Bryan, the title of your 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:

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11774452_10153013087057045_250720554_nWe know it was a photograph that started it all. Who kept the photo and how did you come to see it?

My mum showed it to me one day. Our family had virtually never spoken about him. I knew I had a grandfather who died in China, and I’d heard that some kind of monument was built for him – but it was all very vague. None of us had been interested to find out what it was about.
In my memory, it was when my mum showed me the photo that I got really interested. I was about to move to China at the time [2007], I think. My parents had only a few photos of my granddad. There were many of him at my uncle’s and aunt’s, but this was the one my mum dug out to show me.

Would you have been interested in the story if the photo didn’t show him with a camera around his neck?

I think I still would have been. I was curious about what he had done to deserve a monument, especially since I come from such an extremely apolitical family. I wondered about the past and what led us to be so apolitical, and why my parents, especially my dad, were always ultra-conservative about life choices. Even without the photo, I think I still would have gone on to find out why there was a monument.

Just perhaps not at that moment?

I always berate myself for not having acted earlier. I started the project only after I quit my job at The Straits Times. If I had done so when I first moved to China, which was eight years ago now, I would have learned so much more. The typesetter at the Ipoh Daily who worked with my granddad was still alive then.

One other key person, my 姑婆 Gu Po (grandfather’s half-sister), also died before I got to interview her. She lived in Singapore for many years, but at the time I wasn’t sensitised to the need to quickly record history. She had spent over 30 years with my granddad – she could have told me so much about him! But I didn’t ask her anything. My uncle asked her some questions but not in detail.

Your uncle completed a 50-page history of your family.

He finished it in May this year. What we know of my granddad’s life came from there: how he was born in Hong Kong, was taken to Malaya by his mother to join his father when he was still very young, then grew up mostly in what is now northern Malaysia, in Perak. He was educated in Malaya and Xiamen, and graduated with a degree in politics and law from a university in Shanghai.

My uncle’s account was of course written from his perspective as a son, but in speaking to both him and my aunt in Penang – the two who were the closest to my Ye Ye 爷爷 (grandfather), of all his children – they speak very highly of their father. Their impression was of a virtuous, thrifty, socially engaged and honourable person. He was prepared to speak for his community, offering to negotiate with the Japanese himself during the war when the Japanese turned up at the village.

He was conscientious about everything. They do say he was not a very good father, though, in that he was always busy. But, in his community and in the school, he was a man whom everybody looked up to.

In the way you’ve had to piece the story together, this is probably no different than your other projects. But of course this concerns your family.

This is very personal and it cuts very close. There are some things I discovered that I don’t think the family wants to talk about. For example, my granddad had a tong yang xi 童养媳, a girl who was matchmade to him in our ancestral village in Guangdong, China when he was a child.

However, in searching for his story, I’ve been in much closer contact with my own family members. From the time I was a child, the family had never been very close. But because of the project, I’ve initiated a lot of contact with my eldest uncle. There was baggage between him and my parents that I don’t have, and that they have since put aside. My mum told me it was because I reached out to him.

This story is deeply personal, but every story is different, and others are moving too.

So how is this different from your other stories? You’re emotionally invested too – perhaps it isn’t that different?

It’s different. This one is very much in the past, so the emotions are not present-day emotions. The one part that has been difficult is my relationships with the relatives in the village in Meixian (in Meizhou, Guangdong), which are extremely complicated. We are such different people. Their expectations of my behaviour are cast in stone, so it becomes difficult when I defy these categories.

It also made me emotional and angry to see how they treat the memory of my grandfather. When my family and I went back in 2011, we asked the relatives for one room in the house in which to put up a charcoal drawing of my grandfather. They agreed to keep the room locked and clear of furniture. But when I went back to visit last summer, I found that someone else had taken the room. The portrait had been taken out and put in the so-called living room, which was really where they put their trash. I was very angry.

So it’s very complicated. There’s a lot of this ma fan (troublesome) stuff. Sometimes it’s difficult to extract myself and just be an observer, when all I want to do – all I need to do, for the purposes of the story – is to write and record.

The project has also been quite fun. I don’t want to come across as clichéd or pretentious, but I feel a spiritual connection with my grandfather. He died at 38 and I am coming up to that age. By all accounts, he was a man with a sense of social justice, who wanted to do something for his community. He was interested in politics and was definitely left of centre – what they called “progressive” in those days. I like this guy! I think I would have liked him. If only he had lived, I think he might have been the one person in the family who would not have discouraged me from what I do, with whom I could have conversations and to whom I could relate.

But, of course, if he had lived I wouldn’t be here in the first place. His death was the turning point for the family. If he had lived, he would likely have become some kind of official in Meizhou – the nearest big city to our ancestral village – and he would have brought the family there. My father would not have met my mother, then.

Would you have taken such an interest in him, if he had not been someone you liked?

Probably not. He seems to have been a really interesting guy! He had done a lot by the time he was 38. I’m in admiration of a man who had conviction, as far as I can tell. Because my family had been frowning on not just my career choices, but also my interest in social and political issues and my involvement in Singapore civil society, I feel a sense of vindication and that’s part of the meaning in this search for my granddad’s story.

People have asked me during interviews, when they look at my work, where my sense of social justice come from. A lot of it came from school – my secondary school teachers sensitised me to a lot of stuff, that shaped me and helped me find my purpose in life very early on. But having discovered my grandfather, I almost wonder if it comes from a deeper well. It’s a bit kooky to say so, but my relatives are convinced that the genes skipped a generation.

