[Always Loved, Forever Missed] Photographs + memories

My father wasn’t a genius of a photographer, but it was always very important for him to be documenting us in the various events and stages of our lives. We’ve got 4 drawers full of 4R prints at home and a few hundred images in his laptop. After combing through thirty years of memories, I finally picked out 16 images, made by my father and some by me, to be hung up on our wall. All these couldn’t have been possible without Kimmy spending a large chunk of yesterday morning hammering in them nails and making sure it was well aligned.

[School of Hard Knocks] PSLE Results

Accompanied the twins to school today to collect their PSLE results. As I was sitting with bated breath in the school hall waiting for the students to be ushered to their classes for the results, I recalled my own results day some 10 years ago and the waves of disappointment I felt when I fell short of my expectations. No pressure from my parents or teachers, but I still remember feeling very down when I had to walk to the back of the hall to share my results with my folks. The same disappointment plagued me when I collected my O level results. Not cool when you’re in a school where single pointers were aplenty. I only got my act together when I went to junior college and finally enjoyed studying. I was quite the nerd. 

What I need to emphasize here is that some of us are just late bloomers, we discover our potential so much later. Ban ban kor kor did two extra years in primary school, made a lot of poor decisions in life and spent a lot more years in prison before eventually straightening out his life and graduating with an Hons. degree in a good school. Life is too short to cry over lousy PSLE results. The real defeat is when you choose to give up and shortchange yourself. Chin up, and try again next year, thangachi.

[Always Loved, Forever Missed] Prints and books

Preparing them prints to go up on the wall at home; a mini exhibition to accompany the book launch next month. I can’t tell you enough how exciting it is to be in charge of the process - from making your own prints at home and nailing and hanging the frames up, right down to designing the book and signing off the sheets at press check. It’s addictive once you get started. For real!! I already have two more book dummies in mind that I am looking forward to crafting. 

Big thanks to Kay Chin and Edwin Koo who gave me lots of advice in getting the right printer at the start and for also influencing me into this self-publication track. It’s been very empowering.  

Coming back one circle

Meet my new friend, Adek. Okay, maybe not so new. 

The world works in strange ways and I am amazed at how serendipitously things unfold. 3 years ago when I was photographing at Lim Chu Kang jetty, there was this Malay family I would bump into once in awhile. A few friendly conversations later, they invited me to attend their son/grandson’s birthday (cum circumcision) party. I was slightly taken aback at their open hearts and minds for inviting an almost total stranger to a family function. So, I went anyway, and got lost for 45 minutes before I managed to find the function hall in the most ulu of places, 117A Ho Ching Road. I brought a couple of prints for them from our time together in Lim Chu Kang jetty, and also made a few photos during the birthday party. 

I traveled a lot more in 2013 and 2014 and made fewer trips to the jetty; they didn’t go there as often as well. I didn’t think we would meet again. But early this year, Mr Kim brought me for a few walks around his estate and at one point I was like ‘waitttt a minute, it kind of feels like I’ve been here before’. Yup, it was 117A, and I saw the whole motley crew of them again. And! One of their family member was Kimmy’s ex-cellmate. The stars have aligned. 

So anyway, I went on my first photo walk around Taman Jurong yesterday and Adek and I became friends (again). He was very excited to be photographed, and to photograph. I don’t think he knows quite well what it means to be flashing his middle finger so brazenly though.

[School of Hard Knocks] Tonight on Toggle

A lot has been happening in the household - her diagnosis of diabetes, her son’s impending incarceration, kids growing up and their usual teenager problems. 

Some people might wonder, “if she cannot even fix her own life, her own family, why does she bother about others?”. But such is the heart of Mel, that she keeps giving and giving even if she’s left with nothing. Time and again, we’ve been confronted with unhealthy relationships, betrayal and get taken for granted, but somehow she finds it in her heart to forgive. 

