Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Much-Awaited Transcript from Forum#3

This is the first draft of the much-awaited transcript from Forum #3, Photographing Grief. It is, at this stage, incomplete and not error-free. We hope to fix all the bugs as soon as possible. Sorry.

Kay Chin: I know when a group of photographers meet we can just go off tangent so my job is to make sure we don’t go too far off topic. Today, the focus of our discussion is on why we photograph things that are not so happy—disasters, war, stuff like that. Ultimately I know someone is going to ask, what is it like to work with an NGO? Which NGO is better than the other? But I think we can focus just a little bit, and ask ourselves why is it so attractive to photograph grief … and we can take the conversation…we can be very honest…or funny…about it.

Before we start, let me announce our next forum. We are going to talk about identity/women in photography - a very important topic. Magali Pettier, who is here on the IPRN exchange program, together with American photographer Meridel Rubenstein, are going to talk about this topic of identity.

The forums are recorded for the sake of those who can’t be here. We put it up on our blog. If you are doing research, you should go to the website, there’s a wealth of information there. So we will transcribe this recording. We would appreciate if you are speaking for the first time, if you could identify who you are, just your name would be helpful.

Ming: Hi everyone, my name is Ming. I’m actually a commercial photographer. I’m trained in photography, not particularly in documentary photography but I always had an interest in journalism and documentary. At my short stint at The Straits Times before, that’s where my interest grew, and that’s where I met Kay Chin. And we’ve been friends all these years. Before tsunami hit, we decided that we wanted to do something charitable at least once a year. We didn’t know that tsunami was going to hit, right? So before that he introduced me to Mercy Relief. And I thought I should do something charitable that year. Right after I signed up, the tsunami hit. So the first thing I did was I got sent to Meulaboh two months after the tsunami. Here are the images. This was the school that Mercy Relief helped to rebuild. A townhouse right by the coast. That was a bridge before. That’s a mass grave. Those are the body bags.

Kay Chin: Why did you go, apart from the fact that they called you?

Ming: I wouldn’t say that I thought that it would be quite a cool experience. But I think it was one of those things I had to see for myself and see what I can do. Apart from photography, I could have gone to help with physical labor, but I thought with my skills I could contribute with whatever I can. All these pictures were given to Mercy Relief. Whatever awareness campaigns that they were doing, whatever they needed to raise funds to show people what happened to Meulaboh.

Jessica Lim: Did you deliberately not take pictures of people?

Ming: Not really. It’s just that the faces were quite staunch, and they were all over. For me it’s not a cultural project, so I didn’t go looking for people to shoot. My concentration was mostly the surroundings, like a landscape survey, and basically the goal I gave myself was what I can contribute, what I can help the relief effort through photography. So I thought pictures like this, not overly gruesome, but you know, enough to move people to contribute in other ways by giving money, a donation.

Jessica: But that’s the question, you see. People are typically not moved by pictures of architecture; they want to see the crying, they want to see the people sobbing.

Ming: So did you take pictures of people?

Jessica: I covered the floods in Malaysia; there was no grieving there. When I was going up to Johor, one of the Singaporeans who went up with us, and her first time with Mercy Relief, she said, “There’s no crying! They don’t look like they’re in shock, you know? Why am I here if these people aren’t crying?” That’s what made me realize, based on the kind of pictures that newspapers select…

Ming: Yeah, exactly. Because we are not running a newspaper, in my pictures I don’t like to state the obvious. These days, with all the information submitted though pictures, people are smart enough to think for themselves what exactly is happening. When given a context through captions, they will understand. Rather than throwing at them pictures of body parts. Maybe Terrence might have some pictures like that, I dunno.

Magali Pettier: The thing is, when you photograph people, a lot of people don’t react to it anymore. They read the paper and then go back to their dinner. It’s very hard to catch people’s attention.

Kay Chin: If you think what we do doesn’t affect people, can we say that we are just going there as tourists?

Ming: A new type of tourism. [Laughter.]

Kay Chin: So if it doesn’t affect people, then should we be shooting more what people want to see? Make nice pictures that sell in a gallery…

Magali: I think it does affect people, but not in the way that they can react straight away to it. Just because people don’t react so quickly…

Kay Chin: Maybe we say that we are making a distinction between documentary photography and news photographers who need to say, “I told you it happened.”

