Jon Siegel: Everything That Attracts Me is Only at Night

Traveling through Asia, creative director of design agency, and street photographer, Jon Siegel, on how he became the midnight maniac, why he photographs smokers and about the secret society of Singapore photographers.

Jon Siegel, age 35

Born and raised in the US, lives in Singapore. Graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art, lived in Japan and France. Creative Director for APAC of Favorite Medium, a global technology and design agency, founded creative agency Pikkles (Tokyo).

I know how to bake cakes; I can dance and sing, but I never took photography seriously. My father is a professional photographer, and like many kids, I didn’t want to follow his footsteps, at least from the sense of contradiction. After graduating from college I went traveling and got to Tokyo. Later I found that my friends in Bangladesh had acquaintances with teachers in schools for the poor, and I thought that this was a chance to see something new. And of course I needed a camera for such a big trip. I still remember the photos I made there: terrible as a nightmare. While getting ready I called my father and asked for advice about which camera to buy. He said, “Go to the store, try all the cameras and buy the one that will be comfortable in your hand.” And I chose the Nikon D80.

After Bangladesh everything changed. I saw the world and realized that I wasn’t able to convey even the smallest part of its beauty – nothing that would keep the memory of Bangladesh. Everything that I experienced there and what I’d seen remain in my mind. I was making some videos, but who is reviewing them? It made me look at photography as something other than a hobby or the profession of my father.

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Once in Singapore I was with my friend, photographer Roger Wong, on Thaipusam – a Hindu festival, much of which is devoted to the procession of yogis who pierce their bodies with long needles. It’s a spectacle show, but not for nervous people. Roger had a huge camera and a bunch of lenses, and we were surrounded by hundreds and thousands of photographers. Such a big number of observers seemed inadequate and inappropriate because it was still a religious feast. Roger explained that early in the festival busy Singaporeans didn’t care much about the holiday, which carried the Indians or Malays in the city, but when the first shots of Thaipusam appeared in magazines and on websites, more and more citizens wanted to come and take a picture of this mad march, an almost unknown quiet festival turned into Brazilian carnival. That’s how photography saved from oblivion an old tradition to pierce bodies with needles.


The mass photo service Instagram is not the worst thing in the world. This service is for those who photograph faces and/or food. My face for sure isn’t too attractive, so selfies are not for me. In Asia, photographing food is more than natural – we joke that if Instagram were to shut down Singaporeans will die of hunger. Here no one can eat a donut without taking a photo of it. But there is a certain technique, and if you just photograph it how it is, a picture of some juicy pork steak can become a real visual disaster.

Most people just press the button not really thinking. But if you imagine that there is a balance and composition … For example, if you have a round plate and triangle napkin you can get a good shoot from above. In any case, this will require some attention to what you want to show your subscribers. But people simply press the button while eating. There are no places in Singapore where you will not hear the constant clicking of smartphones cameras. As you understand, I do not have an account in Instagram.

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People and Faces

In my street photography there are no staged shots but life as it is, accidentally seen stories and natural, bright and spicy Asia. There are moments when the camera prevents you from seeing a little bit more, and gives you even a sense of guilt for seeing the world through the lenses. But perhaps it is an inevitable professional deformation – when you see a great shot you pull to take out the camera. I never leave home without a camera. Now it’s Nikon D7000, and I almost don’t use any additional optics or filters. Consider me a conservative.

I love Flickr for its personalities. I don’t know how it turns out, but people often found me on Flickr and write, “Hey, dude! I will be in Singapore, let’s talk about photography, beer on me.” And I agree. I like meeting different people, photographers from different countries who have interesting stories and advice. And because of this I love Singapore itself; there are so many people! One such “beer on me” man gave me a level for the camera, very handy thing, since then horizons won’t slope even after a couple of beers.

I photograph with 50-mm lens, just keep the frame in two or three meters ahead of me, and use manual focus. Six or seven times out of ten I get the shot. Three or four – no, because somebody walked too fast, or was sneezing, or picked his nose. I ask for a photo only when I’m interested in how the person will behave knowing that he’s being photographed. Those are two completely different stories, two different persons. Moreover, a pair of Singaporean business ladies has already slapped me.

