TwentyFifteen Interview 10/20: Chow Chee Yong speaks to Leonard Goh


You seem to have a secret desire to be a town planner or architect. Are you looking for a career change soon?

I guess you’ve asked this question because it’s coming through in the photographs that I’m making? When I was younger, one of my ambitions was to be an architect. Town planning would be fun – I like going through blueprints and re-organising things that are not planned properly. In fact, I enjoy it so much that I have done a few projects where I looked at space planning and organised some of those plans. As for a career change, well, I wouldn’t mind that either.

Which version of Photoshop did you use for this series? Or are you still making the montages in the darkroom?

To be honest, I don’t even know which version of Photoshop I’m using. I guess it doesn’t matter as what I did to the images was just to convert them into black and white, and to adjust the levels. Everything else in the image was already there!

I have stopped merging images in the darkroom for a long time now. I miss the smell of chemicals.

Are you trying to change the world through photography?

I won’t say that I am trying to change the world – that is a high calling, you know. I would not dare say that at all for any of my works. I’m at most trying to convey my messages of questioning through the use of this medium that I think suits me. But hopefully in the course of my photography, I’m able to change the way people look at the things around them and help them to think of new ideas for themselves.

I always feel that images that are most impactful are those that leave an aftertaste, hopefully a good one. Those images that continue to linger in the minds of the viewers long after they have left the gallery or put down the magazine. It is very sad when anyone goes away from a show without remembering what they have seen, because the images were just pretty pictures without any impact whatsoever.

Have you considered the possibility that some of the ‘mistakes’ you highlighted in this book were inspired by your previous series, 30th Feb? Maybe you gave the authorities some crazy ideas about what to do with these old structures – art inspiring life, right?

I have always been influenced by Surrealism and I cannot run away from that. I was deeply inspired by what David Copperfield did in his illusions and that sparked my imagination at an early age. Later I looked at the works of Salvador Dali, M. C. Escher, Frank Lloyd Wright, René Magritte and Isamu Noguchi. They all had a great influence on my work in terms of a surrealistic approach.

I always enjoy the world of illusions as I can wander into an imaginary space and discover new spaces and experiences. In practice, all my work has some hints of surrealism in them. I guess it is deeply embedded in my thought process. So, yes, I’m also inspired by the work that I did for 30th Feb. Did I give the authorities the idea to leave some of these buildings as they are? Maybe they re-interpreted my 30th Feb images and this is what resulted. I guess they have turned public spaces into surrealistic spaces for people to experience. How nice!

Are you imaginative or creative? Is there a difference?

I think there is a difference, but imagination and creativity influence and affect each other. I would say I’m more imaginative. To be imaginative is intentional, whereas to be creative is like the sudden lighting up of a bulb in the creative mind. Before a shoot, I usually stare at a scene for a long while and imagine all sorts of things happening within that frame. For example, I would often wonder what if three cars would enter the scene at that particular space? What if I have two guys walking into the frame? etc. If I think that would enhance the image, then I wait. I normally take a long time to shoot and it’s hard work. I’m very intent and deliberate when I’m imagining my images.

On the other hand, to be creative is to be able to come up with a great idea quickly and still leave the audience wondering, “How did he do that?” That’s what we call the “Eureka” moment. I don’t think I belong to that group.

You are an educator, a photographer, a curator and an administrator. If you had to choose only one, which would be your favourite role?

Wow, this is seriously tough. I think I would still be a photography educator. Can? I always see that as my primary function and it will always be. The reason I say that is because I am an educator at heart, but at the same time, I am a photographer. In blending these two, I have quite naturally wound up teaching photography.

Actually, at this point in life, I think it is hard for me to dissect the different roles. Perhaps the closest analogy is to say that I wear different hats at different times depending on what is required of me. But having said that, I think education takes up the biggest chunk in my life. Of course, I teach other stuff as well, for example, leather-making. Few people know that I do that kind of thing.

Many tertiary institutions in Singapore now offer photography courses. Do you think it’s necessary?

