︎ A CLOSER LOOK FOR SINGAPORE ART BOOK FAIR 2019


We gather perspectives from creatives on our zine and art book culture, along with the possibilities of self-publishing today.

1.
DIVAAGAR


Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Hi Diva. Can you start by telling us more about your work?

DIVAAGAR (D): In the beginning, I did illustrations to the point of futility. I found the medium itself to be quite flat and not really experiential for me. I moved on to installation and performance as a means to immerse and engage with people. There is also great joy in working with other people on art direction and exhibition design. For me, it has been a great experience finding out how best to flesh out their works spatially in exhibitions.

SGABF: What are your thoughts on having to tear down or give away your works given the nature and scale of your practice? Is reflecting upon your physical works someday something you’ve thought about?

D: Between the birth and afterlife of the work, there’s something called the floor plan. I plan everything I do to the exact measurement. The process can take a month or six, depending on how big the work becomes or is expected to be.

Life can be difficult and things don’t always go your way. So, very often the works deviate from the plans. I’ve been thinking of having a digitised format of these works for myself. One of the things in mind was to adapt those works into a 3D model. I’m not exactly sure what that would do or how that would make me see the work in itself but it’s a good way to reflect on the difficulties of making.

I’m okay with my works being temporary. Instagram stories are very helpful in the documentation process. Things are framed in a certain way when you plan them out. You also end up having a tunnel vision as you’re making a work. With a tool like that on social media, it’s nice to see the ways people frame your work with their perspective.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist


SGABF: It’s safe to say then that tangibility of the work is secondary to you?

D: Yes. I’m not here to build monuments. I do think it’s very much due to the times instead of a focus to build temporary things. Exhibitions no longer have to be full of viewable objects.


I’ve worked with a lot of unconventional art spaces, and a lot of them don’t necessarily last. There’s something romantically fleeting to have something exist for some time. It served its purpose and now it’s going away.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist

SGABF: Your works mostly deal with personal conflict, societal pressure and identity. Your exhibition, The Soul Lounge, which was held at soft/WALL/studs last year, came with five other events that took on various forms of presentation – Opening: F.U.B.U, Boderline (An Ode To Self Care), Don’t Wish Me Well, Mad and Rise. Was that a way of presenting different facets of your practice and work?

D: That was the second iteration. The first one was mostly parties, film screenings and programmes that catered to those crowds of people. At soft/WALL/studs, I worked very closely with Kin Chui. He was very supportive, and a very strong ally.

For the second iteration, I really wanted to expand the space and incorporate a pluralistic approach as to how I would have done things from before. I worked with soft/WALL/studs to curate the film programme and put up a spoken word performance by Norah Lea, Atiq Lukman and Zeha.

Beyond the opening party which was mostly facilitated by myself, those events were also a way to draw other individuals’ experiences into this framework of queer brown solidarity. The entire project had its successes and failures. Despite it being a space for queer brown people, most of the time we saw a majority of straight Chinese audience. How does it feel to still be a minority in a space that was created for you? I guess there wasn’t enough draw or deterrence in terms of attracting the right people to the space either.

SGABF: What do you mean by ‘deterrence’?

In order to create a safe space, there also has to be an element of exclusion. I think that a lot of safe spaces exist as temporal entities because they get co-opted into larger audiences that were not meant for. There’s failure in that but at the same time there is also success in the way people found affinities and friendships through the experiences, feelings and struggles of one another.

SGABF: What do you think is still lacking within Singapore’s artistic landscape in terms of shows, programmes and festivals?

D: I’ve always believed that not everything is provided for you but there’s always the opportunity to make something happen beyond each of these platforms. I guess there’s also a sense of inner sensibility to these larger platforms, where you see people who are already familiar within the scene and thus are able to engage easier and more directly. For others, it can be an alienating experience especially when they feel that they have to understand art books and design on a very specific level to engage with the activities. The fact is, they don’t but I think that the format of a fair can distance these groups of people. It’s tricky, I think, because you wouldn’t want to dumb down the content either.