So if he had turned out to be a boring guy without all this history, I would have probably found his grave, paid my respects and that would have been it. But because he was this interesting, multi-layered person, and the only other journalist and photographer in the family, I am quite fascinated by him and his story.

You’re a fangirl.

I’m not a fangirl, I’m just fascinated that out of this apolitical family, there was someone who was so interesting, who stood up for his beliefs and acted on his convictions.

Someone like you.

It resonates with me. It makes me feel it is okay to be like this in this family, because someone had done it before – and he was my grandfather.

Let’s come back to the family. To tell the story, you had to rally the family for support. It became a family journey. How did that affect family relations?

Overall family relationships have been improving over the years, as I’ve gotten older and they’ve mellowed. Of course we still yell at each other when we spend a lot of time together. Because of my interest in my grandfather, I’ve taken the whole family back to Meizhou twice. So we’ve gone on trips together, which we didn’t use to do.

I think my father is quietly heartened that I’ve taken such an interest in this, but at the same time he kept saying to me, “This is all in the past, don’t spend so much time on this”. My eldest uncle and I have certainly bonded over this project. We used to see each other once every couple of years; now he emails me every week because of the project. He comes over for meals when I come back to Singapore for visits.

And the first trip we went back to Meizhou, in 2011, was very emotional for them. Especially on the day we went to my granddad’s monument and grave to pay respects, for the first time after 62 years. When they saw how run-down it has become, with the urn popping out of the ground because of erosion, they teared. Everybody cried on the trip, whether when they saw the urn, or when I interviewed them on the train ride back to Guangzhou from our village.

It was very emotional, my eldest uncle cried telling the story, especially when he recalled how my grandfather died quickly – he was executed soon after he was taken by the Kuomintang – but my grandmother suffered for the rest of her life. She never remarried and she had a very difficult relationship with her mother-in-law. She fell into dementia in her final years and died when I was 15. But the heartbreak she must have felt, and the loneliness she must have carried with her for the rest of her life, was something that my uncle was very upset by. My youngest uncle also started crying non-stop when we talked about this, because he had been the closest to his mother.

Was it the first time you saw them cry?

I’ve seen my eldest uncle tear up once before. It was in 2011, Chinese New Year. On an earlier trip to Meixian, I had collected all these videos and oral histories. I went from place to place to show them – to my eldest uncle’s place in Singapore, to Penang to show my aunt, to Kuala Lumpur to show my youngest uncle.

When I showed the material to my eldest uncle, I made a video of him and my dad. My uncle described how the British intelligence officers and policemen came to the provision shop to arrest my grandfather. He described the whole scene in very vivid detail, how the officers came and surrounded the house, how my father was just coming back from a haircut, and he saw my grandfather being handcuffed. That was the last time they saw his father. When he talked about this, he teared up, although that happened in 1948, a very long time ago.

How did it make you feel? Many of us rarely see our parents and uncles and aunts cry.

Ya … I don’t know, I’m a hardened journalist (laughs), I make a lot of people cry with my questions. It was a bit awkward, but I was relieved in a way, because I have always felt our family is kind of unemotional, very unexpressive, and the relations are cold. We’re not close, there’s no touch, it’s almost as if there’s no emotional investment in one another.

It’s a funny thing to say about a family. But my family is distant too, in a way.

My family is super distant. My mum and dad have not been close to their own families, either, and I feel a sense of regret that we’re not close to our extended family. That’s the change in me, I suppose, because when I was younger I didn’t think about the importance of family. In some ways I’m still rather neglectful of a lot of things about the family, but this story has helped me to reconnect and start to feel some sense of emotional investment and connection with some of the family. I never thought it was important to spend time with family before, but as I get older, and as I work on this project, I am valuing the relations and our time together a lot more.

The other dimension of this is my exploration of my relationship with China. Discovering that I have a grandfather who died in China for the Chinese revolution is a strange yet important thing for me, because I’ve been in China for eight years now and I have a love-hate relationship with the country and with my life there. I am fascinated by it, but at the same time, living there wears me down. So to have a link as close as my own Ye Ye, to the land, the country, and to the idea of the country, and the idea of communism in the country, is an important link for me to explore.

You were trained to be a historian, and have long been fascinated by Chinese history. Now you find a personal story that seems made for your professional interest.

Ya, it’s a confluence of things. That’s why I was really excited to discover him. It’s not just that I am a fangirl, it’s that it’s China, it’s my academic interest. It calls on all my training as a history student – archival work and looking up source material, piecing things together and doing different interpretations of things. Our home village is also quite a beautiful place to photograph. So it’s an exciting confluence of things.

As a journalist, you’re exposed to the negative side a lot, you’re always critical of the current political situation and critical of the government. Then to discover that my own granddad died for this government, this party, and died fighting for the ideals that this party purports to aspire to, it’s fascinating. And it’s something that I come back to when I’m fed up about being and working in China, dealing with the system. I tell myself I shouldn’t give up so easily because I have a personal link to this place. I want to try and dig deeper.

By sharing what you’ve documented, you’ve taken an intensely personal story into the public domain. What motivated you to do that?

I think this story is many things to many people. I have spoken about the project in a few places, including Asia Society in New York and the National Museum of Singapore, and I usually present it at the end of my body of work. It’s usually this story that fascinates people.

It has many layers. On the one hand, it is the story of how individuals were forced to make stark choices with grave consequences during the Cold War and they made sacrifices for their political ideology. It is also a story of the Chinese diaspora – the Hakka diaspora in this case – their departure for Malaya and what became of their lives. (Hakkas are Singapore’s fourth-largest dialect group, numbering 200,000.) Diaspora communities anywhere can relate to this.

