Friday, November 24, 2006

Transcript of 2nd Forum

Ruey Loon: This series I did after the Japan series, but I was thinking about the same things. In the end, I have paired them together, but first I will show the photographs individually.

Darren Soh: Just to be a pain in the ass to you—if your photos work in pairs, and from that you form a language, isn’t this gibberish?

Ruey Loon: Yes. These are not the photos that I picked for the final cut. I went back a few steps to when I had about a hundred images, so this should give you a more general idea of what I’ve been shooting and the process.

The way it’s different from photography I do in Singapore is—when you travel you do become very naïve, you see everything pure and simple. Everything is so different and new, and while that, in my mind, shouldn’t be the case—there is a higher level in the way that we perceive things. Even at home, we should examine our environment at a higher level. But somehow overseas…the light is better. In Singapore, the light has this blue tint that I always see when I shoot. Too cold. Overseas, especially higher or lower [latitude], the cast is reddish, so it’s warmer.

When I did this series [in Australia], I did carry out the same idea I had in Japan, but I was with my family, so it was very hard to take my own time to shoot. When I was in Australia, it was like going shopping and then your girlfriend says, “I’ll wait outside, you take your time,” but it’s not the same as going by yourself.

My work is a lot about spaces, but I also take advantage of color. The question is: could these works be been done in Singapore?

Julia: A lot of your subject matter looks like it could be taken anywhere.

Ruey Loon: Yes. Maybe in Singapore I don’t try. It’s not about trying to see something that’s not there—it’s about trying to be aware of your surroundings. If we are rushing off to do a job, then we don’t have time to pause and look…

…In the end, the final pairings came from this body of work.

Soon-Hwa: So when you edit…what do you have in mind? What are you looking for?

Ruey Loon: I had the concept that the photos would be taken at two different points. When the photos are placed together, the viewer will naturally make associations to try to make their relationship make sense. So my concept was to have these associations encapsulate the time in between the two points, the two photos.

© Ung Ruey Loon, Australia

Darren: But this relationship—is it always visual?

Ruey Loon: No, it started out as an emotional one, but then I thought emotional might not make a strong enough connection.

Darren: Because in some of your images from the Japan series, the visual relationship is quite strong.

Ruey Loon: Another one of my basic concerns is, of course, the visual. If you make art that is conceptually strong, but the product is not visually interesting, then why do you present it visually? If it can be presented as an essay, then it is not art. I have this friend that says he can watch many Hollywood movies without looking at the pictures, because the actors’ voices tell you the story. It is more like radio, while the picture is just an accompaniment. But there are certain films that tell the story through moving images. You understand the movie through the editing or the sequence of the pictures. If it’s something that needs so much explanation, if you can’t really fell it when you look at the image…

Darren: Maybe you can show the final pairings for Australia.

© Ung Ruey Loon, Australia

Ruey Loon: OK. The final pairings for the Australia series comment on how man affects the environment—in the form of made-made structures—and then how the environment affects man in return. For example, you see the table behind the caged area—it looks like a cage for humans—but you know it is a man-made environment that is in our control and we can move in and out freely, while the koala bear is not in a cage but we know it is not in its natural environment, either.

Julia: It seems to me that you use formal associations—as in the white dog and the white teapot, or compositional elements…

Ruey Loon: In this series maybe some use those associations, but the compositional decisions are more apparent in the Japan series.

Soon-Hwa: These images make much more sense to me after you edited them, instead of one-by-one.

Darren: To come back to the issue of whether you photographed differently, and if so, why…

Ruey Loon: If I had enough time and enough “bread” to go around Singapore, I believe I should be able to do the same thing. Except the colors would definitely be different—there’s no color in Singapore.

John Cosgrove: There’s a lot of color here!

Darren: Did you see the light yesterday?

John: It’s just that you are comfortable here…

Darren: You take a lot of things for granted because you live here.

Ruey Loon: Yeah, maybe it’s actually the mind-set.

John: When you are overseas you’re not there for six months, you’re there for six days, and you are trying to achieve the most you can. Here you can always give yourself the excuse that you have next week, and then it becomes the week after…

Darren: That can be a double-edged sword. A lot of times when I am overseas, because I am there for such a short time, I try to compile as much as possible. I end up not thinking very much and just shooting.

Have any of you read this? It’s called The Art of Travel. He talks a lot about what people do when they are traveling. I find it very interesting, because he talks a bit about photography here. I’ll just quote a little bit. His name is Alain de Botton, and he is quoting from different people from different periods of history about the various aspects of travel. He encourages people to draw when they travel, because when you try to draw something you actually stop and then stare and then notice details. This is according to John Ruskin, a British writer.

A lot of people use photography to try to capture a memory of a place that is unfamiliar to them, only to digest it later when they are home. He says that “photography alone does not allow you to digest the scene which you are presented with. The true possession of a scene happens when you make a conscious effort to notice elements and understand their construction. We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty will survive in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it. The camera blurs the distinction between looking and noticing, between seeing and possessing; it may give us the option of true knowledge, but it may also unwittingly make the effort of acquiring that knowledge seem superfluous.”

I tend to disagree with this a little. Everybody photographs differently. For myself, I would argue that, other than the fact that the light is different, and the actual subject matter in front of you can only be different—there’s no Sydney Opera House in Singapore—I photograph the same way here that I do overseas. I try to notice certain things that form relationships between my pictures, which don’t come about in pairs, as in Ruey Loon’s case. The pictures should be viewed individually.

These pictures are also from Sydney. They were made about three years ago, when I was first there.

John: You can tell you were overwhelmed by the space.

Darren: The thing about space is Singaporeans have very little of it, in terms of open space. Even here we photograph that way. It is definitely something I crave. You see a lot more of it from when I was in Sydney. [Of a photo:] These people are at a pub at 3 pm. Australians. I have to admit that some of the pictures were taken for the sake of visual interest more than anything else. Again, being on the southern or northern hemisphere, as opposed to being on the equator, the light is different. You’ve seen some of these, John. They were in Photo-i. I have a lot of pictures in the airport because my flight was delayed for seven hours. I had a lot of time to take pictures.

© Darren Soh, Australia

Actually, I probably photographed differently—it’s probably not so overt, I can’t really put it into words—I have some pictures of the Sydney Opera House at the end of this series that were taken this year. They are probably a little bit different.

Q: Are they all digital?

Darren: No. It’s all shot on a Hasselblad. These are from this year. The color is different because I used different paper, but that’s a small difference.

John: There’s a big difference in the pictures you took three years ago and the ones you took just last year. The first time you were there you were overwhelmed by the space, and the second time you went past that and went more in-depth.

Darren: I was very bored there. I was there for three weeks.

John: [Laughs] What were you doing there for three weeks?

Darren: I had two group show openings and they were two weeks apart. So I went to the opera house every other day to see what I could do, the differences in terms of the light and the space…I tried to represent the opera house in as many ways as possible.

There’s something else I would like to show. These pictures might be the antithesis of what we’ve been talking about—how we should photograph the same way wherever we are. There are some countries that don’t allow you to do that. One of these countries is Bangladesh, where everything is in your face. It’s the nature of the country. As someone who is fairer-skinned, I stuck out like a sore thumb. When you stick out like a sore thumb, you become the gazed-upon rather than the person who is doing the gazing. You’ll be able to tell from these pictures what I mean when I say that you are the one being looked at rather than the one doing the looking.

John: Were these in Chobi Mela?

Darren: These were from the last Chobi Mela. It is almost impossible to photograph people in a candid manner when you are in Bangladesh, because everywhere you go you are looked at. Richard [Koh] is exhibiting there now.

Soon-Hwa: Were you there on vacation?

Darren: I don’t think anyone goes there on vacation…

Soon-Hwa: No? I’d like to...

Darren: No, I was doing some teaching there, and some research.

Soon-Hwa: How long were you there for?

Darren: Two weeks and three weeks, one year after another. All-in-all five weeks. After a while I gave up on shooting candid and just did portraits, because everyone there wants to be photographed. I think in some places, you end up photographing according to the place rather than your own sensibilities. I suppose I could consciously photograph in the way I normally do, but I would be missing out on all these other things that are there.

© Darren Soh, Bangladesh

John: I think the way you photograph normally is informed by the place you’re in. When you were in Australia, you were taken by the space there. When you went to Dhaka, you were taken away with the humanity, with the people…you photographed in a way that was appropriate to the situation. You photographed the way you wanted to photograph. You could have gone [to Bangladesh] and shot a bunch of pictures like the ones of Australia, but it wouldn’t have felt right.

Darren: No, it wouldn’t have.

Soon-Hwa: In Bangladesh you seem much more involved with the place and the people there.

Darren: It’s not so much that I’m involved with the people; what you see is the people being involved with me. Personally, I wouldn’t put one set of images above the other, but I do think they are very different. This set of images are about human beings more than anything else, the other is about space.

