Our Nation Through Their Lenses

Three WKWSCI alumni are part of 20 specially selected photographers who produced works to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence.

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In the lead up to Singapore’s 50th birthday this year, a 20-part photo book series was launched to showcase work related to the nation.

TwentyFifteen.sg, an initiative by photography collective Platform, has been launching a photo book by a different photographer almost every month, starting Aug. 2013 and culminating in Singapore’s Golden Jubilee. The final photo book will be released by the end of this year.

Platform approached three Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information alumni — Edwin Koo (CS’03), Zinkie Aw (CS’08) and Samuel He (CS’08) — to create 15 pages of images each for the project. These images show an important aspect of Singapore through their eyes.

Their works are currently exhibited in the Jendela Visual Arts Space of the Esplanade till Jan. 3, 2016.

Samuel He — “DEFU”

Samuel He and his work partner Sam Chin were in the vicinity of Defu Lane to fabricate a prop for one of their other projects when they stumbled upon the mass coexistence of different industries. Instantly, they knew that the industrial estate would be the focus for their TwentyFifteen.sg project.

“Visually, what you get in Defu Lane — there are food producers, then two doors down you get a car workshop, then across the street you get this huge metal recycling plant that is crushing taxis — I think it’s quite amazing,” said the 32-year-old photographer and producer, who runs his own production house Weave.

Sam&Sam, as they are collectively known, then proceeded to work on “DEFU,” which is the 17th photo book of the series.

In comparison to his corporate shoots for multinational corporations, working with small family businesses in Defu Lane was a particularly compelling experience for He.

“I’ve taken many photos for industries, like corporate photographs for annual reports, but a lot of that are pictured in a very sanitised way, such as always having clean uniforms,” said He, adding that this is hardly the case outside of photo shoots.

On the other hand, Defu Lane is a true reflection of reality.
 


"DEFU" PHOTO COURTESY OF SAM&SAM

“Defu is the realest part of the industrial world that is fading away in Singapore, so it’s a nice historical document we have made,” he said.

For He, the whole concept of celebrating Singapore’s Golden Jubilee was a minor factor in his pursuit of the project.

“I don’t think we should go on this binge of documenting Singapore just because it’s 50 years,” he said.

But He also realises the importance of remembering the nation’s 50th year of independence as a guiding point and milestone, and he appreciates the opportunity to produce a photo book. 

“It makes me feel kind of important actually, more important than I think I should be,” he said.

He remains grateful to his roots and attributes his progress as a photographer and visual storyteller to his education in WKWSCI.

He currently teaches the school’s Photojournalism class and also mentors the school’s annual Going Overseas for Advanced Reporting programme.

“Students can be bratty at times, but on some occasions, I do get the sense that students feel for this idea that we can tell good stories with pictures,” he said, displaying his pride in the work he has done with his students. “Sometimes I’m very inspired by the work produced in class.”
 

Edwin Koo — “Transit”

The year was 2011. Edwin Koo had just returned to Singapore after spending two years in Nepal. He was taken aback by how crowded the MRT trains had become and described it as a “very different experience” from when he left.

Incidentally, transport was one of the “hot potato issues” of the 2011 General Election. In protest of the daily crowds, the 37-year-old decided to photograph doors of the MRT trains opening during peak hours. One of the first pictures he took set the tone for his “Transit” journey.

“Till today, I would still say the expressions I saw on the commuter’s face became an inspiration for me to continue to want to make a body of work out of the trains,” reflected Koo.

Koo chose “Transit” to be made into a photo book as he felt transport issues would best resonate with the Singapore audience. It is the 16th book in the series, and has gained a fair share of media spotlight online, having been featured by BBC News and Yahoo News.

The photos depict the myriad emotions captured in those first three “subconscious, truthful” seconds of reaction to Koo’s lens as the doors open and shut.
 

"Transit" PHOTO COURTESY OF EDWIN KOO

“Without these photographs, train travel in Singapore in this particular moment in time would probably not figure much in our textbooks, except as statistics or perhaps more newsy things like the resignation of (former Transport Minister) Lui Tuck Yew,” said Koo. “This is my little note as a documentarian in the history of Singapore.”

“As a documentarian, my process is very simple: to shoot, then make sense out of it over a period of time. Curation is very much an important process in this body of work,” he added.

Koo — the principal photographer for CAPTURED, a creative agency he started after returning from Nepal — stressed that “Transit” is a work in progress, and that the manifestation of the photo book is an interchange, not its destination.

His photographic journey is also in transition. Koo intends to leave Singapore in the near future, likely to China, in a bid to rejuvenate his creative energies.

Yet even with uncertainties surrounding this move, he hopes to leave Singapore with the same mindset as when he left for Nepal — that he is prepared to fail. Koo finds solace in the luxury of having Singapore as a homeland to fall back on if things go awry.

“Even if life gives you crappy cards, you at least know you have to try to play it to win, or maybe just not to lose,” he said. “Go with no expectations, and then you will benefit from the journey that you walk.”
 

Zinkie Aw — “Singaporelang – What the Singlish?”

For Zinkie Aw, 30, her photographic style is characterised by humour. One of her previous projects, “Republic of Pulau Semakau,” features pictures of people holding trash to their face in aesthetically pleasing frames.

It was this penchant for “quirky ideas” that led to the freelance photographer’s invitation to work on her photo book, “Singaporelang – What the Singlish?” for TwentyFifteen.sg. The project seeks to transpose Singlish into a visual, interactive form.

The photo book, which is the 13th of the series, consists of 15 images of typical scenes in Singapore, such as the interaction between uncles in a coffee shop.

Viewers are encouraged to engage in a game of “Guess the Singlish,” by filling in white spaces on the pictures with ubiquitous local phrases such as “buay tahan” and “shiok” for their own Singlish interpretations.

Aw revealed that it was not all smooth sailing throughout her project. One obstacle she had to tackle was dealing with strangers misinterpreting her photographic intentions.

“When I tried to approach one of the older ladies to help me photograph a scene epitomising ‘kiasu,’ she misunderstood (by thinking) that I meant her (as) the ‘kiasu’ person, and that I was punishing her by asking her to act in this scenario,” said Aw, who then reworded her approach when asking strangers for help.
 

"Relac One Corner" from "Singaporelang – What the Singlish?" PHOTO COURTESY OF ZINKIE AW

Providing translations for a colloquial language was also a challenge. “The people who helped me told me that it is very difficult to rephrase something very colloquial in mother tongue,” said Aw.

Curveballs aside, the project has taken up so much of her time that Aw conceded she created a “monster.” Yet she has no regrets about raising this monster, stating that in times of desperation a “kampong spirit” emerged from her subjects, who readily assisted her when approached.

“When you really want something to be done, sometimes the world conspires to help you at the eleventh hour,” she said.

For now, Aw intends to focus on doing online promotions for the project, calling for viewers to give suggestions on what to photograph. She also plans on sticking to her eccentric style of photography and remaining “funny.”

“Be lighthearted about things and even laugh at yourself sometimes. The process can be quite beautiful,” she added. 

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