Saturday, August 20, 2005

Looking beyond the Glass Cage

Singapore is a country without exceptions that is why it is an unexceptional country.

I was born and raised in Singapore. I studied engineering in university, which together with professions like law, accountancy and medicine was one of the sought after degrees in Singapore. However, through fate I have ended up being a photographer.

There are many photographers in Singapore. I heard some statistic that Singapore had the most photographers per capita in world. It is strange, but I probably would not have become a photographer if I had not gone to London to study engineering. It is also strange that I have tried in vain to win photographic competitions in Singapore, but I have managed to carve out a niche market in wedding photography in Singapore. I think that I have a clientele that enjoys the way I make images. In my own way I follow the spirit of Mary-Ellen Mark, I do not take photographs, I make images. In a city obsessed with technology and the idea of a perfect photograph, the soul of image making has been lacking.

In a modern capitalistic country like Singapore, international advertising bombards with images of sex, superficial gloss and attitude without deeper motivation. There are so many images where it takes a moment for the viewer to comprehend the cliched sales messages but has no social intercourse of value. The photographer does not engage its subject in commercial photography. There is too much style over substance. And unlike the French, Singaporeans have no innate sense of style. We are at best proficient technical scribes, imitating the outer form of other people’s work, failing to understand the context of foreigner’s work and unable to create our own. Photography from mature societies are distilled from a long cultural and social discourse. There is some meaning and history to even commercial images there. Our work tries to imitate the results without a deeper understanding. Our work looks like the cheap attempts of uncultured prostitutes at caking their faces with too much make up. Even if there is some technical knowledge, style goes awry without insight and vision.

As important as technical training is, we have to send Singaporeans to imbibe the culture of other countries. While overseas, Singaporeans need to go beyond technical knowledge and engage in social and philosophical commentary. As Singapore grows up from being a cheap manufacturing centre to being a hub for things like commerce and art, it has to have more sophisticated answers to the new challenges posed by a world growing smaller.

I do not believe that the political climate of Singapore will change quickly. And the political stability of the country is desirable. However, people here have to start taking stewardship of their own lives. The government is incapable of knowing everything in the world now. We as citizens have to gather our own intelligence and make efforts to ensure our own survival. Only if we all take an active part in our own future, we will loose to other people in other countries irregardless of how good the government is. We will loose to other people if we only have technical know how but lack any personal vision.

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