To rectify that, there is the possibility of expanding out of the fair and looking into various aspects of art book making. It doesn’t have necessarily to be enclosed in one space. Venue matters, too. In the context of Singapore Art Book Fair, people who are not familiar with art don’t really visit Gillman Barracks. There are definitely things we can do to bring people in, and get them to be interested in art books and self-publishing.

Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: What is the value of zines, art books and self-published materials to you?

D: Previously, I was more focused on the idea of intimacy. With zines and self-published books, there is a real sense of tactility. It’s not a very confrontational sense of intimacy as compared to stepping into an exhibition where everything is set up and you find yourself in the face of everything. There’s a kind of autonomy when you flip and read books. With limited edition materials, you’re probably only going to get 50 people reading the book. There’s ownership in that too.

Personally, I haven’t really done much making of zines or art books except for collaborative projects, which have allowed me to break away from my main practice. I contributed to a zine, which was submitted to the Zine Library last year. It was called Romantic Engines, and was created by Toh Bee Suan who goes by ALMOSTASTHMA, as well as Lee Wan Xiang.


Image Credit: ALMOSTASTHMA

The zine was created a couple of months before the open call. It was a fun process and a good break from identity politics which can be exhausting sometimes. It gave me the opportunity to employ humour into a project. For me, humour is always intermingled with my practice but never fully fleshed out. I think zines are a great way to exercise elements beyond my main practice.

SGABF: It’s interesting that you brought up the exhausting nature of identity politics. Zines were once actively used as objects of counter culture. They have evolved greatly throughout generations to include creations based purely on the desire to express an artistic practice. Do you think this aspect of zines is still relevant today?

D: I mean, things like counter culture eventually become part of our wider culture after some time, right? Zines are no exception, and they are very big in queer subcultures too. Similarly, if queerness is becoming more accepted as part of the general culture, so will their zines and art.
Zines were produced cheaply to be distributed within circles to promote radical ideas. Even though everything has become digital, and content is easily consumed, there is still power in printed material and small circulation because some ideas are still unsafe to put up publicly. There’s still a necessity for these aspects of zines.

At the same time, we can’t be purists about zines. If people want to make them beyond the purpose of counter culture, let them. There’s also meaning in these creations.

SGABF: Many artists who are exploring the option of self-publishing often have to find creative ways around specific limitations of production costs and distribution. In your experience so far, what has encouraged or kept you from turning to making zines?

D: I think that’s exactly the advantage of making zines, especially with distribution. I’m with the school of thought that zines don’t necessarily have to take on high production value. They don’t have to be as sophisticated as photography books, for example.

I’m also drawn to the rawness of handmade zines. Having worked with friends, I’ve realised that it made more sense to scan and combine all the elements in one entire zine. There’s also the option of putting them in a PDF where you don’t incur any printing cost. You have a free publication for distribution and it can be emailed to certain people. That way, we return to the history of zines – distributing them to selective circles and sharing our art with people that it’s made for.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist

SGABF: Apart from self-publishing, what other forms of presentation can you think of that would serve as a means of archival and documentation of your works?

D: I was recently inspired to make instructable installations, where you have a floor plan and list of materials to demonstrate the purpose and concept of a work. It’s good for realised and unfulfilled projects in reviving certain elements. Can each installation take on different formats? What other spaces would suit this project better? Such materials may serve as a guide to set up multiple potentials. 



I haven’t thought about how this guide would manifest but I know that it would be a good way to explain certain projects that are unclear in terms of presentation. What are the considerations behind the setup, and how does that add to the experience for the viewer? Going through the whole format and instructions for all of this could be a great way to tackle these questions.

SGABF: Finally, can you recommend up to three zines and/or art books that you have read or collected?

D: What The Hell Are You Doing?: The Essential David Shrigley,
Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon
by The New Museum, Virtue & Virility by Lee Chang Ming

Divaagar is a visual artist whose practice explores the relationships between desires and spaces through installation, space-making and performance. He works at the intersections of bodies, identities and environments, proposing alternative economies and ecologies through engaging with localities, methods of display and re-routing gazes.

