TwentyFifteen Interview 20/20: Bryan van der Beek speaks to Leonard Goh

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Bryan, the title of your TwentyFifteen.sg series is Transitions. What is the biggest and most drastic transition you have witnessed in Singapore?

I think Singapore has changed a great deal since I left for my studies in the USA 18 years ago. It started with the proliferation of new buildings and the landscape changing (and still changing) every few months. I’ve been disturbed at how we’ve gone from being a welcoming society to a more xenophobic one. I’m heartened by the modernisation but disappointed with the cavalier way we’ve been discarding our heritage. Things are always in a state of flux here. I guess for this project, I’m starting by trying to document the most basic of changes in our local landscapes.

What is it about the “passing of time”, which you mentioned in your introduction, that intrigues you as a photographer?

Photography has traditionally been about a single moment. That split second when things come together and a picture tells a story, has a good emotion and strong composition. This was one of the main pillars in my formative years as a photographer, when documentary photography and photojournalism was all I really concentrated on in the broader framework of photography

However, I’ve always been intrigued by time-lapse photography and I’m constantly amazed at how different the environment becomes when you see it over time. I guess I’m used to shooting in the now, and when you shoot that way, all that is important are the things that are happening at that moment. When you work on a time-lapse shot, you shoot multiple moments, and the accumulation of many variables inevitably shows you changes that you don’t notice until you put them all together. I guess you could say I’m experimenting with trying to show time passing in a single picture.

In your own words, Transitions is a mix of concepts; time-lapse, composites, long exposures etc. Why did you attempt a mixture instead of keeping to a ‘consistent’ style?

Change is never consistent. Those familiar with my earlier work know that this project is a pretty huge departure for me. I’ve been used to more documentary/photojournalism projects and as mentioned above, this body of work is derived more from experimentation than a highly stylised concept. The base method is the same for all the images, but the approach I chose for each one is done to best showcase each particular scenario.

Which image took the longest to make?

Well, the earlier pictures took longer as I was trying out different timings to see how the pictures would end up. For the Esplanade picture, I shot from 10 a.m. in the morning to 10 p.m. at night to see the different sorts of pictures I would get throughout the day. Once I learnt to streamline the process and choose the time windows, the shots averaged three to four hours per image.

On the topic of transitions, what was the most difficult part of making the move from being a full-time photojournalist for the dailies to being a freelance photographer?

he move from an “iron rice bowl” to the uncertainty of being a photographer who only gets paid for what he shoots. Running your own business is terrifying sometimes. No matter how good a month (or months) you’re having, you’re always thinking ahead and worrying about what’s going to happen down the road. You spend time cultivating good working relationships with clients and you constantly have to be on top of your game.

I think every newspaper photographer has, at some point or other, dialled in an assignment when they were tired. You can’t even think of doing that when you work for yourself. “You’re only as good as your last picture” is one of the lines that I tell budding photographers, and the same is true for people who have been doing this for awhile. If you are content to rest on your laurels, your work will start to stagnate. So a professional photographer needs to be constantly pushing the boundaries and trying new things.

How do you juggle your time as a freelance photographer with having three children?

That’s a good question! I used to worry about not having time to do personal projects now that I had to balance kids and work. Parents out there know how time-consuming this is. Then I realised that my personal project, for now at least, is my kids. I’m pretty sure they’ll have some nice childhood pictures to show at their wedding dinners!

From the photos, it appears that family plays a crucial role in your photography. How do you hope these images to be kept for future generations?

I guess it’s not hard to keep shooting them as they are almost always around! Keeping the images for the future generation – that is an ongoing headache. Unlike the film days, where you have prints and negatives, these days everything is on a computer or in a hard drive. I really need to get on with printing pictures! But who knows … maybe a book is in the cards.

Who are your influences in photography?

Where do I start? Sebastião Salgado for showing dignity in the poorest of subjects, James Nachtwey for never shying away from showing us how ugly we humans can be, Alex Webb for his patience and insane ability to see light, Garry Winogrand for showing how free photography can be. Of course there’s a whole slew of photographers and friends I’ve had the greatest fortune to know (including all of the folks at PLATFORM) who have shaped me by showing me that life is not just about documentary photography!

You have a love for motorbikes. How do you think you can interweave photography into this other love of yours?

I’m still working on that. Mixing shooting and riding is kinda like mixing music and reading. If you are concentrating on reading, the music fades into the background, and if you are listening to music intently, the works on the page in front of you tend to fade away. I’ve done a couple of bike rides in Japan and there were so many times I wanted to stop and take pictures, but that would have killed the riding experience. I settled for shooting at rest stops, and to me that was just a fraction of the whole experience.

That said, I’m actually working on a series of portraits of riders and their rides. It’s all for fun at this point, but who knows where it will go!

What would you have been if you were not a photographer?

Fwah … tough question. I think I would probably be selling something or other. I seem to have a knack for doing that. Or something that involves talking (I seem to have a knack for that too).

What do you hope to see happen the most in the Singapore photography scene?

I think the growth spurt in the Singapore photography scene has already happened, and we’ve seen an amazing number of photographers emerge from this. I’d like to see less sniping and photographers overly possessive about their “unique ideas”. More collaborations and fewer cliques.

Looking back at your work, how do you think you have grown as a photographer?

I have no idea, I tend to be very self-deprecating about my work, but people seem to like it so I’ll leave it to them to decide. I think that I still have fun shooting. I know it doesn’t sound like growth, but keeping oneself enthused after shooting for so long isn’t always an easy thing.

The portrait of Bryan van der Beek 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 Transitions by Bryan van der Beek, please visit:
hhttp://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/transitions-by-bryan-van-der-beek