Telling Gen-X parents you’re going to be a social media influencer these days is tantamount to them telling their boomer parents in the 1990s that they’re off to join a rock band. The pressure is tripled if you’re the only child of Malaysian parents who moved from Ipoh to Singapore to give their son better prospects, and you’ve just been accepted into Nanyang Technological University to study aerospace engineering.
No shocker, then, that it took more than a year for Lee Yik Keat—known to his millions-strong following on Instagram and TikTok as @yk—to get their backing. Even then, they only agreed to letting him have a year to establish himself after his National Service. His father, a meat-loving chef at a vegetarian restaurant, was less worried. But his mother, a technician in a manufacturing company, fretted about stability and sustainability.
The self-confessed introvert sees himself as a creator, storyteller or photographer, dissimilar to celebrity influencers like, say, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who has 305 million followers on Instagram and is believed to charge at least US$1 million (nearly S$1.36 million) for each post.
“My main job is to put my results and visuals out there in the spotlight, not myself. Of course, secondarily, it’s good to have a human personality [behind the work]. Paired with that, I do a lot of ‘portfolioing’ (showcasing work from clients) to create a snowball effect—and build trust. As you clinch more, and bigger, clients, you have the leverage to increase your rate. When I first started, I worked with very, very small clients,” he says.
Over the past year, he has begun working with brands such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Onitsuka Tiger, who are keen to reach younger audiences. And as travel resumes, he hopes to restart his overseas work too.
Today, his journey is a masterclass in how to build an Instagram brand from scratch.
Step 1: Take small projects to be financially independent (and get parental buy-in).
Step 2: Share what you learn. He offers short photography hacks and lessons, which grew his following to a healthy 400,000.
Step 3: Research and learn from others.
Step 4: Do lots of “portfolioing”, or posting work with brands and companies you work with.
Step 5: Develop more than one way of charging clients for your work.
Step 6: Don’t lose heart no matter how lonely it gets.
Related article: 7 Things I Can’t Live Without: Photographer Lee Yik Keat
Lee sizes up each brief as a social media advertising piece, or a photography assignment based on the number of days or number of images needed. Being an autodidact, he also spent a lot of time researching how to build a following and a business, and quickly discovered that “everyone’s rate is special, because their past clients are different. And the amount of work they put in is different.”
If he had stayed on in aerospace engineering as a diploma holder, he would have started out with a monthly wage of $3,000, which, after eight to 10 years, would increase to an industry average of about $7,000 and up. But he’d have to pull the 12-hour shifts typical of the job, which was why he walked away. Who would have known that his workdays are longer by far now: 24/7, often abroad, and always available.
The 26-year-old invests a good part of his day in client meetings and creating ideas. He manages all his own projects, and keeps up with his teaching content to sustain his following. His mind is either on setting up his next commercial project or meeting a deadline. In between, creative ideas hit him long into the night, especially about teaching photography on Instagram.
The trade-off is an income about four times more than what he would be making in engineering. He carries himself with the maturity and quiet confidence of someone who has had success playing boss, producer, creative director and accountant all on his own. But there are occupational challenges. In addition to not having time for a social life IRL, dating, he shares, “comes with a lot of challenges”.
As a rule, he shuns stalkers who repost everything he does on their own accounts—“they’re not local, thankfully!”—or obsess about the size of his following. “Generally speaking, if someone comes up to you and already thinks that way, then they’re only seeing your façade, and it’s not a genuine connection,” he says with a chuckle. “They only know you as this persona first, and they perceive you that way. In terms of dating, I try not to deal with someone who is like a big fan of me, I guess!”
Compared to previous generations of aspiring photographers, Lee has grown up with easy access to creativity-enabling technology. Where photography in the 1980s was a potential money pit that began with a DSLR and ended in a darkroom full of chemicals, the teenage Lee was already shooting on an iPhone 4 and mastering Instagram’s filters. He’s also able to fix things in post in under 10 minutes, because of the meticulous planning he does ahead of time.
He’s especially inspired by filmmaker Christopher Nolan (his favourite film is Interstellar), as well as photojournalist Alex Webb’s nuanced street photography. In fact, his posts show a mastery from drone photography to carefully composed images. These combine his fascination with aviation and the desire to capture multiple, serendipitous moments in single frames.
Then the pandemic caused a different kind of virality for Lee. Travel slowed to a crawl. As cooped-up audiences spent more time on social media missing leisure travel, his following swelled to 1 million on Instagram and 1.7 million on TikTok, as people fell in love with his drone photography series called “Winding roads”, as well as his travel images.
“Everything was very gradual at that point. Then, going from 400,000 to 1 million happened within two months because of a ‘tilt phone’ reels post that I did of Faroe Islands. It went viral on Instagram, and got a global reach. I think the first few videos I posted in that series got 50 million views,” he shares. “Which is insane.” Along with the rest of the world, his parents watched perceptions of stability turn upside down: The gig profession of being an influencer burgeoned, while aviation “kind of went down… it was an interesting flip”.
Over the worst year of the pandemic, he proved himself to be a kick-ass visual storyteller whose knowledge-sharing inspires others. His parents, who watched the gigs roll in, have stopped worrying so much about their son. He muses: “I think deep inside, they still want me to pursue aerospace. But they don’t talk about it much anymore.”
In a personal post in June 2021, Lee wrote: “This pandemic is the greatest thing that ever happened to me, I am so thankful for it… This pandemic gave me the abundance of time to slow down and really reflect. I dug deeper and deeper, both for my personal life and work. It was then that I realised the true motivational force, Purpose. Purpose both in photography and life, I need both of them to work hand in hand.”
Main image: Shirt, Prada. Shorts, Polo Ralph Lauren. Sunglasses, Oliver Peoples.
Photographed by Wee Khim
Styled by Gracia Phang
Social media producer: Navin Pillay
Makeup & hair: Aung Apichai using Dolce&Gabbana Beauty, 13rushes, and Kevin Murphy
Photographer’s assistant: Alwin Oh
Stylists’s assistant: Brandon Chia