Platform x Pera in Istanbul

Back from Istanbul and finally found some time to write. Attended the ‘Singapore Unseen’ exhibition opening in Istanbul in early April. If you’ve read my previous entry, you’d know that this is one of the biggest, if not biggest!, overseas Singapore photography show ever, and it was one that I had the honour of planning alongside curator Kay Chin and my fellow production manager Juliana. 

It all started with a text message from Kay Chin inviting us to a meeting with renowned architect Tan Kay Ngee, who’s based in both Istanbul and Singapore. Working together with a stellar A*team in writers Yu-Mei Balasingamchow and Justin Zhuang, and advisors Lindy Poh and Tan Shir-Ee also made things a lot smoother. 

But the biggest deal for me was really seeing all these plans come to fruition. From Kay Chin’s makeshift styrofoam model of the museum space and our mini print outs to the real deal in Pera museum. The prints were stunning and the video projections added depth to the show. 

As much as we came on board as production managers for this show, Juliana and I also learnt a whole great deal from this process too. Prior to this show, I was one of the producers for Platform’s Twentyfifteen.sg exhibition at Esplanade. Still very green at that time but decided to dive into the deep end and embrace the steep learning curve. Came into this show a little more experienced but always something new to learn each time. And this is what I always remind my students too - that learning can and will happen anywhere as long as you’re opened to it. 

Not sure if and when we’ll have another Singapore photography show of this scale overseas so if you’re in Istanbul the next couple of weeks, swing by Pera museum and check it for what it’s worth. 

(Photos by Tay Kay Chin, Samuel He and myself)


‘Singapore Unseen’ exhibition

Am pleased to share that ‘Singapore Unseen’, comprising the work of 33 photographers, would be exhibited at the Pera Museum, Istanbul, from 5 April to 20 May. This exhibition is based on selected works in the TwentyFifteen and +50 projects. Our (Platform’s) Pera connection began when Singaporean architect Tan Kay Ngee, who lives in Istanbul a few months each year, shared TwentyFifteen and +50 books with senior members of the Pera Museum. In the last few months, we have been working very hard to put together a show there. Spread over two floors in the private museum, this is one of the biggest group photography shows for Singapore-based photographers. More than 150 images and four videos will be featured in this exhibition. 

Given our excitement, we had a tough time trying to keep this as low key as possible before Pera’s official announcement. Many meetings, filled with lots of food and good discussions, with our curatorial and writing team, including Kay Ngee, Lindy Poh, Shir Ee, Justin, and Yu-Mei, were held at Kay Ngee’s office. Right before CNY, Kay Chin went over to Istanbul to settle production and logistics for the show. And just last week, Juliana was there to oversee printing handled very professionally by printing lab Difo.
We are thankful that something close to our hearts is finding ways into new places. Also, always grateful to the people who have kept faith in us and have been encouraging us on. Kay Chin and I will be in Istanbul end of the month to install the show. If you’re going to be in Istanbul, come join us. Otherwise, we promise to keep you guys updated with lots of photos and videos!


NUS Community Sports

Scored a sweet gig to photograph for NUS Student Affairs. The brief was simple : do what you normally do and capture the essence of community sports in NUS over four sessions. No models/talents, no posing, just story telling at its finest. 

Followed the Dragonboat girls, Rockclimbing guys, an Interhall games finals and a Sports Jam. It was fun to be back on campus! Also just a little plug, if you’re a full time NUS student, you might want to take part in the NUS Community Sports photo contest here. Generous cash prizes up for grabs and also bragging rights ;) 

Good luck and God speed.


Hello 2018.

Been meaning to write but never quite found the time and right words to put it all together. Not going to put up a perfunctory 2017 reflections/summary up but perhaps share some of the more interesting things that happened and also my current outlook on life. 

