TwentyFifteen Interview 07/20: Matthew Teo speaks to Leonard Goh

MatthewYour pictures give this sense that you need and want to be understood. Do you think young Singaporeans live a life that is very different from their parents’?

For this series, I reacted to however I felt in that period of my life to issues affecting me or to recent events reported in the media. It’s very unplanned until an idea hits me, then I’ll start on it as soon as there is a free slot in the studio for me to experiment. I don’t care if no one understands, likes or buys my work. Personal work is one area of photography where I just want and need to do whatever fancies me. Just making the images and sharing them makes me ecstatic.

I hope I’ll never be in a position where I need to depend on sales of my prints to survive and to make pretty photos just for that reason. I’d rather kill myself. But I do care if it offends anyone – that is not something I wish to do with my work.

I’m not sure about other Singaporeans, but my parents definitely live very differently from the way I do. My mom, for instance, had her first taste of ramen only late last year, at the age of 57.

Is the real Matthew always angry? Or is there a soft spot we don’t know about?

I’m not sure if angry is the right word. I think I’m more cheeky than anything else, and I’m also very passionate about my views. I have plenty of soft spots, and they are my family and friends who have stood by me all these years. Or it could also be eye candy that is currently catching my attention!

You seem to be very obsessed with the vices that many people would be too ashamed to be associated with. Tell us something we are too cowardly to admit.

The vices that have been seemingly celebrated in my book are pretty tame. In my generation, smoking, drinking, free-wheeling sex with multiple partners are very common. Kids younger than I am frequently regale me with crazier stories than mine.

Young punks like you are irresponsible and don’t care about Singapore – do you agree or disagree?

Hahahahaha, honestly I’m not that young anymore and I really feel the pain the next day if I drink too much. I probably party harder than most kids half my age but I’m losing the naïveté that comes with youth. If I didn’t care about Singapore, my work would not have presented any criticism of it at all. I love this place way too much to not care about it.

Who are your influences in photography?

First and foremost, TODAY staff photojournalist Wee Teck Hian, whom I’ll always admire for his crazy work ethic and how he tirelessly revisits his subjects and explores every lighting condition through sunlight, cloudy skies, rain and night until he satisfies his own set of punishing criteria. Other Singaporeans whose work I love and deeply respect are Tay Kay Chin, Robert Zhao, Francis Ng, John Clang, Jing Quek and Don Wong. I also like the works of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki for his honesty.

Nick Knight and his statement, “If you want reality, look out of the window”, probably jolted me out of the comfort zone of merely recording my life and the people around it. I didn’t know what or how to stage my experiences and it took a number of years of soul-searching and the right platform – Calibre Pictures, the studio which represents me commercially – before I decided to start staging a series of self-portraits. I definitely will revisit my previous work as I regard them as lifelong projects.

Tracey Emin, who exercises absolutely no censorship on any aspect of her life she wishes to share with us, is a big influence as well.

You have a series of suggestive images of your ex-girlfriends. Do you photograph them at the beginning of each relationship, knowing that it will eventually end? Or do you do that when you feel that it is about to run out of steam?

I started photographing one of my partners at the age of 17 when I first picked up the camera. It was out of curiosity, an extreme urge to learn fast and emulate what I saw coming out from my heroes as well as a means of recording my time with that particular girlfriend. Everything I saw from Mert and Marcus to Juergen Teller got replicated with my partner. In a way, she was my closest companion and guinea pig. We still keep in touch as friends today. With my second partner, I was more confident and more serious about documentation. That resulted in a coherent series, Sunshine Sarahann (2006–2008). It speaks of naïveté, youthfulness, love and plenty of fun.

I only start photographing my girlfriends when things start getting serious and I’m comfortable enough to make a picture of them without them thinking I’m weird. It happens only with women whom I really love being with. One of the corny lines I tell them is, “Jialat, now I have a folder with your name in my desktop, this is getting serious.” Corny as it sounds, it does work.