On yet another level, it is a story of how families get caught up in politics. I think many families in Southeast Asia can relate to this. Many Southeast Asian Chinese of our generation had grandfathers, granduncles or people of that generation return to China in the 1940s and 1950s. Some even went back during the Cultural Revolution because they were taken with this search for leftism and Maoism. People met different fates – some stayed on, some were killed.

I know the project’s not finished yet, but do you think it has changed you in some ways?

I am certainly more aware of where I come from. I feel a sense of comfort knowing that I have a grandfather who did all these things and had a sense of conviction and sense of social justice. I feel comforted by that.

It has helped me in some ways to come to terms with my relationship with China, because I ask myself why I am still there after so long. My grandfather died for this new China, and by some strange coincidence, I am back in China trying to document what that revolution has become. It gives that additional layer of meaning to what I am doing.

I’m in a bit of a strange position. As a foreign journalist, I am in a privileged position – I speak Chinese and look Chinese, and get access to some stories that some other people don’t. I am officially an expat, but when I go to our town and village, they say, “You’ve come back” or “You’ve come home.” But is it really my home? It’s not really my home. I feel like something of an in-between. Obviously I am not mainland Chinese, I think very differently, and I see things differently. But neither am I a full-fledged expat with no familial ties to the place. I’m in between.

Chan Tse Chueen is a Singaporean journalist based in Hong Kong. She was with Chi Yin on her first trip to Meixian.

The portrait of Sim Chi Yin was drawn by Flee Circus;

To purchase a copy of Roots by Sim Chi Yin, please visit:

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Since you are so fond of it, tell us what you know about about Zhup Lao.

Zhup Lao (十楼 or ‘ten floors’ in Teochew or Hokkien) is a nickname given to the iconic ten-storey HDB blocks in the Commonwealth Drive neighbourhood. If you’re taking a taxi here, just say Zhup Lao and any older taxi driver will know exactly where you want to go. To younger taxi drivers, you have to say Tanglin Halt, which is the name of the street around the Zhup Lao blocks in the Commonwealth area.

There are many interesting facts about Zhup Lao. First, it’s one of the oldest surviving HDB estates in Singapore that was built in the 1960s. The ten-storey blocks were so popular that they were featured on the back of the Singapore one-dollar note in the ‘orchid’ series (issued in 1967).

Second, this is the area where the old KTM trains from Kuala Lumpur used to pass by. I believe it’s the only HDB estate in Singapore where the train tracks were just 50 metres away from the blocks. The flat where I used to live was in that very block near the tracks. At first it was bloody noisy, but gradually I found the sound very comforting.

Also, I do not know how true this is, but my aunties told me that a lot of drug addicts lived in the area in the 1970s and 1980s. They were staying in the affordable one-room flats.

Now that you are older and know that many of the earlier HDB estates such as Circuit Road were also referred to as Zhup Lao, what do you think is so different about your Zhup Lao?

The distinction is not so much physical but emotional. It’s the soul of the estate, the people and the stories that have already happened that make the Commonwealth Zhup Lao unique. The people whom I have gotten to know inadvertently became my friends and part of my life. This cannot be replicated elsewhere for me.

You could have probably chosen to live anywhere in Singapore when it came time to buy your own place, yet you chose to stay in the same place you grew up in. So you don’t believe in upgrading or changing your environment?

I grew up in Margaret Drive, which is nearby but not exactly the same area. My dad’s business was hit badly during the 1997 financial crisis and he had to sell our house to pay his debts, so we were staying in rented places for a long time. When I finally started working, I always dreamed of having a place we could call our own.

I was working in Taiwan when my sister told me about the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) project happening in Zhup Lao and said that a young family was willing to sell their flat because they wanted to move elsewhere. Even though we had to fork out $50,000 cash over valuation, we bought the flat for our dad because it was time that he had a stable home. Five years later, when the new flats were ready, we moved into the new blocks right in front of Zhup Lao.

I did another photo series documenting my neighbours moving to the new flats. Despite the nostalgia I feel for the old Zhup Lao flats, they were really getting very run-down. So in a sense, it was really a nice gesture by HDB to give a brand new flat with a fresh 99-year lease, to people who had lived here for almost 50 years.

Why are young people your age so sentimental and nostalgic?

Because everything is changing so fast in Singapore and people in their 30s like me find it very hard to recall what our childhood was like. That’s why we try to preserve every memory that we can hold on too. The sand pit playgrounds and the mamak shops where I would spend a day contemplating how to spend my 50 cents – they are all gone. Even the same haw flakes that I enjoyed when I was young taste different now.

Then again, this nostalgia is probably a phenomenon every generation goes through.

All things being the same, would you choose to stay put in this neighbourhood?

I love the kampung spirit in this area. My wife says I’m like the unofficial MP here because I always start waving at the different shop owners when I walk by. Last week, I asked for permission from one of the old shop owners if I could do a fashion shoot for a magazine, and he said, ‘别人不可以, 只有你可以.’ (‘Others can’t, but you can.’) That really touched me.

If you read some of the quotes in this book, you’ll find that really, everyone knows everyone here and they are willing to help their neighbours out. There’s a lot of good food here too!

Are you actually trying to convince us that it’s nicer to shop in one of those old shops than to browse at ION Orchard?

Shopping centres all follow a certain template now in Singapore. Every mall has a Uniqlo or H&M and definitely a G2000 with god-awful clothes. It’s really boring and I only go to malls out of necessity.