Soon-Hwa: But the people in Australia, they are not very interested in you…

Darren: It’s maybe more about me than anything else, and how I react to being in a different country with a different culture. In a sense, we may photograph differently in different places. I don’t think I could achieve images like the ones from Bangladesh in Singapore, because Singaporeans are by nature very suspicious of cameras. It would be interesting to try. I try not to pigeonhole any place with a set of preconceived notions or ideas about a specific way I should photograph. That comes across as a bit too forced, for me. Sometimes I do specifically try to conceptually photograph a different way in the same place, but then it sometimes feels too forced. However, having said that, it is a good experiment to try to photograph differently in the same place. When you’re home, that’s a good opportunity to experiment this way, because you have more time. I have tried to photograph Singapore in strange, different ways. Some of it has worked, some of it hasn’t.

Julia: The photos you took in Dhaka seem more celebratory of the people, of the culture. It seems like you were really enchanted with this place. Do you think when you travel you think less critically?

Darren: It really depends. If you are photographing on an assignment, it becomes a completely different ballgame, because you have an objective. In both of these sets of images, there was no specific objective, no direction as to what I needed to bring up. In a way, I just let whatever I saw form itself in front of the camera.

The last trip I took, which was to Thailand, was purely for assignment. I found out that after finishing my work I couldn’t photograph for myself anymore. When I was finished with the assignment, I just went back to my hotel to sleep, because I was so tired. I’ve have not edited the images yet, but I suspect they will not be as forthcoming as the images I take for myself. There is the stress of having to deliver the images. I went to Chiang Mai to photograph a portrait of someone, as well as his house. So it was basically photographing an interior. So I just went there and shot an interior just as I would shoot any other interior. But then I didn’t do anything else because I was so tired. I flew in, did that, flew out.

Ruey Loon: But these are like your first contact/impression [of Bangladesh], do you think that going again, things would change…

Darren: It might be. I need to go to Bangladesh again to find that out. However, I realize that—I’m not sure if it’s the same for all of you—if you are away from a place for a long amount of time, you will tend to see it differently after you return, because your memory of the place fades. No matter how hard you try, your photographs cannot—and should not—capture everything that you experience. Let’s say you go to Australia once, then when you go a second time, you will find there were many things you did not see the last time you went. There are many things that will still surprise you, and so that convergence may not come. The interesting thing about traveling is that whenever I’m away from Singapore for a long enough time, let’s say about three weeks, when I come back to Singapore I tend to photograph better at home. Things are a little bit unfamiliar.

This leads to this other passage from The Art of Travel that I want to read. In his last chapter, he talks about mind-set: “If only we could apply a traveling mind-set to our own locales, we might find these places become no less interesting than, say,” other countries you’ve visited…he continues to define the traveling mind-set. “Receptivity,” he says, might be one of the chief characteristics: “if we are receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or what is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable, small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on the wall. We find that the supermarket or hairdresser’s shop unusually fascinating.” He goes on about all these little things that you take for granted when you’re home, that you notice overseas because they are different. But he says that if you apply that, in Ruey Loon’s words, naivety and pureness and simplicity to where you’re from, your home, you’ll be able to see things you never noticed before. And maybe that will make you photograph better. Chi Yin?

© Sim Chi Yin, Siberia

Sim Chi Yin: Ok, I’ll leave the art theory to the guys, because I am not an artist, I am a journalist. I am more of a documentarian at heart. I would like to show some pictures from my recent trip to Tibet on the new railroad from Beijing to Tibet. This was done for an article that was in the Straits Times in September. So a few caveats: this was a news assignment, back-to-back it was twelve days and I was on the road every day. You are plunked in a new place, shoot everything you can, get as many images as you can, get as many notes as you can, and come back and write an article.

The train ride proper took 48 hours. Left Beijing on a Thursday night at 9:30, and spent two nights on the train, arrived in Lhasa on a Saturday. You can tell that while you are on the train, the photographic options are pretty limited: either you shoot in the train, or out of the window. You can’t open the window, because it’s a pressurized train. After a while, I got pretty frustrated—I was about to break a window. Apologies to fans of Ansel Adams; the landscapes that I shot were through dust-speckled windows and out of a moving train, so the images aren’t 100% sharp, either—some of them.

There are about 120 pictures. It’s a loose edit, because I wasn’t quite sure about what kind of audience I was going to get; there has been a lot of interest in the railroad and the politics of it. After the story ran in the Straits Times, I got e-mails asking for travel tips to get to Tibet. I left it as the journey itself, chronological. The first part is the train ride proper, then I arrived in Lhasa, and then I ended up driving back. I got into a four-wheel drive and drove over 4-5 days to get pictures of the towns on-route. I ended up in Qinghai, the province right next to Tibet proper. You can tell at the end of the set, that it has a very Chinese feel. I thought I’d end off with a few personal works, a few snaps from a long time ago. Non-work work.

Darren: Do you ever get off for an extended period of time?

Chi Yin: No. There are only six stops all the way, for 4,000 kilometers. You get a ten-minute stop, then a six-minute stop, then a five-minute stop…It’s called an express train. It gets you to Lhasa in the shortest possible (train) time. Of course you could fly there in four hours. It is the train that takes you across the Tibetan plateau, which was pretty impassable before. You could go by car, but it’s 4,000 kilometers!

Darren: How much is the return fare?

Chi Yin: Second class is 800 yuan. This is Golmud, which is in Qinghai. This is where they actually put on three extra locomotives in order to get up to 5,000 meters above sea leavel. Everything is pressurized and oxygenized, because of the altitude.

John: Is the altitude sickness worse on the train or off?

Chi Yin: Both. Some got sicker when they got off. But there were people throwing up all over the ground, even on the train. The third class was full of workers, mainland Chinese, who were going into Lhasa to seek their fortune, I guess. Second and first class were middle class Chinese tourists mostly, in their Gore-Tex boots and thermos flasks. The tickets were completely sold out, so many got their tickets on the black market.

Q: Did you drive all the way back?

Chi Yin: No. I stopped in Golmud then took a normal, ordinary train, and then I flew back. It’s too long, and of course boss is like, “Come back now.” Shortest time possible. Shortest, cheapest way. And then there’s the high altitude, and you don’t fool around with that.

Q: How do you deal with the high altitude?

Chi Yin: Diamox. Oxygen tubes. There are sockets in the wall, and you just plug in and then there’s a gushing sound of oxygen coming out. Quite a few people needed that. I popped a pill that gave me numb fingers, and numb fingers aren’t very good for shooting, so I stopped taking it after a while.

Q: [Of a picture of a tourist with his shirt off:] Was it very warm on the train?

Chi Yin: It wasn’t really that hot. I think he had one too many beers.

Darren: It’s an engineering feat. I’ve been reading about how they have to…

Chi Yin: Yes, they had to use coolants…they used many, many different ways to keep it [the permafrost] from melting. Scientists have estimated that in ten years’ time, it’s going to be a problem.

This is a man we met, but because we couldn’t talk through the window, a girl wrote to him on paper and he signed back. He’s a railroad worker.

Julia: How often does the train run?

Chi Yin: Everyday, from six different cities in China proper. It’s bringing something like 4,000 tourists into Lhasa everyday.

Julia: And it’s fully booked everyday…

Chi Yin: At the moment, yes. I think. This is Lhasa. It’s overrun by Chinese tourists…

…It’s become quite an excursion for [local] families—many of them have never seen a train before. They go up to the train platform and sit there with a beer. They don’t have a concept of train timetables, so when I went in the morning, there were families there already when the next train didn’t come until 5pm. It’s become a bit of a novelty for them.

Darren: Did you see the mainland Chinese influence in Lhasa…

Chi Yin: Yes, yes. Academics and free-Tibet lobbyists lamenting that. This railway is meant to accelerate that a lot. In and around the train station in Lhasa there has been a construction boom. Investment coming in.

© Sim Chi Yin, Tibet

This is prostration. There are Tibetans who make the pilgrimage to Lhasa and prostrate themselves every step of the way from their village. It takes them as long as three years.

Darren: What is the opinion of Tibetans, do half of them think the railroad is good for the community and half…

Chi Yin: I don’t think it’s half. There are Tibetans in government who naturally think it’s a good thing, and I think that business people think it will bring in money, so they welcome it. But there’s a real angst about any kind of symbolic or real Chinese influence, and the train/railway is such a symbol of Chinese influence. I couldn’t put a number on it, but if you talk to regular Tibetans…

Q: Did Tibetans act a certain way toward you because you look Chinese?

Chi Yin: They thought I was Chinese the whole time. They can’t tell. They thought I was southern Chinese.

Q: Did they become more open to you when they found out you were Singaporean?

Chi Yin: Maybe a little. It helped when I spoke English through a guide, rather than Mandarin.