Ming: On this topic of photographing people, when I got there, and I went on the streets, everyone looked so happy. It would be a bit disturbing to photograph these happy faces and send it out. Two months after, it seemed that life had gone on. People need to go on living, right? They have to. What I saw, was everyone seemed happy. I went to this kopi(coffee) shop and I had a mee soto or something, and the girl making the soup, she’s in her early twenties, and she lost her whole family. But before I knew that, she was talking to me and smiling, and everything seemed normal. And then one of the relief workers said that she lost her whole family.

Kay Chin: And do we not take those happy pictures? We take a picture and say, “They are all already happy one.” No need to help them…

Jessica: Depends from person to person. Because there will always be those who look happy in public because maybe they think you’re a tourist. It could be very different when you are not around.

Kay Chin: How many of you think that photographers are parasites? Of the photographers here, do you ever question your own mission?

Jessica: A lot of it is voyeurism. Wanting to see things that people would normally not allow you to see.

Kay Chin: Is there anyone who felt guilty that you went and did nothing but manipulated people, and with a nice camera make black and white pictures…[laughter.]

Magali: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I feel bad for the subject. They are hoping you will give them something in return. Sometimes, you want to, but you can’t give back to everybody.

Kay Chin: But we continue to lie to them—“Don’t worry, you’ll be on the cover of National Geographic.” [Laughter]

Magali: I don’t think it’s lying, because you do want to do something for them, but at least you try…

Kay Chin: So hypothetically, if you don’t feel something, can you go and photograph something without feeling like you’re on a mission?

Leonard Goh: I was thinking it would work better. Because sometimes our opinion gets in the way.

Kay Chin: Does everybody in this room believe that photography can do something? I’m reading a book called Watching the World Change, by David Friend. It’s about 9/11 and photography. It’s 400 pages of examples of how photography helped people to grieve, helped people to bond, to remember. It’s like total therapy.

Geoff Pakiam: I think that the limit of photography is that you can only take pictures of what has already happened, and you cannot change what has already happened in the past. But can a photograph actually change what will happen…can it shape the future?

Kay Chin: So how the pictures are eventually used and interpreted. Are you concerned that you can never be in total control of how your pictures are interpreted? Without knowing the smiling girl lost her family, without knowing the context, so many stories can be…

Jessica: Again, you’ve really got to differentiate between documentary photography and news.

Geoff: There’s a quote in (Susan) Sontag’s book which I really…It may not be the fact that the images themselves are problematic, but it’s the way they are structured or used in magazines for entertainment or to catch people’s attention. There’s nothing wrong with taking pictures of pain, because a lot of times it’s never a complete success; it’s always a partial failure. It doesn’t mean you should stop doing it. It’s a constant process of learning…

Magali: You are also recording history in books and archives, so now there’s not only one aspect of history, now photographers are out there recording different versions of history. And photography attracts people’s attention to a number of things…

Kay Chin: So it would be okay to exhibit pictures or dead bodies and make money off it.

Magali: It depends on what context. If you don’t say I’m going to make money off it…It’s the intention.

Kay Chin: But who in their right mind would want to buy a picture of someone dying? There’s a French photographer Luc Delahaye who has a series called “History,” and it’s all of people dying, and people are paying 5 or 6 figures to collect because they’re beautiful. If you make money from disaster pictures, are you obligated to give away that money?

Magali: Personally, I would try to.

Kay Chin: I remember reading an interview with Brazilian photographer Sebastio Salgado — his kids all went to private school — he made tons of money from his pictures of people suffering. But he says, “There’s nothing wrong with me making pictures of people grieving and my kids go to private school…” He did a documentary photo-book on workers in the coal mines. It would take the workers one month to earn enough money to buy a copy of his book.

Magali: But I think if you give them a copy of the book, that’s their history, that’s them. That’s big enough. I think it’s a source of pride for a lot of people [to be photographed]…

Terence Teo: I was in Meulaboh two weeks after the tsunami, when they were still picking up all the bodies. Before that I was going to go with a group of nine others. We wanted to go to this orphanage in Medan to shoot portraits. The first group went in November 2004 and I was supposed to go in January, but then when the tsunami hit…

The first four days after the tsunami, I was feeling very angry, a bit helpless. 60,000 dead and 120,000 missing. I didn’t want to stay at home and watch movies all day in the midst of this.

I tried to change the way I shot after that. Meulaboh was a bit of an eye-opener. When we arrived, when we dropped anchor in the bay, all you see is this huge expanse of flatland. There were three fires in the town, I don’t know why. Apparently a three-story shopping center went up in flames the night we arrived. They don’t know why. After that, we stayed for six weeks clearing out mud in the courtyard of this school so that it could reopen. So the work helped keep my mind off what people in Meulaboh were feeling, so in a way I didn’t feel so guilty.

