Published on 6 October 2017

Through documentary photography, Bernice Wong casts light on the underbelly of Singapore.


When Bernice Wong decided to become a photographer, her first project involved documenting migrant workers and the families that they left behind in their hometowns. It was a natural gravitation given how she had volunteered for TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too) as a sociology student at the National University of Singapore. But beyond that, her keen interest in social issues propelled her to move beyond her comfort zone.

“Growing up, I was very sheltered. I went to a good primary school and a good secondary school where my social circle was quite middle class. But when I went to Innova, a neighbourhood junior college, my classmates came from different backgrounds and faced issues I never heard much of before that. This broadened my worldview,” 28-year-old Wong recalls.

Her next few projects followed along the same trajectory. She covered disenfranchised Special Pass holders in Singapore, neonatal mortality rates in Cambodia, and did work with international NGOs such as Plan and Save the Children. In 2014, while working with Better Our World, a digital storytelling initiative by the Singapore International Foundation, Wong met Priya at a home for troubled youth. Priya boasted to her, “My mum is very cool. She was a gangster last time and has a lot of tattoos.”

Intrigued, Wong went to meet Mel, Priya’s mum, in 2014, and eventually became close friends with her, her family and her community as well.

“Right from the start, Mel and her family were very open to me documenting them. As we got closer, they would tell me more about their lives, and I felt I was entering a different world. At first, I was extremely cautious and didn’t want to make them feel like I am just putting them out there. But Mel trusts me, and she knows that whatever I do will not harm her,” Wong says.

This documentation of Mel’s family has developed into “School of Hard Knocks”, a series of photographs which will be presented at “Women in Photography”, an exhibition at Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film featuring extraordinary and groundbreaking work by women photographers from all over the world. The selection of Wong’s images for this exhibition will focus on Mel’s struggles as a single mother of seven children, along with her efforts in mentoring at-risk youth through a dance group she set up called Pluspoint.

“I’m really honoured to be part of this ‘Women in Photography’ show. I’m not the kind that actively markets my work or sells myself to curators, so to be amongst other well-known photographers in this exhibition is a privilege,” Wong says.

Besides Mel and her family, Wong has also gotten to know their neighbours and she feels this project is currently “expanding”. She has also introduced her friends and family to this community and people write in, wanting to help after seeing her photographs.

“My images don’t make beautiful Instagram photos, but I do get comments like, ‘I never knew this existed in Singapore’ so there’s this sense of educating the audience,” she explains. Nevertheless, Wong is careful not to overplay her role in helping Mel and her family.

“It’s not like my photographs will pull Mel out of poverty. Their lives will go on whether I am there or not. In fact, they have shown me what the ‘real world’ is like. Knowledge is empowerment, so I feel empowered after hanging out with them. Sometimes, I don’t even bring my camera!”

Photo: Bernice Wong
Photo: Bernice Wong
Photo: Bernice Wong

Bernice Wong is one of the featured photographers for the “Women in Photography” exhibition that will be on from 13 October to 19 November at Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film. Click here for more information.

Wong, together with photographer Juliana Tan, organises PLATFORM, a bi-monthly gathering of photographers with show-and-tell sessions. Find out more about their programmes here.

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