The Photographers


You seem to have a secret desire to be a town planner or architect. Are you looking for a career change soon?

I guess you’ve asked this question because it’s coming through in the photographs that I’m making? When I was younger, one of my ambitions was to be an architect. Town planning would be fun – I like going through blueprints and re-organising things that are not planned properly. In fact, I enjoy it so much that I have done a few projects where I looked at space planning and organised some of those plans. As for a career change, well, I wouldn’t mind that either.

Which version of Photoshop did you use for this series? Or are you still making the montages in the darkroom?

To be honest, I don’t even know which version of Photoshop I’m using. I guess it doesn’t matter as what I did to the images was just to convert them into black and white, and to adjust the levels. Everything else in the image was already there!

I have stopped merging images in the darkroom for a long time now. I miss the smell of chemicals.

Are you trying to change the world through photography?

I won’t say that I am trying to change the world – that is a high calling, you know. I would not dare say that at all for any of my works. I’m at most trying to convey my messages of questioning through the use of this medium that I think suits me. But hopefully in the course of my photography, I’m able to change the way people look at the things around them and help them to think of new ideas for themselves.

I always feel that images that are most impactful are those that leave an aftertaste, hopefully a good one. Those images that continue to linger in the minds of the viewers long after they have left the gallery or put down the magazine. It is very sad when anyone goes away from a show without remembering what they have seen, because the images were just pretty pictures without any impact whatsoever.

Have you considered the possibility that some of the ‘mistakes’ you highlighted in this book were inspired by your previous series, 30th Feb? Maybe you gave the authorities some crazy ideas about what to do with these old structures – art inspiring life, right?

I have always been influenced by Surrealism and I cannot run away from that. I was deeply inspired by what David Copperfield did in his illusions and that sparked my imagination at an early age. Later I looked at the works of Salvador Dali, M. C. Escher, Frank Lloyd Wright, René Magritte and Isamu Noguchi. They all had a great influence on my work in terms of a surrealistic approach.

I always enjoy the world of illusions as I can wander into an imaginary space and discover new spaces and experiences. In practice, all my work has some hints of surrealism in them. I guess it is deeply embedded in my thought process. So, yes, I’m also inspired by the work that I did for 30th Feb. Did I give the authorities the idea to leave some of these buildings as they are? Maybe they re-interpreted my 30th Feb images and this is what resulted. I guess they have turned public spaces into surrealistic spaces for people to experience. How nice!

Are you imaginative or creative? Is there a difference?

I think there is a difference, but imagination and creativity influence and affect each other. I would say I’m more imaginative. To be imaginative is intentional, whereas to be creative is like the sudden lighting up of a bulb in the creative mind. Before a shoot, I usually stare at a scene for a long while and imagine all sorts of things happening within that frame. For example, I would often wonder what if three cars would enter the scene at that particular space? What if I have two guys walking into the frame? etc. If I think that would enhance the image, then I wait. I normally take a long time to shoot and it’s hard work. I’m very intent and deliberate when I’m imagining my images.

On the other hand, to be creative is to be able to come up with a great idea quickly and still leave the audience wondering, “How did he do that?” That’s what we call the “Eureka” moment. I don’t think I belong to that group.

You are an educator, a photographer, a curator and an administrator. If you had to choose only one, which would be your favourite role?

Wow, this is seriously tough. I think I would still be a photography educator. Can? I always see that as my primary function and it will always be. The reason I say that is because I am an educator at heart, but at the same time, I am a photographer. In blending these two, I have quite naturally wound up teaching photography.

Actually, at this point in life, I think it is hard for me to dissect the different roles. Perhaps the closest analogy is to say that I wear different hats at different times depending on what is required of me. But having said that, I think education takes up the biggest chunk in my life. Of course, I teach other stuff as well, for example, leather-making. Few people know that I do that kind of thing.

Many tertiary institutions in Singapore now offer photography courses. Do you think it’s necessary?

The various tertiary institutions are offering courses in different genres, so to me it is alright. However, educators also need to understand the different sectors of the industry and guide students accordingly. That’s critical as well, or else the students will realise only later that there’s no job waiting for them upon graduation and they’ll end up doing something else. That would be rather sad.

Assuming that there is still a need for photography education, how would you teach it?

I see photography being broken down into three portions: camera, craft and concept. That’s how I teach photography. The ‘camera’ portion, the ‘how’, is now easily found on the Internet. One can pick up, rather easily, the technical aspects of operating a camera. I think this portion will become less important in the future as one would be able to get online tutorials about how shutter or the aperture works. It is already moving towards that way.

However, I believe that teaching craft and concept are still as critical and will continue to need a platform such as a school to be carried out. This is because the schools provide a space for the students to discover, try things out, fail, think and analyse, among many other critical thinking aspects, in order for the students to grow in their craft and concept. The ‘how’ sets the foundation, but in education, we cannot just look at the ‘how’. The ‘what’ and the ‘why’ is far more important after one has hopefully mastered the ‘how’.

I’m not suggesting that the ‘how’ is not important. Rather, it is the foundation and one should not be stifled by the basics of shutter speeds, aperture and ISO, for example. But being fluent in the basics, one has to move to the greater heights of learning the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of photography.

We’ve lost count of the number of children you have, but how do you find time to do all this and also be a dad and husband?

Hahaha, I still only have four kids. The oldest is 16 and the youngest will be turning nine soon. First of all, the kids came at different times, so we’ve made adjustments throughout this process.

To make photographs, I try to wake up earlier than the family and come back before they are up. Sometimes I work around their schedule. Of course there are times when I really have to leave them for a while to concentrate on my shoots. For this series, they were even helping me to look out for ‘senseless spaces’ that I could shoot and they would tell me when they found one.

What if one of them wants to be a photographer like you?

I guess I will have to guide them properly and let them know the ups and downs of being a photographer. But so far, none of them are showing any interest.

Please tell us you have a lot of photographic chemicals stocked up somewhere because it would be sad to see someone who does magic in the darkroom retire from wet printing.

I do have various types of chemicals stocked up. I still have packets of D76, D23, Fuji and Ilford Fixers, and other stuff. Currently, the most important is sodium sulphite as that is needed for doing my PN51/55 films. I used these films for my previous series, Project 37. It is a type of instant polaroid film that delivers high resolution images. I am still using them now and then.

Have you had to tell a student that he has no talent in photography and that he is better off doing something else?

Hm, I’m not sure that I have uttered those exact words to anyone, but I guess I might have told some people that there are other avenues in life. I do remember telling students that over the course of my teaching, I have come to terms with the fact that not all students will end up as designers or photographers even though they have gone through this path. Some will realise that they have found a new love for another profession or area of work, that there are others better than them, or simply that they have no talent actually and do not want to carry tripods all their life.

If you have a chance to put together a plan for a photography museum in Singapore, what are the first three things you will tell them?

First, get a team of well-established photographers to put their brains together for this. Second, collect local works first. It’s only after settling the first two items that we should start to put the museum together physically.

Are you happy with the progress in the local photography scene in the past decade?

In my opinion,the past decade has seen great improvements compared to the years that came before. Much has changed, especially with the different schools and private institutions, as well as the rise of digital photography which has made photography even more accessible. I attribute the greatest change to willing people who were caring enough to share their experiences and teach younger photographers.

In the past, the skills of photography were like a closely guarded secret that could not be revealed outside the ‘clan’. I had very different experiences in the 1980s with photographers who basically told me off and said that they would not want to “break their rice bowl” to teach me. But schools (both public and private), clubs, associations and other loosely formed photography gatherings have contributed to the progress of photography in the local scene.

Can you name three young Singapore photographers we should be watching out for?

