You are known fondly for being an advocate of street photography and you’re well-versed in it. However, in Bay of Dreams, your images are a stark contrast to what we are familiar with seeing from you. Are we seeing another side to you that we haven’t seen before?
People who really know me know that I don’t really talk much or express myself all that well in words. My father is the same – quiet. I don’t like confrontations too. So making pictures is great. To me, street photography is simply putting on your shoes and going out with a camera to collect haikus – short poems and reflections about daily life.
For me, form follows function. There are some who believe they should have a strong visual signature. I hope my signature is in my interests and my point of view, not the style. I don’t know if people will connect with these images, but for this series, the images and how they look and feel are important to me and appropriate.
Most of us know you as the founder of Invisible Photographer Asia, but few of us know when and how you got into photography. Tell us a little bit about your journey.
I was born in Fiji and grew up there. I didn’t have any visual education when I was young, to be honest. We didn’t have TVs, there wasn’t much mass media as such, and my friends and I were more interested in running around barefoot, playing soccer under the sun.
I came late to photography. I graduated from the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and I’ve been working in the creative industry for over 15 years now. As an art director, I had always worked with photographers, but I never thought of picking up a camera myself till much later.
Before I did, I even tried making a feature film, and failed miserably. The process drained me mentally and physically, it became more of a commercial pursuit rather than a creative one. I wasted a few years but learnt a lot.
I took a rest, then picked up a camera one day and felt liberated that I could express myself creatively, without the burdens I had previously experienced.
In your introduction, you mentioned that your parents “spend their days now waiting for me to come home from work with good news.” What types of good news do you think they are expecting?
My parents come from a humble village of rice farmers, so a good harvest is good news.
A good harvest? I am sure you are not farming in Singapore. So what kind of harvest are you cultivating in Singapore?
A good harvest means you are rewarded for your toil and labour. For some, it is as simple as having a good supply of bread on the table and a permanent roof over your head.
Coincidently, Aung San Suu Kyi made her first-ever visit to Singapore the other day. During her press conference, she posed some questions that I found inspiring: “What are human beings for? What are human lives about? What is the purpose of work, of material wealth? Is that the ultimate aim of human beings, is that what we all want?”
FYI, my mother is still waiting for that big house I promised her when I was just a young, barefoot kid in Fiji.
Your parents are from China, they relocated to Fiji and you were born there. What made you choose Singapore to be your home? What is it about this country that has made you feel deeply?
My elder sister migrated here first and started her family. She told me the grass was green here. So I came, and I’ve been here ever since. Home and country are about people. I’ve met some great people in Singapore and they’ve become part of my life. Moreover, my parents are now here with me and they are Singaporeans too.
A lot of young, aspiring photographers look up to you as a voice for photography in Asia. What is your message to them?
I don’t know if I am but … Life is short, really. Chase your dreams. Don’t worry if they get broken, because they might. But life is short.
I’m pretty sure you have been asked this a lot of times, but for the benefit of those who are new to your works, why did you name yourself Ox?
Ox is a nickname. I was born in the year of the ox (according to the Chinese zodiac) and I’m damn stubborn. A fortune teller once told my mum that while others choose to ride a horse to their destination, I choose to walk. Damn stubborn.
The portrait of Kevin WY Lee was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.