How to succeed: HK photographer Vivien Liu on the male dominated industry of professional photography
In this edition of ‘How to Succeed‘, we speak to Vivien Liu, Hong Kong based photographer and founder of architecture, interior and portrait photography studio, Studio UNIT, about her passion for photography, the challenges she has faced as a female entrepreneur in the male dominated industry of professional photography, as well as her ongoing work with HSBC Jade’s unique #SupportEntreprenHER campaign.
Specialising in photography depicting urban density and architecture of Hong Kong and around the world, Vivien has a loyal following of 250k followers on Instagram. Working closely with respected clients like Nikon, Jack Daniels, Samsung and The Hong Kong Tourism Board, her work has since broadened to include portraiture, natural landscapes and product photography, and has only gone from strength to strength since the conception of Studio UNIT in late 2016. Passionate about fostering ambition and supporting passion, Vivien has recently partnered with HSBC Jade to work with them on #SupportEntreprenHER, a campaign that strives to “support female businesswomen and entrepreneurs as they start or scale their businesses, as well as help manage their personal and professional lives.”
Working closely with influential women like Vivien Liu, the campaign hopes to inspire other women to to take their first entrepreneurial step while sharing advice, guidance, hacks and tips in reaching their business goal. In this edition of ‘How to Succeed’ we dive deeper and speak to Vivien herself about the challenges that she has faced as a budding female entrepreneur (amidst the male dominated industry of professional photography), what inspired her to pursue photography, and her tips for aspiring female entrepreneurs and photographers.
Tell us a little bit about your background – what inspired you to pursue entrepreneurship and photography? Was there a moment or event that really influenced you?
I was born in Vancouver, Canada and spent an equal amount of time growing up in both Canada and Hong Kong. I studied architecture at university and after graduating with a Masters of Architecture from Harvard, I settled in Hong Kong for good and worked for two established architectural firms before starting my own business, Studio UNIT.
My goal was always to start my own practice in architecture, but never thought I would specialise in photography. While I worked long hours at my architecture job, my outlet for creativity became photography – something outside of the architectural field, but also closely related. Because of my architectural training, I took photographs of my environment, which is the city of Hong Kong. My early work portrayed the concrete jungle as if it was one technical drawing after another – strong leading lines, geometrical shapes, symmetry and repetition – all became trademarks of what my work would be known for. As I shared these photographs online, I picked up a following on social media, which allowed me to reach out to international audiences whom the towering buildings of Hong Kong always tend to fascinate.
I was offered commissions to take photographs, sometimes at home and at times abroad. At the same time, my full-time job in architecture became more taxing which gave me the idea of pursuing my own business full time. At the beginning, I wasn’t ready to give up architectural design so I founded Studio UNIT combining my two passions – architecture and photography. I completed a handful of interior design projects before committing fully into photography which is what I specialise in today.
Who is one person who has been instrumental in your success?
If I were to name one person or being, I would owe it to God. I was never a religious person and I still am not, but reflecting back on my journey there are a lot of moments to be grateful for, which could only be due to a higher intervention. The journey was not an easy one – starting and running a business entails physical, mental, and in particular, emotional challenges, but as soon as I acknowledged and believed in God, I feel His presence and the road ahead becomes manageable.
Tell us about a significant point where you truly began to feel recognised; that you’ve “made it”.
It would be the moment I had the courage to take the first step to start my company, Studio UNIT. I felt I had the right connections and opportunities to sustain myself outside of the office job.
To you, what’s the most important aspect, trait or criteria for someone to succeed?
I think they have to have a purpose to serve a greater good. And then it would be to have the tenacity and persistence to realise that purpose. The purpose for myself is to take good photographs which would leave a lasting impression or memory. I want to move people emotionally and have them feel something when they see my images. I task myself with constantly honing my eyes and my craft in order to serve my purpose better.
What’s some of the key challenges that taught you an important lesson?