I find it hard to try and name the rising stars. I would rather look at the perseverance of young photographers – those who are able to stand the test of time, rather than the one-time winner who does nothing after that. So I would prefer not to name the photographers that we should be watching out for, although I have some names in mind.


The portrait of Chow Chee Yong 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 Senseless Spaces by Chow Chee Yong, please visit:

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cheeyongChow Chee Yong graduated with a BFA (Honours) degree in photography in 1994 from Western Michigan University, USA. In 1998, he received the JCCI Art Scholarship to pursue his graduate studies and in 2001, he received his MA (Distinction) degree in photography from Musashino Art University in Tokyo. Chee Yong has participated in more than 40 solo and group exhibitions in galleries and museums in China, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States of America.

Chee Yong’s works have been featured in publications such as Asian Geographic, Passages North (USA), Photo Asia, OP Editions (Hong Kong), m2photosynthesis, Light Trails, Things unseen, Places not been, 11+1 (Japan), Nippon Camera (Japan), Asahi Camera (Japan), Photographs by the Next Generation: Young Portfolio (Japan), CANVAS – IMF Photography Book and Resonance – Songs of our Forefathers, among others. His first publication, 30th Feb, a hardcover book of his surrealistic images, was launched in Singapore in conjunction with his sixth solo exhibition in February 2008.

In July 2010, Chee Yong was featured on Channel NewsAsia’s Primetime programme, Asia Exposed, which was aired internationally. In 2011, Chee Yong was the first and only Singaporean among 15 photographers from around the globe to be recognised and incepted in the 2011 Loweprofessionals Professional Photographer Showcase. In that same year, he held his seventh solo show, Project 37, which documented the demolition of the former National Stadium of Singapore.

Chee Yong’s original prints can be found in the Permanent Collection of Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts (Japan), Permanent Art Collection of the National Museum of Singapore (Singapore), Permanent Art Collection of the Singapore Sports Museum (Singapore), Permanent Art Collection of The Private Museum (Singapore), Epigram Pte Ltd (Singapore), Kay Ngee Tan Architects Gallery (Singapore), Center of Photography (Japan), Back in Time International (USA), OP Editions (Canada & Hong Kong), Rothmans of Pall Mall (Singapore) and various collections in Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States of America.

Chee Yong can be contacted at +65 9477-0673 or

To purchase a copy of Senseless Spaces by Chow Chee Yong, please visit:

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hornet wings_Vespa affinis

Hornet Wings Vespa Affinis
Edition of three, plus one artist’s proof
S$1200 per print*


* By purchasing a print, you are making a direct and important contribution to the publications of twentyfifteen books. Without your generous support, the financial burden of self-publishing them will be significantly higher for us.

About the print:
– Paper size: 17″ x 22″
– Image size: 15″ x 15″
– Each print is carefully made with Epson professional printer, using original Epson inks.
– The paper for this edition is Museo Silver Rag, 300gsm.
– You can find out more about the paper specifications for Museo Silver Rag paper here.
– Signed with title, edition number and year, in ink, recto

Singapore shipping:
– Free hand delivery for any Singapore addresses.
– Each print is delivered in top grade Mylar or equivalent.

Overseas shipping:
- we will work with individual buyer on the best shipping option.
– Additional charges to be borne by buyer.
- Each print is delivered in top grade Mylar or equivalent, with additional protection for shipping

More info about digital printing in general:
- Wilhelm Imaging Research is the world authority on stability and preservation of traditional and digital photographs.

How to make an order:
Place your order by emailing me at

You can also buy directly from our online store at

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Edition of three, plus one artist’s proof
S$1200 per print*


* By purchasing a print, you are making a direct and important contribution to the publications of twentyfifteen books. Without your generous support, the financial burden of self-publishing them will be significantly higher for us.