I urge everyone to take a walk around Zhup Lao if they ever have the chance. Call me and I’ll gladly show you around too!

Which is your favourite shop and why?

Chin Hin Eating House, a kopitiam at block 75, Commonwealth Drive. It was legendary with taxi drivers because of its quality and affordable kopi and teh that was served in traditional white cups and saucers. The place also had the cheapest mixed vegetable rice you could find in Singapore. I would go there to hang out for a cup of tea before or after shoots, to de-stress.

I’ve asked the boss Francis if he would consider reopening the place, but he wants to take a break because he’s been making coffee and tea for 20-over years. I think he deserves a break too.

Where have you moved to and how is the new place different?

My family and I have moved to the new blocks right in front of the Zhup Lao blocks. I still see the old blocks every day and reminisce about my favourite kopitiam and old flat. There are still many things to shoot and tons of stories to tell, so I’m focusing on getting as much done as I can before it all goes.

Do you think you will stay in touch with your former neighbours?

I still do, with a family I shot for the living room series. It’s an old Malay couple who used to live on the ninth floor. Last year, I did a family portrait for them in their new flat and gladly got paid with curry puffs! I also see my former next-door neighbour every now and then at the market, and we’ll stop and chat for quite a while.

Back in the old blocks, you could say I was very kaypoh because I would peek inside every living room I passed along the corridor on my way to my unit, which was at the end. I was more curious than anything about what their lives were like and the stories they had to tell. So the best way to get them to open up was to make friends with them.

How do you approach your subjects for this project?

During the first phase, I emotionally blackmailed them by saying, ‘Auntie, it’s my birthday leh, can let me take a picture please?’ The other thing about these shop owners is that they are actually quite media-savvy. The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao and Channel NewsAsia have all taken their pictures a hundred times, so it was not that difficult to talk to them too.

That said, what made the difference was that unlike the media, I returned on a separate day with a printed copy of their portraits to give to them as a present. This paved the way for other shop owners to be more receptive to me taking their pictures because they could tell that I was interested in building a relationship with them, not just ‘using’ them to take photographs.

Okay, now confess: which neighbourhood gang did you belong to?

I was once asked by someone in secondary school to join a local gang but no, of course, I didn’t join any. I was more into girls and basketball.

How did a Zhup Lao Boy become a famous photographer?

I’m not quite sure if I’m famous, but I am definitely indebted to people who have guided me and given me enough trust to let me do the work I want to do. I think knowing your photography fundamentals is just as important as having your voice.

Fifty years down the road, people looking at this series by Nicky Loh will say …

‘What kind of place is this?’ or ‘Retro siah!’

Imagine yourself a scriptwriter, tell us the movie you would want to make about Commonwealth Drive.

A love story about a jobless, compulsive-gambler uncle and the auntie in the 4D booth beside the Econ Minimart (a lot of people buy 4D from there because it has a high success rate). The gambler is completely enchanted by her, but feels that he’s only worthy of asking her out when he has struck 4D. He buys from her everyday but refuses to say a word to her. When he has finally struck 4D, alas, the auntie has passed away from cancer and his money is worthless. He then decides to take on the job of selling 4D to make an honest living.

What is photography to you?

A way to preserve the memories of things I love.

The portrait of Nicky Loh 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 Common Wealth by Nicky Loh, please visit:

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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:

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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:

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How did you end up in Los Angeles? I mean, is it really a place to be?

COLOMBA: We both came for graduate school at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts). I did an MFA in Graphic Design and San was in the program for Photo and Media. We both agree that LA took a while to get to know and it can be intimidating for a newcomer. But we have both grown into it and had a great experience.

As artists, LA has a big emerging art scene where there is a good mix of museums and alternative art spaces. This provides lots of opportunities for experimentation and dialogue among artists who are making very diverse works. And of course, who doesn’t love the California sunshine?

Colomba is from Chile and San is from Singapore, and both of you are good friends. How did that happen?

SAN: We both knew each others as strangers looking to live outside of Valencia, the suburb where CalArts is located. Living outside of the suburb allowed us to see Los Angeles and we were able to learn more about its diversity. That’s where a lot of the conversations started during our daily commute to school together.

C: Being kind of ‘forced’ to see each other a lot, we got into in-depth discussions of our experiences and ended up ‘sharing’ friends and community. This is how the idea of the book started, after long hours in the car sharing and talking about each other’s cultures, where they meet and differ.

S: We’re glad we haven’t killed each other.

How do you usually introduce Singapore to foreigners? Please don’t say you tell them it is the country where you can’t chew gum.

S: Most of the time, I introduce Singapore by demystifying their idea of Singapore: No, Singapore is not part of China. No, you can chew gum and not get caned for it, just that you can’t buy it on the streets (but I really do think that we should update this law). No, we do speak English in Singapore very often. I try as much as possible to give multiple perspectives of Singapore because I feel that my own subjective opinion is limited. Colomba too started taking up the role of being our ambassador, introducing Singapore as a place where we are all highly passionate about food, and as a city that is a tiny red dot on the map.

Do you really miss home? What do you miss?

S: Yes, of course. Top on my list are definitely my family and friends. The simple joys of having breakfast with my parents, the birth of my good friend’s child and other moments that I can never experience once they’ve passed.

Also, the familiarity of places, cultures and languages, in a way that only someone who belongs will experience. Recently, my family moved out of the building that I had lived in since I was born. I had been dreading that day and regretted not being able to say my farewell. I have never felt so much about a physical space before.

