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Nicky Loh is a full-time commercial photographer based in Singapore and Shanghai. He started out as a photojournalist with Reuters and soon expanded his repertoire to specialise in portraiture and documentary photography. In his photographs, he aims to create visuals that are naturalistic and convey an emotional truth. He is drawn to capturing the unguarded moment, the spontaneous interaction, the exchange of a sincere glance – the real intimacy, joy, concentration or excitement in someone’s eyes. Loh’s clients include HSBC, Singapore Tourism Board, Nike, Adidas, Esquire and Bvlgari. Loh also prides himself on being one of the last few fluent speakers of Hainanese in Singapore, and has the uncanny ability to eat chicken rice and kaya toast everyday.

The portrait of Nicky Loh was drawn by Flee Circus.

To purchase a copy of Common Wealth by Nicky Loh, please visit:
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For the past eight years, my family and I have lived at Commonwealth Drive. The first home I ever owned was a small but cosy three-room flat on the seventh floor of block 79. But I’m just a ‘baby’ in the neighbourhood compared to some of my neighbours, who have lived in Commonwealth Drive for most of their lives. This cluster of ten-storey flats – more popularly known as Zhup Lao (“ten floors” in Teochew or Hokkien) – was one of the first satellite towns built in 1962 by the Housing Development Board (HDB), and I’ve heard a wealth of stories about the area from my neighbours and local shop owners.

Last year, HDB announced that these flats would be redeveloped under the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS). It’s sad to think that with the demolition of these blocks, all these old and long-lasting ties will be uprooted and lost forever. I love how this neighbourhood oozes old-world charm with its provision shops, barbers and traditional medicine halls. I’m trying to document as much as I can before it all vanishes.

Many of these things also remind me of my grandmother, who brought me up. I’d like to think that I’m honouring her by being nostalgic in this series of photographs.

To purchase a copy of Common Wealth by Nicky Loh, please visit:
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Spread

Industrial steamers and ovens are working overtime in cramped kitchens, producing an assortment of paus and Teochew kuehs. Just across the street, a shop owner is selling joss paper to the bereaved. Less than a five-minute walk away, retired Comfort taxis are being scrapped for metal.

This is the organised chaos of Defu Industrial estate, a gathering of more than 1,000 factories in an area larger than 240 football fields.

The seeds for this photographic project were planted a year ago, when we visited a carpenter at Defu Lane to fabricate a prop for a shoot. The repeated patterns of stacked-up air-conditioning compressors, office chairs and used vehicles caught our eye. Our continued research revealed that this world of industrial companies co-existed with a world of food manufacturing, in a wonderful rojak manner.

The pronunciation of Defu sounds like the Mandarin phrase for ‘to gain prosperity’. This certainly rings true for the many manual labourers who work in the area.

For Mr Neo Lye Kuan, a jovial 60-year old, the 20 years he has spent roasting coffee in a sweltering hot factory space meant that he could afford to send two of his children to university.

It’s trendy now to celebrate Tiong Bahru’s village of artisans who make gourmet coffee and sew leather saddles for bicycles. But lost to our common consciousness are these original artisans, many of whom continue to ply a trade in sunset industries.

The Woo family’s Kwong Hoh Hing Sauce Factory is one such example. In an open yard, vats of soy beans are left to ferment for more than a year to produce soy sauce – a method hailing from the family’s lineage in southern China.

The soy sauce factory and other neighbouring businesses were relocated to the estate when it was built in the 1970s.

Change is long overdue for the well-worn estate, with its dusty roads and often illegally-parked vehicles. In order to contain pollution and to optimise land use, the government has launched a 20-year plan to revitalise the area.

Artist impressions of the new Defu Industrial Park show tree-lined parks and sleek glass façades. Modern industrial complexes will replace the existing factories. Amenities like childcare centres and medical clinics have also been planned for.

With the changes, the factory floor space in the estate will increase by about five times.

