Venturing into the Tech Revolution

Interviewed by JUSTIN ZHUANG • Photography by Sam Chin

 

Joining the online grocery start-up RedMart was a major switch for both Jonathan Tan and Valerie Chen. Jonathan went from art photography to shooting products, while Valerie left an accounts position in a branding agency to working in-house. The duo share how they made themselves relevant in their company driven by technology—a reality that is fast defining Singapore’s workspaces.

SOC-JonathanTan_ValerieChen

Jonathan Tan
School

NTU School of Art,
Design & Media

Field of study
Photography
& Digital Imaging

Graduating year
2013

Place of Work
RedMart

Practice
Photography

Valerie Chen
School

NTU Wee Kim Wee
School of Communication

Field of study
Brand Management,
Advertising & Public Relations

Graduating year
2009

Place of Work
RedMart

Practice
Business Development, Marketing

 

 

Tell us what you do at RedMart?
Valerie: I’m in marketing, and the main priority for a startup like RedMart is to acquire customers and retain them. The bulk of my focus now is acquisition marketing and a lot of this is done online because we are a digital-first company. So my day-to-day work consists of thinking of the long-term strategy, at the same time executing the  short-term plans. As we are a small team, I also wear many hats and will step in whenever an issue needs attention.

Jonathan: On my card, it says “Head of Photography”, but I don’t just do photography. What I do is collect data. We collect data of everything that comes in: not just images, but the weight and dimension of products. This is important in our operations. In a sense, the job is really not aesthetical, which is very different from my training. Working here has taught me to see photography as 0s and 1s.

How did you end up working in RedMart?
V: After five years in brand agencies, I felt my career had stalled; I wasn’t learning much. The briefs from clients and solutions started sounding too similar. I wanted to move away from a one-off agency solution to working on every stage of a brand’s life cycle. So I quit, job-hunted for eight months and landed at RedMart almost two years ago. Groceries are a big part of everyone’s lives, so it’s interesting to be part of a company that reinvents the way groceries are sold.

J: Upon graduation in 2013, I won the Kwek Leng Joo Prize for Excellence in Still Photography. Because of this grant, I needed a studio space to work on the exhibition and also wanted to apprentice with a photographer I admired so I joined a commercial studio. It was the best decision I made as I got a mentor I really liked and learnt product photography. About a year and a half in, I realised there wasn’t much a future for me in print media because the scene was saturated. I heard of an opening at RedMart from a friend of a friend. I submitted some stuff and the rest is history. I want to say I was a visionary and saw hope in the tech scene, but this was just the path of least resistance. It’s better to do something so-so in a new field than do something mediocre in an established one.

Jonathan, can you talk about the switch from winning an art photography prize to now working on product photography?
J: One of the themes in my art is the idea of list making. For example, I previously used Google, the mother of all lists to generate imagery for an exhibition called Bastard Flowers. The idea of lists helps you control vast amounts of information and make it accessible to people. I find joy in doing that too. Similarly, my work at RedMart is to be able to take things from different suppliers, with different visual aesthetics, and create some sort of unity. It’s not an art-making aesthetic, but it is personally satisfying. I also like the idea of a photo as something that people see and can believe as real. I see working at RedMart as a project to test out the importance of photography in people’s everyday lives. Being online and part of a consumption cycle allows me to conduct experiments and see how people react to images too.

 
 
 
 

Do you have an example?
J: We have had instances when we removed the image of an item because its packaging design has changed and it stopped selling. I did not expect the impact to be so immediate. On an e-commerce platform, images play an important role in determining consumer’s expectations and if they can trust the sellers. In the past, we’ve also had consumer requests for photos of the back of the products, so now we shoot items as if it is taken off the shelf and you are able to see it from all angles.