Darren: Where did you find the guide? Were they Tibetan or Chinese?

Chi Yin: I arranged it before I went. I had a Tibetan guide. You won’t get anywhere with a Chinese guide. Absolutely nowhere. I had one on the first day, she was a liar. She told me lots of interesting “facts” that weren’t true. This is one of the bigger train stations in Tibet proper. It’s in a place called Nagchu. What you saw just now, a big slab of concrete plunked in the middle of the plains…

Darren: The middle of nowhere…

Chi Yin: That’s pretty much what the landscape looks like now, dotted with bits of concrete.

[Of a photograph:] This is a farmer who lives close to the tracks. He’s had ten sheep, I think, knocked down by the train. It used to be that—on the highways—if cars ran them down, he could get compensation from the drivers. “When they are knocked down by the train, who do I ask?” It’s a real problem for him.

Darren: Are there any positive effects that you can say are coming from this railway?

Chi Yin: If you count tourism, investment, as positive, then yes, there’s going to be a lot of that. But how much will it trickle down to the regular Tibetan people? How else could you quantify a positive effect? [About a photo:] That’s a horseracing festival. Yes, there’s already a Giordano store in Nagchu.

This is in China proper, in Golmud. It used to be that people had to come here to get trucks to go into Lhasa. There are posters everywhere celebrating the opening of the railway. It’s a real source of pride for the Chinese. Just one province away, one night’s train ride away from Lhasa, that’s what it’s like.

Q: Do you think Lhasa is changing because of the train?

Chi Yin: Of course. It’s going to be completely different. It’s already hard to find “real” Tibetan corners in Lhasa today.

Q: Do you know how the Chinese feel about the Tibetans?

Chi Yin: Oh yes, it’s well documented. [The Chinese] all think they are buffoons, and backwards. They don’t think very much of them. To them it’s just a place to go now because there’s money to be made. To them it’s cute. They’ve got the culture thing going. They have some interesting costumes, so…incidentally there’s a Tibetan restaurant that has just opened in Singapore. Opened by Chinese.

© Sim Chi Yin, Tibet

Q: Other than the government, you don’t think that other people welcome the idea of development?

Chi Yin: Yes, I think there are some people who welcome development. But I think it’s one of those long-standing debates of whether you preserve traditional culture and not develop, or you welcome development and try to marry tradition and development. I don’t have the answers, but there is a genuine angst amongst regular Tibetans. They feel they are losing something if they open their doors to Chinese influence. There have been numerous reports, international law reviews, about the situation in Tibet. In this case, it’s not just development vs. tradition. In this case it’s laced with this whole notion of “Chinese-ness”…imperialism. It has province status at the moment.

Darren: But historically, Tibet…

Chi Yin: Like I said, the jury’s still out. Yes, in 1959, the Chinese did march in. Some people say that in 1913 Tibet actually declared independence, or what amounted to independence. But there’s a long history going back to the Qing and the Ming, and it’s never been clear what Tibet’s status is…

…Really it’s hard to say if Tibet will really benefit economically. If you talk to any Chinese businessman there, he will say, “Oh, I’m not here for long, high altitude is not good for my health, and my skin will get ugly...”

John: Well it’ll depend on the rich American and European tourists…

Chi Yin: A luxury train’s going to start up in 2008. It’s going to be about 1,000 dollars a night. You’ll have a butler, a queen-size bed…It’s going to be like the Orient Express, that sort of thing.

Q: What has the Dalai Lama said about the railway?

Chi Yin: Five years ago he said it would be a disaster, just bad, bad, bad. More recently he’s said, if it’s not laced with a political objective, and it will bring benefits to the Tibetans and Tibet proper, then he welcomes it. He is still exiled, and many Tibetans wish he could come back, but we don’t know if that will happen…

…Ok I’ll just show a few snaps of my other projects. These are from Siberia, Romania, and Cuba from some years back. That’s in Romania. These are the Roma gypsies, who live in a ghetto. I did these pictures for a charity.

© Sim Chi Yin, Romania

Darren: Do you find that you photograph differently with digital?

Chi Yin: I don’t like it. There’s no relationship with the camera…yet.

Darren: There’s a lot of relationship with the camera…when you are staring at the little screen all the time…Do you think you could have done this Tibetan railway [project] on your Leica?

Chi Yin: If my company wanted to pay for all the film and processing, and if I had more time, yes.

Darren: But if the time was the same?

Chi Yin: Then no. While I was traveling I had to put together the story at the same time. I was doing text and pictures. I am a very recent convert to digital, like a few months ago, and I’m not a complete convert yet. Generally, I don’t really like this electronic stuff. If I’m shooting film and my battery’s dead, no light meter—so what? It still works. With digital, I’ll worry about if my battery’s dead. Just a practical consideration. There’s no real difference, just different sets of practical considerations. I did all these photos on one battery. I just kept charging—I didn’t have to use my spare. So, not a huge problem. But I haven’t quite developed the same relationship with the camera yet.

Q: So do you shoot differently in a different place…

Chi Yin: I tend to agree with Darren, that you don’t shoot differently in a different place. How we see is how we see. The only thing about being in a foreign place is that your senses are much far alive, because it’s strange to you. Like John said, there are lots of things that you take for granted here. But when I was a teenager I used to walk around on Sunday mornings on Beach Road and Little India and all that—beautiful light—and you can shoot like you’re a stranger in your own country. You make pictures.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

2nd Forum on Photography: In a Foreign Land

We are having another forum this Saturday, 18 November, 2-5 pm!

The forum will be on the subject “In a Foreign Land,” and coincides with the exhibition of work by photographer Ung Ruey Loon entitled Moments Apart in a Foreign Land. Three photographers, Ung Ruey Loon, Sim Chi Yin, and Darren Soh, will discuss photographs they have taken overseas for different reasons. We will investigate whether or not we take photographs differently when in a foreign place, and if so, why. The speakers will be joined by gallery assistant Julia Benjamin and gallery founder Tan Kay Ngee.

The forum is free and light refreshment will be served.

RSVP to Julia: 6423 0198 or (please let me know if you need a map!)

About the Speakers:

Ung Ruey Loon is a photographer from Malaysia who is currently based in Singapore. He will discuss the works he shot in Japan for his exhibition, Moments Apart in a Foreign Land, currently on view at the gallery, as well as a series of photographs he took in Australia. His past exhibitions include SimpliCity, exhibited at the Singapore History Museum in 2003, and Dance Around, exhibited at the Arts House in 2005. His studio along Selegie Road, SPACE217, is made up of a dynamic group of young photographers and was the venue for two exhibitions organized by the Goethe Institut from 2004-2005. He is currently working on a new series entitled Thousands and Thousands as part of his residency at Objectifs in Singapore.

Sim Chi Yin currently works for the Straits Times (ST) as a journalist, and continues to pursue photography in her own time and sometimes side-by-side with her writing assignments. She will show photographs from a recent assignment for the ST where she documented her journey from Beijing to Lhasa along the new, controversial railway that connects Tibet with major cities in China. Chi Yin has worked on projects on migrant domestic workers in Singapore, the Roma (Gypsies) in Romania, and a Maoist village in China. In 1999 she was selected as a finalist for the Ian Parry Award for photojournalism by the Sunday Times of London for her portfolio of photographs from rural Siberia.

Darren Soh has been a full-time independent photographer, balancing editorial and commercial work, since 2001. He traveled to Sri Lanka shortly after the Asian Tsunami struck in early 2005 to document relief operations for a local NGO called Mercy Relief. Images from this trip were exhibited twice under the Glimpses of Light series of exhibitions, which paid tribute to the victims and survivors of the tsunami. Darren’s work has been exhibited in Singapore at the Singapore Art Museum, the Singapore History Museum, and the Arts House; and in Bangladesh at the Goethe Institut Dhaka. He has taught photography at Nanyang Technological University, Objectifs, and Pathshala: South Asian Institute of Photography in Dhaka. He will discuss photographs he has taken in Bangladesh and Australia.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Ung Ruey Loon: Moments Apart in a Foreign Land

Kay Ngee Tan Architects Gallery is pleased to present the work of photographer Ung Ruey Loon in an exhibition entitled Moments Apart in a Foreign Land.

Saturday, November 11 – Saturday December 16, 2006
Opening reception for the artist: Friday, November 10, 8 pm

Ung Ruey Loon is a photographer from Malaysia who is currently based in Singapore. He first came to Singapore for secondary school, and continued to study computer engineering at the National University of Singapore, while simultaneously pursuing photography in his own time. His past exhibitions include SimpliCity, exhibited at the Singapore History Museum in 2003, and Dance Around, exhibited at the Arts House in 2005. His studio along Selegie Road, Space217, is made up of a dynamic group of young photographers and was the venue for two group exhibitions organized by the Goethe Institut from 2004-2005, entitled Art ConneXions. He is currently working on a series entitled Thousands and Thousands as part of his residency at Objectifs in Singapore from October to December 2006.

