Stories from a photographer’s lens: Makiyo Lio

They say you don’t shoot what it looks like, but what it feels like. Hear from Makiyo Lio, a Singaporean girl who followed her dreams and took a different career path from the usual conservative route. After buying her first camera at the age of 17, I guess you could say the rest is history. She shares her journey through the years, and some tips for young aspiring photographers!

4 June 2020 / By SGN

I remember taking my first picture when I was 8 years old. While on a family trip to the Zoo, my parents bought a disposable camera for $20 at the gift shop. It was a 35mm camera and I remember taking pictures of my favourite Orangutan – the late Ah Meng.

My parents worked as hawkers selling traditional noodle dishes for over 30 years. Growing up, my sister and I were told to study hard so that we could have a better life than they did. They worked under extreme heat, 15-hour days, and only took one day off each week.

When I first told them that I was going to pursue a career in photography, my parents never really understood why. From their perspective, taking a conservative job was the sure-fire path to success. Even though they had doubts, they never denied me the opportunity to pursue it wholeheartedly. My father would often say to me that, “你开心就好。” (“as long as you’re happy”).

“Off the beaten track”

During the second year of my diploma in Visual Communication at Singapore Polytechnic I represented Singapore in an international photography competition and spent some time in Cairo, Egypt, documenting local life. It was probably when my parents received a video message from me in Egypt, telling them that I had won a first runner-up award in the competition, that they did finally accept my choice of career. I remembered my sister telling me how my father leaped for joy when he saw my message. With the grant money, I bought my first camera, and since then I have never stopped shooting.

My first time in Giza, Egypt when I was 17!

After a year of working tirelessly at two local fashion start-ups, in 2013 I made a life changing decision to pursue my passion in photography. I left my tight-knit family, my friends and basically everything that was my comfort zone. I sold everything I had and bought a ticket to Italy. During that time, I embraced a different culture, lived on my own for the first time in a little village called Besana in Brianza, learnt to make pasta from scratch, appeared on a local newspaper for an arts exhibition I participated in, and fell in love.

A little Italian hill town in Tuscany called San Gimignano where I learnt how to make pasta

You can imagine the shock I received when I came home 5 months later and announced that I was going to move to Spain with my boyfriend, whom I met in Italy. In some way, my parents were heartbroken that their eldest child was leaving the nest. I had to paint a glittery picture of how their daughter had the dream of becoming a renowned fashion photographer, and how being in Europe would help to achieve that. They eventually gave in because I was stubborn and determined to make a living for myself just like they did when they were young. In fact, my mother from Ipoh, Malaysia to Singapore in search of a better life, while my father spent all his savings and opened up his very own hawker stall because he wanted to prove to his family that he could be independent.

“I was happy to be doing what I loved.”

My first time in Catalonia, visiting Sitges, a coastal town 30 mins train ride from Barcelona

As I didn’t attend photography school, I had to learn on the job. When I was starting out, I had to juggle between my work and developing my own photographic vision. I spent years in Barcelona living just above the breadline. Over the years, I assisted different artists, helped local businesses, worked in organic farms, and taught art and English to kids, all whilst building my photography portfolio. I shot backstage for fashion weeks, did a test for a supermodel and met the then Manchester City football player Nolito and took pictures for his family. Even though I wasn’t earning a lot of money, I was happy to be doing what I loved.

Shot backstage during fashion week

My first breakthrough took place when I was hired as a fashion photographer at a reputable fashion company in Spain at the age of 24. I spent a year in the company and decided that I want to leave my cushy full-time studio job and to venture into the world of freelance to be independent and owner of my projects. A week later, I received an email from the Conde Nast publication, Glamour Spain. They wanted me to do a Christmas editorial shoot with them. On the day of production, it was easily one of the best days of my life.

Part of the Global Beauty Campaign for Bershka

“A new beginning: London”

Subsequently in 2018, I decided to make the move to London, UK, ready to take on one of the biggest fashion capitals of the world. At the beginning, it felt like I had to start all over again. I knew no one in the city and had to build everything from scratch. With hard work, I managed to shoot an Autumn/Winter fashion campaign for Miss Selfridge, and then another for Kurt Geiger. I had the opportunity to travel to New York, Paris and Tokyo to undertake projects for important brands, and worked with many talented creatives, and established brands and magazines that I had a deep admiration for.

“Follow your heart”

Following your dreams might take unexpected turns but it feels good to wake up every single day with a sense of purpose. Granted, it takes a lot of hard work, and you have to make tough, life-changing decisions, but I know for a fact that I wouldn’t trade my dream for all the money in the world. Also, no matter where in the world I was, I never once missed a single Chinese New Year reunion dinner and have always found the time to discover new places and food together with my family whenever I’m home.

“Do this for yourself”

Some tips to consider if you’d like to pursue a career as a Photographer:

  1. Be ready to commit. Being a photographer doesn’t mean picking up the camera to shoot. The work behind a shoot is tremendous and so much more. You become your own agent, curator, branding whiz, producer and even critic. It is not a glamorous job and there are times you have to wear so many hats.
  2. Make use of what is around you. At the beginning of my career, I did not have money for fancy lights or gears. I went on Ebay, got the cheapest lights I could get my hands on and create my own set. I also had access to beautiful natural light so I went out and shot on location constantly. On a beach, in a labyrinth garden, on a sidewalk, in an abandoned factory and the list went on.
  3. Most importantly, focus on your own progress, and keep shooting. This is especially vital when you are just starting out. The more you shoot, the more you learn. Even when you’re not shooting for a job, you need to create one! Set a goal, and plan how many shoots you would like to do in a month, and commit to it. Start small. If you want to be a street photographer, make it a habit to bring your camera with you wherever you go. Aim to shoot one portrait a day. It doesn’t always have to be a large scale shoot for something. Do the shoot for yourself.

About Makiyo Lio

Born and raised in Singapore, Makiyo is a fashion and portrait photographer and filmmaker based between London and NYC. She first began her photographic journey when she won a worldwide competition and spent some time in Egypt documenting local life. Shortly after, she left home and ventured into the world of fashion in Milan, Italy. Her photography is characterised by an intimate, dreamlike feel inspired by cinematic colours. Her works have appeared on editorial titles such as Vogue, Glamour, Elle, Lula, i-D and more.

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