About the print:
– Paper size: 17″ x 22″
– Image size: 13.8″ x 20.8″
– Each print is carefully made with Epson professional printer, using original Epson inks.
– The paper for this edition is Museo Silver Rag, 300gsm.
– You can find out more about the paper specifications for Museo Silver Rag paper here.
– Signed with title, edition number and year, in ink, recto

Singapore shipping:
– Free hand delivery for any Singapore addresses.
– Each print is delivered in top grade Mylar or equivalent.

Overseas shipping:
- we will work with individual buyer on the best shipping option.
– Additional charges to be borne by buyer.
- Each print is delivered in top grade Mylar or equivalent, with additional protection for shipping

More info about digital printing in general:
- Wilhelm Imaging Research is the world authority on stability and preservation of traditional and digital photographs.

How to make an order:
Place your order by emailing me at

You can also buy directly from our online store at

Read More


You seem very obsessed with the whole notion of home, what’s here in Singapore that you cannot find in New York City?

It used to be just a sense of personal history, but that has developed over time. Singapore still owns my childhood and my first kiss. Basically it’s a place I can still dearly call home.

Have you entertained the idea of ‘coming home’ for good, like setting up a permanent practice here?

I have always been doing that in various forms, such as engaging with communities and youngsters back in Singapore. Locality doesn’t make much a difference these days. What is most important is what can I offer to the people I encounter. Setting up my practice in Singapore may not be something I consider ‘useful’ or ‘purposeful’ for myself and others.

Humour us for a moment: imagine you’d never left Singapore, what might you be doing today?

Probably a hybrid of Tay Kay Chin and Darren Soh, with a splash of Heman Chong. Most likely as an educator and an active member in the Singapore art scene, but I would also definitely have a taxi license or a real estate license.

Are you a different Clang when doing commercial work and when pursuing personal work? If yes, how many other different Clangs are there?

There is only one Clang. I know when I do my commissioned work, the purpose is to finance my art projects and support my family. Having a purpose makes things easier and clearer.

What inspires you?

The Desires in Living.

Are you a typical Singaporean male who dreams about dating SQ stewardesses?

By the time I noticed these girls, I was already married. It doesn’t help that Elin always travels with me, haha …

Do you think you will be getting ‘special treatment’ from Singapore Airlines after this book?

Errrr … I sure hope not. This project says how important Singapore Airlines has been as a part of our lives.

It’s hard to talk about John Clang without talking about your wife Elin. Is it true she is a very harsh critic of yours?

We tend to have very intense discussions and to outsiders, it’s hard to believe we are still married. I constantly have to defend my new ideas in front of her, before I even photograph them. That’s why I’m pretty slow in production.

RSAF fighter pilots used Singlish to ‘smoke’ and outsmart their US counterparts in a recent dogfight exercise. Do Elin and you deploy the same trick to pass secret messages to each other?

This is easy. I just talk the way I do. No one understands except Elin.

This series of photos revolves primarily around the Singapore Girl, an icon (or some would say, a representative) of Singapore. Will you be tackling any other Singapore icons in the near future?

Not exactly, unless it serves a meaningful purpose. The “Singapore Girl” is just a disguise, an invitation to see more than just the surface.

Of all the Singapore icons, which do you think represents us the best?

The Singaporean. If you travel a lot, you will realise we are truly unique. This icon loves to talk about food, bitch about politics and complain about CPF, while the Merlion only vomits.

Some captions for the photos in this series seem rather morbid, such as “I don’t want to die. Help me.” Is this supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, or is there an underlying message I didn’t get?

This was a conversation I had with my uncle when he had terminal cancer. All the writings are conversations or events lingering in my memory.

One of your photos has this caption “No, Singapore is not China”. Did you get asked that a lot when you were in the US?

Yes, I got asked it a lot in the early 2000s. All I had to do is to mention “Michael Fay”. Right now, I just mention “the most expensive country in the world.”

When you were shooting this series, were you ever asked if you are shooting a new Singapore Airlines campaign? If so, what was your response?