One of the themes in my art is the idea of list making. For example, I previously used Google, the mother of all lists to generate imagery for an exhibition called Bastard Flowers. The idea of lists helps you control vast amounts of information and make it accessible to people. I find joy in doing that too. Similarly, my work at RedMart is to be able to take things from different suppliers, with different visual aesthetics, and create some sort of unity.
— Jonathan Tan

Valerie, how was the journey from school to brand agency and now RedMart been for you?
V: School can only prepare you that much. The hard work begins once you step out of its comfort zone. I had to learn on the job from the get-go. Eventually, my transition from agency to client side was hard, because most multi-national corporations don’t hire someone without client-side experience. Startups like RedMart are more open-minded; they look at aptitude, personality and drive. I got the job at RedMart by pitching a business case during my interview — I mapped out the grocery consumer landscape in Singapore and identified potential marketing ideas.

 

Jonathan, as RedMart’s first photographer, how did you go about establishing a manual for shooting so many products consistently?
J: As RedMart grew, things started getting exciting because I had to think about my process and figure out how I could scale the operation without always being the one shooting. I realised I could come close to automating photography and becoming jobless. But if you care about how a human is going to see something then I believe a human needs to photograph it.

Anyone in my position would have to think logically. A lot of it are operational issues and figuring out how photography connects with other departments. The work then becomes a question of how do I evangelise the importance of photography to the rest of the company? This means educating stakeholders, explaining my process, as well as what makes a good image. The university experience has taught me to articulate something that is aesthetical and ephemeral in a clear and concise manner. By teaching others how to point to specific things in the images they find desirable or undesirable, we can then determine the philosophies and processes the company can adopt to produce good, consistent images in an efficient manner.

Have two of you worked together in RedMart?
V: While working on acquisition marketing campaigns, I do use a lot of Jonathan’s images. We also collaborated on a Facebook video as part of RedMart’s Chinese New Year campaign where our CEO dressed up as the God of Fortune to deliver a lucky customer’s order. We planned, filmed and edited this entirely in-house – within 2 days. It may not be the most well-produced video, but it was a fun initiative.

It’s important to constantly re-assess your skill sets, identify gaps, and always be learning. In my case, I got a culture shock when I joined RedMart because I was trained to approach issues qualitatively instead of quantitatively. I quickly learned the importance of being data-savvy and took time to ask for help, study spreadsheets, and attend short courses.
— Valerie Chen

How do you think the fields of art and communication are relevant to Singapore’s burgeoning tech and startup scene?
V: Technology is just a means to an end. Ultimately, it’s all about delighting customers. And to serve them well, you need to understand and communicate effectively – whatever industry you’re in.

J: Technology is bridging the gap between us and our daily necessities. Photography is just playing a small part in helping people visualize what they are trying to get.

Using photography in this tech space has forced me to open up parts of my photography process to let technology solve them. A lot of this is automation: creating backend systems to upload and edit. I work with developers to design these software to automate as much of the photography as we can.

Any advice for future HASS graduates?
V: Specifically for Communications graduates – it’s important to constantly re-assess your skill sets, identify gaps, and always be learning. In my case, I got a culture shock when I joined RedMart because I was trained to approach issues qualitatively instead of quantitatively. I quickly learned the importance of being data-savvy and took time to ask for help, study spreadsheets, and attend short courses. Now, I’m comfortable having these conversations. The pace is fast, so you have to learn, unlearn, and relearn quickly to stay relevant.

J: The very core that you cannot change is that you have to enjoy what you do. You should be adaptable and willing to let go of things. For example, in the past I would never publish an image I spent so little time on. I’ve learnt to let go when I realise that the customer doesn’t care about these things. So what do I focus on? A lot of that comes from feedback and what the data says. It’s also important to balance between work and art. If I wasn’t able to see that, then I would have burnt out within the first two months. As an ADM graduate, I think that is key. You are educated to think about ideas and aesthetics, but when you are thrown into a business environment, and when money is in the mix, you have to learn how to balance it all.

Izyanti Asaari