Recent exhibitions include Not the norm: On Conjugal Blisses and Misses, Goodman Arts Centre (Singapore), Between a rock and a hard place, Untitled Space (Shanghai) and The Soul Lounge, soft/WALL/studs (Singapore).



︎ 21 CREATIVES FOR SINGAPORE ART BOOK FAIR 2018


We sat down with 21 creatives of various disciplines to learn about their practice and asked each of them to fill up a blank page in a notebook.

1.
HANSON HO


Photo Credit: H55

SGABF: You’ve run H55 independently since 1999. Why did you choose to stay independent after all these years?

HANSON HO (HH): Prior to that I hadn't really worked for anyone for very long. At that point, I was quite desperate to come out and be independent, not creatively but financially independent. I saw a dead end coming my way in the long run so I felt that the only way to propel myself and to accelerate my growth was really to set up my own studio. At the time I found that my predecessors in the industry were quite boring in the way they were being run. They were mostly brand consultants or publications designers who designed things like annual reports or newsletters whereas our counterparts in the West or even in Japan were doing a lot of things that were carrying independent voices — where their individualities were allowed to be expressed in their clients' works. I thought that this should be the way to go and since I couldn't win my predecessors, I had to change the game. So if I wanted to come out on my own, I had to do something that is more individualistic, rather than just follow the ways of operation which were already established in the past.

I operate in a less hierarchical manner. The studio is fairly small and for many years, I rented it on my own and my clients from a very niche market found it refreshing because they are meeting the creative, the owner, and also the accounts manager — all in one. In a way that’s what architects have been doing. To me, that's beneficial to the work rather than having too many people which might lead to miscommunication and also, having to bear the higher costs with a bigger team. So, the process is less formal because it’s less hierarchical. The relationship that I have with my clients is more friendship-based. With this, my work becomes more individualistic and more expressive.

Some say the studio has a house-style, which is something that was not allowed previously. The mindset was that designers should have different ideas and styles to cater to different clients. But for H55, we have a fundamental belief and approach, and clients come to us for that.
Graphic designers don't generally have a style, they listen to what the clients want. For us, it's different. Our work, by and large, has a spectrum of look and feel, and a way of thinking. The clients then come to us for that, and not the other way around.

In terms of ownership, it is still independently-owned and of course, that makes a lot of things easier in terms of the culture and decision-making. I basically have full control of the creative direction and finances. For me, that control is very important. It allows me to steer in different directions, whenever needed. There is more freedom, and when there is more freedom, the work becomes more creative.


Photo Credit: H55


SGABF: You spearheaded and curated many projects, including LTA’s Art-in-Transit Programme for the Downtown Line. Do you find that your approach differs when it comes to showcasing art on different platforms – from Biennales, gallery shows, to public spaces?

HH: We definitely need to cater to the collaborators' needs when we are working with someone but, by and large, the way of managing a project is the same for me. It's to identify and be extremely clear about the perimeters and limitations of the project and then brief the artists, designers, or myself to try and satisfy a number of checkboxes. It may sound very uncreative, but that's where the real creativity lies. Many designers or creatives say that a project cannot turn out well because of these limitations — money, space, etc. — but there are always escape routes and if you can find the escape route to every project, then all your projects will be portfolio material, works that you are proud to show rather than feel ashamed of.

I think it's about ignoring how people think it should be done. It helps to look at examples of good work or works that are good but not entirely relevant. For example, if you're designing a novel, it doesn't mean you can only refer to novels. You can look at magazines, posters, or even contemporary art, maybe that can inform the design. It is important that you don't have all these preconceived ideas, and you're not afraid or think that just because the client thinks a certain way, you have to do things differently. You can incorporate some of the client's thinking while showing them what other things are possible.

SGABF: What do you think is the current climate of Singapore’s design, and where do you see it going in the next 10 years?

HH
: There are definitely more younger designers and smaller studios that have sprouted in the last five to ten years, but still not very many. When I first started out in 1999, I was probably the only one. Thankfully I also had peers like Asylum and Kinetic who did the same thing, which I think is a significant movement. It was encouraging for each one of us; to see each of us doing something different but interesting. Right now I would say we're at the low point of the wave, where the scene is pretty slow and stagnant in some ways and will continue to be like that for awhile.