Although I make a living as a commercial photographer and I shoot models and people I’ve never met before, I’m not comfortable doing it without this excuse. I can’t do street photography and that is the reason why my subjects have always been people who are close to me – my family, friends, partners and maybe even my colleagues in the future.

I tried documenting another partner who refused to let me make ugly and fun photos, and insisted she had to look good in every image I made of her. We fought all the time as this was an area of photography I retreated into, to make whatever images the way I wanted to. I couldn’t deal with the interference so I gave up shooting her. Should have broken up but oh well, I guess the sex was too good.

Can you be taken seriously?

Definitely. The issues I touch on here all revolve around my life. I’m very sure many aspects of it do not differ from people I’ve met who find difficulty juggling the same problems. Despite me conveying my hedonistic behaviour and always injecting a cheeky or rebellious spin into my work, these images are also my way of depicting all my heartfelt opinions on the current state of Singapore right now. My dearest friends know me as an party animal, but they also know how serious I get when it comes to work and my practice.

You missed out on an art scholarship and that made you depressed and upset for a while. How do you think your life would be different if you had furthered your studies?

I would’ve stayed on in the UK as an illegal immigrant after my studies and tried my best not to get caught so I don’t have to return.

I wouldn’t say I was depressed, just upset. Losing out on the scholarship meant not having a shortcut out of Singapore to experience one of the craziest places in the world for the creative industries. Plus it was the birthplace of the punk subculture, which is one of the biggest influences on my work. It was a dream then for me to be there and soak everything in. Having grown wiser and older, it doesn’t affect me anymore as I can always make a trip there to take my chances when I’m ready.

Honestly I’m not very sure, but [if I had furthered my studies] I would probably be trying my best to make a career out of photography in both the fashion and art scene. I’m still saving up to give it a go next year.

Your early series on playground punks in Bukit Batok shows us a rather different side of Singapore. Do you think you were being honest or you just wanted to shock the audience?

Those kids were people I had grown up with even before I picked up the camera. Since I’m very shy about photographing strangers on the streets, it was only natural [when I started] to turn the camera inside out and focus it on people whom I spend the most time with. Even with the friends knowing me so bloody well, it took a long time for them to warm up to my presence and not shy away or pose for the camera whenever it was focused on them.

It has never been my intention to shock or offend anyone with my images. This is me sharing a slice of my life with you, presenting it to you raw like that. In fact, I find the images boring and tame when compared to Nick Knight’s images of skinheads or Dash Snow’s crazy images of him and his friends high on drugs and orgies. My work is all about honesty and connecting with people on the streets. Nothing high-brow at all. You can even say that I’m reaching out to the masses and saying, “Hey, you are not alone in this mess, count me in too.” If my honesty is shocking, so be it.

Call me selfish or whatever you may want to, but this is the only kind of work I ever want to do for myself. I’ll never be interested in bringing your attention to poverty or oppression in a country. Only issues that affect me and my closest ones. But war and street riots, on the other hand, excite me. I’ve always loved the notion of getting up close and personal, but then again I might behave differently when I’m actually there.

What photo subjects have not been tackled in Singapore? And which ones have your name written on them?

Right off the top of my head, I’m thinking of the red light districts although I know of a friend tackling this right now. Our education system from a teacher’s or a student’s point of view would be spectacular. I wish I’d had the foresight to tackle that back in my tumultuous secondary school days. Imagine all the silly street-corner gangs and fights, glue sniffing and sex on HDB staircases. It would be very hard for me to get access like that now. I would also love to be granted access to follow a military recruit from the start to the end of his two years in National Service. I did something similar with my series Two Years of Eternity, but within a very limited time. It was too short to make something really meaningful.

I would love to document my homosexual friends next but again, it is a really sensitive topic that I need to approach carefully.

Tell us about your early works. In what ways have they changed you or your photography?

