Interview #21

Rebecca Toh and Living On Her Own Terms

Rebecca Toh

Written by RMM
Photos by Rebecca Toh

It takes a certain kind of person to pick themselves up after failure.

All too often, it’s just easier to walk off with one’s tail between one’s legs when things start to fall apart. So when someone like Rebecca Toh comes along, with her infallibly never-say-die outlook, it’s easy to feel inspired to make the most of your passions.

Rebecca is a creative who is constantly reinventing herself.

While she has found success (and perhaps more importantly, satisfaction) as commercial and advertising photographer who shoots for Facebook, Monocle, Singapore Airlines, Lexus and Conde Nast Traveler, Rebecca has tried her hand at being an editor, writer and radio DJ too.

After dropping out of college, where she majored in English, Rebecca decided to pursue music. “After I had quit school multiple times, I was adrift and wondered what I could possibly do next,” Rebecca tells us. “It was a time of deep anxiety and around this time I fell into a very bad depression. I felt like a complete failure.” During this dark time, it was a serendipitous moment surfing on the internet that led one thing to another — Rebecca decided to open a store. Inspired by Korean stationery store Spring Come Rain Fall and Singapore’s BooksActually, she started her own zakka store called Casual Poet (after Jack Kerouac, who described himself as such).

Running Casual Poet helped with her “terrible anxiety and depression” and gave her the motivation to “keep going forward and keep living”. In the span of 2 years, Casual Poet added a café and an independent magazine to its stable. While the store didn’t last for long, this became Rebecca’s springboard to more creative work. From self-initiated projects and jobs for friends, Rebecca started small in the photography world before achieving stability. She now hopes to pay it forward and blogs about her experiences, so that others can learn to live on their own terms as well.

RMM learns more about Rebecca’s journey as a photographer.

RMM: Creatives always seek to develop their own unique voice. What do you think your voice is, as a photographer, and has it always it been always been the same?

Rebecca Toh (RT): Yes, I think it's very important to have a unique voice. It's what allows you to stand out in the crowd. My voice as a photographer is my voice as a human being. I think it's one and the same. And what is this voice? I find it really hard to describe. Maybe if you look at my photos, you can tell me instead...

RMM: Did you have a different ‘voice’ as an editor, a writer and a radio DJ?

RT: I don't think so. These roles are only platforms for me to express myself, so I think and hope my voice is consistent throughout. I believe in happiness, in travel, in reading, in beauty, in solitude, in freedom - and I hope these come through no matter what I do.

RMM: Let’s talk about your portrait project ‘Creative People + Projects’! Most, if not all, of your previous features had (beautifully written) stories where your photos were accompanied by your observations about the subject and their space? What made you decide to choose to switch to an interview format?

RT: I thought that just the photographs and my words were inadequate at expressing who these people are. It's nice to hear them in their own words, let them tell their own stories.

RMM: Is there an emotional chord that runs through your favourite photos?

RT: Yes. Solitude and alone-ness. I used to say "loneliness" but now I say "alone-ness", because loneliness is rather negative, but alone-ness is neutral. And I genuinely believe that solitude/alone-ness can be either beautiful or ugly depending on your own state of mind. When I was depressed I made photographs that were lonely in a negative way; nowadays I am happy and I make photographs of people who are alone, but in a neutral or even positive way I hope. Same emotion, different state of mind.

RMM: Who inspires you?

RT: My first proper idols were writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Zadie Smith, Bruce Chatwin. I really wanted to be like them. Later on it was musicians like Joni Mitchell, Chet Baker, Kings of Convenience. Nowadays I also get inspired by fellow artists and creatives - photographers, musicians, writers, designers. Anyone who is interesting inspires me.

RMM: What’s next?

RT: I'm now working on a project where I'm shooting portraits of at least 100 people who were born in the same year as I was, 1986. Each portrait will come with a little story. I'm also writing a photography e-book about how to go from an amateur to becoming a pro-photographer from a more business. I also want to do more personal photo projects - there are many potential projects I'm excited about, but nothing's concrete yet!

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Toh Official website:

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