People are very nice towards us when they think we are doing the campaign. It’s obvious that they can relate to it and are proud of this icon. We just tell them it is an art project, but they are probably too amused by what they see to understand what art means.

Is there one shot in this series that you wanted to make, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t)? If so, tell us what it is.

It’s very unlike me to not do it because I couldn’t, and if I wouldn’t, it must be tacky. For example, no MBS [Marina Bay Sands] in the background. That is currently the impression of what Singapore looks like in some foreigners’ eyes. I’d rather they remember Merlion.

You are mentoring a lot of Singapore-based photographers – is this your way of giving back?

I never think of it in such a way. I have also mentored non Singapore-based artists. I just think it will be very useful for the youngsters to have someone they can talk to, with regards to their practice and their daily concerns. I often wish I’d had that someone when I was younger.

Would you rather be famous or creative?

Creative is overrated and being famous is overhyped. I would rather be Clang, it is more balanced and I can focus on simply honing or crafting my vision.

You are already so established in the art world but still came back to Singapore to complete a master’s degree. You’re still a very kiasu Singaporean hor?

Next will be a doctorate degree. Dr Clang sounds right, no? I simply want to be immersed in the academic world so that my approach and belief in education can be more rounded. What I absorb will be useful to my students or mentees.

I am sure people in high places value your opinions about art and culture. Will you consider being a Nominated MP?

Yes, if it truly serves a purpose and if I can actually make a difference.

The portrait of John Clang 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 The Land of My Heart by John Clang, please visit:

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John Clang is a visual artist working in photography and film. His works examine and raise questions of the world he lives in, providing not pictorial documentation but an intimate mental reflection of one man’s mind.

Clang lives and works in New York and Singapore. Other than creating his art, he plays a lot of ping pong in Chinatown.

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Oct 7, Tue, 7:30PM
National Museum of Singapore
93 Stamford Road, Singapore 178897

The Land of My Heart is a new series of work by visual artist John Clang, resembling picture postcards addressed to Singapore ahead of her 50th birthday. By re-appropriating the icon of the Singapore Girl, he contemplates on vestiges of identity and personal memories encapsulated in nostalgic spaces of a rapidly evolving motherland, after having based his practice abroad for close to 16 years. Travel with Clang on his emotional journey and own a unique piece of his memory.

Book signing session included.

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The Straits Times, Home cover, July 29, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 10.22.01 am

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Tan Ngiap Heng has a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering and a doctorate in nonlinear dynamics, both from University College London. His first move into the arts was undertaking a one-year certificate in dance from the London Contemporary Dance School. After he returned to Singapore, he worked for the Singapore Arts Centre (now known as Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay), where he photographed performing arts groups for the Arts Magazine. His clients expanded to other arts groups and organisations, and eventually he expanded his business to wedding photography and then commercial portrait photography. His commercial clients include Deutsche Bank, NTUC Income and the National University of Singapore.

Ngiap Heng has always retained his close relationship with the arts scene. He was the resident photographer for the Singapore Dance Theatre in 2007 and 2008, and his work was exhibited and published in Dance Me Through The Dark: The Photography Of Tan Ngiap Heng (2009). In 2012 he helped to found Photovoice SG, an organisation that runs participatory photographic workshops for fringe communities.

In 2007 Ngiap Heng won an international photography award, and one of his photographs for Singapore Dance Theatre was on the cover of Dance Europe. In 2008, his dance photography for Keppel Corporation’s calendar was accepted for the Photo District News Annual. His dance photography has also been exhibited at the Fotoseptiembre Photo Festival in San Antonio, Texas. Ngiap Heng was the Early Entry award winner of the One Life: International Photography competition 2012, and a nominee for Singapore’s prestigious ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu award in 2013.

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MatthewYour pictures give this sense that you need and want to be understood. Do you think young Singaporeans live a life that is very different from their parents’?