If you follow me on Facebook, I had listed out two highlights of my 2017 - that would be working with the Yishun kids beyond Hello Heartlands, a photography project supported by Our Singapore Fund and National Arts Council; and picking up a new sport in climbing. The former has evolved into a loose collective of young residents, living in rental units in Yishun St 22, who now have access to Friday group tuition, holiday outings and a listening ear in us. I’ve so much more to say about climbing but that would be a post for another time.

Those of you following my work would also know that I’m a dedicated and passionate documentary photographer. In particular, I’m moving onto my 5th year for the ’School of Hard Knocks’ project. Had the opportunity to exhibit at the ’Women in Photography’ showcase at Objectifs together with Maika Elan, Nancy Borowick, Sandra Mehl, and co. in Oct 2017. Henri Cartier-Bresson says that ‘your first 10,000 photographs are your worst’. I’ve made more than 10,000 images of this family but I know the best is yet to be. For younger photographers out there, 10k images on one given project sound intimidating but the key, really, is consistency and a love for your subject/subject matter. I strive to keep at this body of work for as long as I wield a camera.

Apart from docu work, I did a bit more teaching too. My teaching stints at various institutions like Singapore Sports School, ITE East, and Roundbox Centre allowed me to work with more youths and was a (personal) reaffirmation that I possessed a chemistry and synergy with the younger gen. It has been refreshing and I look forward to more teaching gigs this year.

On a slightly somber note, end Jan marks the 3rd anniversary of my Dad’s demise and while the ghosts of that night still haunt me, his passing is a stark reminder that life is transient and unpredictable. It somehow always takes a tragedy to shake us up and make us rethink life, but since then, I’ve been enjoying life as best as I can.

I no longer blindly chase accolades and dollar bills. I’m not sure you can say I’m less ambitious or driven than before, but I’ve learned to pace myself and do more of the things I love. My close friends comment that I’m very lucky to be enjoying life like this. Damn right. But I also think it is a deliberate choice you and I can make. What if you’ve been slogging your entire life and then *bam* you realize you only have one more week to live? 

I don’t have many material needs - no extravagant purchases, no luxurious lifestyle. Only the occasional splurge at cafes and paying for climbing gym passes. I spend much of my days at home - watching, reading, learning new things, going out teach and shoot, working on my personal projects, dreaming about new work to produce, traveling and now climbing.  I count myself fortunate not to be stuck with student loans or any debts and to have a family that is financially stable and supportive of the decisions I’ve made thus far. But if you think about it, if we’re not slaves to consumerism, do we really need so much to survive?

I thank God for the clarity and peace in my heart and for all His blessings and favors. When a good opportunity slips away, Mama and I would always remind each other that “if it’s not yours, it’s not yours”. I hope that 2018 would be just as rad with more growth for my journey in storytelling, sharing and climbing. I’ve set myself many little goals and milestones to work towards to in the aforementioned three aspects, but may a fulfilling and meaningful existence be at the bottom of it all.

Here’s to a gnarly 2018 to you all too. Cheers.


Boyhood

In Mar 2014, I went for a baby’s first birthday party. I hadn’t met the birthday boy before, but my then-new friend, Mel, who eventually becomes the subject of my long-term photography project, invited me to attend. “You will meet a lot of people. The dancers also going. And anyway, it is Prem’s son’s party. You can go help him take pictures.” 

I gladly obliged. To me, it was another opportunity to get to know my subjects better. 

After that birthday, I didn’t see much of Kavi. Prem’s marriage was on the rocks and he decided to let Kavi’s biological mother, Gowri, care for his son. Few months later when the couple officially split up, Prem and Mel started dating. While Mel and her kids became a mainstay in Prem’s life, he took time to check on his son once in awhile. 

When he found out that his ex-wife was abusing drugs and leading a hedonistic lifestyle, Prem realised that he needed to step up and be a better parent. He decided to bring Kavi home, to give him a safe space to grow up. So it was only in 2016 that I started to see Kavi a lot more. 