Tonight, we all sit at 318 for group dinner and to watch Unbroken together. Unbroken is a 13 half-hour docudrama series based on the lives of selected individuals. Tonight’s episode is on Mel and it starts at 10pm on Channel 5. It was filmed late last year, and I think it will be a mix bag of feelings for us - listening to Mel narrate her very tragic story during her growing up years and also laughing at the kids’ acting (they were roped in to act some parts!).

Reflections on GE2015

In GE 2011, I was of age to cast my virgin vote. I would say that I was relatively apathetic to politics — the real life issues on the ground mattered to me more than the mudslinging and much hyped-about Opposition rallies. I went for two rallies, and that was it. I casted my vote, and the Opposition in my constituency won five seats in Parliament. 

Fast forward four years later, when rumours of an imminent GE 2015 came about, I actually found myself interested in being in the thick of the action, experiencing and learning about this jubilee elections with my camera in tow. What had changed? Probably that photography became an extension of my being, and documenting the elections through my own lenses naturally became more appealing than reading the news through mainstream and social media channels. 

It was in trying to be as representative as possible – covering walkabouts, press conferences and rallies from both the Incumbent and the Opposition – that I realized how uncomfortable politics made me felt. 

I started questioning myself a lot more than usual. “Should I release this photograph of him looking so vulnerable? Will it hurt his party’s chances?” If I were a news photographer, and had to file photographs according to the newspaper’s agenda, that would have obliterated the problem I had when it came to selection of images. But in this case, photographing GE2015 was a means for me to make sense of the situation for myself. Politics is personal, and at the end of the day, I had to remember that I am first and foremost a citizen, journalist second; I had to guard my own personal inclinations. 

Also, that some politicians were a lot more media-saavy and really knew how to milk the media for its worth, it made me cringe. Cringe at how powerless I became behind the camera, unable to stop them from their performance. 

Can I find it in me to carry on photographing events like that? I’m not entirely convinced yet. Maybe I just need a break from the drama. Or perhaps I am just more comfortable photographing the hum-drum of everyday life and stories that are more real and raw.

In Edwin Koo’s words, “Politics, [afterall], is theatrical”. 

On Invisible Photographer Asia article on Singapore Photography, Pragmatism and the Political Landscape.

Asian Women Photographers’ Showcase - Re/introspection

Humbled to be selected to be part of this year’s Asian Women Photographers’ Showcase for ‘Re/introspection’, a new body of work I made over the last couple of months. It allows us a moment into the world of Whye Kee an ex-convict turn good, as he reflects and muses about various events and relationships in his life. 

This work greatly departs from the traditional photojournalistic form of documentary I normally do; a lot more thought was given to the production process. And ok, you gotta come down to the show in late Oct to see more!

[TwentyFifteen.sg] Feature on Straits Times

PLATFORM has been an integral part of my journey as a photographer. When I first started photography in late 2012, I was directionless. I didn’t know what to do, and when I figured that bit out, I didn’t know how to do what I had to do. Then, Juliana told me to go for the monthly Platform sessions. Since then, there wasn’t any looking back. Learning from the seasoned, established veterans really helped to ground me and gave me opportunities to try new things (like printing for the TwentyFifteen exhibition!). What I’m trying to say is that, more of us younger photographers should seriously consider stepping forward and lending a hand in building this local photography community/scene. It has taught me a lot about developing my own work and also about the industry. I’m sure it will teach you plenty too. Cheers.

[TwentyFifteen.sg - The Exhibition]

Esplanade invites you and your guest to the opening reception of TWENTYFIFTEEN.SG THE EXHIBITION
by PLATFORM Opening Reception 

6 Aug 2015, Thu, 7pm
Jendela (Visual Arts Space) Level 2, Esplanade Mall Featuring works by Bernice Wong, Bryan van der Beek, Chow Chee Yong, Darren Soh, Edwin Koo, Ernest Goh, John Clang, Kevin WY Lee, Lim Weixiang, Matthew Teo, Nicky Loh, Ore Huiying, Robert Zhao Renhui, Sam&Sam (Sam Chin & Samuel He), Sean Lee, Sim Chi Yin,
Sit Weng San & Colomba Cruz Elton, Tan Ngiap Heng, Tay Kay Chin and Zinkie Aw. 