For this series, I reacted to however I felt in that period of my life to issues affecting me or to recent events reported in the media. It’s very unplanned until an idea hits me, then I’ll start on it as soon as there is a free slot in the studio for me to experiment. I don’t care if no one understands, likes or buys my work. Personal work is one area of photography where I just want and need to do whatever fancies me. Just making the images and sharing them makes me ecstatic.

I hope I’ll never be in a position where I need to depend on sales of my prints to survive and to make pretty photos just for that reason. I’d rather kill myself. But I do care if it offends anyone – that is not something I wish to do with my work.

I’m not sure about other Singaporeans, but my parents definitely live very differently from the way I do. My mom, for instance, had her first taste of ramen only late last year, at the age of 57.

Is the real Matthew always angry? Or is there a soft spot we don’t know about?

I’m not sure if angry is the right word. I think I’m more cheeky than anything else, and I’m also very passionate about my views. I have plenty of soft spots, and they are my family and friends who have stood by me all these years. Or it could also be eye candy that is currently catching my attention!

You seem to be very obsessed with the vices that many people would be too ashamed to be associated with. Tell us something we are too cowardly to admit.

The vices that have been seemingly celebrated in my book are pretty tame. In my generation, smoking, drinking, free-wheeling sex with multiple partners are very common. Kids younger than I am frequently regale me with crazier stories than mine.

Young punks like you are irresponsible and don’t care about Singapore – do you agree or disagree?

Hahahahaha, honestly I’m not that young anymore and I really feel the pain the next day if I drink too much. I probably party harder than most kids half my age but I’m losing the naïveté that comes with youth. If I didn’t care about Singapore, my work would not have presented any criticism of it at all. I love this place way too much to not care about it.

Who are your influences in photography?

First and foremost, TODAY staff photojournalist Wee Teck Hian, whom I’ll always admire for his crazy work ethic and how he tirelessly revisits his subjects and explores every lighting condition through sunlight, cloudy skies, rain and night until he satisfies his own set of punishing criteria. Other Singaporeans whose work I love and deeply respect are Tay Kay Chin, Robert Zhao, Francis Ng, John Clang, Jing Quek and Don Wong. I also like the works of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki for his honesty.

Nick Knight and his statement, “If you want reality, look out of the window”, probably jolted me out of the comfort zone of merely recording my life and the people around it. I didn’t know what or how to stage my experiences and it took a number of years of soul-searching and the right platform – Calibre Pictures, the studio which represents me commercially – before I decided to start staging a series of self-portraits. I definitely will revisit my previous work as I regard them as lifelong projects.

Tracey Emin, who exercises absolutely no censorship on any aspect of her life she wishes to share with us, is a big influence as well.

You have a series of suggestive images of your ex-girlfriends. Do you photograph them at the beginning of each relationship, knowing that it will eventually end? Or do you do that when you feel that it is about to run out of steam?

I started photographing one of my partners at the age of 17 when I first picked up the camera. It was out of curiosity, an extreme urge to learn fast and emulate what I saw coming out from my heroes as well as a means of recording my time with that particular girlfriend. Everything I saw from Mert and Marcus to Juergen Teller got replicated with my partner. In a way, she was my closest companion and guinea pig. We still keep in touch as friends today. With my second partner, I was more confident and more serious about documentation. That resulted in a coherent series, Sunshine Sarahann (2006–2008). It speaks of naïveté, youthfulness, love and plenty of fun.

I only start photographing my girlfriends when things start getting serious and I’m comfortable enough to make a picture of them without them thinking I’m weird. It happens only with women whom I really love being with. One of the corny lines I tell them is, “Jialat, now I have a folder with your name in my desktop, this is getting serious.” Corny as it sounds, it does work.

Although I make a living as a commercial photographer and I shoot models and people I’ve never met before, I’m not comfortable doing it without this excuse. I can’t do street photography and that is the reason why my subjects have always been people who are close to me – my family, friends, partners and maybe even my colleagues in the future.

