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.  


In Memory of

Ki is a man with a checkered past and a lot of baggages, emotional and physical. He was once a headman of a gang in Jurong, leading riots and clashes, dealing with drugs and dirty money. There was also a time when he was a boy from a broken family, running from one rental room to another with his father and sister because of harassment from the loan sharks. At the same time, he had to endure beatings from bullies in secondary school. 

Three stints in prison and ten years later, he decided to seek a new lease of life. It was not something that happened overnight, nor one special episode that turned his life around. It was a decade of struggling with guilt and disappointment - including many rejections after interviews when the employers learnt of his record; the sudden passing of his dad; surviving assault by 108 men as a rite of passage for leaving the gang; studying hard and clinching a 4.0 GPA for NITEC only to be looked down on when he was released - that made him want to fight even harder. It was also meditation, finding peace in religion and pottery, meeting benefactors and higher education that catalysed this transformation. 

When I first met him in 2015, I was afraid, just like when I first met Mel. I would never, in my wildest imagination, believe if you told me I’d find my other half in someone like Ki. But as we started hanging out, we found a common love for the arts and working with youths from disadvantaged background. Most of all, it was his golden heart for the boys he worked with, to whom he kept giving and giving to even when he was penniless, fighting for when their rights and space were compromised and loving them like his own brothers, that moved me. To that he always said, “I know what it is like to be poor and looked down on”. 

In the year ahead, I would be writing and documenting more of Ki and his past. It’s a project I’ve been formulating in my head for awhile, but have yet to find the best way of presenting it. Akan datang :)


Coping with loss and finding a balance

I will always remember returning home on the 30th Jan 2015 to find my father lifeless on the sofa, with the television still on. My words to him were, “wake up Dad, go up (to your room) and sleep”. If I wanted to, I can recount this scene and everything that unfolded that night; but it is a memory, alongside other memories with and of my Dad, that I choose to compartmentalise and not think about now. I bury it deep down inside, lock and key, and reserve it only for the most private of moments when I allow myself to be vulnerable. 

All the self-help books/guides/kits and people around say that things will get easier with time. I think it does. Not because we forget, but because we learn to cope with the grief and loss. My defence mechanism is now better oiled and I have learnt how to react and respond when it comes to events that used to revolve around him. 

Instead, the other thing I am learning to manage, very tenderly, is the other half he left behind, my mother. For the most part, she is incredibly independent and has been very strong throughout this ordeal, but this doesn’t take away the fact that the love of her life is no longer here with us and there will be many a times, as we all get so occupied with our own lives, when she would feel so alone in this big universe. 

This is a new balance I need to figure out not only because I owe it to my mother for being the biggest giver of all time, but also I know this is what Dad would have wanted - for us to love and protect our mother like he did. 


Starting out as a photographer

I often get this question from younger photographers/enthusiasts - “how do I become a photographer?” My answer to them, “you don’t just become a photographer overnight. You got to find out what you are interested in and start working, creating images from there.” There surely isn’t a hard and fast rule to becoming a photographer. Some people believe you need to study photography in school and master your basics from there, others feel it is important to go out and get real world experience via apprenticeship, a few would tell you to “just go out and shoot”. Henri Cartier-Bresson did not receive formal education in photography; he received his first camera when he was under house arrest by his army squadron. Sebastiao Salgado, too, began as an economist and later on switched to photography.

When I first decided to give photography a shot, I remember it was a frigid cold winter in Korea, 2011. Few weeks before, I had completed a short stint with a renowned director in John Park, observing how shooting a commercial was like. Corporate advertisements/videography is not the same as photography, but then in the process something clicked and I knew I would like to explore a career in photography. I thought that if this mini gamble failed, I could always fall back on my educational credentials and find a “proper” job. If I didn’t try, I wouldn’t know. 

It was scary and daunting, not knowing how to navigate myself in this strange new world that I wanted very much to be a part of. Not many people know but the first thing I did was to send an email to Straits Times and asked if there were internship opportunities with their Photo Desk. My very naive 23 year old self checked my email every morning for the next 2 months hoping to hear back from the photo editor. But I never did. Retrospectively, I really was self-deluded thinking my passion and next-to-nothing portfolio could earn me a stint at ST. 

In the meantime I did manage to secure a short internship with top-tiered wedding photography company, Lightedpixels, and am always thankful for the opportunity that Kelvin gave my young eager self. 

Yet even then, I always knew I wanted to do more, much more than weddings. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore photographing weddings for like-minded people, but deep down inside I always knew my calling was with documentary. It took me awhile to find my foot but I decided that maybe I should work on a project about this very special group of people I spent a large part of my university life with - the South-Asian migrant workers. One coffee date at Chinatown market later, my friends and I decided to wing it and head to Bangladesh to listen to the stories of the migrant workers and the loved ones they left behind. 

One small idea and a huge leap of faith later, we came home with our stomachs and hearts full and beautiful stories to share to a full crowd at The Art House. This was only the start to a 3 year long passion project, Beyond the Border, Behind the Men, which saw us also getting involved in a music fundraiser and a outdoor drama production as well. Magic unfolded when we put together a group of Singaporeans and Bangladeshis to make good music and drama together. The internet was excited; we started getting a lot more attention than we ever could ask for. Jobs came streaming in. I never had to hustle. All I want to say is, do something you love and do it well.  


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