Some of the present chaos will no doubt be organised into neatly stacked industrial buildings. With that, much of its photographic charm too might be lost.

To purchase a copy of DEFU by Sam&Sam, 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:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/products/defu-by-sam-chin-samuel-he

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Sam&Sam has been making portraits together since 2012. The team consists of Sam Chin and Samuel He.

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Sam Chin is a Singapore-based photographer who seeks to reflect societal and environmental issues through his pictures. In 2012, his work on migrant workers, SuperHeroes, was exhibited at the National Museum of Singapore as part of the show, 10 Years of Shooting Home. Sam graduated from the School of Art, Design & Media, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography and digital imaging.

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Samuel He is a director at Weave. Besides photographs, he also makes documentary and commercial films. Previously, he spent four years as a photojournalist at the Straits Times. Samuel is a graduate of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at NTU.

onthestreets.org
www.weave.com.sg
www.samuelhe.com

The portrait of Sam&Sam was drawn by Flee Circus.

To purchase a copy of DEFU by Sam&Sam, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/products/defu-by-sam-chin-samuel-he

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edwin's print

 

We The Commuters
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 printsale@twentyfifteen.sg

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Edwin Koo was born in Singapore in 1978. He graduated with first class honours from Nanyang Technological University’s School of Communication Studies, specialising in journalism. In 2003, he stumbled into photography when he landed a full-time job as a photojournalist in the now-defunct tabloid Streats. In 2008, after five years as a news photographer, he left the newsroom and moved to Nepal with his newly-wedded wife. As an independent documentary photographer, Koo focused mainly on issues of human displacement and a lost sense of identity. His pet subjects included Tibetan exiles, Maoist guerrillas and Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

In 2011, Koo returned home. His first personal project in Singapore – dedicated to his newborn son – was to document the historic 2011 general elections. This culminated in his first solo exhibition, Notes from a Singapore Son (2011), a body of work reflecting the currents of change in Singapore’s political landscape.

Koo’s work has been recognised internationally. In 2009, he was awarded the Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography and his work on Pakistan won a third placing in the UNICEF Photo of the Year. In 2012, he was awarded the ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu, which recognises a Singaporean artist for an outstanding body of photographic work.
   

The portrait of Edwin Koo was drawn by Flee Circus.

To purchase a copy of Transit by Edwin Koo, 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:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/transit-by-edwin-koo

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Transit is based on the intra-city railway system in Singapore, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT). Built in 1987, it is used by close to 2.8 million people daily.

I started photographing the MRT in 2011. I had come home after living in Nepal for two years and I was surprised at how crowded our trains had become. During the 2011 general elections, transport became a hot potato issue. When I couldn’t get onto the trains myself, I photographed people who were forced to the edge of the train doors to show how dire the situation was. These photographs were born from a sense of frustration and alienation.

When my anger subsided, the mental imprint did not fade away. What I saw from my first photographs intrigued me. I started looking at the seminal works done on trains – Bruce Davidson’s Subway (1986), Walker Evan’s Many Are Called (1938), Michael Wolfe’s Tokyo Compression (2010), just to name a few. What could I add to this narrative?

Eventually I returned to photographing train doors during peak hours. The crowded trains presented an ever-changing theatre each time the doors opened and closed, revealing interesting protagonists, diverse lives and a myriad of emotions. The camera gave me a chance to see what my eye would have missed – a collective portrait of Singapore, always in transit.

As commuters today, we distract ourselves endlessly with our smartphones or iPads, to anaesthetise ourselves from the unnatural and uncomfortable experience of transit. We create private spaces for ourselves in the most public of spaces.

As commuters, we observe an unspoken rule not to stare at each other’s misery.

As a photographer, I broke that last rule twice over – I recorded the stare, and continue to be amazed by what the stare reveals.

To purchase a copy of Transit by Edwin Koo, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/transit-by-edwin-koo

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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.

S:
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:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/drawing-triangles-by-sit-weng-san-colomba-cruz-elton

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