TwentyFifteen Interview 16/20: Edwin Koo speaks to Leonard Goh

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This new body of work is very different from the usual Edwin Koo style of gritty black and white. Aren’t you too old to be having a mid-life crisis?

On the surface, Transit is very different from Paradise (2013), my black-and-white work on Swat Valley, Pakistan. But the modus operandi is the same. For Paradise, I went to Pakistan to experience and search for paradise. For Transit, I ventured onto train platforms, that strange territory, to experience and search for the meaning of ‘transit’. For me, style is not a matter of having a cookie-cutter approach in aesthetics, but developing a persistently personal way of seeing different things in life.


Are we seeing an artist struggling to find a new path or this is the real you?

This is as real as you can get of me – I don’t think I have changed. Even though this work seems very ‘deliberate’, how it started was as organic as all my other works. The works I produce actually ‘happen’ to me, meaning that I react to circumstances and try to say something with photography.

In 2011, when I saw how crowded Singapore’s MRT trains have become, I started to photograph the situation out of a sense of frustration and alienation. I was protesting against the system. When my anger died down, I realised that there are interesting things I could observe from the frozen moments at the train doors. Each scene presented a glimpse into the Singapore we live in today.

For a long time, all I did was haunt the stations, looking for the story I wanted to tell. To find the answer, I tried many methods. I set up 120mm cameras on tripods in front of train doors. I tried photographing among the rush-hour crowds with a DSLR. I also tried boarding the first and last trains for the day, and mapping out stations to see when the sunlight would stream into the platforms. Eventually, I came back to shooting the train doors. Each time they open and close, they present to me a theatre of daily life. Strung together, they become a collective portrait of commuters in Singapore today.

You seem to be saying that the trains are always too crowded. Have you ever written complaint letters to LTA and SMRT? Or do you actually think your images will do a better job of communicating the problem?

I don’t think LTA or SMRT can do anything about overpopulation or our plan to have a 6.9 million population. And I’m not the type to write a complaint letter. I don’t even think my images say anything about overcrowding. They are intentionally taken at peak hours so that I can have my protagonists at the front of the door. If a train carriage isn’t crowded, no one stands near the door. If no one is standing at the door, then it is an empty stage.

Who are your protagonists?

Basically any peak-hour commuter who has the potential to say something in my photograph. For this series, I only photographed during peak hours so that I have a ‘stage’ full of ‘actors’ at the train doors. The frenetic buzz and the crowded conditions bring out certain human emotions, intensified and amplified by the discomfort and energy of the rush hour.

Often I ‘talent-spot’ an interesting commuter and then he or she disappears into the carriage instead of standing on the edge of the doors. Then I just have to stick to the same doors and shoot, and hopefully something interesting happens. In this way, I allow myself to be surprised. The basic rule of photography applies: If you already know what the photograph will look like, why bother photographing at all? You have to let the scene surprise you, you have to let something unexpected happen in the photograph.

Someone is bound to say, “But your pictures all look the same!” What’s your response to that?

Agreed, all trains look the same, but I don’t really have a choice about that.

But the people inside are almost never the same. The things they do are never the same. Their reactions are never the same. The lighting inside the trains can also vary from stadium-like ‘washout’ bright to ‘creaky elevator’-like luminescence. So I get very different results each time.

The beauty of photographs is that you get to linger on them and find new meanings each time you look. I believe if you take time to study the photos, you will see that they are all quite different. It’s about seeing beyond looking, and being aware of what we are seeing.

When I photograph, I switch on this ‘hyper-aware mode’, which can be very draining. But because I become so aware of every pindrop and flicker, I can observe things that I would otherwise gloss over.

At times, I choose to stop being a photographer and become an average commuter again. Then I see nothing. All the train doors look the same again. Honestly, if I am not photographing them intentionally, my eyes glaze over the scenes just like anyone else.

Let’s talk train metaphors for a bit. Most of the riders don’t think more about where they are going, because they assume that the trains will always take them to their destinations. Agree?