C: Yes, of course I miss my country everyday. It’s such a big part of my life and how I define myself. I miss the family, and it really makes me sad to be missing the growing years of all my 10 nieces and nephews. My friends and the days of the ‘barbecues’, where we stayed up till 6 am talking about everything and nothing at the same time. I also miss Chile’s landscapes and the strong relationship with nature, the mountains, the beaches and the national parks, which are often pristine and untouched by civilisation.

What you are presenting can look very personal and complicated to others. Why should a stranger care about what you have to say?

C: The personal is often political, and hence, not confined to an individual. Our experience of being someone who is living away from home is not unique to us, but shared by many, in different forms and circumstances. Of course, it is important also to acknowledge that the attempt to represent where we come from from a particular vantage point is inherently complicated and flawed. All we can start to do is to perhaps open up a space to reflect on culture and history with multiple perspectives.

Is Los Angeles really a melting pot?

S: Yes and no. You can find people coming from literally all parts of the world and taste cuisine from different regions even from the same country. In school, we definitely benefited from having conversations with our peers and faculty from diverse backgrounds, and that was very inspiring.

C: However, having different ingredients together in a pot doesn’t mean that they necessarily melt. There are aspects of LA that can be very segregated, partly because geographically it’s so dispersed and we are in the car so much. For example, those living in Beverly Hills may have little reason to visit where we live, in Echo Park, and vice versa. The car becomes an invisible shield against what you do not want to see, such as homelessness, poverty, madness or simply something that is different. It almost feels like you’re watching a Hollywood film through the window of the car. Having said that, there are also many people who are very proactive in breaking down this boundary, by taking part in community events, by biking instead of driving, by starting community gardens and much more.

Tell us about your methodology.

S & C: We began the project by revisiting the conversations that we have had over the past two years, especially those about home and displacement, simultaneously also thinking about historical or present-day events or experiences that had taken place in our home countries. At a location in Los Angeles that resonates with these ideas, we photograph each other in a performative act that relates to it. Colomba will perform a Chilean story after explaining it to San, who frames and photographs the image based on the story she is told. The process is reversed when San performs a Singapore story.

The use of medium-format film cameras (a Bronica 6×6 and a Mamiya 6×7) is an important part of the process. Unable to rely on instant playback from digital cameras, the photographer can only imagine the image that the subject/initiator of the image envisioned through storytelling and visual description, adding to the final image her own subjective experience. Representations are thus continuously being deconstructed and recontextualised.

The texts and mapping next come in to make accessible some of what is in the image that is lost in translation, as symbols lose their meanings when seen through the eyes of someone of a different background and experience. While the images open up our imagination and are translated to texts, the mapping is incorporated to create an experiential space for the viewers.

Has anyone said that your pictures ain’t good enough and that is why you need lots of words and charts?

S & C: Not yet. This may be because this is the first time that both of us are simultaneously incorporating text, image and mapping into our work. Like the triangles in the title of the book, each of these components are interdependent on each other, each fails if left on its own.

I assume the two of you have creative differences. So what languages do you fight in?

S: Cantonese and Spanish. We curse better in our mother tongues. Only when we agree do we speak in English.

San, you have gone from a science laboratory to photography. Talk us through your journey.

S: I grew up in a family where I was told that we do not have any artistic DNA. After getting a BA in economics, I worked for 10 years in a company that manufactures and sells maintenance chemicals. Much of my time was spent in various industrial settings such as shipyards and factories demonstrating how to clean and prevent corrosion.

A desire to express myself brought me to photography, thinking that the mechanics of a camera could help overcome my lack of abilities. (Of course I now know that’s not exactly true.) I started out trying to teach myself photography. I went to the library to borrow whatever books on photography I could find, took a few classes and participated in the Shooting Home programme in Objectifs, and simply went out to shoot whenever I did not have to work. I was fortunate to meet people who gave me pointers along the way.

The moment I knew I could get out of my job, I enrolled in a 10-month general studies course at the International Center of Photography in New York City and the next phase of my life began. I still wake up some mornings in disbelief and I feel extremely privileged to pursue what I am doing. I am now learning that my experience working in the chemical company has informed a lot of the work I am making by giving me the opportunity to see and interact with different aspects of society and to widen my own views.

What’s in store for the next five to 10 years?

C: This is a question that we are unable to give a clear answer to. There are a lot of uncertainties, but what we are sure about is that we are determined to continue committing to our practice while we find the means to pay our rent.

I would like to spend at least 50 per cent of my time working in Singapore and/or other parts of Asia.

Has being away made you more Singaporean or Chilean respectively?

S: Yes, definitely. Or at least it makes me much more aware of my identity as a Singaporean. The project had given me the opportunity to learn more about multiple aspects of Singapore, our culture and history, both the ‘official’ narrative and the lesser known stories.

C: For sure, the distance helps you to recognise where you come from and how it has shaped you. It gives you a space to be critical and/or appreciate where certain habits and customs come from, creating a space to agree or disagree with them as well as to shape your life and your beliefs. Lastly, it has made me more aware of what is happening over there and what are my responsibilities as a Chilean living in another country, how I represent and talk about Chile to others.

Have you been told you speak and write good English?

S: Yes, but only by people who think that we do not study English in Singapore.

You really expect us to believe that Chile and Singapore have a lot in common?

C: There are as many things in common as there are differences, just as both of us have such different personalities and cultural backgrounds, yet we can connect in so many different ways. It is perhaps more productive not to try to define what is common or what is different, but to use the intersection points as grounds for understanding.

What does it mean to make a book like this?