20 photographers, 15 images each—that was the key idea behind TwentyFifteen.sg, a project to showcase the work of Singaporean photographers, on the subject of Singapore, to celebrate Singapore’s Golden Jubilee in 2015. Curated by the photography collective PLATFORM, the initiative has published a folio for each of the 20 selected photographers since 2013. This exhibition presents a selection of photographs from this project. 

Featuring both established and emerging photographers, it provides a multifaceted view of the complex society that Singapore is today: from intimate family portraits to iconic landscapes and landmarks, from
artful explorations of Singapore identity to provocative views from the margin. 

Exhibition Dates
7 Aug 2015 to 3 Jan 2016
Opening Hours
Mon to Fri, 11am to 8.30pm
Sat, Sun & Public Holidays, 10am to 8.30pm

[TwentyFifteen.sg - The Exhibition] Points of View by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Yu-Mei’s beautiful writeup about the upcoming TwentyFifteen.sg’s exhibition at the Esplanade that I’m happy to be part of. It opens on 6 Aug. In it, she wrote about the image I made of Dheena prancing about on the second-storey high roof on the side of his block. It’s an image I hold close to my heart not only because I love it aesthetically, but because soon enough, I won’t be getting such nonsense from this boy for a long time. 

Points of View
Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

 In John Clang’s image “Dragon playground”, from his series The Land of My Heart for TwentyFifteen.sg, five women dressed in Singapore Airlines (SIA) stewardess uniforms are staged on and around a dragon playground structure in a Housing and Development Board (HDB) estate. Clang’s series is calculated to provoke and subvert the lush visual language of the SIA’s iconic advertisements, and this particular image seems to summon up the question: what is Singapore? Is it the promise of Oriental submission conjured by the SIA girls (who have in fact retired from the airline)? The safe, unthreatening nostalgia for “uniquely Singaporean” landmarks like the dragon playground? The anonymous HDB block that has become a synecdoche for the Singapore everyman experience? 

Or is Singapore the land of the migrant workers and passers-by, looking on from the edge of the photo? Then there are the trees, looming over the playground and the people, the garden city grown to maturity alongside the HDB flats. Finally there is the pencilled-in statement, “No, Singapore is not China.”—a refutation Clang and many Singaporeans have had to make to foreigners, and one that is destabilised, in this photograph, by the dominant Chinese imagery of the dragon motif and the neatly swept long hair and demure posture of the Chinese SIA girls. 

Another TwentyFifteen.sg series, Senseless Spaces by Chow Chee Yong, takes as its subject the residue or traces of urban structures—drains, paths, fences and barriers—that were left behind after rebuilding or redevelopment. Steps lead purposefully up to an impassable wall, drains and walkways compete in irreverent (and redundant) zigzags, ghostly walls and barriers protrude out of newer constructions. This, too, is Singapore—a landscape pared down to a vivid black-and-white meditation on the national obsession with upgrading and urban renewal. There are no sympathetic human figures in these barren images, yet Chow’s unswerving focus on man-made concrete and metal structures paradoxically reinforces the human presence in every scene. 

Dissimilar as they are, Clang’s and Chow’s series both capture the absurd poignancy of Singapore in the mid-2010s. While the nation has been instructed to celebrate what it has achieved in the last 50 years, on an everyday basis contradictions abound. Singapore today is an idea still being fought over, from the most top-secret Cabinet rooms to the ceaseless fray of the internet: who or what counts as Singaporean, what does Singapore stand for, what kind of society should it be? Put the Chinese SIA girl and the South Asian migrant worker into the same tableau (or in the same room), and some people’s heads explode. 

