TwentyFifteen Interview 17/20: Sam Chin & Samuel He speak to Leonard Goh

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Two of you are collectively and occasionally known as Sam&Sam. Who is the first Sam and why?

Sam&Sam: This is actually the first time the question has surfaced in the three years we have worked together. We never felt the need to decide who is the ‘first’ Sam because the order has no significance to us. It is more important that people can identify with our images and relate to them.

Individually, you are both in the same business. Do you compete with each other?

SC: We haven’t had to deal with that situation because we serve different clients. In fact, Samuel [He] passes some of his assignments to me when he’s too busy. We also discuss ways to approach a challenging assignment, so it’s really a very healthy partnership, not much of a rivalry.

How did you become a photographer?

SH: I fooled around with the camera quite a bit when I was in school, when I worked on small photo projects. Like many other budding photographers, I made photographs of old, disappearing things and places. I only got into a serious relationship with photography when I started work as a photojournalist at the Straits Times.

SC: I first got involved with photography at 16 while I was on a community service trip with my school. Inspired by a documentary about James Nachtwey, War Photographer, I thought that I could change the world with photography and wanted to pursue photojournalism. I later realised that photojournalism is very different in Singapore. To give myself a different perspective on photography, I enrolled in a fine arts programme at the School of Art, Design & Media at Nanyang Technological University, then started my career as a photographer after graduation.

Most of your group projects are portraits – is there a reason for this?

Sam&Sam: We started collaborating about three years back on a series, August 9 Portraits, shortly after Samuel [He] bought a portable strobe lighting kit. We thought it would be interesting to approach Singaporeans on the streets and photograph them with lights. That modus operandi has stuck with us ever since.

You could also say that portraiture was common ground for the two of us, since we come from different backgrounds.

What about Defu Lane attracted your attention?

Sam&Sam: When we chanced upon Defu Lane, we were really attracted to the shapes and scale of the heavy machinery in the various industries. While we have been working on environmental portraits so far, we used to focus our gaze on the human element in our previous projects and we often picked characters who had a story to tell visually. Defu Lane, however, has so many details in the environment that we felt compelled to place an equal emphasis on the background.

Are you making a political statement with the choice of your subjects in DEFU?

Sam&Sam: We did not set out working on this project to advocate for anyone or any organisation. Our aim was merely to document the people and the space before they get relocated. Some of our subjects thought it was inevitable that they vacate the land for redevelopment. Their main concern was how the increase in rent might jeopardise their livelihood.

OK, admit it: both of you want to act romantic and sentimental about the underbelly of the society because deep inside, you are both ah bengs and you relate best to the ‘simple’ men.

Sam&Sam: In some ways you are right. We actually leverage on our ah beng-ness quite a bit to get our subjects to feel at ease with us. It is tough getting random strangers on the street to agree to be photographed. Sometimes when the aunties are reluctant, Sam [Chin] starts speaking in Cantonese to cajole them into agreeing.

To be honest, we would probably think twice if anyone were to approach us on the streets and want to take our photograph. In this digital era, images can be misused and misinterpreted, so it takes a lot of trust to give someone who first spoke to you five minutes ago, permission to make an image of you.

We like to think that our boyish, innocent looks help as well.

So who is the one who talks to the girls and adjusts their hair?

SC: Samuel is the one who usually does that, but to be fair, he is really better at it, regardless of the subject, young or old.

You don’t know how to make any pictures with flash, yeah?

Sam&Sam: Don’t like that say, can? The whole deal about using lights in Sam&Sam-style portraits came about because we were buying lights for commercial work and wanted to use the equipment for more independent endeavours.

How often do you fight?

Sam&Sam: Not once. The closest was probably when we had to decide which image to choose for this book.

Are you embarrassed that you make a lot more money than the subjects in this series?

Sam&Sam: That thought has never crossed our minds. Many of our subjects, with their grit and perseverance, have managed to raise a family and lead a decent life, and money is not a very good indicator of quality of life. We are probably more ashamed that we most likely could not survive in their place, working in the factories, roasting coffee under the heat. As many of our subjects mentioned, the younger generation today is not as willing to undergo hardship as compared to the generations before.

You also dabble in video. Can we expect a documentary on this topic soon?

Sam&Sam: Yup! Two of Samuel’s colleagues at Weave, Melissa and Kar Weng, are doing just that! Melissa, who was one of our producers on the DEFU project, was working on a personal project about old trades in Singapore. We thought it would be a good idea to ask if she’d like to work on a short film about one of the coffee producers we profiled in this book.

Do you talk to each other more than you talk to your own girlfriend or spouse?

Sam&Sam: We used to live just five minutes away from each other and met more often before Sam Chin moved to Sengkang. We also started doing freelance photography at the same time in 2012: Sam Chin had just graduated from school, while Samuel He just left the newspaper to work on his own. So we had many similar topics to discuss at the time, topics that our other half wouldn’t have been able to relate to.

The portrait of Sam&Sam 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 DEFU by Sam&Sam, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/products/defu-by-sam-chin-samuel-he