S: In time, we will find out. The decision to collaborate on a book about Singapore with someone from Chile is a result of a realisation that we form our identity so much in relation to others and not in isolation. The actual process of photographing and writing further made us see how connected we are, the triangles of Singapore, Chile and Los Angeles.

C: It has been a long and intense process. For now, the book continues to connect and inform me about important issues that have happened in my country. In addition, I have gotten to know San much more deeply through understanding where she comes from. In time, I am sure more significant aspects of the project will start to unveil themselves.

San, your parents moved from Hong Kong, you grew up in Singapore, and you’ve spent an extended time in the USA. Which side of you are we dealing with these days?

S: I am a composite of all of the above, it is impossible to neglect my present experiences, just as growing up in Singapore and having a huge part of my family from Hong Kong has formed the foundation of who I am.

Are you sad that you are only part of the SG50 craze from afar?

S: Yes, and hence, I am very grateful for the opportunity to work on this project, especially having the opportunity to meet up with other Singaporeans to have our own SG50 craze here in Los Angeles. Also, I have plans to spend much more time in Singapore from 2015 now that school is over, which will probably allow me to join some of the celebrations.

C: I was away and missed out the celebration of 200 years of independence in Chile, which was a great sadness for me. I’m really patriotic when we celebrate, especially every year on Independence Day. I am happy to participate in SG50 from afar, although I would love to be able to visit Singapore, especially after doing this book.


The portrait of Sit Weng San & Colomba Cruz Elton 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 Drawing Triangles by Sit Weng San & Colomba Cruz Elton, please visit:

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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:

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Tell us, Zinkie, how Singaporean are you? Do you use tissue paper packets to chope seats at the hawker centre, or have you queued for Hello Kitty plush toys at McDonald’s?

Based on your two tests, I probably don’t pass lah, but I think I am very Singaporean because I eat, think, breathe and speak like one, and I am self-confessed sibei kiasu with my photography.

While working on this project, I also realised that many people have the misconception that only ah bengs or ah lians or army boys use Singlish. But hey, wrong lor! The whole Singapore does!

What’s your favourite Singlish catchphrase?

Bo-xi-kan and jin-bo-eng (busy, no time)!

From your previous projects, such as Meet the Candi-dates (which documented people playing Candy Crush, 2013) and Republic of Pulau Semakau (about people and trash, 2012), you seem obsessed with social habits. Why?

I am interested in sociological habits and identities that seem to be mundane or banal. Most of my observations come from personal ‘complaints’ or ‘bitching’. (Very Singaporelang hor?) For instance, it can be what I dislike, or what I find wacky. I don’t need to photograph superstars or heroes to make a statement or to make ‘good work’.

What Singaporelang habits do you find the most interesting? And what do you find most disturbing?

Consumption plus hoarding. These two themes are intertwined and can appear overtly or subtly. I see them in myself as well! I am hoping to remix them into something visual.

There are a lot of Singlish phrases in Singapore. How did you select the ones presented in this book? Was there a vote among friends, or did you simply tikam and decide?

This is an ongoing project and I have selected my best (so far) 15 images for I picked the Singlish phrases that I wanted to photograph based on a long list from books, comics and online dictionaries. Then I spoke to ah gongs and ah mahs, professionals, uncles and aunties, people from different races in Singapore, and also young children in primary schools..

Which is one phrase you want to shoot, but weren’t able to include in this book?

Tio Stomp’! For me, the more classic the term, the harder it is to illustrate.

What is the best and worst thing you have heard about your photos?

Best: They really capture a slice of life and in a roundabout way, I make a social statement that hits the viewer at the end of my series.

Worst: Some people have said my works are exaggerated and contrived. I think exaggeration is needed because Singlish is never used in a subtle way. Also, some friends say my photographs are outrageous colour-bombs. But I like that!

Who are your photography heroes?

I am very influenced by street photographers, especially those who have stories in their images, but I would rather not name them.

Complete this sentence: “In 10 years, I hope Singapore will be …”

sibei tok kong but give discount on cost of living.

Is Singlish a behaviour or just a language?

To me, it is a happening way of life.

Give us an example of a funny Singlish exchange you were part of, that left bystanding foreigners looking totally ‘catch no ball’.

I was trying to explain the pronunciation and meaning of piah (to strive hard) to a Thai friend. Ironically it sounded so downbeat and unsure that it didn’t encapsulate the spirit of the term at all! We had a wacky time trying to add emotion to the word.

Do you think the authorities will ever regret trying to discourage Singaporeans from using Singlish?

I don’t think it is a matter of whether the authorities have a say. To me language is about the people on the streets who use it. As language historian Anne Curzan puts it, “there is no objective dictionary out there that is the final arbitrator of what words mean … if a community of speakers is using a word and knows what it means, it’s real.”

It is really a question of attitudes – are we bothered by the question of language change, or do we find it fun, interesting and creative? We are asked to make new music, art … so how about new words?

Given that after going through years of Speak Good English campaigns, we Singaporelangs still stick with Singlish, it probably means that Singlish has withstood the test of time. We just use English and Singlish for different contexts.


The portrait of Zinkie Aw was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of Singaporelang – What the Singlish? by Zinkie Aw, please visit:

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1HuiYing copy

I don’t think many people know the meaning of your Chinese name. Can you tell us what it means and who named you?

My father named me Huiying (惠颖) after consulting Chinese anthroponymy. Even though he claims that the name has no special meaning, I like to believe that it bears the expectations that he has for me. ‘Hui’ (惠) is a name that runs in the family for all the girls of my generation, while ‘ying’ (颖) has two meanings, ‘unique’ and ‘intelligent’.