I tried documenting another partner who refused to let me make ugly and fun photos, and insisted she had to look good in every image I made of her. We fought all the time as this was an area of photography I retreated into, to make whatever images the way I wanted to. I couldn’t deal with the interference so I gave up shooting her. Should have broken up but oh well, I guess the sex was too good.

Can you be taken seriously?

Definitely. The issues I touch on here all revolve around my life. I’m very sure many aspects of it do not differ from people I’ve met who find difficulty juggling the same problems. Despite me conveying my hedonistic behaviour and always injecting a cheeky or rebellious spin into my work, these images are also my way of depicting all my heartfelt opinions on the current state of Singapore right now. My dearest friends know me as an party animal, but they also know how serious I get when it comes to work and my practice.

You missed out on an art scholarship and that made you depressed and upset for a while. How do you think your life would be different if you had furthered your studies?

I would’ve stayed on in the UK as an illegal immigrant after my studies and tried my best not to get caught so I don’t have to return.

I wouldn’t say I was depressed, just upset. Losing out on the scholarship meant not having a shortcut out of Singapore to experience one of the craziest places in the world for the creative industries. Plus it was the birthplace of the punk subculture, which is one of the biggest influences on my work. It was a dream then for me to be there and soak everything in. Having grown wiser and older, it doesn’t affect me anymore as I can always make a trip there to take my chances when I’m ready.

Honestly I’m not very sure, but [if I had furthered my studies] I would probably be trying my best to make a career out of photography in both the fashion and art scene. I’m still saving up to give it a go next year.

Your early series on playground punks in Bukit Batok shows us a rather different side of Singapore. Do you think you were being honest or you just wanted to shock the audience?

Those kids were people I had grown up with even before I picked up the camera. Since I’m very shy about photographing strangers on the streets, it was only natural [when I started] to turn the camera inside out and focus it on people whom I spend the most time with. Even with the friends knowing me so bloody well, it took a long time for them to warm up to my presence and not shy away or pose for the camera whenever it was focused on them.

It has never been my intention to shock or offend anyone with my images. This is me sharing a slice of my life with you, presenting it to you raw like that. In fact, I find the images boring and tame when compared to Nick Knight’s images of skinheads or Dash Snow’s crazy images of him and his friends high on drugs and orgies. My work is all about honesty and connecting with people on the streets. Nothing high-brow at all. You can even say that I’m reaching out to the masses and saying, “Hey, you are not alone in this mess, count me in too.” If my honesty is shocking, so be it.

Call me selfish or whatever you may want to, but this is the only kind of work I ever want to do for myself. I’ll never be interested in bringing your attention to poverty or oppression in a country. Only issues that affect me and my closest ones. But war and street riots, on the other hand, excite me. I’ve always loved the notion of getting up close and personal, but then again I might behave differently when I’m actually there.

What photo subjects have not been tackled in Singapore? And which ones have your name written on them?

Right off the top of my head, I’m thinking of the red light districts although I know of a friend tackling this right now. Our education system from a teacher’s or a student’s point of view would be spectacular. I wish I’d had the foresight to tackle that back in my tumultuous secondary school days. Imagine all the silly street-corner gangs and fights, glue sniffing and sex on HDB staircases. It would be very hard for me to get access like that now. I would also love to be granted access to follow a military recruit from the start to the end of his two years in National Service. I did something similar with my series Two Years of Eternity, but within a very limited time. It was too short to make something really meaningful.

I would love to document my homosexual friends next but again, it is a really sensitive topic that I need to approach carefully.

Tell us about your early works. In what ways have they changed you or your photography?

Bukit Batok Boys (2007) and Ah Pa were two of the earliest series that I worked on at the same time. Bukit Batok Boys focused on a group of boys I grew up with and life on the fringe. Most have sadly or happily grown out of that phase and are now responsible working adults who have quit drinking and even gotten themselves married! It’s sad because I rarely see them anymore, maybe just once a year on Hari Raya if someone makes the effort to organise something. But it’s happy because everyone turned out fine despite spending so much time on the streets and doing so badly in school.