Exactly. We all think we know where we want to go. We force ourselves into a metal box full of strangers who also think they know their destination. But there’s a difference between where you want to go, and where you want to be. For many people, routine has destroyed our ability to know what we truly want. I mean, we can imagine ants or sheep going through the same routine without complaint, but human beings?

So we start to find ways and means to desensitise ourselves to this experience of ‘getting there’, because the Destination (the one programmed into our mind) is more important. We anaesthetise ourselves against this painful process of transit.

And most people never think about the choices they actually have. I mean, they can take the bus or walk, right?

They can even cycle, kick-scoot, or skateboard. Segways and electric unicycles are also viable alternatives.

What are some of the rules you make for yourself? Do you look for a particular kind of look in the women you photographed for this?

Haha, why do you only mention women and not men? I don’t discriminate between men, women, old, young, local, foreign and any types in between. All is fair game in Transit.

Basic rules are: peak hour, closing doors.

When I started, I was actually looking for the ones that stand out, a bit like how Diane Arbus would look for freakish or weird subjects. I also looked out for people who wear loud or colourful stuff. I would stalk them, wait for them to enter the train and pray very hard that they stand in the front row at the edge of the door. Eight out of 10 times, it doesn’t happen – they usually disappear into the crowd.

In the course of doing this series, did you run into a ‘stranger’ more than twice?

Oh yes. No matter where I intend to go, I have to start with my own station, Kembangan. Between 8 a.m. to 8.45 a.m., that’s the ‘crush’ hour. I remember seeing the same woman three times, of which I photographed her twice. Unfortunately, she didn’t make the edit.

What’s the funniest response you’ve received from the people whom you ‘preyed’ on?

‘Funniest’ is very open to interpretation. Let’s say ‘most surprising’. It was this white-collar type whose lips curled up in a vicious snarl, which I didn’t even notice until I reviewed the photo.

I’m surprised at the way my presence amplified and intensified the emotions that presented themselves at the train doors. If the subjects were happy with me photographing them, they would play up to the camera. If the subjects were angry, upset, or bewildered, their emotions were also amplified by both my presence and the camera’s impending action of recording.

I assume you people-watch a lot, so tell us, what do you make of Singaporeans? Are we a happy or sad bunch?

From the photos I’ve taken over the last four years, I would say Singaporeans range from being sad, angry, depressed and clueless, to being happy and hyper. The last two are extremely rare species. These kinds usually don’t have to force themselves on crowded trains, probably because they know they have a choice.

You mentioned a while back that you are looking for some kind of paradise. Please don’t say it exists underground, and in Singapore.

I think the idea of paradise exists in everyone’s head, but this idea is probably very different for everyone. But to get to paradise, you need to take a journey – to be in transit. For many office workers, going back to home-cooked food at the end of a gruelling day, is a sort of paradise. For some of the commuters, watching Bae Yong Joon’s Korean drama on his or her iPad is paradise. As John Milton wrote, ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’

This series is entitled Transit – where are you off to next?

To the next story, I guess. I see my life as a relentless pursuit of stories. There are a few projects in my mind, and one of them will take place in China. Let’s see if that works out.

Would you rather be known for one style or as someone who is capable of changing?

I would like to be known as an artist who evolves and adapts. Style can be misconstrued as ‘specialising’ in black-and-white photography, or sticking to certain subject matter. That is the surface of things. How many people remember that William Eggleston and Alex Webb shot in black and white? But they adapted later to colour and became known for it, because colour was a language that suited their work.

A photographer has to look at the work at hand and decide which medium to use: film, digital, 4×5, 120mm, monochrome, compact camera, mobile phones, even drones. There is a medium for every kind of work, and it also depends on what you want to say in your work. I don’t think one should repeat a formula for everything – unless the work you do calls for it.

For Transit, I felt that colour was very important. The colour of the light conveys a certain mood, and the colour of the clothes and belongings inform us about the photograph. I used a compact camera because for one, I don’t get in trouble with authorities too much, and also, it’s less intimidating than say, a DSLR or a 120mm.

Fifty years down the road, people will look at this body of work and say …?

Did people actually have to take trains to travel to their destinations?

   

The portrait of Edwin Koo 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 Transit by Edwin Koo, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/transit-by-edwin-koo