How did you get involved in photography?

I picked up my first camera when I was 18. After I finished my ‘A’ level exams, I took a basic photography course at a neighbourhood community centre. My father reluctantly bought me a second-hand Canon EOS 100 film camera that I wanted to use for the course. He didn’t believe that my interest would last.

I continued with photography as a hobby when I was in university, but I only took it more seriously in my final year. At that time, I was studying a course that I had zero interest in and the future seemed bleak to me. One day the thought just came to me, “Why not be a photographer?”

While I was trying to find a way to pursue my newfound dream, I came across a photography event where [Tay] Kay Chin was one of the speakers. I Googled his email and wrote to him, asking to assist him and learn from him. To my surprise, he actually replied and set up a meeting with me. I never looked back from there. Objectifs, where I was a participant in their annual Shooting Home workshop, has been pivotal in the development of my photography as well.

When you were younger, you and a few friends attempted to start a photography magazine. What was the rationale and why didn’t it materialise?

That happened a long time ago! I was just starting to explore photography and got roped in by some friends for this idea they had. I have no clue what happened to the idea but the experience taught me that it takes more than a good idea to get things going. Dedication, hard work and focus are equally, if not more important.

You grew up in a family of farmers, but you are a photographer. Is that considered progress?

Definitely not to my family! I suspect my parents still secretly hope that I will find a full-time job one day. I think they don’t really mind what I do for a living, as long as it’s stable and will provide me with a comfortable living.

What brought you to London? And how did that experience change you?

I went to London to do my postgraduate studies in photography. It was a choice I deliberated over for a few years. Prior to that, my photography was self-taught. Even though I had learnt a lot from short courses, workshops and mentors, I felt that there was still so much to learn. I decided that a formal education would allow me to learn the most within the shortest time. The typical kiasu mentality of Singaporeans, as you can see.

After researching the courses available in the US and Europe and visiting some schools, I chose the London College of Communication because the environment in London is more open and would give me more room to explore the practice. I was also more excited about living in London.

After three years of studying and working there, I am now back in Singapore. The experience has been unforgettable, and ranks as one of my top life-changing experiences. My photography has evolved and I have grown more confident and assured. There were many setbacks, of course, and each time my optimism and ‘zen-ess’ helped me overcome each setback.

You must have been asked this a thousand times already, “Isn’t that camera too big for a girl like you?” How would you respond?

Actually, I haven’t been asked that before. Usually I just get a lot of questions about my age and if I’m married. In Southeast Asia especially, people are always surprised that at my age, I’m still single and that my family would allow me to travel so freely by myself. My grandmother used to nag at me that I should stop running around for my work because it’s not appropriate behaviour for a girl.

Do you think it’s harder for women photographers to succeed?

I don’t think it’s harder for women photographers to succeed, but the challenge lies in being able to sustain our practice. The demands of working as a documentary photographer or photojournalist are in conflict with the expectations that most societies have for women. The working hours are irregular and sometimes you have to travel for assignments on short notice. If you have a family with children, I’m not sure how many men would support their wives’ career choice. The other alternative is to sacrifice having a family.

How did you prepare for this project?

The truth is I didn’t do much preparation for this project. No research was necessary because it’s my family – or that was what I thought. But as I was shooting them, I realised how little I understood my family or our history. So I used this opportunity to speak to different members of my family, using their memories to make up for the holes in mine.

Did the family make a lot of images when you were growing up?

The collection in my family archive is pretty impressive and goes all the way back to the 1960s. No one can remember who took the photos, just that there were some cameras lying around and they all took turns to play with it. To this day I still have vivid memories of my childhood — the people, places and specific events. These memories are closely attached to the photos that we have.

Tell us about your long-term project in Laos.

My love affair with Laos goes back to 2011, when I was studying in London. I started working on my MA final project about a proposed high-speed railway line to connect Laos to Thailand and China. This is part of the Trans-Asian Railway Network drawn up by UNESCAP, a railway network that will connect all of Asia to Europe. I chose to work in Laos because it’s one of the missing links in the network. Laos is a poor, undeveloped country that only has 3.5 km of railway track, and this high-speed railway plan is clearly its wildest dream. I was curious about how it was going to achieve it.

Three years later, Laos still has not made any progress on its proposed railway route, and my project has evolved from wanting to document the impact of this railway route to exploring the Laotian culture as it is on the brink of change. Adopting the high-speed train as a metaphor, I travelled along the proposed railway route and documented people and places that will be affected by the development. I’ve been going back to Laos at least twice a year since 2011 to work on this project, and recently I’ve started a new body of work along the Mekong River.

Would you date a photographer?

Actually I’m dating one right now. My life at the moment revolves around photography — my projects, assignments, social events. Even my friends are mostly photographers. It’s boring, right? I don’t think someone who’s not a photographer can understand or fit into my lifestyle.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I see three possible scenarios. One is that I am still working as a photographer, and hopefully still have the energy and passion to be travelling around the world for work and will never stop working on my personal projects. Another vision is that I will follow in my family’s footsteps and continue running our family farm. In a perfect world, these two visions would coexist.

How important are words in your practice?

Words are my first love. As a child, I remember devouring any books I could lay my hands on, from fairy tales to Enid Blyton books to simplified Chinese classical literature. Words brought me to places far away and to different worlds. But I fell out of love with words when I discovered the glossy photos of National Geographic. Those photographs have replaced words as the fuel for my imagination and curiosity, and they transport me to real places, not made-up ones. That’s the magic that I hope the images I create will have. But I recognise that images have their limitations. They are bad at providing context and certain information. That’s when I use words to fill in the gaps.