I try to create a map for myself and my work; where it's going in 20 to 30 years' time. As I continue to map my way into the future, thinking of what I do, I explore deeper into the craft. The works need to become better and more significant. My interest from the beginning was always to intervene with the culture in Singapore. Which means that I need to engage with the correct types of clients and audience so that my work, books, logos or brands stay and survive as part of the visual culture around us. They should become monumental as time passes, and not get thrown into dustbins like brochures. I hope to create these epitomes of things so that when I reach a certain old age, they will all be floating around Singapore and other parts of the world where people can find and enjoy.

Photo Credit: H55

SGABF: How do you perceive the cultural impact design has on a place and society like Singapore?

HH: I don’t really like to proclaim that design can have a big cultural impact. It will definitely have some sort of impact but I don’t think it will "save the world". However, I think what’s more important is the acknowledgement that design is important, that design thinking is important and that having good taste is important — good taste in a broader context, not just dressing well and looking fashionable but having a healthy mindset that imagination, creativity and diversity as a way of life is important.
Design has undoubtedly influenced Singapore. I mean, everybody has become more image-savvy because of mobile devices, globalisation, access to all kinds of media and magazines, and different brands that have landed in Singapore. Singaporeans appreciate design a lot more now than when I first started. They do see the relevance of design, and that it’s not something that is frivolous.


Photo Credit: H55

SGABF: Finally, SGABF2018 aims to provide a space for artists, designers, creatives, and consumers to think critically about art — in its various forms and formats. When it comes to critical thinking, what sort of questions or ideas do you hope people will hold in minds when engaging in a festival like that?

HH: Hopefully it will be, in a way, disruptive to how they would normally think about things and also to realise the importance of publishing. I hope the younger generation don't see art books as a kind of sentimental object because in a digital age, people see print, polaroids, photography, film photography, vinyls, as a nostalgic, sentimental thing. Hopefully, they see it as processes or a means that can help them to not just generate new ideas but question things that they always thought were a certain way; to disrupt the way they think and to see publishing as a kind of validation to self-existence. Because ultimately that's why people publish. It's not a sentimental thing like keeping a diary or a scrapbook, it's more than that. It is to validate that they are different. Whether you're publishing something into a book or on a website doesn't matter. We have to embrace diverse viewpoints and this can be expressed through publishing so that you can share these ideas with people.

H55 is an award-winning Singapore-based design and communication consultancy with a reputation for conceiving relevant, engaging and effective ideas. Since its establishment in 1999, H55 has been independently owned by award-winning creative director Hanson Ho, who continues his hands-on attitude towards design and project management. Till this day, H55 remains as a light and compact office so as to be creatively sustainable, focused and dedicated to a select range of clients. H55 has worked with a variety of clients ranging from government ministries, museums, public-listed companies, small-to-medium-sized enterprises, new startups and individuals. 



2.

SAMANTHA LO



Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Having been an artist and creative for the past 10 years, how do you think Singapore has progressed in terms of our appreciation for the arts? How would you describe the culture where we are now?

SAMANTHA LO (SL): I think that a lot more money is going into art festivals and the like. There are going to be more festivals in the future to look out for and more opportunities for the public to be exposed to various art forms, that’s the optimistic side of things. It also promises more artists to show their works, which is great. Overall, the exposure to arts has increased quite a lot over the years but the understanding of it will come later on. I’m hoping they will start to form a proper understanding and appreciation for the arts rather than just appreciating from afar — to take one more step to understand and be better educated about it.

There will be people in or closely related to the community who will have discourses that will bring a deeper understanding of the arts. More of such discourses have to take place. In order for that to happen, we need to have more people talking about art — having debates and discussions about certain art forms, artworks, or artists. A good start will be to generally keep the conversations going. We need a lot of things to change and to make it more encouraging and nurturing for arts to flourish in the first place. The thing is, I can’t say for sure what it is we need but I would say education plays a big part in it, not just in schools but everywhere else.
It’s how we are going to get them engaged and interested in the first place, right?

