How did you get interested in photography?
When I was a student, my friend had free tickets for a documentary about Magnum co-founder Robert Capa. The film really left a significant impression on me, but film and development costs then were too expensive for me to pursue photography actively.
When I graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2007, I bought my first digital camera – a Nikon D40 – and that was when I became more serious about photography. Making photos became an excuse for me to indulge my innate curiosity. I think we all want an outlet to express ourselves. Photography happens to be my medium of choice.
How and when did you get interested in documenting the coastline of Singapore?
It happened by accident. I was at Punggol Beach with my then-girlfriend to see if we could find some sort of resolution and while we were there, I made a picture of her and her dog, Coco, looking out wistfully to sea.
When the roll of film was developed, I thought I might have something there, so I continued going out to the coastline to shoot. I found the process interesting and, to a certain extent, cathartic.
From the way you describe the your ex-girlfriend, right down to the details of the dog, it sounds like if you weren’t there with her then, you wouldn’t have started on OUR COASTLINE.
Would you say that love is the primary driver for this project?
Yes, it began in some ways as a ‘break-up’ project. We could have gotten married, but I froze and I couldn’t understand why.
So around December 2011, I started going out to the coastline, hoping for answers, and the photos initially, I would say, reflected that: people or landscapes which looked lost.
While it started off as an emotional exercise, it slowly evolved over the last year and a half, to include my feelings about living in Singapore, like the state of our education system or our ageing population – other kinds of ‘searching’.
Tell us a little something about some of the people in the photos.
I hope it’s not me projecting. But the people in the photos, they all seem to be either looking for something or waiting for something, which I guess resonated with me as I was going through a hard time emotionally when I began.
When I made the photos, I was looking for photos that had resonance with how I felt. It was a bag of feelings, of longing for the past, for simpler times. I was questioning my own decisions and wondering what the future would hold. Photography was an outlet for those emotions.
What are some challenges you faced in creating OUR COASTLINE?
In a way, the photos are random encounters along Singapore’s coastline. To bring cogency to the images, I tried to get a similar look to the photos and one important aspect was how the images were lit. I had to wait for the right kind of weather, which would give the right kind of light, before I could head out to the coastline to make photos.
Also, because the photos are based on a certain feeling (as I mentioned earlier), there were many occasions when I would spend hours at a certain part of the coastline searching and waiting for the shot that would encapsulate how I felt, but ended up with no photos to show because the scenes just didn’t look or feel right.
How did you decide on which subjects to capture or focus on for this project?
I chose my scenes based on how they made me feel. It was an intuitive process. If the scene didn’t feel right, I wouldn’t capture it. I found that I knew instinctively, even before I made the shot, if it was going to be a keeper.
When I switched to the digital medium later, I could afford to take more risks and made more frames – which meant the project evolved to become more than an emotional process. It became more of a documentary and I began to capture the quirky side of life along the coastline.
You started OUR COASTLINE shooting in medium format but abandoned it in the end. Can you tell us more about this choice or process?
Initially I used a medium-format camera, the Mamiya C330, because I wanted to try a different format, and also have the option of being able to make big prints.
I found that shooting with a TLR slowed down the picture-making process. There are only 12 frames in each roll of film and that forced me to be more selective. It was good training.
Using the TLR was also stealthier. Most people nowadays don’t recognise the TLR as a camera anymore, so I could make pictures without people realising it or becoming self-conscious.
Later, I switched to the Nikon D800 because its 36 megapixels allowed me to make a square crop while having enough pixels to still make large prints. In fact it gave me better files because it cut out the scanning process. All the photos in this book were made with the D800.
The trade-off from switching to digital was that I lost stealth. But by then, I knew what what I was looking for, and I worked out how to be less conspicuous as a photographer, by pre-focusing and shooting from the hip.
Can you share with us your process for going out to document the coastline?
Firstly the weather or light has to be right. Then to get into the right mood, I would listen to some music. One of the songs I listened a lot to was “Sovereign Light Cafe” by Keane. I made it a point to visit a different part of the island each time. I started at Punggol and went around in a clockwise manner, so after that Lorong Halus, Pasir Ris, Changi, etc. But there are only 194 km and a lot of it is out of bounds, so over the two years, I made many repeat visits to certain sites.
So how much have you covered so far?
I don’t keep track of the exact distance I have covered. But I would say I have visited most of the accessible parts of the coastline. Google Maps is a very good tool I rely on when I plan where to visit. It helped me to discover some of the more obscure parts of the coastline, such as Sungei Kadut or Coney Island.
Why are the photographs in OUR COASTLINE important to you?
The 15 photos are like a microcosm of Singapore today. While I did not intend for them to be so when I made the pictures, a lot of them can be seen as metaphors reflecting the growing pains of contemporary Singapore. On a more personal level, photographing the coastline was a way for me to sort out my feelings. When I look back at some of the more memorable photos, I can still remember how I felt when I made them.
Which part of the coastline for you was the most memorable to document?
They are all memorable, but the Marina Bay area is significant because at this moment, the area is in transition. So much construction is going on and in a year or two, it will look completely different. I will always remember the four weekends spent at the Marina Barrage, around Marina South Pier and memorising the fly-by times of the Chinook flag-carrying convoy and the fighter jets for National Day.
Has OUR COASTLINE ended, or are you going to continue shooting it? Do you have a plan to complete the full circle?
I think I will carry on until the end of the year before moving on to something else. It may sound arbitrary, but I just have a feeling that the project is near its end. Perhaps a few years from now, I can return to photographing the coastline and we will be able to compare and see how much has changed.
You have spent close to two years photographing the coastline. What do you want to say to people who feel there is nothing much to photograph in Singapore?
If you care about Singapore, and have something you really want to say about Singapore, and you spend time thinking and refining your message, your work will be unique. So really, it’s not about the size of the island.
The portrait of Lim Weixiang was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.