While most music photographers seek to capture the exhilarating energy of a live show, this 29-year-old prefers a more intimate approach to documenting the music scene here. His diaristic portfolio – assembled across the past six years – showcases both musicians and their fans candidly and within casual settings. The usually dreamy, light-soaked images offer a tableau vivant that reveals the unseen subcultures that thrive within Singapore’s independent music industry, and the offstage personas of the youthful characters that are an intrinsic part of them. “Ideally, when someone looks at my work, a tune should start playing in his or her head,” says Sim, who is self-taught and as enthusiastic about counterculture with a kitschy-cool air and aesthetic (think Kerouac and retro-inspired B-grade horror films) as he is about sounds of the underground. Formerly a co-founder of Northeast Social Club – the local collective known for organising and promoting indie music gigs and parties – he now mostly hosts social experiences of a different kind when not behind the lens: Dungeons and Dragons games.
Tell us about your training as a photographer.
“I’m mostly self-taught. For the first few years when I had just started out, I had a camera on me wherever I went. I also spent a lot of time reading and looking things up, figuring out what direction I wanted to take (as a photographer) – and I’m still working on this bit.”
A portrait of indie-pop band Sobs featuring its frontwoman Celine Autumn (in foreground) and bandmates, Jared Lim (left in background) and Raphael Ong (right in background)
Who are your primary influences as a photographer?
“I picked up Robert Frank’s The Americans (a seminal 1958 book documenting post-war America) for a school assignment and that got me binge researching on the field… That book was so formative for me because it was my first exposure to photographs that to me have the same effect as having a colloquial conversation. It also has ties to counterculture art – Jack Kerouac wrote the foreword – and that led me to seek our more media of a similar direction: Troma Entertainment (the American independent film production company known for its surrealistic B-movies); Ray Gun magazine (the now-defunct publication that intersected grunge and indie music with fashion and was famous for its abstract graphic design); and so on.”
Tell us about your creative approach as a music photographer.
“Ideally, when someone looks at my work, a tune should start playing in his or her head. And it’s even better if the viewer can place him or herself within the picture and have that tune score his or her walk around it. I work hard to try to make this happen. I always have a tune playing in my head when I’m photographing or planning how to composite and create the photograph. My prep work includes, but is not limited to conversations with the subject, lots of sketches, assembling reference sheets and asking friends with driving licences for their schedule. On set, I’m just telling people to stay on their marks most of the time.”
A portrait of the up-and-coming experimental hip-hop artist/rapper Mary Sue photographed by the romantic-eyed, subculture-obsessed photographer Chris Sim – “putting on headphones to listen to Mary Sue’s projects is like slapping on an auditory Charles Burns filter,” says Sim.
What’s been your most meaningful experience as a music photographer?
“I love doing all sorts of portraiture, but musician portraits are just so fun. Being able to translate the musician’s artistry into a still image is always challenging and so satisfying to get right. And it always makes me happy when musicians are able to use the work we make together to find further success in their careers.”
“I always have a tune playing in my head when I’m photographing or planning how to composite and create the photograph.”Chris Sim
From your observation as a music photographer, how would you say that the music scene here has evolved?
“I don’t have much to compare the scene today with as I wasn’t around in the 90s (what some might call the golden age of the alternative and underground music scene here). It does however feel like the barrier to entry and starting your own project is lower than ever, and that that barrier will only drop further. It’s great to see audiences being more receptive to experimental acts and to see artists continuing to break new ground. Already, we have more independent acts doing international tours and I hope more talent here gets recognised worldwide.”
According to Chris Sim, BGourd (above), the musician known for donning zentai suits, holds the title of the most stylish musician in Singapore
Which local musical act would you say is the most stylish?
“I gotta be biassed and shout out to my man in green, BGourd (aka emerging rapper Sean Lim, who dons a green mask and bodysuit when performing). We haven’t been able to work on anything together in a while, but the last I heard, his look is getting an update.”
And which are the acts to watch out for?
“I really like (the experimental hip hop artist) Mary Sue and his rotating cast of collaborators. The most recent time I saw him was at Baybeats 2023 (early last month) when he performed with Clementi Sound Appreciation Club (the unlikely pairing resulted in a series of soulful jazz-hop tunes). Putting on headphones to listen to his projects is like slapping on an auditory Charles Burns filter.”
Any tips for aspiring photographers?
“Just keep at it and don’t worry too much about your gear.”