As a photographer he confides that he is not privy to a special way of seeing; on the contrary, he intends to record things as they are seen by everyone else. Ruey Loon documents everyday scenes, not to reveal "inner beauty," but to assert intrinsic ordinariness as a virtue in its own right. Recently his work has become more process-driven, incorporating elements of performance while exploring projects on the passage of time. His influences include Art ConneXions peers Sherman Ong and Terence Yeung, as well as Wolfgang Tillmans, Paul Graham, Rinko Kawauchi, and Mami Iwasaki.

Moments Apart in a Foreign Land is an investigation into the state of being Ruey Loon felt during his first extended period away from home, in a "foreign land." While spending time in Japan, he felt profoundly disconnected from the time and place of his surroundings. From this detached vantage point, however, he was able to experience and distill "moments" in his environment in a purer and more basic way.

In Moments Apart, images arranged in a diptych format explore the complex relationship between man and nature. By documenting two points of his journey and placing them side by side, Ruey Loon represents the distance between them without directly showing it, resulting in the documentation of moments which exist outside of the photograph that are both real and re-imagined by the viewer.

Gallery Hours: Tues – Fri 11am-7pm, Sat 2-6pm, and by appointment

For further information, please contact the gallery.

Transcript of Oct 21 Forum

Thanks to Samantha Tio for helping us out with the transcription!

Ernest Goh: I don’t have a lot of images but I’d give you a slight idea of what the Visa Pour L’Image is. This is the town of Perpignan, a nice little quaint town of good food and good wine. Basically they have converted the entire town into exhibition spaces: libraries, churches, schools, and warehouses. You live and breathe photojournalism for 2 weeks. The first week is called “Professional Week,” where professionals like myself will show their work to the major agencies around the world and try to sell their work as photographers. It is the photojournalism event where all the big boys are there from the big newspapers to the big magazines and the big agencies. It’s also starting to change as well because it’s not just photojournalism as in your “hard news” but it also a little bit more liberated. It’s no longer only hard journalism where you get your pretty black & white; there’s a lot of documentary work now, and even crossing into artistic work. But of course they try to keep the definition really strict where it cannot be “Photoshopped” material.

This is where the business dealings happen. The booths you see are all the agencies from around the world. New agencies from all over the world come here, apply for a booth, show their work. Basically what happens is that all the agencies, in a way, are “sleeping with each other” now. We have, what you call, business partnerships—where a new agency in Poland, for example, who wants to get distributed in the US will get partnership with, for example, Seven (VII). Seven is a photojournalistic agency started by James Nachtwey in New York. So this Polish agency will distribute their images in the US through Seven. So they have all these partnerships now. For one week, I basically just pop from one booth to another trying to “lelong” my work. I actually talked to editors and I always get the same reply: “We are not seeing enough images from Asia,” or “Wow, there are photographers in Singapore?” I think we have really great work here [in Singapore] and I’m sure you guys know, but it’s just that we are not selling ourselves well enough.

You have to be really thick-skinned about it, you know: go up there, grab the editor by the collar, in a way and say, “Hey, I really want to show you my work.” So I was there on Monday and tried to see this editor I wanted to see. He said come down on Tuesday… Wednesday… Thursday and only finally on Friday did I manage to see him. So you have to be really persistent.

Kay Ngee: Who is he and where is he from?

Ernest: He is photographer/editor of this agency called Cosmo and they are distributed pretty well so I wanted to put some of my work with them. And he is also a really busy guy and, as you know, they go there to make some business as well. So when they go there to meet photographers, it is just a secondary job for them because they already have so many good photographers. What makes you think they would like to find another one? You are just another photographer. So you have to impress upon them that you want to put your work with them. So these kind of scenes are really common—everybody just talks to everybody. You talk and breathe photojournalism.

Every night there is the highlight of Visa Pour L’Image, something called the slide show, where this huge screen is placed in front of this ancient church and you see this whole series of images and photojournalistic stories contributed by photographers around the world on this large screen. There would be commentary and there would be explanations about their images.

I don’t have any more images because I was really moving around selling my work. But please go onto the web and check it out. I think even if you are not in photojournalism I think it is really worth a visit. People whom I spoke to who are not photographers said that they learnt so much more about the world. If you are a businessman who is in the business of selling images, for example, you should go too because it is really a place where the big boys are. I think it’s good to go there to swim in the big pond. It really opened up my eyes.

T[?]: The first is professional week, so what's the second week?

Ernest: The second week is open to public. Even the first week is open to public, but the second week is just a continuation of the exhibition time. The first week is professional week, whereby you have to pay 50 Euros to get into places like this to show you work and also to get into the slide show every night.

T: So you just pay 50 Euros and you could go there to show your work?

Ernest: No, I went there as a freelancer. You just send in a form and 50 Euros. You get your 50 Euros back in the form of a lot of freebies, so it is really worthwhile. The good thing about Visa Pour L’Image is that it’s just after the summer holidays in Europe. Everybody has gone home from the south of France, so it’s not crowded and there are no more tourists left and, you know, you can enjoy the South of France—and the weather is still nice. You can enjoy south of France to yourself.

Kay Ngee: Your approach seems to be, can I say, a more selfish one because you are looking for someone to represent your work. But I’d like you to define the term photojournalism. For me as a layman, I’d find moving works, from the members of Magnum, for instance, because they believe in what they capture and they believe in the situation so that they can convey the message through photography. Because the power of photography is that…[Fire alarm goes off] …Talking about photojournalism, [it is through] some of the images—I think that, through agents like these, perhaps through magazines—that people are aware of things like the Vietnam child. So it is two-fold: on one hand you have to get to what is being represented, to sort it out and, on the other hand, you reflect your beliefs in your work and what you feel the world is about as well as the message that is being presented. Up 'til now, architects equally face the same problem of where to find the right clients but on the other hand, if your work has a certain substance people will come ‘round to you.

T: I know you are represented by a couple of agencies here in Asia. How do you find or how do you cope with another agency? I’m sure you’ll find yourself in conflicting interests between the various agencies.

Ernest: I think it is important to stay loyal to one agency but you can have one agency in different regions. In Asia I’m distributed and I work with a few agencies, and in Europe and the US I work with a different agency. It doesn’t mean that if I’m with one agency I stick to them. I am loyal to them, but they have to be loyal to me because at the end of the day, if I found out that they are not doing a good job, I’m just going to find another agency. Different agencies work differently, and they also have different styles, If I find that the agency that I’m currently working with is more interested in selling “hard news” because it makes more money, then it’s not suited to me because I don’t do “hard news”. When I was there, I was trying to get into an agency that was aligned with my style and idea of photojournalism.

X: I’d like to talk about one of the problems that you faced when you were there: that Singapore photographers do not market themselves well enough. Have you had any thoughts about that? I mean, there are photographers here, as well, and everyone wants to market themselves. Maybe you can tell us more about the alternative channels that they can consider, other than going to shows.

Ernest: Well I think these shows are very important. I think the local photographers have to start setting their sights beyond our shores. And to, in a way, cross into Kay Ngee’s question about selling myself like a salesman as compared to believing that my work is good and eventually becoming successful. I don’t agree with just doing that and, in a way, acting like an artist who thinks, “I think I’m good and I don’t have to look for people.” I think photography, yes, is an artistic pursuit. But, in a way, you are also a business man and in every business you’ll have to market and also market correctly. Singapore is just too small of a market, as you guys already know. In the very first place you have to tell yourself, I am as good as those “ang mohs.” It’s just that people don’t know about Singapore photographers/photography in Singapore. And I mean, we are like 43 years old and the more senior photographers here have already paved the way. So we have to work on that some more.

Kay Ngee: I think this view of going all the way out is very courageous. Perhaps our gallery should work harder to find a way to promote people like you elsewhere. We also spoke about this, intentionally or unintentionally. I myself have been living in England for a long time, and Julia is from New York and she knows the New York scene quite well. On top of that Bekir is from Istanbul. There are a lot of brilliant photographers from Istanbul as well. It is our intention to widen these boundaries. We shall work together as a group of people. You become more impressive in a way. I know in photography there are groups and associations just like in film. Filmmakers in Taiwan and China they always, even the Korean ones, happen as whole generations or whole group of people inter-influencing each other. I think that any form of art that taps on grouping is very important. So that people identify that you are from this group, that group. So your identity contributes to a bigger picture. I think we definitely are interested in tapping on some of your talents and see how we can promote local talents outside.

Ernest: I am just going to add on. I think it is definitely possible and it is sometimes done before. Not only agencies were there [in Perpignan] but there were a collective bunch of photographers coming together and showing their work, having a booth there as well. The only problem is, and I’m sure that you guys now, when a bunch of photographers come together you’ll get a lot of problems.

