6 years ago, Samuel Goh put aside his physiotherapy degree and became a wedding photographer. 5 years later, his younger sister Diana Goh made a similar leap – leaving a teaching career to pursue illustration and calligraphy.
What propelled these two millennials onto the artistic path? And what challenges do they continue to face? The siblings sat down for a candid and reflective conversation.
Do you come from a family of artists?
Samuel: Not established artists.
Diana: Our parents are interested in art. My dad enjoys building stuff. He does carpentry. My mum was the one who sparked my interest in drawing and painting. She taught me when I was very young. But I stopped for about 8 years, when I went to uni and then when I became a teacher.
Samuel: I don’t think we were particularly gifted at studying. We are better at building and creating stuff. That’s our family. It’s a pretty normal family.
How did you end up on the artist’s path?
Samuel: The way I started was through a huge failure in my life, which turned out to be the best thing that happened to me. I don’t see failure in the same way anymore, because I know that it happens, and it just opens another door. So now I’m never afraid of failing.
When I was studying physiotherapy in uni, I was going through a lot of problems. I had depression, I had eating disorders, I had this unhealthy drive to be a top scorer. Academically I was in the top 20, but I didn’t do well in the hospital attachments. I failed the placement, was taken out of the honours programme, and had to repeat the whole year.
That incident really woke me up. I put in so much time and blood and sweat and tears into something, yet it was taken away from me so easily. After 6 months of wandering aimlessly and thinking about what is worth living for, I decided that, after finishing my degree, I would dive into photography and work for myself, make a life for myself.
Diana: For me, all along I knew I wanted to be a fulltime artist. I just didn’t have the confidence to step up and get started, because I felt I wasn’t there yet, I wasn’t good enough to be selling my art.
The best advice he gave me was to persevere.
I thought I would stick to my job as a teacher even though I was really unhappy and knew it wasn’t right for me. It was a downward spiral. Because I was unhappy, I did badly at my job, produced poor results, and became even unhappier.
One night I went over to Sam’s place and we talked for a long time. He said: Just do it, lah. You’ll never be ready. If you think you’ll only start when you’re ready, then you’ll never start. You learn as you go. I went back that night and thought about it. The next day I decided to leave my job.
Both of you didn’t study art. Has that made a difference?
Diana: I do feel like I missed out. I wish I started earlier. But it makes no difference now because I learn on the job through exploration. Recently, I really enjoy digital illustration, which I picked up online. I sometimes scan my watercolour paintings and turn them into digital art.
Samuel: If you ask me what I missed out on, I wish I went to business school instead, because it would have helped so much in being an entrepreneur.
Diana: That’s true.
Samuel: But I’ve been lucky enough to have a few mentors here and there. I know some basics and just stumble along.
What drove you to form industry networks and organise gatherings?
Samuel: I wouldn’t call them networks. From the very first creative gathering, I said that networking is a dirty word that I don’t want to use.
Diana: There’s a motive in networking. More often than not, people look for something in return. It’s like, getting to know you will help me in some way. But at the gatherings he organises, I don’t feel so pressured to sell myself or get to know certain people. We’re all there just to make friends.
Samuel: We started 3 years ago with a smaller group of 50 called The Wedding Folks. A few months ago, we created Our Common Space, which has 80-plus members.
We want to put Singapore wedding photography on the world map.
For wedding photographers and other creatives, most of the time you’re home alone doing your own stuff, you don’t know anyone, and it sucks. So I wanted to create opportunities for friendships to form, where we can just hang out, play games online, go to movies.
We rarely talk about photography, but when we do, it’s in an inclusive and welcoming environment for newer photographers. This wasn’t the case in the past. When I first started, the older generation saw younger photographers as competitors who charged too low. But now, we try to foster an environment where new photographers can get to know us and approach us for any help they need. I want Singapore to have a positive wedding industry. That’s the main reason for these gatherings.
Also, for our photography to evolve, you need sharing and knowledge. We share locations, we share our knowledge, our ideas. There’s this new synergy that changes the whole scene. We want to be proud of Singapore wedding photography and put it on the world map.
Diana: I wish there was a group like that for artists to share knowledge and techniques. There’s no opportunity for me to meet anyone unless I approach them first. It’s always nice to know people doing the same thing as you, then you can share your struggles and how you get through similar problems.
How have you supported each other on your journeys?
Diana: I think he supports me more than I support him. He’s already gone through it, so he has more advice for me and introduces me to friends in the industry.
Samuel: Connecting her with people in the wedding industry like planners, stylists, florists. Just saying: Hey, this is my sis, she could help to do cards for your client.
Diana: I think the best advice he gave me was to persevere. He said the start is always difficult and I will experience a lot of failures, which I’m still going through now.
Samuel: Setbacks, lah, setbacks. Not really failures.
I’m very inspired by him. I’ve seen how he started out and it wasn’t easy.
Diana: My work is not reaching that many people yet. Sometimes when business is slow, and people don’t really approach me, I wonder if I’m doing something wrong. He tells me sometimes you just need to have patience and keep going.
Samuel: Sometimes you hear of an artist or actor who suddenly makes it big, but what you don’t know is that he’s been working non-stop for 15 years. This kind of thing is not linear, it’s exponential.
Diana: I think it’s an up-and-down curve. Some months I feel like I did something right, maybe business will be better, but the next month it slows down again. If it’s so easy, everyone would have done it, right?
Samuel: That’s true.
Diana: I’m very inspired by him. If he didn’t show me how it could happen, I wouldn’t have taken the first step. I’ve seen how he started out and it wasn’t easy also. It’s motivational for me. He showed that if you put in the hard work, you’ll get something in return.
What do you love about being an artist?
Diana: For me, art is a way for me to express myself, because I’m quite an introvert. Sometimes when I’m feeling sad and don’t know how to express myself, I turn to art. It’s an outlet for me to destress. At times when I’m really happy but feel like words cannot fully express my emotions, I turn to art as well. It’s just another language for me.
Samuel: A lot of the joy in my work comes from hanging around the people that I photograph. I get to attend all these weddings, which are basically private events, and experience different lifestyles. And the happiness when they get the photographs, along with the messages they send to me, is more than enough.
My personality is very rebellious. I have this drive to break conventions.
Most of all, though, I love being able to forge my own path in life, to live life on my own terms. I love creating and expressing myself creatively. I also love being in the company of friends who have chosen to forsake a regular career and live creatively. They think differently, and that’s what I appreciate.
For a lot of us sole proprietors or entrepreneurs, there’s a line that you cross, going from having a normal 9-to-5 job to doing something by yourself, and that line is very hard to cross. Before you cross that line, it’s like: Oh my god, what’s going to happen? You try to follow the rules so you don’t mess up and keep your job. But once you cross the line, there’s this freedom. There’s this freedom, you know?
Diana: It’s like: Why didn’t I do it earlier? You feel like you’re no longer forced to do things. Now I know whatever I do is beneficial for myself, and I’m very happy to do it. Previously there was a lot of office politics – now I get to choose my own colleagues.
Samuel: You don’t hang out with the people that you don’t need to hang out with. The environment changes from negative to a more encouraging one. Normally, in a corporate job, when you want to try something, you have people telling you: No lah, don’t do this. What happens if you fail? But once you cross that line, the people around you are like: Try it. Try it. See what happens.
How do you balance trends with personal style?
Diana: I think when you start, you normally try to follow what other people are doing. Botanical art was the trend, and it was interesting for me. But after a while I realise I can’t express a lot of myself just through painting flowers. Now it’s not as popular, and since so many people are already doing botanical art, what else can I do to make myself stand out? That’s something I struggle with.
Samuel: It’s OK to copy at the start. But some people see success and get so caught up in copying. After many years, they’ve already lost that voice inside, so they just have to keep imitating and copying, and that’s a very sad thing.
Diana: He told me this last time and I thought: Oh OK, I don’t think it will happen to me. But recently I’m starting to think: What if I do a little something to make botanical illustrations more my style? Because if I don’t, you can’t tell whether they were done by me or another artist. I’m sort of going back to abstract art, and I still enjoy doing botanical illustration, so I’m combining both of them.
I want to find my style, such that people who look at my art will instantly know: That’s by Diana.
Samuel: I think one thing you learn after years of being in this industry is you have to be true to yourself eventually, and not just shoot what the trend wants. I actually try to go against the trend, rather than follow the trend, and that’s what people know me for and engage me for.
My personality is very rebellious. If you tell me I have to do it this way, I’ll try to do it another way. I have this drive to break conventions.
The trend has always been pretty things, everything placed perfectly. My question is always: Why? Why must we do this? If there’s no reason, why are we following it? So I shoot in abandoned places a lot. And my pre-wedding sessions have no gowns and suits, just something casual.
Wedding day photography usually involves the traditional landmarks, like the first kiss, the bridal party shot. If I replace the faces in those shots, they could be anyone. What I want to capture is the pageboy falling down, someone smashing their face into the cake – something embarrassing, touching, emotionally charged that you can laugh at or feel connected to.
My photos are about emotions and unique compositions, so that when you look back, you can say: Yeah, this is my wedding. It’s not anyone else’s wedding.
What are your future plans?
Diana: My plan now is just to spread my brand. I want to find my style, such that people who look at my art will instantly know: That’s by Diana. Eventually my end goal is to hold art exhibitions and showcase work that people can purchase.
Samuel: I’ve driven myself so hard in the last 7 years. I’m lucky enough to realise that the two most important things to me are relationships and time. My plan is to establish the business, expand the team a little bit more – I lead three photographers under The Hearts Collective – and eventually slow down so that I have more time to spend with my family, with my wife.