Culture / Art

Interview with photographer SWKIT: From social worker to acclaimed artist

Known as Ah Kit to his friends, artist SWKIT sits down with Art Republik to discuss how his background in social work influenced his photography

Feb 13, 2017 | By Tan Boon Hau
Work from SWKIT's series 'Perceptions'

Work from SWKIT’s series ‘Perceptions’.

“I feel beauty is shaped by your experience,” enthuses SWKIT emphatically at Habitual, Singapore, for his recent show ‘Perceptions’. “Your life, your youth, and the friends you have and had, it is all deeply personal.”

The man, goes by nom de guerre ‘SWKIT’ — aka ‘Social Worker Kit’, or more affectionately to his friends, from celebrities like Shawn Yue to Sam Lee, to the Hong Kong skater punks: Ah Kit. Decked out in a slack broad striped tee, blue jeans and a straw hat, he effuses an inquisitive yet laidback charm as he spoke about his work.

The one curious point about the man is whether the part of ‘social worker’ in his adopted persona seems tacked on, but hearing him affect genuine sentiments about his old career, from empathic stories about positivity towards the wayward charges sent his way, to the random talk about interview voice recorders — it was an integral part of his life he is happily grateful for — not just his hand in improving those juvenile lives (as people might assume) but also, for the opportunity to be let into their world, on their terms.

Art Republik sits down with Ah Kit to find out more.

It is known that you have previously worked as a social worker, hence the ‘SW’ in ‘SWKIT’ — are there aspects of social work that lends itself into and influences your photography? There seems to be quite a bit of overlap with the two worlds — the need for patience and empathy to know and understand others.

When I first started as a social worker, my habit would be to observe. I can just sit there and look at something for the longest time: what’s the ‘feel’, what’s special with this person…

Work from SWKIT's series 'Perceptions'

Work from SWKIT’s series ‘Perceptions’.

In the beginning, I had to interact with the kids a lot, but I didn’t know a thing about their activities. They spent a lot of time practising to reach the high (skill) levels they are at — it wasn’t possible for me to learn in a month… So my thing would just be to sit aside and observe, but they would come up to the side lines: “Hey are you bored? I’ll chill with you here instead.” I felt I was affecting their programme.

In university, I was just starting to get into photography; when I take photos of them, it’s like we have a shared vibe, a camaraderie of sorts. They were cool with me documenting them, as they saw I was occupied. I realised then, you needed to understand the scene and be a ‘specialist’; when the pros recognise something they deem authentic in your work, you know you’ve got something.

Take the skaters: they don’t like working with just any photographer, because they feel you don’t get their vibe. Most photographers only want the shot of that big ‘air time’; to them that motion is the highest notion of beauty. But there are nuances with the tricks — most people won’t know if you’ve photographed a failed trick, but the pros will feel embarrassed with those shots, lamenting the shots can’t be used. Then in response, “Why not? I think it’s OK, it looks nice!” They don’t know what the kids are thinking.

This aspect of the job made me realise I have to reach out to understand their voices. Commercial work, with the strict predetermined ‘layout plans’, lighting, fixed camera positions and the client directing it shot-by-shot — the end product is the same regardless of the photographer. Celebrities on the other hand, like it when I capture say a fleeting moment — smiling during the shoot despite their professionalism, for example. So I usually spend a long time with them, observing and waiting for the exact moment. This is what social work has imbued in me; it’s easier for me to be in their shoes and find out what’s on their mind.

Work from SWKIT's series 'Perceptions'

Work from SWKIT’s series ‘Perceptions’.

What’s important for you when someone is looking at your work? What do you want them to take away?

I feel, for example, the thing about titling my work, as a person I’m rather — how do you put it — free-spirited? I don’t control others and others don’t control me. What you feel when you view my work, that is all you. If I take a photo of something and gave it a name, that feels inauthentic to me. All the works in this show have thus been given a private numerical code as its title. With the code I’ll remember: when this was, the place, and whom I’ve gone with. Because that is a feeling and a memory. I want to share the moment with others but also I don’t want to influence your perspectives.

On Hypebeast there is a Red Bull mini docu-vid of your work with skaters; what is it about underground culture that speaks to you?

I often look at an individual and feel like I want to know that person; not just on the surface but also how he is made up — origins are important; your background shapes your attitude. All subcultures are unique. I like to see beautiful, special things; this is something about underground culture: it’s creative. I have shoelaces as my camera strap — the lack of money inadvertently inspires creativity; to be unique, and still look good. I find it fascinating.

People always ask why I gravitate towards the youth. But it’s because they have the best opportunity to change their lives, their mentality — maybe I’m just an eternal optimist. I find that society these days, they have one mode: grow up, study, get a degree, find a job, marry, buy a house. I’d always encourage my charges to find the things they truly like, and go do that.

Work from SWKIT's series 'Perceptions'

Work from SWKIT’s series ‘Perceptions’.

There is, strictly speaking, hardly time for one to self-explore.

Yeah there isn’t. To people, subcultures equates problems. Musicians are complained for practising overnight. But outside of their study or ordinary working lives, that’s the only time they can practice. People get mad when skaters wreck civic areas — floors are wrecked, the edges of things are shredded. Are they wrong? If you are a sportsman instead — there is respect. People dislike this minority, because they don’t conform.

Conversely, and strangely, it is exactly creatives: the musicians, skaters, artists — they are the ones that give the city life and character.

Yes. People living in the city, for better or for worse, are spoilt for choices. “When I feel like it, I shop a bit, play, go to the Cineplex, or go on vacation.” Maybe people haven’t really found something that they are truly passionate about; that is so important. In that regard, I feel lucky.

Work from SWKIT's series 'Perceptions'

Work from SWKIT’s series ‘Perceptions’.

For more information, please visit thehabitual.com.

This article was first published in Art Republik.