10 years of Singapore in pastel hues

Published on 25 September 2018

Caption: Photographer Nguan has been snapping dream-like pictures of Singapore since 2007. (Photos: 2017 Nguan)

By Sandy Natalia

A romanticised view of Singapore – a city known for its pragmatism – might seem unlikely at first blush. But home-grown photographer Nguan (pronounced ‘ngu-wan’), 44, has been capturing rose-tinted scenes of Singapore since 2007, and his dream-like, pastel-hued snaps have attracted more than 150,000 followers online.

Given his fame as a photographer, it is perhaps surprising to hear him confess that he had no prior interest in photography. It was a sudden snowstorm that changed the path of the film and video production graduate from the Northwestern University in Illinois.

Nguan picked up the camera unwittingly after a snowstorm in New York.

He says: “I moved to New York after graduation (in 1998), thinking that I might make movies. One afternoon there was a sudden snowstorm. Because it was so unexpected, the street was packed with people scurrying in shin-high snow.

“I ran outside with my video camera, only to find that I didn’t have a cassette loaded, so I could only shoot still images on the memory stick. I was disappointed that I couldn’t capture any video, but when I saw the stills that evening, I realised that perhaps it was more intriguing that the pictures weren’t moving.”

Nguan’s still images are often imbued with a sense of tension.

Consumed by photography ever since – although he doesn’t rule out making a movie within the next decade – he has published three photo books. The latest, Singapore (2017), was named by The New York Times Magazine as one of the best photo books of the year. Works from the series are in his solo show at the Singapore International Photography Festival. He tells us more about the series and what he’s hatching next:

What was the inspiration behind your exhibition, Singapore, which documents the country over 10 years?

When I began working on the series in 2007, my aim was to contest the conventional idea of our country as staid, sterile and spotless, even if that impression is not completely unfounded. I wanted to assert that this is a city risen from a jungle; literal and metaphorical weeds burst forth from cracks in our asphalt. I see Singapore as a city of contradictions whose true nature cannot be paved.

I didn’t set out to finish the work in 10 years – it remains an ongoing project – but a decade seemed like a good point at which to close a chapter.

How is the exhibition different from your photo book of the same title?

In a book, you’re in charge of the order in which the pictures are seen, so you get to build a momentum from the first page to the last. In a typical exhibition space, you have minimal control over the sequence in which the work is seen, so it’s more about crafting an experience that is immersive.

The photographs that I’ve selected for the exhibition touch on many of the themes and ideas that are central to the work, but it’s very much an abridged version of the series. My hope is to one day present the full work in a space three or four times as large as the present one.

How is the next chapter of your Singapore work going? Is your style changing?

I’ve been making new photographs in Singapore over the past two years and not sharing them online, with the intention of eventually doing a book or exhibition of previously unseen images. I wouldn’t say that my style has changed, but perhaps there has been a refinement.

I use a tripod these days and have been lugging it all over town, without its bag. I hold the tripod across my chest as I walk, like it’s a rifle. Recently I was shooting in Chinatown and a wannabe gangster was giving me grief for pointing the camera in his general direction. But he slinked away when I started to fold up the tripod. I think he thought I was going to hit him with it.

Is there a place in Singapore where you particularly enjoy shooting?

I love Geylang. It’s the last bastion of unruliness here in Singapore. I have some beautiful candid pictures made in Geylang of sex workers and pimps and johns that I’ve never publicly shown, because I’m wary of potentially ruining someone’s life.

Do you have a tip for aspiring photographers trying to find their unique identity?

Everyone is unique. My advice is to listen to all the music and poetry that is rattling around in your head, and to carefully transcribe them into your art.

 

Nguan’s show, Singapore, is on at Gillman Barracks until 9 Dec 2018, and he will be giving a talk on 29 Sep 2018 at the National Design Centre Auditorium. Details about his show and the Singapore International Photography Festival here.

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