Kay Ngee: Why?

Ernest: Photographers, or maybe photojournalists, are very individualistic people. You work in the field alone. A lot of times it is very difficult to work…

Kay Ngee: We are all egoists.

Ernest: Oh, all photographers are. Magnum has the same problem. For the longest time they couldn’t get out of their egoistic self, that “oh we are the best”. It’s because the photographers ran the agency and they were loosing money all the time. Up ‘til now, can you believe that the only reason why Magnum is still around is because they are living on their archives, not on their new assignments. Who are the ones that are surviving on new assignments? They are the newer agencies who have already changed their mindsets about how to sell an agency. You have to retain your artistic-ness and self-belief in photojournalism but yet marketing it as a business. I think it is very difficult to separate these two.

KF Seetoh: Maybe…I’d like to share a bit about what I do. Just to give you a bit of background, [I was a photographer.] I did my first professional shot in 1989, about 20 years ago. I spent a good stint in the Straits Times. When I came out I did commercial work and I really hated commercial shoots but it paid really well. Then I when on to food, publishing… [when I created Makansutra]… In the area of marketing, positioning ourselves… The market in Singapore is too small but there is no lack of talents here…. 1994 when I had a bit of money in my pocket and had a bank of images…I wanted to make an image bank where you could search for photos based on keywords, events, etc…and you could throw the images you wanted into the “lightbox” to buy…[In Singapore the internet was still a new thing, and business of selling images on the internet proved to be difficult] …[sound cuts out…so sorry—this was one of the many highlights of the forum!]

Kay Ngee: I think in a lot of arts, sometimes if you are the first to do something, you may be the one that suffers, but in the end you pave the way for the next generation of artists.

Seetoh: I didn’t think about paving anything, I just wanted to make A LOT of money!

[Laughter] …[sound cuts out...again]…

Kay Ngee: Maybe we should keep things moving. Julia, who should go next?

Julia: Let’s have Sherman go next.

Sherman Ong: In my work, I always start with the image. For me I’m always interested in the image and the potential of one image to have meaning and what the image can carry. To some extent, like photojournalism, the image is always subservient to an event, to a story. At one stage I was interested in photojournalism. After that I kind of veered away because photojournalism is always event-driven, whether there was a catastrophe or and event or something. The image is a vehicle to convey a message, and most of the time the image has to conform to a certain market requirement.

Noorderlicht is an annual photo-exhibition. It is one of the largest photo-festivals. Like in Visa Pour L’Image, the interest is always in photojournalism. In Noorderlicht, they are a bit more open; they always look at either documentary or art photography. In this particular installment they had a call for entries, which I think, they sent out all over the world for proposal. I submitted to them. Every two years they pick a region around the world to focus on. Two years ago it was the Arab world, and I think it was called “Nazar.” This year their topic was on South and Southeast Asia—basically the countries that were hit by the Tsunami—and their main focus was actually India and Indonesia. These are the two big countries. And the reason was also because when you always talk about Asia in Europe the countries are always China, India, and the East Asian countries. That’s why the curator, Wim Melis, was interested to look at this aspect of Asia that [most people] don’t really think about when you talk about Asia. This is why he had an open call for proposal.

The photographers that showed in Noorderlicht were [sometimes] very established photographers like Shahidul Alam, the photo-director for the festival of Chobi Mela in Bangladesh. Then you have Dinh Le, the Vietnamese artist. Some works are clearly in the genre of photojournalism, and then some works are more…I’d like to show you Dinh Le’s work. He left Vietnam during the war, then he went to the States to study and now he is back. Recently he had a show with Theatreworks as well, with “Diaspora.” He does more multi-media.

In a sense, when I look at photography it is not so much confined within the realm of photograph-photograph because photography is about a history of images, and the history of images includes painting, and also how you deal with space and architecture. So when I look at photography I cannot separate the image from the entire history of imagery. The content, when I create work…I always have to know about its history. And I think to address the point earlier as to how do we define a niche for a country like Singapore which is so small…because it’s inherently the DNA of our country… that is the flaw. Because it’s so small there is no market.

What I did was more about looking at photography around the world and what has been done and what is its general direction. I work mainly in color now. In color field photography there is Steven Shore, William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, and Joel Sternfeld. They belong to the movement in the 1970s. Like Eggleston had his first show in 1976 and that was a very controversial show because that was the fist time that the museum endorsed color and brought color into the realm of art. Before it was always black & white, and color photography was always associated with the snapshot, with the family album...I’ve always looked at photography as a contemporary art practice, and not so much as a vehicle to convey events.

What [Dinh Le] did with his works was that he actually physically weaved his images. He took images from Hollywood films and then he weaved them just like the traditional weaving of Vietnamese baskets. If you see the real picture you can actually see the physical material of the photographs that are being weaved together. What he wanted to say was also about the image, the material, the limits of the image, and how the image interposed with the past. He felt that America always has this need to erase a certain part of its history and yet he wanted to represent that.

In Noorderlicht we had a very diverse array of works being shown, like Shahidul’s work was in the realm of photojournalism and he [was] also the chairman of World Press Photo [Jury]. Shahidul was there, I think he opened the festival, and he was also here for the Singapore Biennale. Drik also had a show here. Drik is Shahidul’s agency. There was also a forum there whereby we talked about the “Asian eye” and the “Western eye,” and whether there was a difference in the realm of photojournalism. If you look at photojournalism as a business, it is always controlled by the American media, the huge American media. There is always a market demand that requires a certain look. They always want this wide-angle with a very big foreground and a background especially with all those like Magnum or Seven (VII). Magnum still has a very diverse kind of work but Seven has got a distinctively journalistic kind of approach. Basically the compositional strategy has to fit into the demand of the market.

For me, I don’t work in that way anymore because I choose not to be caught up in this biz, ‘cause there is no end to it. Shahidul was telling me that the fact why the Asians are not known is a situation of power, and who controls the media. Photojournalists are like pawns that are just part of the pegs that move with the entire machinery. It is no longer about whether you are good. When you choose to be involved with photojournalism, it’s about more than just skills. It is about who you know and what you know. And, sadly, that is the situation. So maybe later we can talk about this situation of photojournalism.

In my case I was looking at the image as an end in itself, rather than the image being a means to an end; whereas most of the time, in photojournalism, the image always has to convey something more. So the image becomes subservient. At the point when the image is created, I think you have the author/photographer/artist who created the image’s point of view. But once the image is released—just like film—there is always this crust of interpretation that you can work on. I think the moment an image is released into a public realm, it is no longer…

Kay Ngee: The image is like a pop song where people will associate or project their own life experiences, their knowledge…

Sherman: In Noorderlicht I presented a series on the monsoon. I was in Hanoi for one month under the Goethe Institut residency. I was there basically to look and have a feel of the city. For me, I’m always interested in urban spaces. I’m always interested in the human condition. Hanoi was like a city in transition and I always like feeling this conflict between the old and the new, these values that are always changing—malleable values. It’s a country that is still very much communist but then when you are there you realize that the mentality is so capitalist. They are so Chinese. Vietnam in Chinese is actually called the “Southern Province;” “nam” is the South. They were under Chinese control for more than a thousand years. Their traditional text is actually Chinese. What was interesting for me was also how this transition was taking place. I created a different series [about this too].

This series came about because it was during the rainy season and I was traveling in a van. Then it started to rain—this big huge hailstorm of ice—really huge and nobody could move. I had my camera. Suddenly I just turned my camera onto the landscape. At that point, I realized what was interesting was this intervention of nature on man and this kind of relationship that happens. And you realize that when there is this possibility of being vulnerable—you always try to make yourself very small and everybody tries to crouch down. It also reminded me of a commercial, this Volkswagen commercial where they were hosing people down—protestors or whoever—everybody makes themselves really small. This was why the Volkswagen [beetle] was made very round, very small. When you make your body round, your surface area is smaller. The smallest surface area is the circle. [In] this series I was interested in the intervention of water onto the body and onto the landscape.

They were all shot on the D70, a very entry-level model… I was interested in the idea of the limits of the digital camera as well. Also [I wanted] to look at it from the history of painting. Like in Hanoi there used to be a French colony and so you have Impressionism. At one stage, it also struck me that images, even when they are blurred you can actually tell [what they are] because we have our own experience, because we know by looking at shapes. What was also interesting for me was to play with this idea of perception. I wanted to look at the relations, in some ways, between photography—not so much painting—and the history of images, and not to separate the two. It’s because photography is very much part and parcel of the history of image. The documentary aspect would be how the rain and the wind affect the people. So I just presented this idea to Noorderlicht and they picked a series of 10 images from this. They put them in a straight line. It is almost like a film script. Maybe they wanted to show it as the transition of time as well.