The various tertiary institutions are offering courses in different genres, so to me it is alright. However, educators also need to understand the different sectors of the industry and guide students accordingly. That’s critical as well, or else the students will realise only later that there’s no job waiting for them upon graduation and they’ll end up doing something else. That would be rather sad.

Assuming that there is still a need for photography education, how would you teach it?

I see photography being broken down into three portions: camera, craft and concept. That’s how I teach photography. The ‘camera’ portion, the ‘how’, is now easily found on the Internet. One can pick up, rather easily, the technical aspects of operating a camera. I think this portion will become less important in the future as one would be able to get online tutorials about how shutter or the aperture works. It is already moving towards that way.

However, I believe that teaching craft and concept are still as critical and will continue to need a platform such as a school to be carried out. This is because the schools provide a space for the students to discover, try things out, fail, think and analyse, among many other critical thinking aspects, in order for the students to grow in their craft and concept. The ‘how’ sets the foundation, but in education, we cannot just look at the ‘how’. The ‘what’ and the ‘why’ is far more important after one has hopefully mastered the ‘how’.

I’m not suggesting that the ‘how’ is not important. Rather, it is the foundation and one should not be stifled by the basics of shutter speeds, aperture and ISO, for example. But being fluent in the basics, one has to move to the greater heights of learning the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of photography.

We’ve lost count of the number of children you have, but how do you find time to do all this and also be a dad and husband?

Hahaha, I still only have four kids. The oldest is 16 and the youngest will be turning nine soon. First of all, the kids came at different times, so we’ve made adjustments throughout this process.

To make photographs, I try to wake up earlier than the family and come back before they are up. Sometimes I work around their schedule. Of course there are times when I really have to leave them for a while to concentrate on my shoots. For this series, they were even helping me to look out for ‘senseless spaces’ that I could shoot and they would tell me when they found one.

What if one of them wants to be a photographer like you?

I guess I will have to guide them properly and let them know the ups and downs of being a photographer. But so far, none of them are showing any interest.

Please tell us you have a lot of photographic chemicals stocked up somewhere because it would be sad to see someone who does magic in the darkroom retire from wet printing.

I do have various types of chemicals stocked up. I still have packets of D76, D23, Fuji and Ilford Fixers, and other stuff. Currently, the most important is sodium sulphite as that is needed for doing my PN51/55 films. I used these films for my previous series, Project 37. It is a type of instant polaroid film that delivers high resolution images. I am still using them now and then.

Have you had to tell a student that he has no talent in photography and that he is better off doing something else?

Hm, I’m not sure that I have uttered those exact words to anyone, but I guess I might have told some people that there are other avenues in life. I do remember telling students that over the course of my teaching, I have come to terms with the fact that not all students will end up as designers or photographers even though they have gone through this path. Some will realise that they have found a new love for another profession or area of work, that there are others better than them, or simply that they have no talent actually and do not want to carry tripods all their life.

If you have a chance to put together a plan for a photography museum in Singapore, what are the first three things you will tell them?

First, get a team of well-established photographers to put their brains together for this. Second, collect local works first. It’s only after settling the first two items that we should start to put the museum together physically.

Are you happy with the progress in the local photography scene in the past decade?

In my opinion,the past decade has seen great improvements compared to the years that came before. Much has changed, especially with the different schools and private institutions, as well as the rise of digital photography which has made photography even more accessible. I attribute the greatest change to willing people who were caring enough to share their experiences and teach younger photographers.

In the past, the skills of photography were like a closely guarded secret that could not be revealed outside the ‘clan’. I had very different experiences in the 1980s with photographers who basically told me off and said that they would not want to “break their rice bowl” to teach me. But schools (both public and private), clubs, associations and other loosely formed photography gatherings have contributed to the progress of photography in the local scene.

Can you name three young Singapore photographers we should be watching out for?

I find it hard to try and name the rising stars. I would rather look at the perseverance of young photographers – those who are able to stand the test of time, rather than the one-time winner who does nothing after that. So I would prefer not to name the photographers that we should be watching out for, although I have some names in mind.


The portrait of Chow Chee Yong was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of Senseless Spaces by Chow Chee Yong, please visit: