The new Pioneer Generation: Freelancers

THE PHOTOGRAPHER Living off his passion for personal projects

Mr Zakaria juggles being a freelance photographer with mentoring undergraduates at the National University of Singapore and working on book and documentary projects that he feels passionately about.
Mr Zakaria juggles being a freelance photographer with mentoring undergraduates at the National University of Singapore and working on book and documentary projects that he feels passionately about.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

"Put your pants on and get to work" - this is the motto of freelance photographer Zakaria Zainal.

"People think I'm just waking up late and goofing around at home in pyjamas," says the 31-year-old, who has been doing portrait and events photography for five years. "But I get up at 9am. I have a task list. I have yearly goals."

When he graduated in 2010 from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) with a degree in communication studies, Mr Zakaria gave the nine-to-five life a shot, spending seven months as a civil servant.

But he gave up the job to pursue a personal project documenting the lives of the Singapore Gurkhas. The book of portraits and anecdotes, Our Gurkhas: Singapore Through Their Eyes, was published in 2012, the first of three books he has worked on.

His parents were shocked when he left his stable job to be a freelancer. "They kept asking, 'So soon?' In the first few years, I couldn't afford to give them a proper allowance."

Mr Zakaria has since co-produced three books on subjects like the Little India riots, as well as done research and interviews for a multimedia documentary on former inhabitants of Singapore's Southern Islands. This would not have been possible if he had remained in full-time work.

  • FAST FACTS

  • NAME: Zakaria Zainal

    AGE: 31

    JOB: Portrait photographer

    A FREELANCER FOR: Five years

    EARNS PER MONTH: $1,000-$8,000

    ADVICE FOR OTHER FREELANCERS: "Give yourself a routine. Get up early, put on pants, put on a shirt, get to work. You cannot waste the day."

But with this freedom comes fluctuating earnings that can soar to $8,000 a month, then plummet to $1,000 the next. "You need to control how you spend and not be fussy about what jobs you take," he says.

He supplements his earnings with income from mentoring National University of Singapore students on an internship programme with the Malay Heritage Foundation, and serves as an adviser to NTU student publication The Nanyang Chronicle.

For three months a year, he also works as a programme officer with NTU's Asia Journalism Fellowship. "It's a nice extra dose of income to pay my mortgage," says Mr Zakaria, who lives in a four-room Build-To-Order flat in Tampines.

"I guess (having multiple jobs) makes me sort of a hybrid creature, but as more people look towards freelancing as a way of life, you have to start doing more to stand out from others."

He has also started to form collectives and collaborate on projects with other photographers. "It can get lonely, being a freelancer," he says. "Sometimes, if you have a job you think is more suited to another guy, you step aside. You have to trust they'll do the same for you."

Since he took the plunge into freelancing, he has married and is contemplating starting a family. His 28-year-old wife runs an online apparel shop, for which he takes the product photos.

Despite the pressure of family planning, he has decided to give freelancing another five years. "I read somewhere that in the next 50 years, true wealth will be measured not in how much money you have, but in time and attention," he says.

"I need time for the book projects. I'm trying to give respect to the people I photograph, and the books really elevate that. I repay the trust they put in me.

"I'm not just a technician. I'm somebody with something to say about the world."

Olivia Ho

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'THE PHOTOGRAPHER Living off his passion for personal projects'. Print Edition | Subscribe