Hey what’s up, my name is Alex Tan. I’m a photographer and content creator at Idea Booth, an Advertising Agency in the West Loop of Chicago. I was raised in Ohio and moved to Chicago one year ago.
How was life growing up?
I grew up in a rural area outside of Columbus, Ohio and was the only Asian descent in my high school (besides a few who were adopted). Because I grew up in the middle of nowhere, I had to work hard for everything. My parents believed that nothing in life was going to be given, it all had to be earned.
When did you begin to witness you had creative talents?
It’s weird because I grew up playing competitive soccer and got recruited to play in college. Growing up in a small town, the only thing that mattered really was Ohio State football. I felt really boxed in expressing myself creatively. I grew up with a negative perception on art and thought that it could only be a hobby. I didn’t actually discover that I was creative until I went to college.
What was that creative talent you found you had?
While in college, I met two guys named Will and Greg on Instagram who taught me a lot about film photography and printed publications. It was cool to be able to meet these guys because they were really into things that I wanted to be into for a long time, but I always felt self-conscious about it. The first time I hung out with Greg, we went to a coffee shop and the barista happened to be a big Instagrammer. I ended up looking at his profile and in his bio it said, “Shot all on iPhone” and at that point it hit me that I didn’t need anything more to be creative. Everything I already had were the tools I needed to create what I wanted to see.
Did you have any interest to pick up a camera growing up?
As a kid I remember playing with my parents old point and shoot camera in the house and I feel like that’s how it starts with everybody. When I was 12 or 13 I got on Twitter, where I started to connect with people I didn’t know all over the country, and that is eventually how I found out about tumblr. The artists on tumblr inspired me to live a life that was not followed by rules. I don’t feel as if I was called by any means to be a photographer, but that was an outlet that I found out that I was really good at. My life is a complete surprise to this point. I never dreamed of being a photographer when I was a kid.
Let’s talk about you leaving your near full ride scholarship to pursue your career in Advertising
I attended Capital University to major in Accounting. At first I was going to major in engineering because that’s what my Dad did. My freshman year in college, I decided to not play soccer at school and this was the first time I hadn’t played since I was 11 years old. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I got into a lot of partying and was really dissatisfied that I wasn’t working on a craft. I would consider soccer a craft at the time because it was strategic, something I was good at, and always wanted to get better at.
After I met my friends in college who taught me a bit about creativity, I started taking pictures every single day with my iPhone. I started getting into the Instagram community and while in my sophomore year of College, I began freelancing a lot and was creating social content for restaurants. I was reaching out to these brands relentlessly. I received probably 30 “no” answers before I got my first “yes”. Eventually brands started coming to me.
When I entered into the IG scene, my group of friends had a friend named Richard who was from Ohio and moved to Chicago two years prior to pursue a content creator position at Ogilvy & Mather. After 10 months he ended up leaving that job and becoming a full-time freelancer. Around the spring time of last year, he asked me if I wanted to come out and intern for him. Last summer I did just that. My intentions were to only be out in Chicago for two months. In those two months we worked on sets with Crate & Barrel, Land of Nod, and CB2. We were creating advertisement spots for their Youtube and other various projects.
Richard told me was he was going to pay me a good enough day rate so that I could pay rent, go out to eat, and explore the city – even though we only worked four to five days a month. He said, “You’re in Chicago for two months, you have 25 days a month, for two months, outside of the days we work to make a life for yourself. Do everything you can to hustle and freelance during your time here. You never know what could happen.” I took that to heart.
Outside of the days I worked with Richard, I made sure I emailed every local business in Logan Square and Wicker Park telling them what I offer. One of the spots that e-mailed me back was Furious Spoon. I did one round of content with them, and for the first time in my life, the client told me they didn’t like the shoot and wanted me to redo it. I felt really horrible and thought to myself I wasn’t cut out for photography. I decided to pick my head up, re-do the shoot, and they loved the results. A week later I got a call saying that they loved the results and were really impressed by my ability to bounce back after receiving constructive criticism. By the end of the call, Idea Booth offered me a full time position as a Content Creator.
The craziest thing about this experience is that I had received the call a week before I was planning to go back to school in Ohio. I had a decision to make, do I go back to Ohio to finish school, or pursue this real life experience, and I decided to leave college to pursue my career.
For people who feel stuck in the position they’re in today. What are some tips you could give them to get out of it?
