Coffee with Kafei - Thomas Lim.

Foreword: With Koko Mag coming to an end I wanted to preserve some of the better parts of the project and push them out a little further. So all of the interviews conducted as part of Koko Mag will serve as blog entries, featuring the original published article (with some nice extra bits thrown in) and the tear sheets from Koko Mag.

This is the final entry of the blog series, and features Thomas Lim, a photographer based in Melbourne, who at the time was holding lectures and discussions on his street and mobile photography. We sat down to discuss his work in June 2015. Thomas Lim was set to be featured as part of Koko III, so this blog represents some of what was lost from that issue (and as such is 100% exclusive to the blog series).

The Thomas Lim, and what do you call
yourself? Mobile/street photographer?

Photographer; just photographer. I used to call myself mobile photographer,
then I went up to Sydney for Head On, and I was having this talk with someone
else and he was saying ‘why should mobile photographers be categorized on its
own?’ It’s different from film and digital, but mobile phone is still capturing
with digital so why should it be different? ‘ I think that’s when I changed my
title to photographer, instead of mobile photographer, it applies to all types
of photographers, whether you are using medium format or DSLR. It’s more
learning for mobile photographer, it’s more visual, you don’t have to worry
about the ISO or settings and so on, you don’t have to worry about your SD card
being in there, the lens cap is already off.

You’re all set from the get go.  Would
you say you’ve always been creative?

No. I’m not a creative person.

Really ? Not at all?


But you do such great things how could you not be creative?

I was wondering, if you’re not talented by nature, how do you improve yourself?
So you have to work harder than those who are talented, very hard, and see how
it goes. I’m still not creative, it’s still a learning process. Compared with
you and many other photographers, they follow a lot of arts and culture, I’m
not one to do that, it’s more on how I feel, how I see, then I create

So it’s more based on your observations.

It’s all there for me, on the street, it’s
just how I capture it. So I’m not a creative person, yet.

Not yet, getting there.

I don’t know when, not yet, but it’s something that I won’t say about myself,
I’ll leave it for others to tell me if I’m creative or not – it’s very
subjective. Some people think ‘wow that is creative’ and some people think it’s
just copying of someone else.

So when did you start doing photography then?

When I came to Melbourne. That was like 2012, I came here to study with you, 

Hang out with the cool kids at NMIT.

Yeah, that’s when I started.

So what was it that made you want to do photography then?

Career change.  I was in video production, so I was looking for a career change. Video production was too much work, involved too many people, and I just wanted to do photography because I can make my own decision on how my work should be – so I don’t have to rely on other people. Basically it’s a one man show. 

So you work better alone than in teams you’d say?

It depends… I like to work alone though, photographers are lonely people. They are always alone. 

So you did say a lot of your work comes from observation, so that would be your main influence, just day to day life of the world around you?

You can’t learn observation, because there are different cultures and different societies, and political issues that are different, I’m still learning about Australia. There could be some interesting things that locals might pick up, that’s the shot, there’s the juxtaposition of the cultural issue or difference, but for me I might not pick it up because I don’t understand a lot of things. So I think it’s my way of observing lights, people, urban space, and I just want to document it, it could be here today and gone tomorrow.

Yeah, so you have to capture it fast. I know you’re a big fan of waiting, I remember you talking about one shot at school saying you were standing there for ages just waiting for people to line up in the right spots. Do you do a lot of waiting, for light or for people, for things to move into place?

Yes, I always say I choose the background, I don’t choose my subjects, so once I set the stage, I wait. Depending on weekday, weekend, big city, or small town, if it’s worth the wait, I will, until I get that one shot. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Like if you’re in a small town in northern Queensland, 5pm a weekday I’m not going to get anybody to walk by.

You’ll have to ring someone up “Get in my shot!” 

Haha yeah sometimes I think I would like to have a model, just to make it easier. But it’s all about observation, my images aren’t staged, if they’re there they’re there for a reason, they’re not models, I don’t pay them – they’re strangers.

When you’re standing there waiting, are you visualizing exactly where you want them to be, and how you want them to be? Or are you just trying to capture them as they are?

Yes, and no. Sometimes there’s a certain spot that I think would work perfectly with this sort of person, I could capture it or I could miss it. You need someone to walk past in order to see if it works, sometimes it’s another position or a different subjects. Like I don’t choose my subjects, but I capture a few subjects going past, and then choose the best one that works well with the whole scene. It could be a black wall with someone wearing red, that will give you the visual impact.

More so than someone in black walking past the black wall. Do you find yourself waiting for a long time often?

The longest I think was about half an hour. If more than that, I will just move on, because I could come back another day, and I don’t want to miss out on other spots. The street is my stage, I try not to waste too much time at one place.