Having a ‘new’ younger brother at home was very exciting for the kids because they not only had a new playmate but another boy at home. They come from a family of six sisters and one brother, but the latter is currently serving a sentence in RTC. The younger three sisters, Shivani, Shanthani and Nesa, would fight to sleep next to Kavi, squabble to feed him and vie for his attention during playtime. They are also now in charge of mothering Kavi - which includes picking him up from school and seeing to his daily needs and hygiene.

Amongst the three sisters, Kavi enjoys his time with Nesa the most. “Nesa akka is funny and kind. She also plays with me,” Kavi shared. The other night when I was over at Mel’s, I asked Kavi if he’d like to come over to my new place. 

“What can I do there?” he asked. 

“Oh, you can watch TV or you can play on my computer,” I replied. 

“I want to play computer!”

“Okay, you can come later.”

“….myself? Nesa akka also ok?”

Kavi is now 4.5 years old. He gets away with some mischief through his good looks, charm and cheeky nature but otherwise dramatises when he doesn’t get his way with the sisters (i.e. fake cry!!!). He learns Chinese in pre-school but isn’t too good at it. He loves to eat ice-cream and cold drinks but knows that he shouldn’t consume them, especially not in front of Mel, because of his asthma. He taught his friend to brush his teeth with body foam (what a prankster!). 

Kavi is only 4.5 years old but has been passed through many different hands and lived in more than 4 homes and guardians/parents. He remembers his biological mother but does not have strong feelings towards her - neither love nor dislike. He does not understand why his paternal grandfather came over one day and snatched him home. He has a hole in his heart which we only learnt about recently. 

If we use our ‘adult’ lens to look at his world, it hasn’t been easy. But I am guessing Kavi doesn’t think much of it. At least not now. For the most part, he’s still a very happy-go-lucky boy.

Not sure what life has in store for him in the long run but looking forward to see how boyhood pans out for him in the next few years. 


60 Years of Cedar Athletic Team

Happy to share my new publication, ‘60 Years of Cedar Athletic Team’, done to commemorate and celebrate Cedar Girls’ Secondary School’s track legacy and the school’s 60th year anniversary. It was unveiled during the school’s anniversary dinner on 16th September 2017. The book consisting of 96 pages, an A3 newsletter and a sheet of sticker, comes in an edition of 300. 

Colour proofing and press check were very smooth and well handled by the print technicians at Grenadier Press and it was a joy seeing the sheets come out and almost ready for signature each round. Weng Fai and I came in one afternoon to fold 350 letters, in the way we (girls’ school girls) would fold our letters, so that Grenadier could help us paste it in the book. Overall, it was a super fun and meaningful project that I’d love to do again in a heartbeat.


Hello Heartlands!

Friends, family and many other good folks out there who have been following my documentary work would know that I’ve been photographing Mel & family the last 3.5 years. When the family moved over from Ang Mo Kio to Yishun last year, the kids often shared with me that they felt so unfamiliar and alien to this new neighbourhood they were supposed to call home. That was how this project, ‘Hello Heartlands!’, came about. Nesa, Mel’s youngest daughter, and I decided that we could embark on something fun together, that would involve other kids in the neighbourhood, during the June holidays.

Few weeks before we commenced the project, Nesa and I would go door to door and invite some kids to be part of the program. While many said yes, we had our fair share of rejections too! 

There were many informal meet ups which included chit-chats, playing football at the void deck (oops) and just lepak-ing (i.e. hanging out), but the three formal session we had involved i) photographing their neighbourhood with a disposable camera as they deemed fit; ii) checking out the images they made and drawing their own portrait from their imagination; iii) a group outing to the National Gallery & then iftar at Spize. 

The whole project culminated in a block party + group exhibition at the void deck on the 24th June. No big fancy museum-esque show, just an honest community program we’ve put up together with the kids. The most important aspect of the exhibition was to get the kids as involved as possible so that there would be a sense of ownership and pride. This included getting them to assemble the booklets and also give our visitors a personal tour of their exhibition. Some of them were pretty shy at first but after a few rounds of practice, they warmed up to the idea and very confidently brought our visitors around.

The typical barometers for a successful event would be number of visitors who came by or even how big a scale the event was. For my team and I, we’re already super happy to see these things unfold :

i) Some kids who were antagonistic to each other at the start of the program, now happily hang out together. P even joined Nesa and family for Raya visitation as P’s mother was not in Singapore and she was alone for Raya. 

ii) A is only Primary 2, but he has not been going to school. He can’t read either. He cites distance as a reason (Yishun to Woodlands isn’t that far for a boy who can cycle ALONE to ECP), but we figured the real reason could be because school’s not fun when you fall so far back academically as compared to your peers. Amanda has kindly volunteered to help A with English every week. 

iii) N and F wrote letters on their postcards (their photographs turned to postcards) to a family member that is incarcerated <3

iv) Our friend, Nadia, managed to raise a pool of money which we gave out to the kids for Raya (as angpaos, kueh kueh & NTUC vouchers) and also for future outings! 

v) Exploring different ways to take the project forward as we linked up with potential collaborators. Many of the kids love music, dance and performance, so that’s an angle we might explore. Plus, we are going to Shine Festival this weekend together, and some of them would get to meet their ‘idols’. 

vi) We also learnt that their MP, Louis Ng, is in discussion with HDB to build a youth centre for them below their void deck. We’re hoping to work closely with Louis and his team to do more work for and with the kids.

Thankful to Straits Times and TODAY for their coverage of the project! Also giving thanks to Brian Teo & Tan Ding Wei for the photographs. And to word wizard Louisa Chiew, law enforcer Kim Whye Kee and chief fun creator Amanda Quek - without whom this project wouldn’t take off. 

This project was powered by NYC, supported by Our Singapore Fund and NAC’s Matchbox.



Cedar Athletic Team ‘17

I was a Cedar athlete from ‘01 to ‘04, but a mediocre one at best. I wouldn’t say those four years were the best chapters in my teenage life, because it really wasn’t. I was playful and wilful, and in part misunderstood. Didn’t help that my good friends were all from ‘rival schools’. So, (if you can connect the dots) it always felt like I was deprived of opportunities to grow. Not complaining because those lessons definitely steeled me to be more resilient in life! 

That said, in the recent few years my friends and I, we do occasionally reminisce (fondly) about the days we toiled hard at the track, the letters we wrote to each other in encouragement, the post-training tauhways/cupnoodles we consumed (oops), that #cedarpride when our teammate gets up on the podium. 

Every year when the National Track & Field finals buzz comes about, I find myself deliberating - should I or should I not go? I’ve never gone back once because I know I wouldn’t like to go back to unfamiliar faces, but late last year I found myself wanting. And I knew that if I wanted to enjoy finals, I really needed to know the athletes well. So what happened next, I’m sure you can figure out yourself. Some of these images (below), together with archival material + research + interviews will culminate in the form of a publication of sorts, akan datang. 

For now, may this set of images bring you through the journey of the Cedar track & field girls who ‘blood, sweat and tears’ their way to a double championship title this year. A truly fitting gift from the athletes to the school on her 60th. 

Pre-nationals projection read that we would have a good chance at winning the B title, but not the C.  It was truly exciting for me (and many others, I’m sure!) because after each competition day, we would tally the scores and re-evaluate whether we were closer or further away from our goals. Somewhere along the way, the athletes managed to buckle up and fought for every single point. 

A couple of them had a difficult lead up to this competition because of niggling injuries that left them on the sidelines for awhile, while others had to fight their own battles at home/outside school. Over the last six months, I’ve bonded with the team and became quite pally with a couple of them, so it also pained me to see them struggle. But they never gave up, no matter how painful it got. Weeks before the competition, the captain lay immobilised in bed from an injury and had to be ferried to the A&E by her parents. She spent the next few days recuperating and putting extra effort at rehabilitation because she really wanted to do her team proud. And she did. 

We eventually did emerge victorious. But more than the trophies and the glory, I think what’s more precious is the life lessons and values the girls brought home. 


Yearly tradition

SCANDI, OCT 2016

Every year, Mama and I would go on an epic trip together. Late last year, we went to parts of Scandinavia with Kimmy. We walked a lot and spent a bomb, and I made a few pictures so we could all have a (better) visual reminder of what fun we had together (which includes mother jumping over gates). 

Later this year, we are going to fly to the States with half the Wong clan for my cousin’s wedding. Looking forward to it because it would be the first time the extended family would be partying in New York and lounging in Texas together. I have also got good memories of my time in States in 2014 when I went to Missouri for MPW64 and did this photo story, and then watched my first Broadway (make that 3!!) in NYC. Till then, xx.


Wednesdays with Nesa

I struggled with typing this entry because I certainly did not want this to be a feel good, self-praise kind of post. But I also felt the strong need to share about this book I just completed and how it has convinced me to keep doing what I am doing.

“Invisible Thread” follows the story of Laura Schroff, a busy and successful sales executive, who meets 11 year-old panhandler, Maurice. All his life, Maurice had lived in neighborhoods that were rampant with drugs and crime. He could have very well followed his mother’s footsteps and engaged in a life of drugs and misdemeanor, until that first Monday when Laura decided to buy him dinner at Mac Donalds’. His life was changed forever. What followed were weekly Monday meetings that went on for years where they both learnt so much about life from each other. 

Reading that book reminded me of my relationship with Mel and family, and in particular, her youngest daughter, Nesa. I met Nesa when she was 10. She didn’t leave much of an impression until I saw how broken she was each Sunday when she had to go back to Gracehaven, an institution she had to live in until her mother could earn her custody rights back. [Nesa came back home for good in Jan 2016]  

Since I live a stone’s throw away from Gracehaven, I would make it a point to stay until 10-ish pm whenever I was over at Mel’s place on Sunday, so that I could give Nesa a lift. That was how we bonded. (*Gonna issue a caveat here – don’t get me wrong, Mel (her mother) is one of the most amazing human beings I know and respect, and while it sounds like she is neglecting her daughter, she isn’t. She made poor decisions in her life earlier on, and now has seven mouths to feed. She is trying her absolute best as a mother to provide for her kids, in whatever ways she knows, but just does not have enough resources and time to devote her all to each individual.) 

Over the years, I would try my best to be at events that mattered – whether birthdays, dance competitions or school orientation. This year, Nesa and I spend every Wednesday evenings together. Our evenings start with me ferrying her for athletics training at CCAB and then dinner after that. Her other sisters question me at times and call me out for favouritism. I feel bad but I don’t want to over promise and under commit to the rest. It would not be fair either. 

Our relationship, and its dynamics, is fluid and takes on many forms. Some days I am Bernice jie jie (sister), other days I am the disciplinarian; the guardian (that meets her teachers in school); the secret keeper; the savings banker; the youtube songs downloader and occasionally the naggy old folk. 

On our way to Nesa’s first SportCares CareRunners training at CCAB, she was feeling nervous. Things she has told me included : “I am very nervous, can I go home now?”; “My stomach really very pain.”; “Got so many people, I am so scared.”; “Bernice jie jie, if they never come today, you run with me ah.”; “Can you tell them don’t come?”; “Am I the only one running? Or a lot?”; “Butterflies in my stomach. My heart is beating so fast.”

We’ve had simple Wednesdays, but we’ve also had exciting Wednesdays. Most exciting being her meeting her track idol, Shanti Pereira, and even receiving a pair of shoes and autographed polaroid of them together (more in another post!). We’ve also had a rainy Wednesday when I waited one hour for her thinking if she would show up! She did. All drenched, no less. 

I can’t say for sure how long this Wednesday commitment would last. I do get weary and discouraged at times - why doesn’t her school attendance improve, is she learning anything at all, etc. But after reading this account of Laura and Maurice, I would definitely like to make each Wednesdays together count and become a memory we can reminisce and laugh about many years down the road.  

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