know my time is best spent doing the things that bring me joy. I don't know how long I'm gonna live. It's not up to me... It's not up to my doctors. [But] I know what I want to do in the next hour. And that's what I'm gonna be doing." 

TMC: What are your favourite books?

RT: Some books that inspired me greatly recently that warrant re-reading: The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh, What I Talk About when I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, Man's Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl, Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

TMC: Who inspires you?

RT: Turia Pitt. She is a formal model and athlete from Australia who was caught in a bush-fire while she was competing in an ultra-marathon that resulted in burns to 65% of her body, including her face. If there is a person who can remind us of how much strength a human being can possess in times of true adversity, it's someone like Turia Pitt.

She's managed to rebuild her life and is now an athlete again, having just completed [another] Ironman since her accident. Most importantly, she has a great attitude towards life and bursts with joy and happiness. I don't know if I can ever be like her, but if something as bad happens in my life, I know her story will inspire me to rise up to the occasion.

TMC: At what point in your life did you first learn about photography? What called you to it?

RT: I was interested in photography since I was 18 or 19. I picked up my first film camera around then. I was attracted to how photography seemed to make life look magical, as if it picks up qualities of a movie that can transport you to a more interesting world. I was attracted to photography like how I was attracted to reading novels, listening to music, watching movies...

A magical moment in Tokyo by Rebecca Toh

TMC: What’s a piece of advice you’re glad you ignored?

RT: When I told a friend I wanted to try to be a professional photographer, he told me he wasn't sure that would work since my style was a bit more "alternative". He wasn't sure there was a market for me. I was a little disheartened but thank god I ignored what I heard and continued trying to become a photographer!

TMC: What’s the biggest overall lesson you’ve learned in your career?

RT: I learned that it can be really hard at the beginning. When you're a nobody, and no one's heard of you, it's hard for people to reply your emails or want to take you on or want to give you an opportunity. So it's important to work super hard and have a never-say-die attitude. With that, you can't fail.

TMC: In your opinion, what are the top 3 things someone should consider if they’re thinking of pursuing a similar path?

RT: If someone is also thinking of building a freelance career as a creative, I think they should first of all understand that it's not going to be an overnight success kind of thing; be prepared to put in years of hard work and to supplement your income with other ways at first. Even better, have a stash of savings as buffer while you pursue your new path.

Secondly, navigate the path with flexibility and intelligence and balance. For example, not every advertising job excites me, but if it allows me to earn money and practise my craft at the same time, I will do it. Then I use the money to support me as I work on other projects that excite me. I'm not fixated on being only a photographic artist.

Thirdly, never give up.

TMC: What are 3 things you do to lead a meaningful life?

RT: One. Try to enjoy every day, every moment. This is done with the knowledge that tomorrow might never come. Two. Get closer to the things that make me happy. Three. Try to help others to the best of my ability.

Check out Rebecca's work here and blog here.

Enjoy reading interviews? Here are our past conversations with illustrator (and our Wallpaper of the Month collaborator) Hsulynn Pang and playwright Nabilah Said.

Cover photo credit: Rebecca Toh