Bukit Batok Boys (2007) and Ah Pa were two of the earliest series that I worked on at the same time. Bukit Batok Boys focused on a group of boys I grew up with and life on the fringe. Most have sadly or happily grown out of that phase and are now responsible working adults who have quit drinking and even gotten themselves married! It’s sad because I rarely see them anymore, maybe just once a year on Hari Raya if someone makes the effort to organise something. But it’s happy because everyone turned out fine despite spending so much time on the streets and doing so badly in school.

From 'Ah Pa'

From ‘Ah Pa’

Ah Pa marked a turning point for me, where over a period of four years I gained my dad’s trust and I could wander into his bedroom and photograph him with a flash even when he was sleeping. It took some time for him to stop posing for the camera as well. It helped us bond as father and son. Before the series started, we rarely spoke and it was all about shouting matches and slamming doors in each other’s faces.

I had a cheeky project entitled Four Million Frowns in response to the government’s “Four Million Smiles” campaign that was launched to welcome IMF and World Bank delegates to Singapore in 2006. It was my personal take on the revolting fact that Singaporeans were being invited to smile for money. There were reports of schoolkids sent by the busloads to have their smiles photographed, willing or unwillingly.

I Still Like It Raw on the Table is one project that I really like a lot where I’ve placed restrictions on myself to document my friends, family and colleagues on and around only a table. It’s an observation of societal norms and restrictions, and surprisingly, it shows us how similar or dissimilar our behaviour can be.

Can you tell us what you do when you’re not taking photos?

Trying to split my time between the different ladies in my life who ask me out every night – I wish! I’m usually busy editing my commercial work, but you will most likely find me at a coffeeshop in Boat Quay drinking or playing mahjong in the studio where I work. I like to think that my nights are a lot tamer these days.

I need my coffee, cigarettes and the papers before I start or end the day. You can call me a news junkie, but it’s research for me as this series does show my reactions to recent developments in Singapore.

Or I could be spending time breathing in subcultures and people on the fringe of society because I love refreshing new experiences.

A lot of your images reflect a certain cheekiness towards Singapore, but it appears that underlying that is a love for the country as well. Tell us, what is your aspiration for Singapore?

I hope and pray that we will mature as a nation and be a lot more open to EVERYTHING. All the recent displays of generalisation and xenophobia disgust me. Of course I crack jokes that play on racial stereotypes all the time, but I never mean those words I say. Censorship has got to stop going overboard as well, but I do see things getting more relaxed throughout my past ten years of practice as an artist.

I feel that some areas in Singapore just have to be left to flourish and mature in grime and chaos. Geylang is one good example, I love the hustle and bustle there, the hive of criminal activities. Little India is amazing in a similar sense. If all this is cleaned up, I fear that Singapore would be way too boring.
1517505_10152066077916819_1801869949_nTo celebrate this book, I know you have gotten a new tattoo – the symbol for anarchy – behind your ear. Would you say that you are an anarchist? If so, what are you fighting for or against?

Songs by the Sex Pistols have always been a huge influence on me and my work. I love the life, energy, cheekiness and devil-may-care rebellion in their lyrics. Just sample the lyrics from their song “God Save the Queen” (1977):

God save the queen
’Cause tourists are money
And our figurehead
Is not what she seems

It created a controversy when it first came out and is now celebrated as a classic. The song blew me away with its lack of respect for authority figures and its cheekiness. Another classic of theirs is “Anarchy in the UK”.

I wouldn’t say I’m fighting against the system but rather, voicing my displeasure with policies in general. I have another image, Anarchy in Singapore Two, which has not been shown here. It’s a critique on the perceived lack of freedom as well as red tape and the ever-present yet invisible OB markers. This is something very real that I’ve experienced recently in the editing process of this book, where a certain image was rejected due to its controversial subject matter featuring the national flag and the Merlion.

Are you ever worried that your works will get you into trouble with the law or society?

Earlier, I said that I never wish for my work to offend anyone. I reserve the right to express my views or “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins”. Honestly I do feel my works are a lot tamer than Sex Pistols lyrics.

To purchase a copy of A Little Bit of Me from Everything Else by Matthew Teo, please visit:
The portrait of Matthew Teo was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.