People always have a certain point where they start, even in architecture. You have to be interested in something and then you create. So I am always interested in the human condition and also the urban spaces. To address the issue of the working abroad, I agree with Ernest that we are just as good as the Western [photographers]. But how do you get in when the gate-holders are not us? But then if you have something new to offer them…

Ernest[?]: The key-holders and the gate-holders are not us, but I say create a new gate.

Sherman: But I think in photojournalism there is always “the market”. When we talk about art, there is no separation.

Kay Ngee: I agree. I’ve been living away for a long time. I see the emergence of Asia in art. I’m surprised the Koreans, the Japanese, and the Chinese are doing so well. I think it’s not so much about the segregation of the West, not wanting to know more about the East. I think it’s twofold, because of the observer or the spectator. The quality of the work will have to bring out refreshing ideas or images, things that you’d want to find out more about.

Looking at your photos, Hanoi seems like the Singapore twenty years ago, for me, even when the image is kind of blurred. But the quality of the light and the dressing of the people and all that has got certain charm to it. It relates to me some of the films of certain Chinese directors. I think they capture, like what you say, the imperfect city in a collision of colors and some of the kitsch image and all that. But eventually, it becomes a star. Already in your picture, it cannot be anywhere else but Asia. You have somehow found an “Asian” image. It’s just whether the image is powerful enough to touch the people of Asia and also people from non-Asian countries.

John Cosgrove: You have the culture here. I know what you are talking about. I can tell a Japanese photograph from a hundred miles away, same for a Chinese photograph. But the money is in the West. Because of Western investment, American and European photojournalism [is dominant]. In Asia, and in my country as well, in New Zealand, we are a tiny little country at the back-end of the world. We still have a Magnum photographer, but we have the same problem. We are 20,000 miles from anywhere. We always have to go offshore…And when you go offshore, you’re looking to the market. If you have a style of photography, the market looks to you and says, “Can you fit within our mold?”

You wouldn’t believe it, but the Americans had the same problem in 1945 that we are having in Oceania today. They were convinced that this American style of photography was disappearing because Robert Capa and his troop covered WWII the European way; they had taken over Life Magazine, they had taken over National Geographic. That’s why the Missouri Photo Workshop was created, as a way to hold on to the style of America. They thought they were losing a battle.

In Asia, we have Southeast Asia, which is a completely different style of photography from Japan, which is so technically perfect you can tell it is a Japanese photograph from a hundred miles away. But to a Western audience—for magazines and newspapers—they just need a photograph that will do the job, not a technically perfect, beautifully colored photograph. It all comes down to what the market wants. You say, “Being a slave to the market is wrong…”

Sherman: I am not saying it’s wrong, but that you have a choice...

John: But the level of culture [you have] in Europe—the appreciation of art as ministry, as a fact of life—art has to be a fact of life. But it isn’t here. I was at a school covering an assignment. 700 kids were studying math, 600 kids were studying Science, two [kids] were doing art. There was something terribly wrong there. This is where all you young guys come in. Your work is going be to help this generation of Singaporeans appreciate art, more so than your parents.

X: But if we care enough about it, isn’t it our job to help educate…

John: That’s right! You’ve got to have spaces like this and push and push and push. But it can’t be switched on—no matter what NAC says, throwing money in there and throwing money out—but you can start there. He’s got a few concepts/ideas. We take them right now…Objectifs Centre for Photography and Filmmaking now went to Cannes—representing Singapore in Cannes. If they [filmmakers] can do it, why can’t we [photographers] do it?

Sherman: The point of having money is precisely what the Germans did. In the ‘80s they wanted an international superstar for photography and they created the Düsseldorf School with the help of the Deutsche Bank. The Deutsche Bank worked with the Düsseldorf School. At that time it was under the Bechers, Bernd and Hilla Becher. They set up to create this movement and they pumped the amount money that they needed.

John: Like Ireland in the 90s. Ireland decided that they wanted to be the cultural hub of the world. The government corporations put tax money into the arts…The same way in New York. [Part of it is money, but it also] requires the right mindset. In New Zealand 65% goes back to the people in the form of arts funding. That’s why you have to push. By the time you’re 45, at least you’ll know your children will start to appreciate art.

Kay Ngee: I think there are two approaches. You either try to do your best, which, now, after years of being cynical, I don’t care. There are all these people going to the Esplanade for the hawker centre, the chocolates, the posh restaurants, but not the arts. But it doesn’t matter. When they come to realize that a glimpse of that picture captures their attention and sometimes...It’s not your loss, it’s their loss. Even in an artistic city like London, there are many people rushing around doing very mundane things. You ask them about art, you ask them about music they’d say “Oh, yeah, Mama Mia.” So there will always be a hole that you forever cannot fill up.

I think it’s quite important that you push constantly and do what you believe in. I think for photography, perhaps in the meantime, while you are earning money and doing small commissioned work, you should keep an interest in what you really believe in. I think of even some Japanese filmmakers—I know of one—even before he was famous for his art films, he was making “blue films” to make money so that he can make art films. So through making blue films, he realized a few things, you know?

John: It has been a point of contention amongst photographers trying to do brilliant work in Magnum. There are only a very small number of photographers supporting Magnum [financially] through their commercial work. Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, [Magnum] was resting on just a few photographers’ shoulders. 300 members are resting on the commercial work of about a dozen members…

Another thing about Singapore that’s completely different from Australia or New Zealand, or anywhere else in the world…Everybody can work hard, you can produce as a ton of work, but if the retail value [is decided by] uneducated people who are only willing to pay $20 for a photograph…

Kay Ngee: We would just like to talk about the very short experience of this gallery. We certainly want to respect the photographers and we want to introduce them. We want to act as a bridge to introduce the artwork to developers, to hoteliers, and people who appreciate the photography and, sort of, like, art people. We already have interested parties and—you are right—they are giving us question like, “You mean, this is like this price?” Then they say could possibly get the art piece from a LaSalle student. You can go get work from LaSalle students because in 10 years time, that would be worth nothing, whereas this limited edition piece will be a collection for your property.

People are coming ‘round to it and we are doing the job of educating, sometimes, very intelligent, very experienced businessmen. So it takes time. We know that this will be a long journey. But we are willing to cultivate time and culture. We just have to show work after work after work to these people. One day they are going to realize that collecting a piece of real photography is really something.

But I also went to the [Singapore] Biennale; there are some pieces—particularly those by a Malaysian photographer—that are very badly mounted, and you cannot bring things like that. It is better not to be shown because it kills the art itself. For that I’d have to blame the photographer. When you want to show your work, you have to do it professionally and do it in a tip-top condition. That work I’d have taken down until the thing is fine. I will not allow that to happen. So as a gallery, the standard of the work must be tip-top. Whether you sell one or sell hundreds, it doesn’t matter. For the pride of the profession…

Ernest: I’m going to totally disagree with what everyone said just now. I think we have to change the mindset. We have to start to say “Art makes money.” It is all about perception. If you keep telling yourself that art doesn’t make money, you won’t make money. I think from now on if people ask why you are an artist or why you are a photographer, you’ll tell them, “Because it makes money.” And it’s all about changing people’s mindset: there are photographers doing what they love—there are artists doing what they love—and they make money! So it’s all about mindset and perception and its time we change that.

Seetoh: Talking about market and timing, I think more so, in this era, it’s time to be in touch with your craft. When I was up and coming I was trying to put a foot in it. I knew the money was there, you are right. The big boys, you know, the big agencies, they can talk about art and world class events but the fundamental objective of their existence to make money. And by forces of nature—no choice—Asia is the next big thing. You close your eyes, you sleep, it will happen. No choice. It is the law of nature. I mean you can blame it on the awakening of China but everything is coming here. The “ang mohs” are coming here to tell you what your art is all about. If you sit down and think, you have your own story to tell.

Ernest: I totally agree. New York is over; everybody is moving here.

Kay Ngee: Julia? Do you agree?

Julia: I would not agree, no.

Sherman: But for photography it is still the same; it's in Europe. Their buying power is still the same…

Seetoh: The corporate is there [in Europe], but the craft…

Sherman: Ya, the craft can be anywhere. Traditionally—in this region—photography is not from this area. Because of the humidity…as a photographic practice it is not from this area as well. Entrenched is always painting, sculpture.

Seetoh: I think there is a lot to tell from this part of the world, you know. Those people who go to the hawker centre—the noise, the stink, the rudeness—that is our culture and that’s art to me. There’s a lot we can tell.

TM[?]: I have a bit of anxiety when the focus on art turns to Asia itself. I fear that there will be this reoccurrence of this Orientalism movement. You know back during the Renaissance they saw Asian art as exotic, as being “the Other.” And what I really fear is that the West is turning to us on such ideas.

LD[?]: But now the money is with us. The money is flowing with Asia, so we have the power.