One memorable challenge came from the need to multi-task heavily when I first started Studio UNIT. I really needed to be a jack of all trades. Coming from a creative background, there were aspects of business that I wasn’t trained to do – managing people, legal practice, negotiating fees and contracts, being a good salesperson, setting up IT, etc. On top of that, I had to make sure my creative assignments were delivered at the highest level possible. At the end of it all, I was burnt out, and needed to distance myself away from aspects of my business for a while. Being too much of a perfectionist, the lesson here is to pace myself a step at a time – I used to stress myself over deadlines and not question if some of them were reasonable at all. I used to linger over small details that would take up a lot of time to ‘perfect’, and the slightest pressure would cause my stress level to skyrocket.
Today, I learned to prioritise and mitigate the internal (and external) voices that would put pressure on my productivity and mental well-being. I learned to be productive by working healthy hours and getting enough sleep, and I learned manage my own as well as my client’s expectations on what can be realistically achieved under a certain time.
Describe one of the lowest points during your career or as you were building your business, what was the most important thing you learned?
When I first started my business, the challenges as previously mentioned took a toll on my mental health. I was burnt out and my outlook on the prospects of my business and life became hopeless and grim. I used to externalise the negativity and thought things happening to me were unjust, but didn’t think that I could play a larger role in mitigating them. For example, terms needed to be thoroughly thought through and negotiated before entering agreements in order to protect myself from malpractice. During slow times, such as during the pandemic, I needed to reach out in new ways or diversify my knowledge and services in order to win new business.
What did you wish you knew at the start of your career that you know now? What words of advice would you want to give your younger self?
A quote by Dale Carnegie: “Remember, today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.” Commit to doing your best, and don’t take to heart about things that you can’t control.
Your crucial tip for productivity? Do you use a particular app? Meditate?
When it comes to managing commitments and responsibilities, both multitasking and maintaining a heathy work life balance becomes a big challenge. I try to have a routine where I put my work priorities during my most productive hours in the morning and make time for more relaxing activities in the evening. It is important to have the habit of working efficiently, because your productivity levels are likely to drop if you don’t replenish your energy and leave time for yourself to unwind.
What does an average work day look like for you?
Read the news over coffee first thing in the morning, check and reply to emails, if it’s a shoot day, will shoot for up to 8 hours and download and edit photos during the night. If no shoot is scheduled on the day, I would try to work out in the morning, then work on editing photos, issuing quotations and invoices, paperwork, coordinating photo shoots, and doing online meetings. During the evening I would usually allow myself downtime to watch a movie, read and play with my cat.
What do you like to do when you’re not working, how does it help you or how does it make you feel?
Lately I’ve been shooting with an analog film camera – its refreshing to go back to the basics and lose all the technology that comes with modern cameras. It puts you more in touch with the experience of taking a photo, as everything – shutter speed, aperture, and focus – is manual and requires your attention before you press the shutter. I think it takes me back to the reason why I love photography as you get to craft every shot you take – something you tend to forget with digital cameras and automation.
Tell us more about your HSBC Jade SupportEntreprenHER campaign?
I thought it is a meaningful opportunity to inspire those with the ambition to start their own business based on something they’re passionate about. With the number of unique challenges that females have to face when they’re launching their own businesses, the #SupportEntreprenHER campaign gives women looking to start or grow their business advice and guidance around tackling the inevitable challenges that arise. It explores taking the first step in the entrepreneurial journey, what’s holding women back in business, the importance of external support and self-care, as well as future-proofing in life and business.
I do encourage you to check out the content created by the other female founders involved in #SupportEntreprenHer campaign. Spanning from Hong Kong to Singapore, be it technology or children’s wellness, I’m sure any aspiring entrepreneurs-to-be will find the courage they need from these experienced female founders who have walked the walk.
What challenges have you faced as a female entrepreneur in the male dominated industry of professional photography?
I think the challenges like believing in yourself are mostly mental, and would occur regardless of gender.
Any tips for aspiring female entrepreneurs and photographers?
Believe in yourself and know that those who approach or engage you do appreciate your style and believe in your capabilities.
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