Eddie Sung, The Award-Winning Rock Photographer Who Turned His Dream Into Reality
Eddie Sung is a raconteur, and although his stories may sound ludicrous, they are very much a part of his charmed, ‘fairytale’ life. Growing up, Eddie was always fascinated by rock and roll music and knew that if he couldn’t be a frontman or a guitarist, the next best thing was to shoot rock stars. “I bought myself a guitar, because I wanted to dabble in music. However, after strumming three times, I hung it up. My surname is Sung, but I can't sing. Since young, I’ve always dreamt of becoming somebody world-class known for rock and roll. So as it turns out, my contribution comes in the form of visuals: record covers, CD covers, artwork, official websites, and magazines.” To date, some of Eddie’s works include photographing Blondie, Slipknot, The Beach Boys, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Lady Gaga, which are all sold at Morrison Hotel Gallery.
Dressed in a colourful tie-dye, self-branded tee shirt with distressed jeans, the bearded man welcomes me into his humble abode—a place where many legendary figures such as Steve Wozniak and Chris Stein like to hang out when they come to Singapore. Throughout my conversation with Eddie, I feel a strong sense of pride and confidence permeating through the air, almost to the point of hubris. Yet, at times, his zen-like demeanour and humble tone about his accomplishments, make him a paradox. For someone who loves listening to rock and roll music and going to concerts, he deeply values “his quiet, alone time” and shuns away from any form of social media or spotlight.
Once a partner at a management consulting firm, Eddie left the corporate world to pursue his artistic dream of being a rock photographer and since then, not only has his dream come true, but he has also managed to achieve fame and recognition in the process.
High Net Worth: How did you get into photography?
Eddie Sung: I started fiddling with my Dad’s Yashica camera when I was in secondary school. I always managed to find time to play with it, just like Jimi Hendrix, who sleeps with a guitar. I always knew that there was something in me, waiting to be unleashed.
So you just picked up a camera and became fascinated by it?
Yes. When I went to college in the States, I bought a Nikon F3. I was attracted to photography like a magnet. I shot everything from the Olympics opening ceremony to concerts that I had attended during my college days.
Did you shoot purely as an avid enthusiast?
First of all, I love music and the story behind the songs. Rock and roll is my jam and I fell in love with rock and roll photography as a young kid. Growing up, I read the Rolling Stone magazine—and it wasn’t just the articles that appealed to me, but the imagery as well. I was particularly inspired by three people: First, Jim Marshall, who shoots rock and roll concerts with a Leica on black and white film. It is an incredible feat to shoot concerts with a Leica; you have to possess the vision for it. Second, Barry Feinstein, who shot legends like George Harrison and Jimi Hendrix. Third, Annie Leibovitz, who shot for the Rolling Stone too. The way they framed their shots was electrifying to me. My dad recognised my photography passion and told me that I didn’t have to become a doctor or a lawyer. However, I knew the importance of education, so I got my degree and went on to do my MBA. Upon graduation, I went straight into management consultancy. At the age of 32, I made partner for PA Consulting Group. I was the first Asian to hit partnership globally and eventually, I became a senior partner. Everything was smooth sailing. I was in Surfers Paradise when 9/11 struck. Soon after, my daughter was born. I told my wife that it was time to do my own thing and it was time for me to retire. The way I live my life is like surfing—regardless of the wave, you find a way to glide over it.
Was it always your goal to retire early and pursue your passion?
No, after the 9/11 attacks, a feeling emerged from within me. People always regret not pursuing their passion, not because they did it and failed. I always knew that I had a gift for photography, and felt that it was time to show the world. Less than a year later, I won the Lucie Awards in 2006. I submitted three photos because a guy from The Straits Times, who received the third prize, goaded me into entering as well. A year later, he called me up and I told him that I had won the third prize… and the second … and finally, the first. He was very surprised.
How did you build up your portfolio? Did you have any connections?
When I was donning a suit and tie, my clientele and peers were all scholars. They were intelligent and well-dressed. Eventually, I left behind my corporate life, grew a beard and had zero connections. In my second life, I started to meet people like Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder. I don’t know how it happened, but I started to attract like-minded people like Chris Stein, Debbie Harry, and Jim Marshall. They were school dropouts, rascals, but they had a gift. They followed their heart. They are legends who are famous worldwide, and they make people happy.
How did you get to meet all these legends?
I don't know, I get emails.
So Steve Wozniak just wrote you?