The second trip was to Nias, and there I was trying to focus on something more positive, about how they were bouncing back. But it was scary, because every night there was at least one after-shock. We were put up in this house there that was structurally unsound. There was a crack running up the whole side. Every day we would see that crack get bigger and bigger. We had a generator, and we were allowed use of the kitchen. But we were told, “If you feel anything, run out of the house because the whole thing could collapse.” The other problem was that our bathroom was also in the house, so all of us had this thought that in case of an aftershock, we would all have to run out into the streets, soap in our hair, towel around our waist and all that. That one was a bit more manageable. The causality rate was not as high there. We were working at this hospital there, and there were plenty of stories coming in…

Kay Chin: I remember reading on your blog that you were really affected the first few weeks after you came back. Your wife told me you couldn’t sleep and you had nightmares. But you went back—why?

Terence: I don’t know. I guess it’s feeling the need to do something. The next trip was Pakistan, the earthquake in Muzaffarabad in October 2005. How was that a different problem—no heavy machinery could go up to Muzaffarabad, so we had families who were camped outside their homes that have collapsed. From inside the homes you can smell decomposed bodies—where family members were rotting. You couldn’t do anything about it because the machinery couldn’t go up the mountain.

In Pakistan we had a guide, he was translating for us. We went about a month after the quake. The thing is it wasn’t the same thing as in Meulaboh. In Meulaboh there was some presence of life getting back to normal. Over in Muzaffarabad, it was 24 hours of doing nothing. There were a lot of people just being idle—no jobs to go to, no families to look after. Just about the only people who were busy were those who could speak English and bring the NGO people around.

Sng Li Wei: In Nias, you went two years ago to do something, right? Why did you choose to take photographs this time instead of physically doing something?

Terence: In Nias, I just brought my camera. For Muzaffarabad they needed someone to document and photograph. That was my role there. Whenever there was a break shooting I would be helping out. But in Nias we helped to build portable toilets and we had to carry water from the only working well in Nias. I asked to go to Nias to help out.

Kay Chin: Can we say that the work we do will help people because the pictures will be seen by thousands of people? Do you feel that we are overstating our mission as photographers?

Justin Zhuang: I think it’s a bit overstated. There’s a lot of documentation of what is happening now, but there’s not enough people to work on a solution. The world is getting more and more voyeuristic. I’m not saying that people should stop taking photographs, but I think there should be more help, lah.

Ming: I think photography is a witness. Without pictures like these, if there was no effort by photographers to go and make a record, then the world wouldn’t be able to see any of this. By recording a time…of grief, of what has happened…maybe in the future people will be able to set up a better relief team because they are affected by these pictures.

Li Wei: If photography can only document a problem but it can’t solve it…

Kay Chin: Who in the first place said that photography could solve anything? Are we not inviting more trouble for ourselves?

Jessica: I think it’s definitely a romanticized view that we are doing something more, and saying we are not being selfish. Maybe we try to justify our occupation this way. But maybe we should accept that maybe I’m not going to change something, and stop being so delusional…

Kay Chin: There is a romanticized notion of this genre of photography. Personally I think that there are many examples of photography that affect people in a positive way. Maybe we can talk about that a little bit.

Shin Lim: I don’t think it’s fair to say photography has no impact whatsoever. The problem is you can’t measure the impact of a photograph. I can’t imagine this world without documentation through photography. If you think about certain images that stick in your head…people are visual creatures, which is why advertising is everywhere. People are impacted by photographs, but it can’t be measured. We do get desensitized after looking at so many disaster pictures, but pictures can still be very effective. By looking at pictures, you become more aware and more educated about what’s going on. Even if it doesn’t make you immediately go out and do something…

Kay Chin: Once I saw a picture of a baby being delivered, and then I wanted to be a father. [Laughter] It’s true! The promise of photography…So can we go back to the question of why do photograph grief if we don’t believe it can do something?

Terence: For me, it’s wanting to share…The first thing that happened when we touched shore was this boy rode up on a bike while we were waiting for transport—he was ten years old—he took us to where his house used to stand. After that, everyone wanted to tell us stories of why they survived, of how they survived.

We were on our lunch break. We were done at the school, we just cleaned up everything, we were happy. Then we met this woman you see here, who lost her husband and children, aged 2 and 4. Somehow or other she survived, spitting up sand for three or four days—she swallowed so much sea water. Then she didn’t know about all the NGOs that came to help. She was staying with her brother-in-law. We met her on our last day in Meulaboh, we were finished with our job at the school, about to go home. Then it hit us, lah. There are other stories that are still untold.