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I’m a nightlife photographer, but it has nothing to do with the romantic. In Tokyo I worked till late at night, and didn’t have time to roam even on the weekends. My way from the office to the subway station took at least 15 minutes, and it was all in the district of Shibuya (nightlife district in Tokyo). I began to experiment with optics for night shooting. In the lights of the outdoor advertising, with a bit drunk and strangely dressed people, I took not just regular cute photos. That’s how I turned into a midnight maniac with a camera.

Photographers, like all creative people, are constantly searching for ways how to express themselves. Night photography is a constant search, of light, exposure, technique. In my circle of friends there has always been a lot of Chinese, Vietnamese and Malay. They introduced me to the movies of Wong Kar-wai, movies about Hong Kong. Scenes from these films, this style so firmly rooted in my mind that I, with even greater fanaticism, began to study the art of night photography, following people in dark alleys. I began to photograph people smoking, people in relaxed, dramatic poses, and suspicious characters.

When someone lights a cigarette and does the first sniff, with slightly strained eyes, and without any suspicion that he is being watched, and that face, lit by a cigarette, with a trace of lipstick… all this is a real beauty and harmony.

Neon lights, cigarette smoke, taxi checkers, when someone lights a cigarette and does the first sniff, with slightly strained eyes, and without any suspicion that he is being watched, and that face, lit by a cigarette, with a trace of lipstick… all this is a real beauty and harmony. Therefore, in my photos there are a lot of smokers: I try to seize that moment, when inhaled, a person for a split second becomes someone different and his face reflects real feelings and thoughts.

Color and light of the night create real stories. I go in a distant and deserted district and suddenly I see a woman in a tight dress, high heels, standing in a casual pose; she brings a cigarette to bright lips. Businessman in an expensive suit loosening his tie, sitting on the stairs in front of the subway with a beer in his hand. Who are these people? What are they doing in these strange places, these grotesque postures? All of it attracts me, and it can be found only in the night.

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Asia and the Secret Society

All street photographers love Asia because of the fashion, outdoor advertising, and people. Even the most unattractive passerby will be dressed in such a way that not having a camera when you meet him on the street will be a big mistake. In Singapore this is more complicated – you can meet a smartly dressed girl with a guy in a tracksuit and slippers. Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam are no less beautiful, and Hong Kong is a paradise on earth.

Once I spent a week in Germany, it ended up that I was taking photos of flowers. In Europe and America everybody looked the same – in shorts and sneakers they pass on the street as if the only purpose of their lives is to get from point A to point B. On these streets there is no more life than in galleries or exhibitions. I don’t think that all this modern salon photo art will remain in people’s memories for a long time.

In Singapore there’s a cafe, on the outskirts of the old district, where funny and strange people gather on Saturday mornings. They drink coffee, tell stories. These people are very modest with strangers – silent, emotionally stingy. This is secret community of photographers. In ordinary life they do things far from photography, and often they have a strange sense of humor. All of them are a part of the hidden life of the city. Some like me are maniacs in dark alleys, some photograph weddings and religious ceremonies. We all know the unwritten truth: do not be afraid to photograph people on the street because they are afraid of you more than you are of them. And again, enjoy their confusion while they think what you are doing here with a camera, you have time to slip away. I hope I won’t be kicked out for what I said about the community.

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Every morning I go to the cafe next to Chinatown and always order the same breakfast, coffee and sandwich with coconut jam. Huge photos of Singapore 1960 are on the walls of that cafe. Many years ago their author, just like me, was thinking about the city, walking the streets. It is unlikely that that photographer imagined how 50 years later I would examine his photos in a cafe while having my breakfast. But it might be that 50 years from now my photos will be hanging on the wall of some other cafe and someone sitting with a cup of coffee will say, “So that’s what it looked like, old Singapore, that’s how people dressed, what a nightmare.” Or my children will find a photo album and think, “I wonder why dad took photos of all these strange women?”

But of course, it would be much better if my photos will make someone go on a trip, tear off from the usual life and be lured into a distant country. However, a Japanese friend of mine once said, “But you are lying to everybody! You take pictures of your coffee with toast and they look so delicious and appealing, even though it’s just coffee and toast! And what if somebody will come to see it all and will be disappointed!” What can I say to that? Yep, that’s the point!

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