You must have photography heroes. Who are they?

I have so many of them and they change over time. When I was starting out, I was inspired by Sebastião Salgado. His works are epic, ambitious and beautiful. Most of all, the dedication he has for his projects is out of this world. Shortly after, I started discovering the works of women photographers: Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Susan Meiselas. To this day, their works and achievements continue to motivate me.

At some point I moved away from photojournalism to explore documentary photography. That’s when I started to appreciate more quiet and subtle works of photographers such as Alec Soth, Pieter Hugo and Rinko Kawauchi. Lately, I’ve added some Chinese photographers such as Luo Dan, Yan Ming and Zhang Xiao to my list of inspirations. A lot of them spent years working on their personal projects and the results are pretty amazing.

Can you imagine yourself not being a photographer?

I used to think that I couldn’t do anything except photography. But lately I’ve been entertaining the thought of helping out in my family business. Other than these two areas, I don’t see myself doing anything else.


The portrait of Ore Huiying was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of We Are Farmers by Ore Huiying, please visit:

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我的名字‘惠颖’是我父亲在参考人名学后为我取的。虽然他声称名字没有特殊的含义,但我相信这名字承载着他对我的期望。‘惠’是我的家族中的女孩统一规定的辈份名,而‘颖’有两个意思—— 独特与聪颖。


我第一次接触摄影时,只有十八岁 。那时我刚考完‘A’水准考试,便在邻里联络所报读了摄影基础课程。父亲相当不情愿地买了一架二手相机给我,因为当时他以为我对摄影只有三分钟热度,不可能持久。

之后我升上大学, 把摄影当做业余爱好,直到即将毕业,才认真考虑把摄影当成职业。那时我对所就读的房地产管理系毫无兴趣,对未来感到彷徨,直到有一天萌生了一个念头:“不如当个摄影师吧?”

当我还在思考如何实现这个梦想时,从报章上得知本地摄影大师郑家进先生将在一个摄影活动中担任主讲嘉宾。我立即与他联系,想要跟他学习。想不到他竟然回复了我的电邮,还答应与我见面。那是我梦想跑道的起点。另外,Objectifs (本地的一间摄影中心)也在我的摄影事业里扮演了举足轻重的角色。我在那儿参加了不少课程,包括他们一年一度的Shooting Home课程,也认识了很多志同道合的朋友。





你当时为了什么到伦敦去? 那次的经验对你有何影响?


经过一番仔细的研究与实地参考,我选择了London College of Communication。因为感觉上伦敦的环境比较开放,可以给予我更多的空间去探索摄影这个艺术。相较于其他城市,我更向往在伦敦生活。

在伦敦生活了三年后,我现在回到了新加坡。那段经验很难忘,可以说是我人生的一个转捩点。在这三年中,我的摄影风格改变了, 对摄影的想法有了突破,人也变得更有自信。当然其中遇到很多挫折,但我都以乐观开朗的态度克服了困难。




我不认为女性在摄影这个领域要取得成功会比较困难。我觉得我们面临的挑战是要如何在这个领域中维持最高的水平。作为一个纪实摄影师或摄影记者,我们的责任通常与大多数社会对女性的期望背道而驰。例如工作时间不规律,有时候为了工作必须出远门。 对于一个有家庭与孩子的女摄影师而言,不一定会得到另一半的支持。另一个选择就是放弃组织家庭。






我对老挝的钟爱可以追溯到2011年,当时我还在伦敦留学,开始进行我的硕士毕业作品,主题是老挝提议的高速铁路计划。这条高铁路线将会吧内陆的老挝和泰国、中国连接起来,是属于联合国亚太经社会设计的泛亚铁路网的一部分。老挝是一个贫穷的发展中国家,目前只有 3.5公里的铁路轨道。这个高速铁路计划显然是一个疯狂的梦想。我对老挝要如何去实现它感到好奇。

三年后,老挝的高铁梦想仍然停滞不前。我原来想纪录这条铁路对老挝社会带来的冲击,现在的方向是探索在这个国家面临经济发展的时刻,老挝文化将何去何从? 我沿着拟建的铁路线,记录了即将因为发展计划而改变的人物与景物。自2011年,我为了拍摄这个项目,每年都会回返老挝至少两次。最近,我在老挝开始了一个新的项目,主题是湄公河。


其实我现任的男朋友就是一个摄影师。我此刻的生活围绕着摄影——我的拍摄项目、工作、社交活动等……连我的朋友也大多是摄影师。听起来好无趣,对吗? 我认为不从事这个行业的人很难理解或适应我的生活方式。






我有好多崇拜的摄影大师,我的摄影偶像也随着时间而改变。刚开始时,我的灵感来自巴西摄影师Sebastião Salgado。他的作品宏大又美丽,更令人敬佩的是,他总是竭尽所能完成自己的作品。之后,我开始接触一些女摄影师如Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Susan Meiselas等的作品。至今,她们的作品与成就还不断地启发着我。

在某一个阶段,我远离了新闻摄影,开始探索纪实摄影。这时候我才学会欣赏更安静和微妙的摄影作品,例如Alec Soth, Pieter Hugo and Rinko Kawauch 的作品。近几年,一些中国摄影师例如珞丹,严明与张晓的作品也启发了我。他们花费很多时间摄制个人项目,成就非凡。




The portrait of Ore Huiying was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of We Are Farmers by Ore Huiying, please visit:

Read More