The point is to actually start some place but once we hit a plateau, we shouldn’t just keep doing the same things, we have to start finding other ways to keep relevant — to try and reach a new demographic.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist

SGABF: In what direction do you hope to see the arts in Singapore move towards in the next 10 years?

SL: The government is putting more money into the arts and I would like to see how this pans out in the future. Right now they are focusing on engaging and exposure through social media. In time we can only wait for more institutions who will help build on this. Maybe it means making art a compulsory thing, I don't know. Our focus has always been the economy so we have to see if this whole state is making art a viable source of income that can sustain people's careers and actually make sense; to show that there is a new economy out there that helps creative work flourish. Just like how design has been monetised, it can be the same for the arts. If the government recognises that, then perhaps they will create an environment that would be able to even all of us out on the playing field, and hopefully it will become a social norm that artists can actually sustain themselves and not scrimp on everything.

The ideal environment for an artist in Singapore is to not have to worry about things like rental, or finding a space they can practise in. Sure you can make money and sustain yourself in this industry but you have to compromise on a lot, the government can only help so much. Right now they are doing what they think is right, but I don't think they really know for sure what the issues are. I won't say it's bleak at this point because at least we have some government funding, which is great.

SGABF: Your work Progress: The Game of Leaders engaged with people from various walks of lives since its creation – and not just in Singapore. If you were given a choice to weed out or build on a particular category that forms our idea of society progression, what would it be and why?

SL: That work was reflective of the different traits of first world countries, which were all very practical things. If I could add on, it would be an understanding of the arts and culture, and to have more humanity-driven work. Although that wouldn't fit into the concept so much because chances are, it will only stabilise the structure and not cause it to fall.

For example, studying literature in school is so important in expanding our understanding of the world. If we really look into more humanities-related subjects and continue building the curriculum from there, it will be able to instil in the younger generation and their parents that there is a possibility in the arts. I think parents just need to be convinced that there is longevity in these plans and there has always been some truth to the fact that it is easier to pursue the arts if you come from a comfortable or privileged background. There is a lot of truth in that because people actually leave the arts to go into other careers because they can't feed themselves anymore.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist

SGABF: There seems to be a very unspoken, maybe even unknown gap between the "creative industry" and the "general public".  What do you think artists like yourself can do to narrow that gap?

SL: A lot of people have been going into community art. For example, statutory boards want to get the public engaged and they always think of workshops and community art — which is great, to a certain extent. It teaches people new skills and gets them involved in the creation process. Not everyone understands art, but the point is to make an effort to learn.
The barrier entry is going to be a lot higher if we don't make it accessible; people won't even want to be a part of it. They think art is pretentious and that whole attitude has got to stop.

It's going to take awhile for them to understand art but the whole point is we don't have that discourse yet as to whether or not we understand an artist's works. The discernment comes after the discourse. If we can discern if this is good or bad art, at least we'll know what we like and dislike — and that's the whole point. You have to know what you like and don't like, rather than looking at a piece of work and registering in your mind that if you pretend to know and understand it, you will "score well". For all you know, you don't like it or understand it, but you cannot validate your thoughts because you think that language is only reserved for pretentious people who are in the arts.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist

SGABF: How do you think initiatives like SGABF can help to further advance the arts in Singapore, not just as a career option but as a way of life?

SL: It’s a very niche category, but since it’s a passion project that the festival director thinks is worth it, then I’m sure she knows and has already considered the risks and benefits it will bring to the people. Which means art books will have more exposure — not just towards the public but also a lot of people in the community. Essentially, these things will only catch on with time.

Sam Lo (aka SKL0) is a self-taught Singapore-based artist whose work revolves around social commentaries fuelled by daily observations of her surroundings and research into the socio-political climate. Her intrigue with the concept of culture and bold execution in some of her earliest forays into street art got her dubbed the ‘Sticker Lady’.



3.
LIANA YANG



Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Your works deal with the quirks of the human experience. In examining sex as a visual language, why did you choose to specifically draw from what society deems as discomforting?