Seetoh: You look at the artistic energy that is growing in Shanghai now. It is the furthest from anything that you have ever seen before. The people are no different from us and they are committed to the work as you are.

Kay Ngee: I think Shanghai is a special case. As a city, it is a magnetic force. Unfortunately—whether you like it or not—art, photography, and whatever we are talking about goes with the economy of a place. You go to Guangzhou, you go to Hangzhou, they are nothing like Shanghai. Though Beijing is still artistic, Shanghai has that magnetic force that attracts, just like Hong Kong…

Sherman: I’ll just show you a bit of the other series. This was the series that I made also in Hanoi. I worked with this idea of the haiku because I shot a lot of pictures. What I wanted to do was to push a bit more on the boundaries of the photographic image. The Japanese haiku is a description of reality—three lines, with each line being pure description. There is no value judgment, there is no moral judgment. It is just pure description.

What I wanted to create was similar to this visual haiku; where each of them is pure reality when you look at it. And then association when you juxtapose three images—it goes beyond what the two images can carry. For me, I do film and I also do editing. When you edit things together it creates new narratives. In this series, I wanted to open up different narratives as well play with the perception, the idea of looking and seeing. Some of these images, they are like one picture but then when you look again they are three pictures. It is this kind of movement I’d like to play with. This series will be showing in the Angkor Photo Festival sometime this November.

I will hand it over to Ngiap Heng now…

Tan Ngiap Heng: I’m an accidental photographer. I never expected I’d be a photographer. I just love dance a lot. The editor of this dance magazine saw my photographs and said, “You should start taking photographs for the arts magazine that is being published by the Esplanade.” And that’s how I accidentally started my career. I left the Esplanade and then [more] arts groups called me up to shoot their shows and shoot their publicity.

Then I started shooting weddings. I’ve been working for six years. Then I decided that I wanted to be a commercial portrait photographer. I think it’s very simple for me; I like taking portraits and I have a few personal projects that I do—I travel and stuff like that. All I want to do is finance this ability to take portraits. Unfortunately the portraits I like to do aren’t simple. I like stuff that is done by Leibowitz and LaChapelle, which means I need to finance a team of people.

I do agree with Ernest. People have asked me why—if I wanted to make money—do I shoot commercial work like this? I had a Singaporean photographer who worked in Beijing tell me, “You must know lighting so well that if anyone passes you an ad from the West you can recreate the lighting.” I don’t agree with that. Over six years, I’ve learnt a lot of lighting and every time I learn new lighting it is because there is something in my mind that I want to create.

So I am kind of trying to leave wedding behind. I just put together a portfolio that I hope to send out. It’s not very commercial; I’m a bit quirky. People would think, “Why not send out stuff that people will buy?” I want people to buy by themselves. I don’t want to sell something because someone is going to pay money for it—because if I can do it, any kid is going to be able to do it. And then we all talk about undercutting one another. We all have to shoot what we like, find an individual voice, and hopefully it pays off. If your voice is strong enough, some of us can make a career…

This is my portrait portfolio. It is quite short because I have to send it out and I don’t want it too big. This is what I’m trying to sell. The reason why I’m showing you my [portrait] portfolio is because I’m supposed to be talking about why I went to Chicago. I went to intern with Paul Elledge, who is a commercial portrait photographer in Chicago. There are a lot of great photographers in Singapore and they belong to two major genres. One is the photojournalists, like Ernest, Kay Chin, Darren [Soh]. The other genre is fashion, where you have John Clang and Geoff Ang. There are a few names in commercial portrait photography. Everyone knows Russell Wong…and then there’s Ken Seet who is actually more commercial. I like his work a lot, his portraits are nice.

I am self-taught. Starting the first six years of my career shooting for the arts and shooting weddings and bridal stuff was like going to photographic school while teaching myself. I was earning money while I was learning photography. After six years I had a feeling that there is only so much I can teach myself. I was wondering if I need a sabbatical because photography for me was about creating images in my mind, and how do I take it further?

The people I respect don’t work the way I want to work. The only person I knew [who did] was Paul Elledge. I first met him when I went to Santa Fe Workshop. I didn’t actually do his workshop but I saw his photographs. His workshop was called “Contemporary Portraits,” and his work blew my mind so much. The first image in my slide show—me taking a picture in the toilet—was because I saw his slide show and I couldn’t go to sleep that night. My friends told me that the toilet in the Santa Fe workshop looked interesting. So at 3 ’o’ clock in the morning I was taking pictures in the toilet because Paul Elledge’s images just kept me awake the whole night.

Kay Ngee: How was this image composed?

Ngiap Heng: They were a lot of moody portraits.

Kay Ngee: I mean did you have someone standing there?

Ngiap Heng: No. I was just taking images of the toilet because I had to shoot and someone came in to pee and I was taking this self-portrait and someone was just behind me. It was really incidental.

The next year, I went to do a workshop with Paul Elledge in Tuscany. I think a lot of my work starts from an emotional need to shoot something, to produce a piece of work. Being a Singaporean, once I get to a place I want to shoot, my brain takes over and I loose this emotional connection with my work. All the elements are in place, but somehow the work doesn’t come together. It was Paul that helped. He talked about what is important stuff in our lives. A girl talked about the fact that her father is estranged, so she took a lot of pictures of families. My idea was spending a year in London. That year in London learning dance was a lot of freedom for me. I actually made a break through in my own photography because he helped me connect with my emotions when I shoot. I think that is a very important part, that sometimes being Singaporean we want things to be technically perfect and that we want to quantify it, but then to get to the emotional part is very hard.

When I wanted to take my sabbatical, actually, there was something else I wanted to do. I wanted to take a trip overland and go to Europe to just take pictures. But at that time, for personal reasons, that idea didn’t come through. So I gave Paul a call and I said, “Hey I was in your workshop, do you mind taking me on?” He said, “Sure you can come intern for me. I can’t pay you anything, but if you want to work for my studio that’s fine.” And I said, “That’s great.” It was a year in the planning because as a wedding photographer I get booked a year in advance. I went off to Chicago and it was a great experience because Paul Elledge’s portraiture is a lot like art photography. Not only does he do that, he also has a commercial side to his work; he shoots for people like McDonald’s and also a lot of other large American corporations. He is exactly what I want to be: not a commercial photographer who only does commercial work, but an art/portraiture photographer who also has a commercial side.

When I went to Chicago as an intern, I started from the lowest of lows. I did things like mop the place, throw out the rubbish. When we had shoots, he had a first assistant. [The assistant] was very happy because I started doing a lot of the heavy carrying work that he had to do if I wasn’t there. I learnt a lot of things on many levels. The first thing was the methods and the ideas of the person that I admired, Paul Elledge, and what he used to create his images. He likes Kodak paper. He likes Kodak film. He uses large format cameras that have actual soft lenses. It is completely against this modern day and age where everyone wants super-saturated sharp images and that’s the epitome of what works. But his style of photography is very romantic. A lot of it is using things like large soft lenses, Polaroid material to give a much softer image. I learned that a lot of those technical things to create such images that I really identify with.

He was also a hardcore commercial person. Apparently, talking to other assistants, Paul and his wife, Leasha, who is his producer, runs one of the most organized and tight studios in Chicago. I learned about things like archiving old film, how to build clients, and model releases. If you want to do big shoots—like with McDonalds—the producer becomes very important, the stylist becomes very important. I think if I paid money to go to school, I wouldn’t get this type of knowledge. I was seeing, first-hand, how a huge corporate shoot runs. And the work is boring! Some of the work was with a white background, and it looked like anyone could do it. But Paul Elledge gets to work, not only because he is a good photographer, but because his production team is fantastic—his wife runs a tight ship. The production notes: they spend hours creating them. Like who’s on the shoot, the shoot schedule, the artwork from the artistic director. I learned all these things, which I think are very helpful, and implemented [them] in my office now.

I went to Paul because he is this great film photographer. Even in Chicago, [film photography] is dying. He loves Kodak. But his Kodak paper—even in Chicago—they are not selling anything larger than 8 x 10s now. And they started printing his work out on the Fuji Crystal Archive paper and it looks like crap. So he’s changed to digital. He told me two years ago he started crying about it, and he was very upset. And then last year he accepted it. Not only was I seeing the end of his chemical/analog-based photography, I was seeing the beginning of his digital engagement.

I always wanted to do the Epson Print Academy. It’s a one-day course where people like Greg Gorman, Bruce Fraser, Jeff Schewe, tell you how to calibrate your camera and print your stuff out. The stuff I learned there was just fantastic. One of the most amazing guys in digital, John Paul Caponigro, has this website and he gives away a lot of tips. Not only was I learning about style, running a company, I learned a lot about digital management—workflow—which I think is very important. Paul did a couple of shoots—he is still very old-fashioned—he hired one of the best digital techs. There are assistants who do nothing but run the Macs to download the images and they will rename the files for you, add in metadata and produce the files as best as possible so that the commercial photographer who is so based in film doesn’t have to worry about it.

