TwentyFifteen Interview 08/20: Tan Ngiap Heng speaks to Leonard Goh


When was the last time someone addressed you as Dr Tan? And did you feel good or bad about it?

I’m not very aware of being called Dr Tan but I think it happens quite regularly, like once a month. I feel quite neutral about it because technically I have a PhD and I am Dr Tan. I do not attach a value to that in terms of my ego.

I am sure you have gotten quite used to be described as a photographer with a PhD. How do you address such comments?

I’m quite amused by it. Some people are lawyers or doctors before they become a photographer. These are facts and do not impact a photographer’s skill or ability. I smile at such talk because my doctorate and my photography are two separate things. I do not know if people think that if I have a PhD, my photographs are better, or I am a fool to have dropped engineering for the financial uncertainty of photography. In any case, I simply did my PhD and decided not to pursue engineering.

You were considered a relatively latecomer to photography. Do you think you got to where you are today because of hard work or talent?

I definitely got to where I am today because of hard work. I came to appreciate the arts pretty late, in my twenties when I started my undergraduate degree in London. I took holiday snaps till I was in my thirties, but did not think of photography as a career choice.

What has driven my early career in photography is the love of dance and the idea that I want to photograph dance to the best of my ability. As much as I am proud of my dance photography, very few of the ideas were original. I was inspired by pioneering dance photographers. It is only in the last few years that I am beginning to come into my own, in that my photography shows signs of my own individuality.

Even then, I think that my approach is very much inspired by working with performing arts groups. The use of projections, the dramatic use of shadows and framing are inspired by theatrical staging. I cannot say how talented photographers work, but I just try putting various ideas together from the performing arts and from visual artists. And I keep mixing it up. So in my mind, it has been more a willingness to work and try things, than something that springs from ‘talent’.

Why are you so obsessed with dance photography?

When I was a shy teenager, dancing was the only social skill I had. In my undergraduate days I joined the dance society and did classes in ballet, contemporary dance and even tap dance. I never feel more alive than when I’m dancing. It is physical, it is intellectual, it is emotional, it is everything about being human put into one activity. And when this is done well, it turns into a beautiful art.

I spent a year in the London Contemporary Dance School hoping I could have a career in dance but came to the painful realisation that it was too late for me. My obsession with dance photography is my attempt to live dance vicariously through my lens. And although it is an impossible task, I try and achieve the same feeling of being alive in all my photography as I feel in the midst of an intense dance.

Why did you start the ImageMakers series? Are you also afraid of being forgotten?

I was introduced to documentaries about photography by Anders Petersen, and I have found that the insights that I get from good documentaries are important to my understanding of the photographic process. I was just appalled by the lack of documentaries on our own Singaporean photographers. Although remembering photographers in Singapore is part of why I started ImageMakers, I was also thirsty for the knowledge. And I feel that this series can be a guide for a younger generation of Singaporean photographers. We need to get beyond the “what camera and what lens” culture and discuss the photographer’s motivation and themes. We need to understand more than the technical aspects of using a camera, and consider also the refinement of a personal vision and the impetus to explore a photographic project.

It would be a lie to claim that I am enlightened enough not to want to be remembered. I take as much joy as I can in making images now and I leave memory to the whims of time.

However, to have a younger generation of photographers who can function without knowing who Henri Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams are, does not bode well for all the other photographers being remembered.

Are the artists you photographed for this book all eccentrics?

No. The artists that I have photographed are all unique individuals, but they are not all odd. Some of them are arts practitioners whose roles in society are very well-integrated and not an oddity either. And a few are eccentric – you will have to find out who yourselves.

What are your views on the state of art and culture in Singapore?

I think it is a mixed bag. The good side is that more people are beginning to appreciate art and culture in Singapore. So there are more opportunities to be an artist or be in the arts industry. There are certainly many more events and productions to watch than a decade ago. And the growth of art institutions is encouraging.

On the other hand, the vision of work in Singapore tends to be smaller in scale, more narrow thematically, tending towards personal narratives. Art is presented as entertainment or as a commodity for the rich. Only a small handful of Singaporean artists are engaged in a larger debate and explore larger themes. The public tends to enjoy the aesthetic and entertainment aspects of art. There is nothing wrong with that, but there does not seem to be the discourse and vision in Singapore to produce a Robert Wilson, an Anish Kapoor or a David Hockney. I feel that this is a function of the practical nature of Singaporean society.

I have a quote on my wall by Picasso: “The chief enemy of creativity is good sense”. I think we need to be able to take more risks, have bigger visions of what art can be. We should dream bigger than is currently practical and not be afraid of being unorthodox or failing.

Do we really self-censor too much?

Looking at how artists work, a good part of practice is to find freedom in expression. Dancers train to have a stronger and more flexible body. Painters need an ease with the paint and brushes. We need the freedom to consider all the options and then make our own choices. Like some press photographers make a conscious choice not to take certain photographs because it is too much an invasion of the subject’s privacy. I think we need to have the unfettered freedom to consider doing the entire range of work, and then make the decision to do it or not.

