TwentyFifteen Interview 12/20: Ore Huiying speaks to Leonard Goh

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I don’t think many people know the meaning of your Chinese name. Can you tell us what it means and who named you?

My father named me Huiying (惠颖) after consulting Chinese anthroponymy. Even though he claims that the name has no special meaning, I like to believe that it bears the expectations that he has for me. ‘Hui’ (惠) is a name that runs in the family for all the girls of my generation, while ‘ying’ (颖) has two meanings, ‘unique’ and ‘intelligent’.

How did you get involved in photography?

I picked up my first camera when I was 18. After I finished my ‘A’ level exams, I took a basic photography course at a neighbourhood community centre. My father reluctantly bought me a second-hand Canon EOS 100 film camera that I wanted to use for the course. He didn’t believe that my interest would last.

I continued with photography as a hobby when I was in university, but I only took it more seriously in my final year. At that time, I was studying a course that I had zero interest in and the future seemed bleak to me. One day the thought just came to me, “Why not be a photographer?”

While I was trying to find a way to pursue my newfound dream, I came across a photography event where [Tay] Kay Chin was one of the speakers. I Googled his email and wrote to him, asking to assist him and learn from him. To my surprise, he actually replied and set up a meeting with me. I never looked back from there. Objectifs, where I was a participant in their annual Shooting Home workshop, has been pivotal in the development of my photography as well.

When you were younger, you and a few friends attempted to start a photography magazine. What was the rationale and why didn’t it materialise?

That happened a long time ago! I was just starting to explore photography and got roped in by some friends for this idea they had. I have no clue what happened to the idea but the experience taught me that it takes more than a good idea to get things going. Dedication, hard work and focus are equally, if not more important.

You grew up in a family of farmers, but you are a photographer. Is that considered progress?

Definitely not to my family! I suspect my parents still secretly hope that I will find a full-time job one day. I think they don’t really mind what I do for a living, as long as it’s stable and will provide me with a comfortable living.

What brought you to London? And how did that experience change you?

I went to London to do my postgraduate studies in photography. It was a choice I deliberated over for a few years. Prior to that, my photography was self-taught. Even though I had learnt a lot from short courses, workshops and mentors, I felt that there was still so much to learn. I decided that a formal education would allow me to learn the most within the shortest time. The typical kiasu mentality of Singaporeans, as you can see.

After researching the courses available in the US and Europe and visiting some schools, I chose the London College of Communication because the environment in London is more open and would give me more room to explore the practice. I was also more excited about living in London.

After three years of studying and working there, I am now back in Singapore. The experience has been unforgettable, and ranks as one of my top life-changing experiences. My photography has evolved and I have grown more confident and assured. There were many setbacks, of course, and each time my optimism and ‘zen-ess’ helped me overcome each setback.

You must have been asked this a thousand times already, “Isn’t that camera too big for a girl like you?” How would you respond?

Actually, I haven’t been asked that before. Usually I just get a lot of questions about my age and if I’m married. In Southeast Asia especially, people are always surprised that at my age, I’m still single and that my family would allow me to travel so freely by myself. My grandmother used to nag at me that I should stop running around for my work because it’s not appropriate behaviour for a girl.

Do you think it’s harder for women photographers to succeed?

I don’t think it’s harder for women photographers to succeed, but the challenge lies in being able to sustain our practice. The demands of working as a documentary photographer or photojournalist are in conflict with the expectations that most societies have for women. The working hours are irregular and sometimes you have to travel for assignments on short notice. If you have a family with children, I’m not sure how many men would support their wives’ career choice. The other alternative is to sacrifice having a family.

How did you prepare for this project?

The truth is I didn’t do much preparation for this project. No research was necessary because it’s my family – or that was what I thought. But as I was shooting them, I realised how little I understood my family or our history. So I used this opportunity to speak to different members of my family, using their memories to make up for the holes in mine.

Did the family make a lot of images when you were growing up?

The collection in my family archive is pretty impressive and goes all the way back to the 1960s. No one can remember who took the photos, just that there were some cameras lying around and they all took turns to play with it. To this day I still have vivid memories of my childhood — the people, places and specific events. These memories are closely attached to the photos that we have.

Tell us about your long-term project in Laos.

My love affair with Laos goes back to 2011, when I was studying in London. I started working on my MA final project about a proposed high-speed railway line to connect Laos to Thailand and China. This is part of the Trans-Asian Railway Network drawn up by UNESCAP, a railway network that will connect all of Asia to Europe. I chose to work in Laos because it’s one of the missing links in the network. Laos is a poor, undeveloped country that only has 3.5 km of railway track, and this high-speed railway plan is clearly its wildest dream. I was curious about how it was going to achieve it.

Three years later, Laos still has not made any progress on its proposed railway route, and my project has evolved from wanting to document the impact of this railway route to exploring the Laotian culture as it is on the brink of change. Adopting the high-speed train as a metaphor, I travelled along the proposed railway route and documented people and places that will be affected by the development. I’ve been going back to Laos at least twice a year since 2011 to work on this project, and recently I’ve started a new body of work along the Mekong River.

Would you date a photographer?

Actually I’m dating one right now. My life at the moment revolves around photography — my projects, assignments, social events. Even my friends are mostly photographers. It’s boring, right? I don’t think someone who’s not a photographer can understand or fit into my lifestyle.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I see three possible scenarios. One is that I am still working as a photographer, and hopefully still have the energy and passion to be travelling around the world for work and will never stop working on my personal projects. Another vision is that I will follow in my family’s footsteps and continue running our family farm. In a perfect world, these two visions would coexist.

How important are words in your practice?

Words are my first love. As a child, I remember devouring any books I could lay my hands on, from fairy tales to Enid Blyton books to simplified Chinese classical literature. Words brought me to places far away and to different worlds. But I fell out of love with words when I discovered the glossy photos of National Geographic. Those photographs have replaced words as the fuel for my imagination and curiosity, and they transport me to real places, not made-up ones. That’s the magic that I hope the images I create will have. But I recognise that images have their limitations. They are bad at providing context and certain information. That’s when I use words to fill in the gaps.

You must have photography heroes. Who are they?

I have so many of them and they change over time. When I was starting out, I was inspired by Sebastião Salgado. His works are epic, ambitious and beautiful. Most of all, the dedication he has for his projects is out of this world. Shortly after, I started discovering the works of women photographers: Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Susan Meiselas. To this day, their works and achievements continue to motivate me.

At some point I moved away from photojournalism to explore documentary photography. That’s when I started to appreciate more quiet and subtle works of photographers such as Alec Soth, Pieter Hugo and Rinko Kawauchi. Lately, I’ve added some Chinese photographers such as Luo Dan, Yan Ming and Zhang Xiao to my list of inspirations. A lot of them spent years working on their personal projects and the results are pretty amazing.

Can you imagine yourself not being a photographer?

I used to think that I couldn’t do anything except photography. But lately I’ve been entertaining the thought of helping out in my family business. Other than these two areas, I don’t see myself doing anything else.


The portrait of Ore Huiying 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 We Are Farmers by Ore Huiying, please visit: