In Our Own Images

At some point in every photographer’s life, he or she would probably ask, “Why do I photograph? What should I photograph? What do I care most about?” Intimately intertwined with these serious questions are practical considerations such as “Where should I live?”.

Very early in my journey into photography, I came across a newspaper article headlined, “The camera in your hands is not a toy”. In it, the writer proposed that, in the right hands, the camera can be an agent of change.

Obviously, that’s if you have something really powerful to say.

To me, especially in my younger days, this challenge to change the world with images was really noble.  Why shouldn’t every serious image maker, myself included, aspire to achieve this lofty goal? So we traverse the globe, camera in one hand and notebook in the other.  In search of the ‘right’ and ‘perfect’ stories, many of us wander far away from home.

But the impulse to make images isn’t always driven by this desire to ‘change the world’.

Many just want to show the world how others live. Still others choose a totally unfamiliar place to hone their ability to see and to perfect their craft, so that when their moment finally arrives, they are ready.

American photographer Alex Webb, for instance, found his early oeuvre right here in Istanbul and continues to find in this foreign city fodder for his work. His obsession is part sentimentality, part familiarity.  As a young American trying to be worldly, he visited Istanbul with his family for just a day in 1968, but the charm of this city and the warmth of the Turkish people keep drawing him back. At some points, Istanbul must have been ‘home’ to him.

Turkish grandmaster Ara Güler, on the other hand, has devoted most of his life to Istanbul. It is a place he was born in, a place he cares most about, a place he photographs most intimately and probably a place that conflicts him the most.  Assignments may have taken him to faraway places such as Kenya, Borneo, New Guinea, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Iran, but Güler has established himself as “Istanbul’s Eye”— a title no one would dare to dispute.

At some point in every photographer’s life, he or she would probably ask, “Why do I photograph? What should I photograph? What do I care most about?” Intimately intertwined with these serious questions are practical considerations such as “Where should I live?”.

These questions plague Singapore photographers even more because of our small geographical size. It places boundaries on where we can go and what we can tackle, before we run into another photographer grappling with the same challenge of seemingly finding something out of nothing.

For many of us, there seems only one obvious choice: get out of the country. But spending time overseas can be both mentally and physically tiring. We soon wonder if what we spent years and dollars looking for is right in front of us all this time.

At home.

In Singapore’s five decades of independence, various ambitious photography projects have been commissioned by the state to record milestones of our history. In 1984, A Salute to Singapore brought world-famous photographers to document our shores, and their perspectives were supplemented by the work of four photographers from the local newspaper. In 1990, when another photography-driven book was commissioned, the images in Singapore: Island, City, State were largely those of local photographers. In these two books, the images of Singapore were startlingly different. The former cast a more cursory and foreign look at the way we live, while the latter delved deeper into the everyday and the ‘ordinary’.

Fast-forward two decades, Singapore has witnessed a significant growth in photography. Photographers from Singapore are making their mark on the world stage. Some have practices based in metropolises such as New York City, Beijing, Tokyo, London and Los Angeles to gain direct access to the best agents, clients and jobs. Others have found it possible to work out of Singapore and still be connected to the major markets.

Beyond carving a career as a Singapore photographer, many are turning their lenses on subject matter in their own backyard, and presenting them to the world with their own styles and points of view. The time is ripe to curate and showcase these points of view on uniquely Singaporean subject matter, by photographers who have vested interests and deep roots in this land.

Singapore Unseen is one such effort, a result of two independent book projects published by PLATFORM. Between 2010 and 2015, this loosely (dis)organised grassroots group in Singapore brought together visual storytellers working mainly in photojournalism and documentary to champion each individual’s view of this country.

Like Singapore, many of the photographers in this project—mainly Singaporeans, and a handful of long-time visitors and residents who originated from other parts of the world—have come of age. They want to announce to the world that, “We’ve grown up and we have something important to say!” Collectively, their images show the world what this little red dot that we call Singapore means to us.


This essay is the introduction text for Singapore Unseen exhibition at the Pera Museum in Istanbul.