From 'Ah Pa'

From ‘Ah Pa’

Ah Pa marked a turning point for me, where over a period of four years I gained my dad’s trust and I could wander into his bedroom and photograph him with a flash even when he was sleeping. It took some time for him to stop posing for the camera as well. It helped us bond as father and son. Before the series started, we rarely spoke and it was all about shouting matches and slamming doors in each other’s faces.

I had a cheeky project entitled Four Million Frowns in response to the government’s “Four Million Smiles” campaign that was launched to welcome IMF and World Bank delegates to Singapore in 2006. It was my personal take on the revolting fact that Singaporeans were being invited to smile for money. There were reports of schoolkids sent by the busloads to have their smiles photographed, willing or unwillingly.

I Still Like It Raw on the Table is one project that I really like a lot where I’ve placed restrictions on myself to document my friends, family and colleagues on and around only a table. It’s an observation of societal norms and restrictions, and surprisingly, it shows us how similar or dissimilar our behaviour can be.

Can you tell us what you do when you’re not taking photos?

Trying to split my time between the different ladies in my life who ask me out every night – I wish! I’m usually busy editing my commercial work, but you will most likely find me at a coffeeshop in Boat Quay drinking or playing mahjong in the studio where I work. I like to think that my nights are a lot tamer these days.

I need my coffee, cigarettes and the papers before I start or end the day. You can call me a news junkie, but it’s research for me as this series does show my reactions to recent developments in Singapore.

Or I could be spending time breathing in subcultures and people on the fringe of society because I love refreshing new experiences.

A lot of your images reflect a certain cheekiness towards Singapore, but it appears that underlying that is a love for the country as well. Tell us, what is your aspiration for Singapore?

I hope and pray that we will mature as a nation and be a lot more open to EVERYTHING. All the recent displays of generalisation and xenophobia disgust me. Of course I crack jokes that play on racial stereotypes all the time, but I never mean those words I say. Censorship has got to stop going overboard as well, but I do see things getting more relaxed throughout my past ten years of practice as an artist.

I feel that some areas in Singapore just have to be left to flourish and mature in grime and chaos. Geylang is one good example, I love the hustle and bustle there, the hive of criminal activities. Little India is amazing in a similar sense. If all this is cleaned up, I fear that Singapore would be way too boring.
1517505_10152066077916819_1801869949_nTo celebrate this book, I know you have gotten a new tattoo – the symbol for anarchy – behind your ear. Would you say that you are an anarchist? If so, what are you fighting for or against?

Songs by the Sex Pistols have always been a huge influence on me and my work. I love the life, energy, cheekiness and devil-may-care rebellion in their lyrics. Just sample the lyrics from their song “God Save the Queen” (1977):

God save the queen
’Cause tourists are money
And our figurehead
Is not what she seems

It created a controversy when it first came out and is now celebrated as a classic. The song blew me away with its lack of respect for authority figures and its cheekiness. Another classic of theirs is “Anarchy in the UK”.

I wouldn’t say I’m fighting against the system but rather, voicing my displeasure with policies in general. I have another image, Anarchy in Singapore Two, which has not been shown here. It’s a critique on the perceived lack of freedom as well as red tape and the ever-present yet invisible OB markers. This is something very real that I’ve experienced recently in the editing process of this book, where a certain image was rejected due to its controversial subject matter featuring the national flag and the Merlion.

Are you ever worried that your works will get you into trouble with the law or society?

Earlier, I said that I never wish for my work to offend anyone. I reserve the right to express my views or “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins”. Honestly I do feel my works are a lot tamer than Sex Pistols lyrics.

To purchase a copy of A Little Bit of Me from Everything Else by Matthew Teo, please visit:
The portrait of Matthew Teo was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

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