Liana Yang (LY): I won’t say it’s always about sex but rather sex is used as a reference or starting point. The sexual references often seen in some of my works functions more as a subversion in which I question the human condition. Moreover, intimacy and passion are linked to love and desire too.  

My main interest is really about relationships. I am extremely fascinated with human interactions and emotions.  More specifically, human interactions and the ambiguity and duality of it. For the past 4 years, I have been exploring what modern romance and love are about by trying out online dating. I am also very fascinated with the triviality in life - the mundane things we take for granted. The references to sex might seem trivial, but at the same time sex is also a compelling way to draw the audience in.

Essentially, what I am exploring is much deeper and there are many more layers to it. Sex is just one of the many facets, because it is a mix of passion, desire, and love. If you examine these individually, they are all unique.
But when you lump them all together, the end product is usually sexual, so to speak. There is something very animalistic about it but it’s that complication and tension that I find interesting and worth exploring. These days, modern romance and relationships have become a minefield, like how it could mean one thing but also another. There is something very transactional about sex and how we handle relationships these days too. Coupled with what we see on social media which is constantly shaping and trying to project an ideal lifestyle in a certain fantastical way. But what is an ideal relationship or ideal happiness? It leads us to crave for certain things that might not be that important or useful.

From the experiences and the people that I meet through online dating, I gather information and try to see how I can create new work. Sometimes, friends would jokingly ask if the guy that I am dating is going to be my next “new project”. However, it is important that the ‘man’ or the 'subject matter' in my work is always anonymous. This is crucial as I want the audience to inject their own narrative and experiences into my artwork.


Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: What’s most important in image making to you?

LY: It has to convey a certain feeling and ambiguity. That is why I like working with photography. A photograph doesn’t disclose the full truth even though it’s an equipment of documentation. Image-making to me has to work around what I am exploring. There is a certain fleeting and lo-fi quality to my work because it is also voyeuristic in nature. As each narrative or work is my invitation to the viewer to indulge in their own personal experiences.

Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Have you ever had to deal with your works being deemed as too ‘provocative’ in your career? From your experience, is that more of a setback or distinctive trait that does more good for artists like yourself?

LY
: Perhaps yes and no. As mentioned, I weave a mix of truth and fiction into my artworks. Take for example, one can never tell where the exact location is - if it's my bedroom, someone else's, or a hotel room, and who the person is exactly. Nobody really knows for sure if it is staged, or did happen or not.

SGABF: When faced with an installation, the viewer connects with the artist through his or her work. When putting your works up at such shows, how do you mediate this form of connection or conversation with the viewer for yourself?

LY
: I try to create an experience instead of showing static images. How I incorporate my work and use the site for my work are very important. When viewers go into my show, it is the experience that I want them to take away. Apart from just images, it can be a combination of sound, videos and even scent. The human senses are not just limited to vision, it’s a combination of everything. Hence, I try to show works so that allows the viewers to experience something a bit more.

SGABF: Beyond installations and gallery shows, do you think there’s room for platforms like Singapore Art Book Fair to bridge tangible connections between viewers and visual artists like yourself?

LY: Definitely! The art book itself is a very critical piece of art object because it brings longevity after the show. 
I’ve always believed in that, which is why I create books and zines myself too. It’s something you can hold and cherish. In a book form, the viewer also get to experience the work in a different angle which is curated and edited by the artist. So yes, the art book is very important, it acts as a portable vessel or vehicle to show a body of work in a different way.


Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Where do you hope Singapore will be in terms of our arts and culture in the next 10 years?

LY: I hope for it to be more critically engaging, in terms of approach and understanding, as well as having more interesting spaces available to work in and to showcase work. There is definitely increased support for the arts, but there is still a lot to be done with education. I am not trying to say that there should be more provocative works but rather, increased education on how the public could approach other types of artworks because education seems to be focused on more family and community oriented works. The provision of more unique spaces is essential to challenge how artists can produce and showcase works that are out of the usual whitewashed walls, as well as catering for a different meaningful audience engagement.