I would say my biggest advice to anybody who is stuck in a block while working your 9 to 5 job, going to class, or anything that is out of obligation and commitment, the things you do with the hours that are totally optional is who you are setting yourself up to be in the future. If I go to school or work 9-5 and go home and watch Netflix, I’m deciding that I’m going to be a professional netflixer. If you’re really serious about wanting to become a photographer, designer, musician, or anything, you have to spend countless amounts of hours on your craft. Nothing will happen or develop over night. Every day is 0.1%. If you have an idea of whom you want to be in the future and you know how long it’s going to take to get there, the only other advice after that is to just keep pushing. You’re going to go through dry spells and times of self-doubt, but the difference between people who are successful and the people who aren’t successful are the people who never gave up. Choose wisely what you do with your time, and never give up. That would be my best advice to you.
How has it been being a content creator at Idea Booth?
Idea Booth has been awesome for me. I’ve been here at Idea Booth for 8 months now, where I do a little bit of content creation, creative direction, strategy, and community management.
Content Creation: Lead photographer for all content posted on social media channels internally, and externally for clients.
Creative Direction: Contributing to concepts that will be created for social media, and digital advertising.
Creative Marketing Strategy: Responsible for defining key objectives, how they are measured, and when they are successful. Creating strategies that help brands grow an audience and continue to meet the needs of brand goals.
Community Manager: Responsible for creating content that will be published on brand’s social media accounts, creating content calendars that will be forwarded to the client, and continually posting/responding to users on the brand’s account
Talk a bit behind your current creative process right now. I see a lot of bright colors in your feed
I feel like when I first moved to Chicago the urban photography vibes influenced me. Everything is dark and gritty. The best part about Instagram is that it is an experimental playground; you can see what works and what doesn’t. One of my best friends, Evan Sheehan, has really influenced me to look at colors differently and work to manipulate colors to look like a color you wouldn’t see in real life. He has really taught me how to make something out of nothing and catch people’s attention in doing so.
The reason why I’m pursuing really bright colors because I haven’t seen many people do it well and I wanted to challenge myself to create a feed that consists of wild colors that people don’t see every day.
(Yellow / Pink backdrop photos Kyle Michaels helped with lighting and Styling)
How has social media impacted you creatively?
Social media has completely changed my life. It’s true that Social media isn’t important for everybody, but in my case, without social media I probably wouldn’t be in the position I’m at. Social media set the bar at zero to where anybody could enter the door. It connected me to a ton of other creative people who wanted to know who Alex Tan is and has connected me with a ton of brands I have been able to work with. Most importantly, social media connected me with people that were going to help me grow as a creative.
You’ve stated that if you are doing what is popular or trendy, you’re behind. How do you look to always stay ahead of the curve then?
At the end of the day it’s really hard to be somebody that is the originator of an idea. I think everybody bites off of somebody or something. To me, staying ahead of the curve is all about being aware of where content can go. Look at Uber and Netflix for example, they looked at both of their industries and slightly tweaked them in ways to their advantage. What they were doing was being aware of what was going on and listening to the people. Then you look at the few other ride-sharing apps that followed Uber and Lyft, and they are behind. To be ahead is to see potential in an industry and just tweak it barely to where it works in your favor. It’s futuristic. All of that takes risk.
Outside of photography, you do a lot of writing. Talk about Mouthwash
Me and a couple of my other friends were sitting around and talking about how people have conversations about creativity and the struggle, but that conversation stays within their friend group. Also, there are people out there that aren’t having these conversations, and what they want is for people to talk about the issues they deal with.
We decided to create Mouthwash as a place for creatives to write about their thoughts, advice, self-help, and their creative process. Our goal was to start Mouthwash as a common destination of a wealth of information for people who want to learn from other creatives they respect in their industry and somebody who is looking to be somebody in the creative field but don’t know how to get there.
The question of manifestation. What are some goals you would love to accomplish by the end of this year?
I feel as if I’ve been traveling a lot within the states, but I feel like it’s time to travel internationally. I really want to go to the Phillipines, Japan, Thailand, or one of these Asian countries that has so much hidden culture that nobody sees. As a photographer, whether it is with the agency or my freelance work, I want to work for a major national brand. I want to create something that people are talking about.
When it’s all said and done how would you like to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as someone who inspired people to let go of comfort and chase after their dreams. I feel like for me, I took a lot of risks and did a lot of things that people told me not to do, but I worked hard and met enough people who helped me get to where I am today. I look to encourage the younger generation of people who want to learn from me to be 20x better at my own craft than me. I want to be remembered as a teacher and someone who could speak truth into other peoples lives. I’m also a Christian and I want people to understand that as much as this came out of hard work, I still have a lot to be thankful for. I truly believe God chooses certain people to speak into other people’s lives and sharing that joy with other people is a super valuable thing that people can learn from.
Written By: Nicholas Rud