TwentyFifteen 16/20: Transit by Edwin Koo

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Transit is based on the intra-city railway system in Singapore, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT). Built in 1987, it is used by close to 2.8 million people daily.

I started photographing the MRT in 2011. I had come home after living in Nepal for two years and I was surprised at how crowded our trains had become. During the 2011 general elections, transport became a hot potato issue. When I couldn’t get onto the trains myself, I photographed people who were forced to the edge of the train doors to show how dire the situation was. These photographs were born from a sense of frustration and alienation.

When my anger subsided, the mental imprint did not fade away. What I saw from my first photographs intrigued me. I started looking at the seminal works done on trains – Bruce Davidson’s Subway (1986), Walker Evan’s Many Are Called (1938), Michael Wolfe’s Tokyo Compression (2010), just to name a few. What could I add to this narrative?

Eventually I returned to photographing train doors during peak hours. The crowded trains presented an ever-changing theatre each time the doors opened and closed, revealing interesting protagonists, diverse lives and a myriad of emotions. The camera gave me a chance to see what my eye would have missed – a collective portrait of Singapore, always in transit.

As commuters today, we distract ourselves endlessly with our smartphones or iPads, to anaesthetise ourselves from the unnatural and uncomfortable experience of transit. We create private spaces for ourselves in the most public of spaces.

As commuters, we observe an unspoken rule not to stare at each other’s misery.

As a photographer, I broke that last rule twice over – I recorded the stare, and continue to be amazed by what the stare reveals.

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