“I’ve never thought of my work as having merit,” says Lenne Chai. “I’ve always had a craft-based approach. I want to be a better photographer, because this is the only thing I know how to do.”
Chai’s humility belies the rapid trajectory her career has taken on in the last year. At 32 years of age, she is one of Singapore’s most promising fashion photographers, well-established not only in the local industry but also internationally—especially in the US, where has been based for the last few years.
My first encounter with Chai was in 2020, when we tapped her to photograph a story for Vogue Singapore’s launch issue. Finding the right photographer for this shoot was imperative, because we were profiling three foreign domestic workers living in Singapore and wanted the shoot to capture their powerful stories in the right light.
Chai was brilliant and creative on set, but above all, she was a great listener. She put the three women at ease instantly, keeping them comfortable and open as she coached them on how to pose for her camera. The images spoke for themselves—we loved them and so did our audience, but no one adored them more, perhaps, than the women themselves.
Even back then, it was obvious that there was something uniquely special about Chai. Her photography style—whimsical and dreamy, often putting her subject in soft focus—was getting her plenty of eyeballs online, but it was her compassionate attitude that sealed the deal. Her most recent project, a cover shoot for W Magazine starring Jennifer Coolidge and directed by the Daniels, is testament to that fact. “When I asked the Daniels why they booked me for the job, they said it was because they had a great time when I had shot them for a previous project. I don’t even know if they had really seen my other work, it was just because we had had so much fun,” Chai laughs.
At present, Chai’s sights are set on something bigger than herself: advocating for fare wages and pay transparency for photographers in Singapore. “The photography industry can feel like the wild west. We are in a job that doesn’t provide much stability or security,” she says Drawing from her personal experience—Chai spent the early years of her career scrupulously saving all the money she earned from commercial jobs just so she could bring editorial projects to fruition—she and a group of fellow Singaporean photographers have organised a pay transparency survey to help shed light on how things can improve. Here, learn more about Chai’s career journey and her hopes for the photography industry in Singapore.
How did your journey as a photographer first start?
When I was younger, I actually wanted to be a fashion designer. I grew up in the era of America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. I even started sewing when I was 11 years old—but as I explored the hobby, I started to think that I wasn’t creative or original enough to be a good fashion designer. When I was studying mass communications in polytechnic, there was a module on photojournalism that I enjoyed. The lecturer, who was a photojournalist at The Straits Times (ST) at the time, asked if I would be keen on a photojournalism internship at ST.
Did the internship go well?
Sadly, I nearly got fired three times. I didn’t exactly know how to use a camera at that point, I had just taken this one module in school and that was it. This was a very serious job where no retouching was allowed, and I didn’t even know how to use any of the lighting equipment. There were instances when I had to photograph a minister at night and I couldn’t figure out how to use flash properly. Very valid reasons for wanting to fire someone, to be honest—I would have fired myself too. (Laughs)
“I want young photographers to understand that as much as you may want to do creative jobs, they aren’t always the projects that are going to help you make money”
What made you want to stick with the job despite the initial struggle?
I saw a sliver of opportunity to break into the fashion industry using photography. I used to be a fashion blogger back in the day, so I teamed up with other bloggers in Singapore to borrow pieces from local fashion designers. I then borrowed photography equipment from the company, and we basically did our own test shoots. It was super gung ho, but it helped me get my name out there—thanks to my little fashion blog.
It’s interesting that your career as a photographer came as a result of an interest in fashion, not so much photography.
Definitely. Although I do think my obsession with fashion was a really important foundation for doing fashion photography. I knew what to look out for when I looked at clothes. I was actually interested in the designers. I understood what made a garment desirable, which helped me to make it look that way. I come from a fairly low-income family, which I think added to the mystique of fashion—it felt so elite and untouchable.
Did you feel more at home in the industry after you actually started working as a fashion photographer?
It took quite some time. One of the biggest opportunities I got right after ST was to shoot Lily Cole. The shoot went terribly—we were at the beach and the client had asked me to walk into the sea to get a shot. I climbed onto some rocks and promptly slipped and fell. My camera got soaked and my hands started bleeding. I still have the scar! I felt awful, if I couldn’t even shoot a supermodel properly, the problem had to be me. But it was a turning point as it sparked a great desire to become more worldly and work on myself. I took all my life savings—I was 21 years old at the time, so it was really not much—and moved to Japan to work and live alone for three months. I didn’t speak any Japanese, so it was an extreme way of gaining more perspective on the world.
Wow! Was it easy getting jobs in Japan?
I got really lucky, which sums up the trajectory of my whole career. Someone I had met at Fashion Week in Singapore recognised me at a party in Japan and hired me to shoot for Elle Girl. I also shot for Nylon Japan. I mainly got jobs through binge-drinking. I don’t drink anymore, but at the time, partying was the best way to network. (Laughs)
Tell us about your move to the US, where you’re now based.
I went to LA in 2017 for three months on a tourist visa. Once again, this was me taking a risk with all the savings I had accumulated from doing commercial jobs in Singapore. Since I didn’t go to university, I thought of these trips as self-funded education. I cold-emailed a ton of companies and magazines in LA, and did a bunch of free shoots to get my name out there and suss out what shooting in the US was actually like.
I found myself meeting with agencies who kept telling me to try moving to New York instead. They insisted that it’d be a better market for me. So I went to New York and sent out 70—yes, literally 70—cold emails to different agencies. I was like ‘Please, sign me, I’ll move to America on the spot’ before I finally got signed. Long story short, it was a whirlwind of two years before COVID-19 happened and I moved back to Singapore for a while. Now I’m back in LA, because I’m looking for a more relaxed pace of life. I’m also doing more celebrity photography now, so it makes more sense to be based here instead.
Watching you transition into doing these bigger celebrity shoots has been exciting. What was it like shooting a cover with Jennifer Coolidge?
That shoot was a shock to everyone, but most of all, to me. The story behind how I got booked for it is also insane. Basically, I photographed the Daniels [Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert] for a profile in Hollywood Reporter. We had a wonderful time and I was happy just to be able to shoot my heroes. To my shock, they reached out again, this time because they wanted me shoot this W cover that they are doing with Jennifer Coolidge. I don’t even know if they had really seen my other work—when I asked them why they booked me for the job, they said it was because they had fun shooting with me. And that’s it. (Laughs) But it was a very easy collaboration because my style turned out to be really compatible with the concept they had come up with.
It’s amazing that your career has taken this turn, but you’ve also been very honest about how difficult it can be to make ends meet as a professional photographer.
Yes, because I want photographers entering the industry to understand that as much as you may want to do these editorial or creative jobs, they aren’t always the projects that are going to help you make money. I’ve been lucky to have booked editorial jobs regularly since 2017 but they rarely contribute to my financial stability, even though they are amazing opportunities and I love doing them. I needed commercial gigs to fund my lifestyle and to even allow me to take on creative jobs. I’ve done a lot of commercial photography and even directed commercials for different jobs to make ends meet.
It’s rare for creatives to be open about money, mainly because creative industries tend to be shrouded in mystery. Do you think this needs to change?
Absolutely. And I completely agree—photography, in particular, is a very mysterious industry. Young creatives should have access to information before they make big life decisions. We have never had much data about what you can expect entering the industry as a young photographer. Pay transparency in Singapore is just not a thing. It’s cultural, people don’t like to talk about money. Older photographers will often complain about how their younger counterparts are undercutting them by quoting rates that are too low. But I think the truth is that people genuinely don’t know what market rates are—they don’t know what to charge.
“We learned from the survey that if you speak Mandarin, you earn 40 percent more than photographers who don’t”
Tell us about the Singapore Photographers Pay Transparency Survey.
In 2020, when I was back in Singapore during the pandemic, I organised a book club for photographers here just to have a forum where we could discuss ideas. It was Charmaine Poh who brought up the idea of doing a pay transparency survey with photographers in Singapore. We collected data from 135 photographers and worked with data analysts to make sense of the information we gathered. The results were incredibly insightful.
What stood out most to you from the results, and what do you hope the survey achieves?
We learned that if you speak Mandarin, you earn 40 percent more than photographers who don’t. Some of us have already been aware of this, but having data to back up the point makes it easier to talk about, rather than being dismissed or invalidated. There are a lot of other interesting insights that anybody who is interested can check out at sgphotosurvey.com.
My experience in the US has been very informative as well. Every industry has its own issues but the photography industry in the US is much more mature. I’d like to funnel some of the information that I’ve gathered back to Singapore to help improve our infrastructure and shape it to be more sustainable and diverse. I’m hoping that this survey will be a good starting point for discussion—for our industry to reflect and re-evaluate if there is a better way to do things, so that more photographers can make a liveable wage.