I met Steve Wozniak at a convention in Singapore. He was with a group of civil servants and mentioned about organising a US festival back in the 80s. Nobody knew what he was talking about. Amidst the crowd, I voiced out in dismay: I tried to go, but I had my final examinations. He turned around immediately and gravitated towards me. He asked if I knew about it, and I said: I tried to go! My question is, why A Flock of Seagulls? The festival had the likes of Fleetwood Mac, The Clash, Van Halen etc.… and Steve Wozniak bankrolled it. I bought the DVD a few months ago and it finally came out after 30 years! I wrote Wozniak an email recently, reminding him of how we met.
That’s how you became friends?
Yeah, we have become very good friends. He comes over to my place just to hang out, before he catches a flight. One time, Wozniak and his wife were smooching in front of my porch [laughs].
Is there anyone whom you idolise or look up to?
I don't idolise anyone. In fact, some rock stars would email me for advice because I am a consultant. When I turned 60 on August 12, which was around the time the US Festival DVD arrived, I sent Wozniak an email: Hey, I just turned 60, still got life or not?” He said, “Of course, Eddie! Don’t you know? 60 is the new 40!” We joke around with each other a lot. Chris Stein is older than me but our kids are the same age. Once, I was hanging out in his apartment, and I smelt something funny. I told him: I think your kid just took a shit. And he told me to clean it. I said: f*** you, I got my own kids’ shit to clean.
How old are your kids now?
19 and 16.
What do you want them to pursue in life?
They have to figure that out themselves.
Do you think luck has played a big part in your life?
It’s not luck, it’s something bigger. Do you believe in god?
I believe in a higher being.
Some people may have other avenues. I’m about to share with you some crazy stories.
What is your religion?
I'm a Methodist. Quiet time is very important in my life. I have about 3 hours every day. The more quiet you are, the more you start to hear whispers…
Not voices, it’s a mental thing.
Oh, your subconscious?
Would you consider yourself religious?
Spiritual, not religious. Recently, I had lunch with an ex-lawyer and he asked me about the weirdest shit that has happened to me. I told him about an incident regarding an ex-classmate of mine named John. John was dying and he screwed up his life, so I went to visit him. He was lamenting about how he was a failure on his deathbed. I reassured him by letting him know that someone told me to visit him, and perhaps that was the purpose—to tell him that he wasn’t a failure. Several months later, while I was reading a book during my quiet time, my subconscious said: “Give John $2,000 now.” So I wrote a cheque and went to the hospital. When I arrived, I knew it was about time. The pastor was there, together with his close friends and family. The pastor said, “Praise the Lord, never underestimate the power of the Lord. When I was down and out, someone gave me $2,000.” I felt a shiver down my spine, because that was the exact amount that I wanted to give to John. When I handed the cheque to the pastor, he went crazy. Was it pure coincidence? I have no f***ing idea.
Who was the last person you shot?
Bob Dylan. He was in town for a concert. No photography was allowed, but I secretly took a few and sent them to his manager. His manager actually wrote back to thank me for the photos.
I understand that you had spent some time in New York previously. Has the city influenced or shaped you in any way?
To me, New York is the centre of the arts universe. I have friends there and the art scene is electrifying. I go to New York to meet people. Have you heard of May Pang, John Lennon's girlfriend? She inspired him to write a lot of songs. There are only three women in his life: Cynthia, his first wife and childhood girlfriend, Yoko Ono, and May Pang. I am good friends with May. Every time I’m in New York, she would have lunch and dinner with me and we would also go bar hopping.
How did you meet her?
I was in Farringdon when I saw her, and it was just two of us in the train station. I was dressed like my alter ego at that time—I had a dishevelled look and wore a leather jacket. I stopped myself from approaching her because in my mind, I thought that I might frighten her. So I told myself to let her go, and somehow I knew that I would have another opportunity to meet her. It’s like when you open the cage and you let the bird fly away—if it returns, it’s yours. Months later, a friend of mine gave me May Pang's email and told me to contact her. I wrote her and recounted the whole incident at Farringdon to her. From then on, we became friends and she told me to contact her whenever I’m in New York. You can't be desperate when it comes to making friends.
Let's talk more about how you got into toy collecting and other forms of artwork.
I started when I was a young kid. I still keep the toys my Dad bought for me when I was in primary school. They are still in very good condition.
Why do you like toys so much?