Well that’s right, you could be missing people in another place.

Sometimes you never know, if you just move on. Sometimes you’ll turn a corner and there are better spots. Who knows. For me, because I’m new to Australia, all the time I try to get lost, in the cities and venture out. I don’t have a destination, I just walk, and walk, and walk, and walk. I just need to explore, who knows what I will find.

I’ve been doing that a lot, before I go I’ve been working on this architecture series of Melbourne, and I’m just meandering through the city, through all these parts I’ve never seen before…. It’s exciting, because I’ve never seen this street before, it’ll be an obscure laneway in some corner of the CBD I’ve never bothered going to before, and it’s like I’m a tourist in my own city.

This is the best time to do it too, the winter light is amazing. I love shooting in winter, the light is at the 45 degree angle, you’ll never get the harsh light at the top.

It’s nicer than summer for sure. So winter is your favourite time to shoot?

For sure, for sure.

Do you have any projects you’re working on at the moment, any exhibitions? 

No, not yet. I’m still quite new in mobile photography, I’ve been doing it for a year and half, I feel I’ve come a long way.

Definitely, you’ve made a great impact for only a year and a half.

Every photographer would love to have an exhibition, but that takes money, you have to spend money. I think I’m working on books first, then an exhibition. I’m planning to run workshops, mobile photography workshops.

I saw you doing something the other day, was that a workshop?

There was three, one with Eyeem, the work shop that I’m planning is more generating the work I do, a proper workshop by me. There’s a lot of, you won’t learn it in schools, a lot of things I’ve been doing, shooting, editing, on the phone – pushing out the social media, and schools don’t do that. It’s all from experience, trial and error, to get followers, how to push your work out, how to make use of social media to show the world what you’re doing in Australia, there’s still some creative blocking here. We’re still here, remember us! I think it’s good to share that knowledge, I always like to share, and to get more people to understand photography. Mobile photography is still photography, you have a very powerful tool in your pocket, in your bag.

It’s about making use of it.

The camera that rings! You have this wonderful small little thing, it’s important to document all the things. Even working in the call centre, there could be an interesting scene or pictures, that nobody else can have access to the place but you. 

Me and all the people I’m working with! But you’re right, it’s how I take advantage of it.

Exactly, you know how to frame things, you have an advantage.

I’ll play around tonight. I’ll get you some photos!

It doesn’t have to be a person.

Just shapes and colours, looking at light and lines. 

Yeah exactly, maybe texture and lines on the wall, maybe lights at night. 

Like you said about the workshops, it’s definitely a good idea. Like you said about schools, it can be so vague, and so broad, workshops you get that specialized focus on what people want to study, and the social media, and how to actually use the mobile to it’s fullest – that’s definitely not something we learnt at school.

It’s true, for workshops you don’t get a certificate, but you’re still learning things, when someone shares an experience with you. It might work, but it might not work, but if you pick up something from the workshops, it can change the way you see things or photograph or how you react on the streets, it can be something that needs a bit of practice.

You’re using an iPhone right? 

Yep, it’s a 5s.

What sort of software? Is it just the in-house camera app?

No, no. I don’t use the Apple camera, I use Pro Camera 8. It’s developed by a German company, and it’s the best, so far. [Demonstrates to me how to use it]. You can change the shutter, the ISO, you have exposure compensation, white balance. You can lock it, so once you move it’s locked. Lock the focus, and if you move it will stay there wherever you go.

So it gives it full control, like a real camera.

Yes, it’s about the control.  Which Android doesn’t have, it’s not because of them, unless there’s an app for one kind of phone, because the apps need to assess the camera, so android is a system where it supports a lot of systems. LG make them, Samsung make them, Sony, and so on. The app developers can’t assess all the different models of cameras, but for IOS it’s just one brand, so apps can work with the camera as it’s universal.

I see, so they don’t have to be changing it for every different phone, the iPhone camera is universal.

Slowly it’s getting there, during the workshops I told students, one day you could have a long exposure on your mobile phone. One month later, I see them launching and trialing a new phone with long exposure. Damn you should see it! 

I feel like I’m missing out, you’re really selling me the iPhone right now! Maybe you should be a salesman for Apple. 

Phone cameras don’t have proper shutters, so you can’t really open and shut them, you will have very high noise for half exposure. Half a second, max, but it’s changing so much. 

I’m a bit jealous of your pro camera app. The camera app on this is awful.

It depends on what you photograph. You can get some very nice straight photos with it, but with the iPhone, and Pro Camera app. The speed at which you can get it all ready.

Yeah, and the control! Even as you were showing me around the room, you’d go to the curtains and the light and it was so easy to make it look good.

