TwentyFifteen Interview 14/20: Bernice Wong speaks to Leonard Goh

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I am sure you have been asked this before: why can’t you just find a story in your own community?

In a way, this story was given to me. I had to look for a story/profile to photograph in a residential home, Dayspring, but because the identities of all the girls there are withheld under the Child Protection Act, I had to apply to the Ministry of Social and Family Development to get clearance to photograph any of them. After months of waiting, I was given permission to shoot only if I did not identify any of the girls. That didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to pass on that story. Shortly after, one of the girls, Priya (she has since been discharged from Dayspring), casually invited me to go to her place to meet her mother, Mel.

I took up Priya’s offer. After my first conversation with Mel, there was simply no looking back. I knew I had found my story.

So we are supposed to believe that a Chinese girl from a middle-class family can understand the problems faced by a group of people from a totally different background?

I don’t claim to know everything, but I’m learning more about them everyday. Mel calls me her “Chinese sister with Indian attitude”. In some ways, it feels like I have found my tribe, like I belong here with them. I’m not quite sure how to explain this, but I think if I were to do a story about people from a privileged background, I wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

What were your previous photography works like? Have you been pursuing projects like this all along?

I’ve always been interested in under-reported, marginalised communities, especially after reading Sociology in university. Instead of writing, I chose to use photography as my medium of telling stories that need to be told. The first few bodies of work I did, or am still doing, are on Special Pass male migrant workers in Singapore, the Moken people (sometimes called ‘sea gypsies’) in the south of Thailand, and neonatal and maternal mortality in Cambodia.

Do you think Mel and her family accept you totally? Why?

Yeah, we are like family. Initially, I was worried they would only see me as a photographer coming in to do a story on them. They also shared that they thought I would leave after a few visits. But over the last 15 months I’m pretty damn sure I’ve earned their trust and respect. And they know that I’m not only there to photograph their lives, but to be a sister, a friend, a role model (I hope!) to them all.

The turning point was about three months into the project when the boys went for a dance competition at Singapore Polytechnic. At the end of the event, some of the volunteers at the competition were very condescending and rude to them, even passing snide comments like “Indians only like to fight”. I was livid, of course! I gave those people a good tongue-lashing in front of everyone.

When we all went back to Mel’s place, the boys came over and gave me a standing ovation. They proceeded to tease me incessantly about this other ‘gangster’ side of me they were never privy to.

So how close are you to them?

Close enough for me to keep Mel’s bankcard (and know her ATM PIN) for her!

Also, when my dad passed away last month, Mel and co. were the first friends of mine to rush down to the hospital to make sure I was okay, even though it was past midnight.

What do you hope to achieve with this essay?

When I started photography two and a half years ago, I always thought hard about the type of projects I should be doing in order to ‘be someone’ out there. But of late, it doesn’t matter to me as much anymore. I’m not concerned whether people like or dislike this body of work I’m doing. I don’t need anyone to validate why I do what I do, because really, this work has become so personal to me – I do it for myself, and for the friends whom I am photographing. Ten years down the road, when Mel and co. look at this piece of work, I hope it reminds them of both the good times and struggles we shared together.

Can you see an end to it or do you think this will be a lifelong project?

A lifelong project, for sure! I’m so excited to see what will happen to the kids and dancers when they get older. Even now when I look back at the images I took at the start of 2014, I can already see that they have grown up a little.

Some friendships are for keeps, right? This is one of them. I don’t see why I would stop photographing them.

Do you think you are trying to change their lives?

I help when I think I can and should make a difference – for example, writing letters to the Housing and Development Board to apply for a bigger flat, communicating with some of their probation officers when the boys need to extend their hours for a dance gig, applying for free tuition classes for the kids. Small things like these.

If I have been a positive influence to any of them, that would be a bonus. But otherwise, I don’t deliberately set out to change their lives. I’m not there to proselytise.

Are you more a bro or a sis to the younger ones?

Ha! I think I play both the roles of a bro and sis to them. They call me “Bernice che che”. We do everything and anything together – including sparring, playing football, decorating birthday cakes, watching movies, etc.

There must have been some photographers whose works have influenced you?

The first person that comes to mind is Darcy Padilla and her body of work on Julie, a woman she met in the lobby of a rundown hotel in San Francisco in 1993. For the next 21 years, Padilla photographed Julie as she fought AIDS and her drug addiction, right up to her death. It’s an amazing piece of work. It’s so powerful, the images keep haunting me.

Another photographer is Mary Ellen Mark and her series on Falkland Road, Bombay and the Damm family. Beautiful work.

Have you found yourself having to cross the line of a documentary photographer? Is there one?

It depends how you define the boundaries, but if you’re looking at a very purist definition where the photographer goes in merely to make images, then I think I’ve crossed the line. I interfere when I see the need to, because I am human too.

So you don’t need to make money?

Money-making can wait, stories like this cannot. That said, I do other paid (photography) jobs to fund my passion projects.

Do you think your presence changes things in the family?

Not really. Whether I’m there or not, things will happen anyway. They also know they don’t have to pretend to be someone else around me. That’s what I really appreciate about them – that they are damn real.

It helps that I live only a 12-minute drive away from them, so when I’m in Singapore, I’m at their place almost every other day. I’ve also cut down on socialising and outings with my other friends to be with Mel and co. It’s a conscious choice I’ve made. It’s like I’ve also become part of their story. Some days, they say they should do a story on me too.

You lost your father not too long ago. What do you think he would say if he were around to see this book?

I can already imagine him putting his arm around me and telling me “well done”. Just two words. But that’s what Dad was like. He was never very expressive or overtly affectionate; he showed his love and support through his actions instead. I’m sure Dad would have bought a whole stack of my books and distributed it to all his close friends and family.

I think he was looking forward to the book launch too. I heard he had been telling my aunties about it. I wish he could be here too. He is in my every thought and heartbeat.

You travel all the time – do you think your family accepts your lifestyle?

In a sense, I was brought up to travel. My dad was a pilot and he would bring us on family holidays every year without fail. When I got older, I grew even more curious about the world. I started backpacking around Asia every holiday. Of course, my parents were worried at first. I think they eventually realised that I’m quite the responsible adult and that I’ll always make calculated decisions, so it put them more at ease.

But because I’m out of town often and don’t get to spend as much time with my folks, I make sure to clear my schedule every year to go on a vacation with them. Those memories will now be irreplaceable.

What are the lessons you learned from Mel?

That there are a lot of stories in Singapore waiting to be uncovered. Each time we hang out, I learn something new about Singapore that I’ve been sheltered from.

You are an angry young woman with lots of issues – true?

I don’t think I’m angry. I used to be an angsty, rebellious teen, but I’ve mellowed a lot since. Right now, I’m just very passionate about various causes, and once I start on something, it’s very difficult to get me to step out of it.

   

The portrait of Bernice Wong was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who anchors all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of School of Hard Knocks by Bernice Wong, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/school-of-hard-knocks-by-bernice-wong