TwentyFifteen.sg did not set out to explode myth, challenge history or define “national” identity. Its starting point was simple (some might even say, simplistic): PLATFORM would publish the work of 20 Singaporean photographers, presenting 15 images each on the subject of Singapore, in the months leading up to August 2015. What constitutes “Singapore” as a subject was left to the individual photographer’s imagination. There was no ambition to represent “all” of Singapore, or to respond to the assumptions underpinning Singapore’s putative 50-year history. 

That is not to say that the resulting work has been ahistorical or dehistoricised. Indeed, the first folio in the series, For My Son by Darren Soh, is a gentle evocation of past, present and future: the past, in that almost all the buildings and structures in his images have been demolished; the present, in that this is Singapore, the endless cycle of building, demolishing and rebuilding that animates the city; and the future, in dedicating the book to his son, which inevitably conjures the question of what Singapore the younger Soh will inherit in the decades to come. 

In a different way, past, present and future intersect in Robert Zhao’s series Singapore 1925–2025. His carefully constructed images of speculative Singapore landscapes reflect the formality of the 19th-century tourist gaze, as well as present-day concerns about rampant urbanisation and the marginalisation of nature. These landscapes do not literally exist, yet they summon up enough realism to hover on the edge of existence, as if they might shimmer into being in the next instant. In that respect, they appear to be more vivid and authentic than reality itself (“View of Marina Bay Sands” is particularly compelling). 

That line between fact and fiction, preconceived notion and imaginative possibility, zigzags with varying intensity through the TwentyFifteen.sg projects. The family is reimagined in Sean Lee’s Two People and Ore Huiying’s We Are Farmers. Zinkie Aw’s Singaporelang attempts to turn the distinctive sounds of Singlish into studied images. Lim Weixiang’s Our Coastline and Kevin WY Lee’s Bay of Dreams interrogate the shoreline and Marina Bay Sands respectively, finding intimate, less-than-obvious moments on a human scale. Ernest Goh’s The Gift Book zooms in on the delicate beauty of local nature with his close-up portraits of insects, while Sit Weng San and Columba Cruz Elton’s Drawing Triangle ranges abroad to explore migratory connections between Sit’s home in Singapore, Elton’s in Chile and their common home in Los Angeles. 

The documentary works, too, open up new possibilities for looking at ourselves. While most of them adopt a realistic mode of representation, they do not merely reinforce the status quo but posit the worlds beyond it, turning the lens on MRT commuters (Edwin Koo’s Transit), migrant workers (Tay Kay Chin’s Made in Singapore), artists and art-makers (Tan Ngiap Heng’s ARTiculate), industrial estate workers (Sam&Sam’s DEFU), HDB dwellers (Nicky Loh’s Common Wealth), at-risk families (Bernice Wong’s School of Hard Knocks), and the photographer himself (the self-portraits in Matthew Teo’s A Little Bit of Me from Everything Else). The works operate differently: some rely on the spontaneity of the moment, others emerge from a long engagement with the subjects; some are meant to be read visually on their own, others are accompanied by extensive photojournalistic profiles that add personal and social context. Seen as a whole, these documentary works present an important range of views from the margins, while also acknowledging each photographer’s privilege and complicity in his or her project. 

The 20 photographic series in TwentyFifteen.sg provide a composite—but not comprehensive—portrait of Singapore at this moment in time. It is a portrait that provokes as much as it aestheticises, an endeavour that is more interested in asking questions than in defining what Singapore “is”. In Bernice Wong’s School of Hard Knocks, there is an image of a boy standing on the second-storey high roof on the side of an HDB block, his arms outstretched to either side, as if he’s about to strike a dancer’s pose or leap gracefully off the roof. There is a fuller story behind this boy and this particular block of flats, one that Wong has recorded in her project and that viewers likewise shouldn’t ignore. 

But the photograph also captures a moment in time, of a micro-individual playfully transgressing the iconically rigid HDB landscape with a posture both lissome (like the SIA girls in Clang’s series) and insouciant. He hangs like an apparition, hovering on the edge of believability. Possibilities abound. He looks at the camera and we look at him. What will he do next?

Using Format