For street photographers, this is the best, because it locks focus and exposure. So once you’re out there, you’ll always have the correct exposure. You know that this is the light.

When someone walks in front it isn’t refocusing, and readjusting the light, it’s not fucking anything up. Tell me about this mobile photography book you’re involved in.

I got involved through social media. When I started mobile photography, I posted three images on Instagram a day, so these ones use hashtags, and I’ve been tagging my images, I received an email from the publisher, and he was interested to include my image in the books. I think it’s not taking over, it’s the constantly creating works and pushing your works out there, is what’s getting me the exposure.

The way you’re using social media.

Schools always say don’t touch your Facebook, don’t do that, but I think schools should have a social media class, to help push their work out into the community, but the world is so big you need to get your work out.

Out of the little NMIT bubble.

Yeah, that’s when you can get exposure and people can see your work. There could be collaborations; there could be features, interviews, so on. Then more people will know about you, instead of ‘oh my teacher knows about me’, nobody knows about me. 

Yeah, it’s all about pushing yourself out there and growing your audience. 

Especially personal works, it’s very important to push those out there. Like with you, you’ve been doing a lot of personal works. Personal work is what people are interested in, more than the work you do for your clients, because you decide what is your personal work.

Exactly, you get all of the control, and you don’t have to meet briefs, or shoot anything dull. 

That’s what people are interested in, people want to know why you think this way, why you create this way, even with shooting architecture, or interiors, that’s why you want to interview me today – not because of some image on, but because of my own personal works. So personal works are really important.

I always remember at tafe, I’d always just fit my personal work into briefs, I’d never do the work I’d just find ways to bullshit it to fit the brief… Silvi used to hate that, and always try to fail me. 

I think it was on a trip to a gallery, Jesse Marlow’s exhibition, that’s when I was inspired. But I didn’t get to explore that, because of school works, and assignments, so I started doing this once I graduated.

Do you do much photography with the digital DSLRs?

For work yes, but all my personal work is mobile. You know when you are shooting on your camera, you come home and upload the photos from the card, you get them into Lightroom, go through Photoshop. Everything is in the phone, it only leaves the phone for backups, or until I share it. I bought a printer and now I can print it all myself. 

I’m seeing a lot of your works around the room, and they work so well together in little groups, is that a deliberate thing you do when you shoot?

They’re not meant to be together, I just look at the colour, and think that they work really well together.

Yeah, they make a really nice triptych. 

The one was in fed square. I like to take photos of places, but not show the whole place. At times, I want viewers to think ‘where is this place?’.

Somewhere so familiar, and you take such a tiny unmemorable part and create something beautiful.

Again, observation. Seeing differently, exploring the different angles, and lights, adding the subjects in.

It’s such a dynamic subject as well, it pops really well.

The thing with street photography is nobody can replicate the same image. 

What is it that you love about doing what you do?

I’m not good at words, but I’m just using photography. My image is often just one subject, in a big city. The thing is about the loneliness.

Is that you reflecting your loneliness? Like you said before about how photographers are always lonely.  You’re like a tiger on the prowl.

I always like to shoot subjects in the big city, I try to wait for that one single person, and just try to capture it. Human subject in this big city.

I see that, that shot at Myer; you know it’s such a big bustling area between the shopping centres, and there’s just this one lone subject walking and smoking. I’ve never actively noticed that in your work… this is why the interviews are so fun, I just find things out about all these great artists, what drives them, and why they are who they are.

I have never revealed that to anyone. I mean, no one has actually realized that or talked about that. It’s about all that, lone subjects. Some of my works have two, or three, subjects – but the majority are just that one person.

That’s a strong link through your work too. 

I don’t know if that’s how I see my image, but I love the one person alone. I don’t shoot things like lovey-dovey couples, or kissing in the street, I just like seeing people do their daily things alone.

I think you can get a lot more too, out of having a single subject. If there are multiple subjects, you kind of look at it quickly like ‘okay they’re doing x or y’, but when there’s just one subject to focus on, it makes you question ‘what is she looking at? What is her story?’ If there’s 5 or 10, there’s too much to even question about. 

I think I started with this kind of style, but I’m experimenting with a lot of street photography styles, 5% is usually filled up with the subject, I just love that one subject. 

I feel like I’m looking at your work through fresh eyes now that I know all that. That’s what I love about the interviews, the intricacies of an artwork that I’ve never thought about. It just sheds new light on it all. I love picking people’s brains and extracting all this exciting information, and viewpoints.

This is my first face to face interview, they’re usually emails with questions, and usually a list of what to say what not to say.

I do them a bit more candid, it’s really just a 40 minute conversation between us that gets recorded.

I’ve been thinking for a while about my images, the thing is it’s about the photographer themselves and how they see it. 

We are seeing through your eyes now.

