Vivien Liu's first solo book, Being There, was released in 2020, during a worldwide pandemic that left a mark on us all. As part of Trope’s Emerging Photographers series, the book helped viewers escape from the lockdown and took them on a breathtaking journey through Hong Kong, Moscow, Tokyo, Rome, and Zhangjiajie, China while exploring the dialogue and tension between people and spaces through portraiture, landscapes, and street photography.
Trope recently caught up with Vivien to learn more about her introduction to photography and to see what she has been up to since the release of Being There.
For those who may not know you, how long have you been a photographer and what drew you to the profession?
I’ve been doing photography full time since 2016. Prior to that, I was practicing in the architectural field. During that time, I was looking for a creative outlet and found photography to be the escape from my daily work.
You’ve shared that you began your Instagram account back in 2013 and posted your photographs of Hong Kong just for fun. Since then, you’ve gained a large following. From your experience, what are some of the pros and cons of social media in terms of being a photographer? How do you balance staying true to yourself and standing out amongst the surplus of photographers on one platform?
The largest take away from social media for me was the ability to show my work to a global audience. I gained recognition as a photographer largely thanks to Instagram. The positives to having a large audience was that it provided me a drive to be productive and shoot daily. It gave me an unlimited amount of support for showing the world my perspectives of the places I love, and a sense of purpose to inspire others to do the same.
As social media has grown to be an integral part of our lives, we involuntarily become influenced and affected by it. The drawbacks I experienced as a creator included a sense of being pigeonholed into a certain style or genre as a result of the expectations of followers. This is exacerbated by the commercialization of social media platforms, where engagement was no longer organic, ultimately leading to trends becoming the driving force for content creation. As a result, there has been major shifts in the way we create and consume content, which to me is unfortunate, because trends often undermine a deeper meaning to why, and how we make art.
How would you describe your photography style? What does your process look like?
I think there are two main aspects that characterize my style of photography: people and places. As someone with an architectural background, we have a humanistic way of seeing the built environment. Architecture exists for humanity, and therefore the two are inseparable. The dynamic between the human body, our emotions, and the space around us is constantly at play when I think about the composition of my work.
How has your background as an architect influenced your photography style?
My architectural background provided a starting point for my photography, because at the beginning of my career, the subject matter I would shoot would always be buildings. Like in architectural representation, orthogonal lines, geometry, repetition and symmetry would dictate the proportions and composition of the frame. These visual devices would still be strongly evident in the work I produce today.
Can you tell us about your business, Studio UNIT, and how you developed it?
I started Studio UNIT when I quit my full-time job in architecture, as a means to make a living through commercial and paid work. During the time I was gaining recognition for my work on social media, I had accumulated enough exposure and clients through side gigs for me to be comfortable starting my own business.
What are some challenges you face now as an entrepreneur that you may not have faced in the corporate world or as a freelance photographer?
As an entrepreneur, I feel there is a need to innovate, in both the creative and business sense, and that is a differentiating factor from being a freelance photographer. Running a business has been a fast track to learning operation skills, something that, if it happens at all, would take many years in the corporate world. Being a small business owner means that you need to learn the ropes of operational and management aspects very quickly. Oftentimes, these would take just as much time as the creative process itself.
A lot has changed in the world since Being There was published in 2020, notably the pandemic. Has the way you’ve photographed changed over the last few years?
One significant shift in the way I photograph was the inability to travel. Since then, I have taken on numerous architectural documentary opportunities in Hong Kong, shooting for architects, designers and developers.
What inspires you these days?
Anything that inspires me to move out of my comfort zone. Learning cinematography and video editing has been on my priority list.
What are you working on now? Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
This might not be an expected answer, but I am looking introspectively into myself. After the pandemic, a lot needed to be recalibrated including rethinking about how to move forward in a different world. Aside from the ongoing photography projects described earlier, I think knowing myself better would inform direction of my work in the future.