Cover Lee Yik Keat was the tour photographer for American singer-songwriter Lauv’s Asian tour in 2019

Everyone is a photographer these days, or so we think. But the true talents are the ones putting their innovative spins to visual culture as we know it. In the first of a three-part series titled Behind the Lens, street photographer Lee Yik Keat, @YK, shares how he hopes to inspire his over a million followers each on Instagram and TikTok to capture the beauty in everyday life

For a photographer with the streets as his muse, the pandemic didn’t do Lee Yik Keat any favours. The time spent indoors, however, has given him the pause to think about his purpose, which  is “what I want to do in the future, because this is what I want to do for the rest of my life”.

With quite the following on Instagram, where he first started sharing his love for photography almost eight years ago posting images taken mostly with his phone, the 25-year-old, also known as YK, has since established a name for himself as a street photographer. He shot a campaign featuring local influencers for the Singapore launch of the Louis Vuitton men’s spring‑summer 2021 collection early this year; accompanied American singer-songwriter Lauv on his Asian tour as a tour photographer in 2019; and even captured local cultural landmarks for the Singapore Tourism Board, just to name a few.

Lee was set to reunite with Lauv for his world tour in 2020 but the entire schedule was cancelled due to the pandemic, which left him in a state of confusion and uncertainty for a few weeks before he pulled himself together. “Two things resonated with me: community and sharing. So in the past year, I’ve combined these two together and focused a lot more on content, both on Instagram and TikTok, on how to shoot with phones. This aligns with my main motto, which is to observe the everyday life—and that it can be beautiful.

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“A lot of people think that Singapore is so boring and that there’s nothing to do here, but I really want to encourage everyone, hopefully through my pictures, that there’s really something beautiful in the little details, even during the daily commute from point A to B. You just need to open your eyes and give it a chance,” enthuses Lee, who shares tips on how to compose an image, how to be creative with angles, and even photo shoot ideas in his tutorials.

Social media is the core of everything in his portfolio. “Without the following that I’ve built up through these platforms, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do a lot of the jobs that I could only dream of—even those offline. All of them happened because of the great networks that were built and also the trust of my followers on this journey. I get messages of how a photo or video has benefitted them and, with people reaching out to me like that, I ought to share my gratitude. I feel the next generation of photographers can benefit from my experiences.”

Such content has clearly resonated with his audience of photography enthusiasts and aspiring photographers as in mid-May this year, he reached 500,000 followers on Instagram, and gained the same number by early June, with over 1.2 million followers to date. His following on TikTok (he hopped on the platform last year during Singapore’s circuit breaker period to curb the spread of Covid-19) currently stands at 1.7 million.

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Perhaps this need to share his knowledge and experience has something to do with the fact that he is a self-taught photographer. When he first started out, he had to learn everything on his own, from the gear required to crafting his vision of photography, as such content weren’t readily available. “I started shooting city skylines and architecture, but then realised that I wanted to document the things in between. That’s when I moved to street photography.”

Besides looking at beauty in everyday life, Lee has developed his own signature in the tonality of the images, which is “a bit more dark, a bit more moody, in a cinematic way”. He takes inspiration from the work of Magnum photographer Alex Webb, who is well known for the complex mise en scène in his vibrant streetscapes. “The way he composes his images and how he can make something very chaotic into something very orderly mannered—I always look up to that, and I want to portray the same in my pictures.”

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On what he hopes his followers can take away from his sharing on social media: “You don’t need fancy equipment,” says Lee, who shoots with an iPhone 12 Pro Max for all his tutorials. “What matters is the heart and the eye to really look at things that people don’t usually see. I think that’s what makes you stand out—and this applies to all genres of photography.”

Meanwhile, Lee continues to build up his portfolio in photography beyond social media, and is keen to explore other areas of work such as fashion or food photography. He stays relevant by keeping up with the trends and making sure to translate his work in a modern way, while keeping it as raw as possible. And regardless of what comes his way, he is willing to adapt.

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Also featured in the Behind the Lens series: Fashion Photographer Shavonne Wong | Wet Plate Photographer Ryan Lee