Recently, American Photo did an issue about photo assistants. And I think it is a very interesting issue, especially for the kids…I get people coming out of Nanyang or LaSalle asking me for a shooting position. My assistants don’t shoot for me. In America, people assist for six or seven years before they even think of starting their own career. In Singapore, someone just graduating from school expects you to give them a shooting position. If we don’t care about this, our standards will not be raised. There was another intern there who was doing the photographic course in the university in Chicago. There are certain things that you learn in photographic school that are very different from what you learn in an ongoing practice. In an ongoing practice, you have to be on the cutting edge, and sometimes it takes a while for that type of knowledge to filter into the academic schools.

Kay Ngee: What is the work that your office does, and do you segregate your own personal work from your office’s work?

Ngiap Heng: I market myself as a commercial portrait photographer. I still do some bridal work because I consider it portraiture, but I stopped shooting actually at weddings. I shoot annual reports and publicity if it’s…like for the National Arts Council…

Kay Ngee: How do you choose the people you want to shoot?

Ngiap Heng: There are two things: either the people really inspire me—I would love to shoot Royston one day, actually I tried, and then it fell through. I shoot a lot of dancers, because I love dance—I spent a year at the London Contemporary Dance School trying to be a dancer. In fact, I have a personal project right now with Singapore Dance Theatre and I’m shooting them backstage. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for six years. I am going to do an exhibition at the Esplanade on Singapore Dance Theatre backstage. One of the reasons I want to do this project is to get the dancers in my studio to do portraits of them. Because I love dance and figures, I like to work from the body and recreate textures from the skin and textures in the background. Sometimes when I have a series where I want to conceptualize something I find a model. It’s very rare that I get paid to do what I want now. NAC paid me to shoot Singapore Dance Theatre, and they paid me to shoot the T'ang Quartet in China Club. So I think if people are willing to pay me to do this, then I can get them to pay me to do the other projects that I want to do eventually.

Ernest[?]: Can you tell what would work in Singapore [vs. in America], and more importantly what wouldn’t work in Singapore?

Ngiap Heng: What would work, all around, in America and here…many photographers have a “vision”…that’s one thing you, Kay Chin, Darren, Ming, Geoff Ang, Sherman, you’re all telling people there is a vision there. But what a lot of young photographers don’t know is that there needs to be an infrastructure and a process to enable you to shoot. It’s no use having a vision if you can’t archive it, if you don’t have a means to sell it. That’s what is so interesting about what I saw in America. The biggest thing we are missing in Singapore is an agent, or representative, for commercial photography. Most commercial photographers here peddle their own work.

I just hired an assistant who has worked for other commercial photographers. He thinks I am a bit crazy, because I’m very anal. I’m getting all my work archived, I’m putting in metadata for all my work, and I’m investing thousands of dollars in hard drives, because I need two or three copies of my work. As you start as a young photographer you tend to do everything yourself. Nowadays, I have two assistants. At first I only had one assistant when I was shooting in film, who did lighting, but now I also have a dedicated digital assistant. It might sound like a pain in the ass, and it’s a lot of money, but your digital assistant can tell you—as you are shooting—whether your exposure is correct or not, if you are sharp or not, now you don’t have to wait three days for the negs to come back and say, “Oh my god, the entire thing is fucked, now I have to re-shoot.” It is an extra cost, but this system can work in Singapore. I think this system really frees you up artistically. I need to have a team…

For cost purposes, people as me, “Why don’t you hire part-timers?” The thing I liked in Paul’s setup was the people worked so closely with Paul it was as if they were shooting along with him; they knew exactly what he was doing. That’s a real powerful idea…If I make you a “thinking photographer,” you will thank me when you leave my studio. If I only make use of you like a dumb idiot, you are not engaged in the work. That’s why I like the professional attitude in America, and that can be imported anywhere.

What doesn’t work is probably the market. Before I left, I knew my type of photography would need the team, it would need the financing. I realized that I had to go regional, I have to shoot regional, but then get international clientele.

X: Currently, are you doing commercial work or weddings?

Ngiap Heng: At the moment, it’s 50-50. I’m trying to move away, but I’ve got a name in weddings, and it still pays my bills. I have three full-time commercial staff now. If I decide to do only commercial work, how do I pay my staff? So I am still doing bridal work for now. For instance, after the T'ang Quartet job, I had a bridal couple say, “The China Club is such a beautiful place, can we do a bridal shoot there?” Because [I knew him from shooting] the T’ang Quartet there, I rang up the manager of the China Club and asked, “I’ve got a bridal couple, can we do a shoot in your space?” He said, “I’m sorry, your client’s not NAC, and you’re not shooting the T’ang Quartet. There’s no way you are going to get a bridal couple in our place to shoot.” So I realized if I want to do big productions, I need to get big clients. That’s what I’m moving towards.

Kay Ngee: Do you prefer shooting in the studio or shooting on site, and will you one day swing the other way?

Ngiap Heng: I would like to shoot on site as much as I can now. You know “Hero,” that Zhang Yimou film, where they changed the color of the sets? There’s one set in green with huge pieces of cloth hanging down. I realized sets can be very important to create mood. In fact, for a lot of my bridal work, I do stuff in the studio because traditional Chinese families need that that very clean shot…But a lot of clients come to me because I am a bit quirky. I shot a local artist’s bridal shoot at Mustafa…but [bridal work] is how I earn my money…it is how I prostitute myself. [Laughs]

Q[?]: How do you sleep at night?

Ngiap Heng: What do you mean, how do I sleep at night?

Kay Ngee: I think he means who do you sleep with at night?


Q: No, but I mean you are obviously an artist as well. But clients come to you and say, “I want it this way,” but I’m sure you have your own way of seeing it.

Ngiap Heng: There are three reasons why I do photography. If something does not satisfy one of those reasons, I don’t do it. The first is that it is a learning experience. Recently someone hired me to shoot University Hall in NUS. The proposal was that they wanted a “moody, artistic” shot of University Hall. I thought, yeah, that’s a real challenge—so I did it. There is the personal work that I do because I enjoy it. Then there’s the work I do for money. You can combine the two. I don’t put really commercial-looking stuff in my portfolio, because I don’t want people to hire me for that; I want them to hire me because I’m strange and a bit off-beat. [Throughout] my entire bridal career I’ve been known as the guy who is willing to go off the beaten track. I don’t take everyone to the Art Museum and hold flowers in the back of their heads like that. The type of stuff I do is offbeat. It can be done, why not? Look at LaChapelle…

Kay Ngee: There is a corn or kitsch quality you can capitalize on for weddings. They always want to look like the princess and the prince…Or on the other hand, you have Chien-Chi’s book, “Double Happiness,” which is very sad, about old Taiwanese men and their young Vietnamese wives.

Ngiap Heng: In the bridal scene, people come to me with a certain theme that they want to shoot…There was this very religious couple who said, “I want you to know that this wedding is between three people: the two of us and God.” I am an atheist. But I took up the challenge. I said, “Look, if it’s so important for you that it’s between you and God, then we will not do the traditional shot where you’re in the gown and suit.” Instead I wanted to shoot him and his family. So around Christmas period, I went to their houses during their families’ meals, as if I was another member of the family. The couple really appreciated it, because they thought it captured their concept. Like any artistic director, I will try to push and sell my own vision. If I managed to do it in one area of photography, I think it is possible to do in other areas as well...

...I go to FotoHub lab and there are young kids coming out of A levels, and it’s not portraiture—it’s just normal photography—but they are shooting amazing stuff. They are all being exposed to media and photography so young. I’m actually not that young, I’m 40 years old already. But you see, I hang out with a lot of people in their 20s and I hear about things like Flickr, YouTube, Pandora…They have access to worldwide images and their education is going to leap off. The thing is that you have to keep young.

What I am interested in with my work is to play with textures. I hope that my work eventually will always be defined by textures. I hate magazine covers with just one light and a white background—that just kills me. It is too artificial. I love Kay Chin’s work because it is all about textures. Beyond shooting on location, I think what a lot of digital artists are doing to make collages, adding non-photographic elements to their work…that’s the way to go, if you can find a way to implement it. Unfortunately we tend to do these new things just for the heck of it and when we do these news things it looks very contrived. I think it is very interesting to find a way to do it organically.

Kay Ngee: I think it’s very interesting that the three of you here today are so different. Kay Chin, who is not here, says hello. He is sick with the flu. I really appreciate everyone coming here today. We are hoping to compile something to record this event. Let’s continue to exchange these ideas and experiences…Thank you.

Pond Musings: A sense of community

Pond Musings: A sense of community

Tuesday, November 07, 2006