It just speaks to me. I noticed one thing about creative people; they buy toys like it's a necessity! Whenever Chris Stein comes over, he would swoon over my collection. If he likes something that I have it, I will give it to him.
How do you establish this balance of holding on but letting go? Not a lot of people can do that, especially collectors.
You see that? [points towards a toy] It's Lee Kuan Yew in PAP colours with David Bowie’s iconic Lightning Bolt—so ingenious. A friend of mine made it. I wanted one and he gave it to me. What goes around comes around.
I see that you also have a collection of skate decks.
It’s a good form of art and a cool medium. It’s also tied to my philosophy. I buy whatever I like, because I don't want to have any regrets.
When you were younger, did you have to save up to buy something you really wanted?
That’s a good one, I have never thought about it. Let me share with you another story. I buy houses. That’s another hobby of mine. When I was 30, I wanted to open a pub. My gallery, which I have since sold, has now become my living room. Kit Chan, Steve Wozniak, Chiam See Tong, all these people will come over just to hang out. Similarly, I wanted to open a pub for my friends to come by and have a drink. I had backers and a beautiful business plan. During my quiet time, I realised that something was wrong. Then it dawned on me: rental would be the biggest issue and I would be working for the landlord. So I tore up the paper and told all my backers to go look for something else. I wasn't going to work for somebody else; I should be a landlord. The next thing I did was to buy a property at Coronation Grove.
Have you ever worried about anything in life?
No, I will survive even in a desert. I have never worried about my kids because if I can handle it, they can handle it too. I'm the VP of a charity called I Love Children. The way I see it, a kid’s brain is very open to ideas, information, etc but once they hit their teenage years, it will slowly close up. My wife and I are retired, so every little nugget of thoughts that we have, we will throw it into our kid's mind. I will be sitting on the sofa and when my son walks past, I'll ask him to sit with me. I offer him my time and he will give me his. It starts off with a nice hug and we exchange greetings. This is why I am not worried, he'll be fine. I have built a strong foundation since he was young. I am not going to tell him what to do in life, he needs to look for that one thing he is good at.
Even during your time in management consulting, you didn't worry about your career?
I was doing bloody well. Have you seen the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice? I wanted to build the same piranha tank around the desk for myself. I made so much money that I could do anything I want, and my boss was fine with it as long as I was bringing in the money. That’s why I became a partner. However, my money wasn’t from my salary, I built a passive income through properties.
What advice do you have for young creatives who are "starving artists" right now?
I’m not normal. You must believe in yourself. Everything starts with yourself. Find your one thing. I conducted a talk in 2013, although I don’t like public speaking. The director of Halogen Foundation approached me, and I agreed to do it. Initially, it was for 200 people, then the number grew to 500! Eventually, it reached 1,200 people, with ministers in attendance too. I started my speech by asking everyone to point towards their heart and said: Press hard, there is something inside, every one of us has a unique gift. If you can find it, you can conquer the world. I found my one thing. Whatever you love doing, it’s no longer work. Do it. Run like hell. Do your 10,000 hours. In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. I played with my dad's camera tirelessly, I did my 10,000 hours, maybe even more, and I’m not tired. Another thing about photography is that I only shoot for myself. I’m not a hired hand. I don’t shoot stock, concert photography. I shoot my own unique style. I keep my own images, but I will also give some to the organisers. I shoot people who I really respect. A lot of concerts these days are young kids or YouTube sensations... you won't see me there. I’m not on any social media too.
That’s something I noticed too.
I stay away from all the noise. When I had my gallery, people would come to me occasionally. But I do not allow anyone to enter so easily. The reason why I chose to be secluded was because I didn't want aunties to come to my gallery and make facile remarks. I once had a friend of mine who drove a nice car and wanted a Lady Gaga print—$3,000, cash and carry. I questioned whether he knew the artiste and he didn’t. He was only buying it for its face value, so I refused to sell it to him. I don’t sell my prints to anybody. He left without buying anything, but we are still friends.
You want to sell to someone who appreciates your craft and is well-educated.
Right, but that’s just me. A lot of people used to drop by and I will critique their work—some of them ended up crying. Despite my criticism, they are really thankful for it. I rarely get to advise, but if they come, they have my time. If I don’t like you, I will not open the door.
Do you plan to hand over your collection to your kids one day? And are they interested to inherit all these photographs and toys?
I’m going to die eventually, so whatever it is, I won’t be around to worry about that. I just hope my wife doesn’t sell my toys at the price that I told her [winks].