Est. Reading Time: 5 mins

This is part of the Creator Conversations series showcasing creatives talking about their dreams, challenges, inspiration, cool projects, and more. This month, we talk to Kevin Lee about his professional creative journey, advice for new creatives, and … a space camera?!

Creator Conversations #1: Kevin Lee, Founder of The CAKE Collective
Creator Conversations #1: Kevin Lee, Founder of The CAKE Collective

Origin story: CAKE x Kevin

Samantha: Let’s talk about your transition from a computer science background and web design to photography. What sparked your interest?

Kevin Lee: Let’s start in the beginning. Right after national service, around 2006, I started a web development business with a friend back in Singapore: we called it Solomon Creatives. We ran that for a little while, right after that I started doing more photography with another bunch of friends, which started out as a studio along North Bridge Road some years ago. That was fun.

That was my early foray into commercial photography. Because while I was doing web design, there were a lot of clients that needed imaging for their own website. And they may not have the necessary image library. So I ended up shooting some of these website photos for them to use. And this was still pretty early in the day where the 5D Mark II just came out, and DSLRs were starting to gain popularity.

So I started out with photography as just a hobby, you know shooting on film … shooting on medium format … shooting on my Hasselblad, learning how to develop my own film — black and white film.

Of course, color processing is always a little bit more tricky and more toxic. So if you want to deal with that, you need a proper darkroom … which I didn’t have access to. But if you were in the Photographic Society of Singapore, you had access to a darkroom, so I did that for a while. CAKE started in Singapore because of that creative circle with my friends.

The name CAKE was an amalgamation of two names: it was Callan (shout out to Callan). And Kevin. So: C-A-K-E. And the name stuck! After he left the partnership, I carried on with the name because I think the name is very nifty. It’s very portable. From a marketing perspective, you can do a lot with the name CAKE, too. So I carried on with it by myself for a while.

I came to Vietnam in 2015, and saw a lot of potential here. So I decided to build my own networks up from scratch while still handling jobs and assignments back home in Singapore.

After a year or so shuttling between Singapore and Vietnam, towards the end of 2017, I started working with Saigoneer, and that really opened up my world here. It opened up more connections, and got me more into F&B photography in Vietnam.

So here we are now a couple of years after I officially founded The CAKE Collective here. I started meeting new people, pulling various like-minded creatives like Fred and Louis into the fold, and here we are today.

Samantha: Balancing time between Singapore and Vietnam sounds demanding. What motivated you to establish Cake?

Kevin Lee: It was basically hustling, and because of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, it was a struggle. I saw other businesses struggling, too. By that time, I realized that even bigger businesses were not that big back then. Pasteur Street Brewing Company became one of our mainstay clients. We had them for a number of years, worked with them collaboratively, and kept the price points reasonable because we knew they were struggling, just like us. At that time, it was about survival, not making money hand over fist. We helped them out, and in turn, helped ourselves. Other clients were in a similar situation, too.

It’s very important to listen to what the client wants, but also understand what they really need.
What they want and what they need may not always be the same thing.

Kevin Lee, Founder of The CAKE Collective
Pasteur Street pomelo product shoot
Pasteur Street pomelo product shoot

The delicate dance of business and creativity

Samantha: Can you share your creative process and philosophy? What drives your passion for storytelling through visual art?

Kevin Lee: Especially in recent years, when it comes to product photography, I understand the need to fully embrace the product and really get under its skin and fully appreciate the brand that the owners have built over the years. For example, our recent projects with Sampan Rum have a lot of passion and design focus, which help build my own creative direction and inspiration.

I like to bring something new that further enhances the story. Pasteur Street at one point had a lot of fruit-based beers, like passion fruit and lemongrass. They use very hyper-local ingredients, and we included that in the shoot. They have the pomelo, which is very messy to shoot with, but it was ultimately very fun. The idea is to have fun but also tell the brand’s story. It’s not just about creating kick-ass images but also about what helps them sell more of their products and encapsulating the brand image and story in the few images I create for them.

Samantha: How do you balance the creative and business sides of your work?

Kevin Lee: It’s very important to listen to what the client wants, but also understand what they really need. What they want and what they need may not always be the same thing.

Part of the process is to churn out as many ideas as possible and propose them to see what resonates with them the most. Then we run with whatever remains and build upon that. If you’re working with a brand’s marketing department, you can often trust their judgment. Sometimes you have to give them your opinion on why something should be done a certain way. Free-flowing communication between us at CAKE and the clients often results in stronger outcomes.

Samantha: Managing expectations is crucial. How do you do it?

Kevin Lee: It’s about managing not just the client’s expectations but also your own. Remember that the client picked you for a reason. Set your ego aside and focus on the end objectives. It’s healthier than pushing your own agenda. It’s always about moderation and balance. It’s a constant struggle, especially in the creative field. There’s never an end to managing one’s expectations. Keep your creative fire going and push for excellence, but remember that you’re ultimately servicing a client. Even if you’re a freelancer, your boss is the client.

AI, the future, and a space camera

Samantha: How do you envision CAKE in the next three to five years?

Kevin Lee: In an ideal world, I hope that CAKE becomes well-known domestically and takes on more international clients. Vietnam will always be the home base for CAKE for the foreseeable future. We want to build up local creatives and hire them, creating a network that includes photography, videography, cinematography, illustrators, visual artists, set designers, wardrobe stylists, and writers. Writing has many sub-genres, such as scriptwriting and screenwriting.

Samantha: How do you see AI impacting the creative industry?

Kevin Lee: AI is both helping and challenging. Embrace it to speed up workflows but maintain the human element in creativity. AI lacks nuance, so it’s important to use it appropriately. Authenticity should be preserved.

Just yesterday, I saw a local burger joint advertising a 20% discount with an AI-generated image of a burger. I get that not all small businesses can afford good food photography, but I’d rather see them use their iPhone to shoot their burger in decent light. A real product is better than an AI-generated one that isn’t real. It does a disservice to the people who make the food and is an insult to chefs and food photographers who spend years and thousands of dollars honing their craft.

AI, when used incorrectly, can cheapen the look of your brand. That’s not the way to embrace AI. People overlook simple things, like in the copy. AI speeds up workflows but shouldn’t replace the human element. Use AI as a tool, not an end in itself. Respect your craft and don’t let AI take away the human element. Imperfections make our creations unique. The way stories are told visually or textually becomes unique only when we inject our own soul into them.

Samantha: Any favorite cameras from your early days?

Kevin Lee: The Hasselblad 503 C/M. It’s a classic design and one of the cameras that went to space. It’s beautiful and was a favorite from my early photography days.

Samantha: A space camera?!

Kevin Lee: Well, not exactly the same model (laughs). But the same base 500 C model.

Samantha: Still really cool! Thank you for sharing your journey and insights, Kevin. It’s been great talking to you.

Kevin Lee: Thanks, Sam.

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