Yeah, it’s through my eyes and how I feel. It’s about how I feel about the big city, and just that single person. Someone mentioned about Jeffrey Smart, who is an Australian painter, very famous. Someone mentioned to me that my work was very similar, I saw the work, Jeffrey Smart does a lot of urban landscapes. He’s a painter, so he’s drawing everything, signage, and there’s a lonely single person standing there. I never realized that in all my works, but it’s good to find out that you’re not alone in thinking that way.

I love the way you manage it. I’m still wrapping my head around that being Fed Square, that’s the heart of Melbourne, and it’s this one solitude subject – it feels so different.

I think for photography, sometimes it’s not about what you put into the image it’s about what you take out of the image. So what I actually exclude from the image, it could be a group of ten people and some performers, but I just want that part to be my message. 

What a great perspective to look at it. Okay, last few questions – obligatory favourites. What’s your favourite music? Album or band.

I know you ask this question. I’m working on a series, and I even have the title of my books ready – I haven’t told anyone yet, except the publisher. I’ll let you know, it’s called ‘Enjoy the silence’. I’m not sure if you know about this music, Depeche Mode. I’ve been a big fan of Depeche Mode since I was very young, I’m into the electric sounds and music. So that title comes from one of their songs, the reason for enjoy the silence. There’s a few reasons actually; first of all I shoot with my iPhone, so whenever I’m photographing it’s always in the silent mode so nobody knows I’m actually taking photos; secondly mobile photography is a very lonely journey, especially in Australia, because nobody understands why you spend so much time studying to end up shooting on a mobile phone. It’s kind of like you are just alone, and you’re enjoying the silence of nobody around. It’s not like landscape or architecture, it’s also a message to critics. That if people say ‘oh no, you shouldn’t do this, get a proper camera’.

Like a big middle finger up.

So for this I just do it for myself. This book and the title could be a message out there, like I hope you’re enjoying the silence. There’s a saying ‘work in silence and let success make the noise’, or something like that. When I’m photographing I’m always listening to the same music too, and that’s this music. Enjoy the silence.

I like that. What about TV shows or movies?

I don’t watch a lot of TV shows except the news, and I can’t watch Australian TV because the antenna is messed up. So I watch on the internet, CNN, BBC, sometimes National Geographic; boring stuff you know. Movies, I always go for interesting movies, especially war movies. Movies that have a good, not a good director of photography, but I always go for movies that takes a lot of time to plan the compositions and so on. That’s where I learned composition and framing, from movies. I’m obsessed with war movies, it’s something in the past, and I’m interested to know what happens. I’m quite a history person, and the way they film it and frame every shot, I learned a lot.

I think with some of the war movies I’ve seen, they’re quite personal, and quite observational in a way. You’re looking at this person in this history, and their psyche, and what they’re going through. You see that on National Geographic and the news, it sounds like you watch a lot of observational content. 

True, they always have documentaries as well.

So just about studying the world around you, cool. Do you play any video games? Nobody ever does but I have to ask for myself! Everyone is usually like ‘oh no I don’t have time’.

Yeah, I don’t have time! I used to play a lot of Football Manager, I like strategy games. I don’t like those counter strike games where you press a lot of buttons, I like to plan things. Even like war games, all the strategy, you just click everybody and they attack. I just did that to relax, but I haven’t been playing for maybe two years now, since I switched to my mac. 

Well we all know I’m a bit of a gamer, and that’s why I’m sitting here in my Pokemon shirt asking you about games! 

You are still young! I’m too old! 

Finally, what’s the best advice you could offer to someone who is interested in pursuing photography, or possibly mobile photography?

Just to keep shooting, there’s no shortcut in photography. Even if you went to school, or are self taught, if you are shooting only once a week or a month – you’re not going to get anywhere. You’re going to do what everyone else is doing, or what they have done – shooting sunsets, or flowers, trees, dogs, and so on. Start to observe everything, and start shooting from home. If you can get a good shot, any subject, from the place you live and see every day – you can get a shot anywhere. If you can’t even get a single shot in the place you live, you’re not going to get any shots. Look at the space, the light. Sometimes you lie down there and the lights come in, and it’s like wow. It’s always about lights. 

Where can we find you? 

Below you can see an exclusive behind the scenes look at some of the works that would’ve been featured within Koko Mag III. Included here is Kylie Knight’s fashion editorial, and an architectural series I shot myself. There’s also a look at the cover/back cover, and colour scheme of the issue - which was meant to be blue! 

Hopefully you’ve all enjoyed Koko Mag, as well as the Coffee with Kafei blogs. This is the final entry, the official end of the Koko chapter. Thanks for coming along for the ride! 

Deciding the cover and colour scheme.

Using Format