Li Wei: The question seems to be not what is the impact or influence, but how many stories, how many pictures do you need to show before it makes an impact? And is there a point where it gets to be overload?

Terence: It takes as many as it takes. For some people, it takes years of hitting them over the head with a bat before they realize. It took four years for Americans to change their minds about Iraq; to change congress.

Kay Chin: Maybe there are people out there that don’t care about photography.

Terence: Yeah, my mother. I was printing all these photos for Glimpses of Light (a photo exhibit about the tsunami) and I ran into my ex-girlfriend. She asked me, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m doing my prints for Glimpses of Light, about Meulaboh.” She’s like, “Meulaboh, what happened?” This was in March. I said, “You know, the tsunami. Aceh was one of the most affected areas, and Meulaboh especially.” True story. There are people who are just lost in their own world.

Kay Chin: There are some people who believe that if James Nachtwey didn’t go, then the accident not so serious. [Laughter] So the Johor flood, who cares? I don’t believe I saw any pictures that show any suffering…

Magali: In England, I’ve got no memory of images [of the tsunami] that made me think it’s really bad. There were only some articles about it. You realize the importance of it [photography]. Sometimes the problem is we take these images, but we don’t try to go further. Even bringing the photos to England and putting them in the streets. As photojournalists, we take the assignment, we go and come back, but then it’s out of our hands, right?

Jessica: I just graduated this year from NTU communication studies. Now I’m working at a magazine as a writer and photographer without camera. Before this I was working in Straits Times as a photographer for almost a year. I think the reason I selected so few pictures is because I haven’t really figured out what I’m doing with photography and photojournalism.

This I’ve taken in Meulaboh in September 2005, this one as well. This one was taken in Bangladesh. The reason I chose these three pictures is because when the topic of the forum came up, when I thought of grief I though of these three people. This one is a picture of Ady, someone I met when I was in Meulaboh. I went there on a school trip. I went with Li Wei here on the same program. Ady was this guy that we met at a café and we found out he lost everyone. I went to see where his house used to stand. This is a picture I took in his room. These are basically all the belongings he has left.

This next picture is of Hayun. Hayun similarly lost everybody, has one daughter in Banda Aceh who managed to survive. He cannot get over the loss of his wife because they never found the body. So he’s got no closure. He stayed in a tent, I don’t know if he’s still in that tent. Kay Chin, did you see him?

Kay Chin: Gone.

Jessica: Gone. So hopefully he’s been relocated to a solid roof. I visited him a lot when I was in Meulaboh. He didn’t want any attention and that made me want to talk to him more. Because if he’s trying to hide from you at least you know he’s being sincere and not trying to make the story worse than it is to get more attention.

This is Sufia, who I spent about two weeks with when I was in Bangladesh on an internship. Hers is not really a tale of grief. I photographed her because her family lives on the street. I followed her for about two weeks and made friends with her. When the assignment was over I visited her occasionally after that just to say hello, not to take pictures anymore, just to go there and have tea, and then she will treat me and I will buy some stuff for her.

So a week before I was about to leave Bangladesh she found out that I was leaving, and she told me to come back Wednesday, “I want to bring you to a grave.” I asked, “Why?” And she said, “Just bring your camera, I want you to go with me.” So we went that Wednesday, and I found out it’s the grave of her only son. She has two daughters but in Bangladesh they don’t count, you see. This is her only son that she lost. He died when he was 20. She told me the whole story before, but I never wanted to talk to her about it, because it would make her very upset. I was very surprised that she actually brought me to the grave. They had a ritual. The guy on the right is her grandson. He does not know or remember his father.

So I guess this was a very pivotal point for me, where she actually wanted me to photograph her grieving. She wanted me to be there. She wanted me to have me camera, and to see her cry. I didn’t really understand why, lah. I don’t want to second-guess what’s in her head. I don’t think these three pictures are particularly strong or stand alone, but to me they are important. I think that I am more concerned with my subjects than my audience. That’s perhaps going to be my very big downfall.

Leonard: Did you send her this picture?

Jessica: Yes. I mailed it to her.

Magali: Now she has that memory that you gave her. Even if you haven’t done anything outside of that, you’ve made one person happy.

... to be continued ...

Friday, February 09, 2007

Opening Hours for Lunar New Year 2007

The Gallery will be closed Feb 17 to Feb 21, as well as Feb 24.

Feb 22 & 23 are the last two days to catch Darren Soh's exhibition, Building Blocks.

We would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Prosperous & Healthy New Year. Gong Xi Fa Cai.