I am aware that my sensitivity to what is acceptable in Singapore has stopped me from a couple of projects and also influenced how I shoot and present some of my current work. For example, when I first photographed the nude, I avoided any frontal nudes with genitalia showing. I unconsciously focused on form and shape, which is beautiful but far from a complete story. But while doing a workshop overseas, I was able to free my mind and not censor this part of being human. As normal human beings, we have genitalia and people have sex. The only reason any of us are here today is because our parents had sex. I cannot see how this is wrong or how it is perverse. What I am not supportive of is misogyny, when the act of sex is an act of abuse.

And this is why censorship is problematic for me. We turn something like sex into a black-and-white discourse when it is a natural part of being human. This is an arbitrary and hurtful exercise, when people do what is natural and necessary for our species, yet at the same time subconsciously think that it is dirty or wrong. What we need is to be able to see this natural part of being human, and learn how to respect one another. The act of censorship stops us from having the wider discussion of what is acceptable and what is abuse.

I am debating whether this has diminished the impact of my work in general. And am I a coward? Because I would rather not deal with some of the confrontations that I believe I will encounter by presenting some of the projects I have in mind. This bothers me, and I think artists in Singapore self-censor without even knowing it. That lack of self-awareness is already an obstacle to more expansive and better work in Singapore. For work to be transcendent, the practitioner needs to be unfettered by arbitrary, limiting constraints.

All artists are egomaniac. Agree or disagree?

Disagree. I know that there are artists who are simply obsessed with their art. Look at the photographer Vivian Maier for example – it was only after she died that someone accidentally discovered her work. She had no intention of being famous or known for photography. Although she is an extreme example, I can think of artists who are humble and present their work because it is a way of sharing, not because they want to boost their egos.

Tell us about a typical ‘Ngiap Heng’ sitting. When does it start? How does it end?

My photography begins with an idea I want to explore and then I search for a partner, someone who is willing to be my subject and collaborator. As I am exploring histories, or an essence of dancer’s movement, a sitting usually starts with a discussion with my subject, explaining what I am trying to explore (not what I am trying to achieve) and also preparing material like photographs from my subject’s history.

Most of my recent work is shot in my studio. I use the preparation of my studio – the setting up of a backdrop, the setting up of lights, the preparation of the camera tethered to the computer – as a routine that helps me to focus on my sitting. It is a meditation before the sitting.

I am searching for a real moment in my photographs. So my directions are minimal. I use music sometimes if it conveys a mood that I think is appropriate. I photograph many performing artists and I may ask them to play some music or say some lines. But I am not after a performance, it is not about creating drama. For me an artist playing music is like me using my preparation to focus, to discard the ego and preconceptions of what should be portrayed. When an artist is in the midst of a familiar activity which needs focus, I find that I gain access to some unguarded and real moments.

I need to adjust the lighting and framing for clarity in the image, but it arises in an organic manner. My images can be full of details, and it is important that the images are legible. But I try not to be too specific so as to force my subjects’ reaction, forcing them to perform a self-image instead of being themselves. I appreciate it the most when my subjects open up and expose their inner landscape for my camera. This takes trust from both the subject and myself. It also takes subjects who are more mature, and are able to see themselves honestly and be natural in front of my camera. My subjects also need to be comfortable in seeing themselves in my images with their blemishes clearly in sight.

My sittings come to a conclusion when I find that there does not seem to be anything more significant to add to the images that I have already made. For some sitters I may have only one image, with others I may have twenty or more. It really depends on what is possible to discover in each sitting.

If you had a choice to photograph anyone in Singapore, who will that be?

If I could photograph anyone in Singapore, it would be a death row inmate. This is someone who is completely out of my sphere of knowledge and I think it would help me better understand the human condition.

You are a mentor to some young photographers. Tell us something about the next generation of Singaporean photographers. What can we expect?

The next generation has the privilege of access. There are more galleries showing international photographic work in Singapore. The younger generation gets to travel more and see diverse cultures. In Singapore, they have access to a wealth of knowledge through our art educational institutions. The amount of photography available on the internet is huge. So the next generation is introduced to different types of photographic processes earlier in their career. I feel that they will surpass previous generations of photographers in many aspects.

The only thing that does bother me is that if so many ideas and concepts are easily accessible to the younger generation, they could be drawn into trends on the international photographic scene. Although this is not bad in its own right, it would make it harder for there to be a Singaporean style or school of photography. I can see the influences of international artists in the next generation of photographers. It would be nice to see something that is truly original, truly local.

What’s the difference between photographing a man and a woman?

That is a rather cryptic question.

There are practical details about photographing a man and a woman that are way too boring to answer. As my portrait work is about capturing moments of being with my subject, to consider him/her only based on gender is really trivial. The subject is a complex being, whose sexuality only determines one aspect of their personality. So masculine or feminine aspects may arise, and I may choose to emphasise these traits or not. It depends on the objective of the portrait and how the subject and I interact. If the focus of the portraiture is the individual, then the difference between whether it’s a man or a woman does not arise.


To purchase a copy of ARTiculate by Tan Ngiap Heng, please visit:
The portrait of Tan Ngiap Heng was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.