Liana Yang is rarely motivated by direct beauty, but rather by the aesthetics of social and sociological interactions. She is drawn to the trivialities and oddities that we encounter in our daily experiences. This includes the enigmatic and unseen aspects of relationships, as well as explorations of memory and associations in our contemporary culture.

4.

CHARMAINE POH



Photo Credit: SGABF 

SGABF: Earlier this year, you created a photo series revealing the rituals of Singapore’s working women, called All in Her Day’s Work. How powerful a medium do you think photography or art is when it comes to empowering people and bringing about changes pertaining to societal concerns/conditioning?

CHARMAINE POH (CP): To be honest, I don’t know if photography itself can change anything. I know stories help people empathise but I don’t think it’s guaranteed or only limited to one medium. The job of a storyteller is to connect different groups of people, make empathy sort of visible. It’s not really about just the medium itself.

Personally, the camera offers me a way into people’s worlds and a way of both connecting with someone and disconnecting to protect yourself. Because in the end, as an image maker, I have to step outside of the situation, to literally frame situations and understand it. Photography allows that.
Writing is different — you experience something and often you pull the experience in your mind, but then you go back and write about it. But you can't do that with photography. You act within the moment itself at that period of time and it’s something you have to be a part of. Like for documentary photography, the image cannot happen if you don’t live that life. You have to put yourself in that situation and talk to those people and make yourself part of the story; change your own life to make that image.

Photo Credit: Charmaine Poh, Close Enough

SGABF: When photographing people, what’s your approach when it comes to making sure that the process is comfortable for your subjects?

CP: The approach differs from people to people. For some, especially if you know it's going to be published and a message for the public to view, then it’s very important to let them know from the start. Sometimes, you have to spend time with them for a while. You know when people are comfortable with you. Often that means you’re feeling comfortable yourself and try to give them that confidence that you can be trusted. Eventually, they do let their guard down.

There is always a need to have a certain kind of conversation. A lot of my work is quite intimate so I cannot do it without the conversations. For Room, I spent a lot of hours just sitting with them, chatting. The images you see are results of all those hours. From the moment I say “hi” to when I start shooting, the entire process matters.


Photo Credit: Charmaine Poh, Room

SGABF: Where do you think Singapore stands in photography – in terms of quality, culture, and viability as a long-term career?


CP: It’s really great that we have a couple of institutions that integrate photography. Those have really created some kind of ecosystem and I’m really grateful for that. At the same time, being the small industry that we are, there will always be a disadvantage in terms of expecting a wider audience and financial viability. I think there should be more galleries that focus on photography. The state of affairs for documentary photographers now is kind of lacking. You don’t have an equivalent of The New York Times here where they hire freelancers to write or photograph; it doesn’t really exist here.

SGABF: How do you think initiatives like the Singapore Art Book Fair can further advance the culture of photography in Singapore not just as a career option but also as an art form?

CP: I just had a discussion with a friend about censorship and I think if we keep accepting that censorship is okay and keep telling ourselves that it’s needed because the general public does not understand and we keep divorcing ourselves from this elusive "general public", nothing else will change.
We will always be stuck in this position until we recognise that we are part of that community and we have to own up to it. We are part of the general public. As much as we seem to be avant-garde, we belong to the citizen base. So it doesn’t really make sense to separate yourself from that entity. We need to acknowledge that there are certain principles that we have to stand for and weare the ones who need to cut everything open and pave that way for the "general public".

Photo Credit: Charmaine Poh, Close Enough

We are more complex than we think so why limit ourselves to absorbing information in just one way? Everything stems from this position of informing and educating, everything starts from there and it’s self-perpetuating. People did not come out from the womb to be a philosopher, an author or an art historian. It doesn’t work that way. I mean, sure there are people who have more academic inclinations but in the end, it’s still the environment.  So, pushing that boundary, whatever that boundary looks like, is always a good thing.

Charmaine Poh (b.1990) is a Chinese-Singaporean artist and documentarian. Her work concerns memory, gender, youth, and solitude. Specifically, she is interested in the performance of self, and the multiple layers of identity we build. She often works with the form of narrative portraiture. Focused on issues in Asia, her work has been recognised internationally.