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Life, Death and the Human Experience

I thought it strangely apt that an exhibition that so powerfully celebrates what it means to be human should be staged in a building that was once a place of worship. In life and in death, in mourning or celebration, man’s search for meaning often drives him to seek answers from a higher power. Objectifs, the visual arts gallery that focuses on film and photography, is staging its third Women in Photography exhibition in the circa 1870s gothic-style building that was once the Straits Chinese Methodist Church and it closes on 19th November 2017. Run, don’t walk, and catch it before it closes! I promise you will leave the richer for the experience.

Some of the exhibiting photographers and Objectifs staff on the opening weekend of the show. Image credit: Objectifs

The exhibition showcases the works of eight women photographers working in diverse locations that span the globe and who cover subjects as personal and intimate as the photographer’s own parents as they face their final days battling terminal illness, to broader issues like expressions of cultural and gender identity in West Africa.

Installation view of the exhibition. Image credit: Objectifs

In an exhibition in which each photographer’s vision, purpose, technique and artistry were equal to the that of the others, it has been immensely difficult to pick favourites for this article. Nonetheless, in the interests of brevity and so as to encourage you to go see the show for yourself, here is a selection of works that spoke to me personally.

Jannatul Mawa, Close Distance

Jannatul Mawa‘s portraits of domestic workers perched awkwardly and uncomfortably next to their employers, on seats that they normally only clean but are not allowed to sit on, are fascinating and compelling. They speak volumes without saying a word, exposing, through differences in dress, comportment, gesture and expression, the seemingly insurmountable gulf between women who, while closely connected in the domestic sphere, could not be further apart. Mawa, who believes “in the reformist strength of photography” embarked on the project in order to create an equalizing intimacy between her subjects – one that does not exist in real life. While acknowledging that this brief and fleeting moment of proximity will not change existing class differences, her hope is that these works may help us imagine a better future, in which accidents of birth do not permanently fix our station in life.

Gohar Dashti, Today’s Life and War, 2008. Image credit: Gohar Dashti

Gohar Dashti is an Iranian photographer and video artist, whose works focus on her native country and, in particular, its unique topography and history of violence. Growing up in the border town of Ahwaz in the southwestern region of Iran, bombs and armed conflict was very much a part of Dashti’s daily life during the Iran-Iraq War, waged throughout much of the 1980s. Her practice examines the relationship between humans and landscape and the way in which one’s surroundings influence our sense of self and home. In Today’s Life and War, she stages elaborate mise-en-scenes in which a couple carries on with a series of everyday activities – eating breakfast, watching television and even celebrating their wedding  – while war wages on in the fictionalised battlefield in the background.

“I capture moments that reference the ongoing duality of life and war without precluding hope … Though they do not visibly express emotion, the man and woman embody the power of perseverance, determination and survival.”

Unlike Mawa and Dashti, the two photographers that follow have chosen to photograph from life, preferring not to stage their photographs or to have their subjects pose, but instead to almost disappear into the background and be the proverbial fly on the wall, capturing spontaneous, unfiltered moments in order to tell their stories.

Maika Elan speaking to visitors about her photographic series

Maika Elan, born Nguyen Thanh Hai, is Vietnamese and her award-winning series, The Pink Choice, affords us a powerfully intimate glimpse into the everyday lives of gay Vietnamese couples.  Capturing her subjects going about their daily lives – having breakfast, watching television, listening to music or bathing their pets in the privacy of their homes –  Elan succeeds in providing a nuanced perspective of a community that still struggles to gain acceptance in Vietnam.

Maika Elan, The Pink Choice. Trinh Quang Hieu (b. 1956), in the shower with his boyfriend, Vu Toan Thang (b.1968) in their own hotel’s terrace where they do business together in Hanoi, Vietnam, on 28 June 2011. They had been together for 8 years. Image credit: Maika Elan
Maika Elan, The Pink Choice. Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan (b. 1991, worker) and Dam Ngoc Hoang (b.1994, tailor) watch a horror movie together after dinner in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam on 8 June 2012. They had been living together for more than four years. Image credit: Maika Elan

Elan seeks to normalise her subjects in a society where they are often depicted, in movies, in exaggerated, stereotypical ways and, in photography, with their backs turned, or with masks on. In her works, her subjects are just people like everyone else, touching in their obvious love, care and concern for one another as they go about their ordinary, everyday lives. Indeed, Elan, as the New York Times says, depicts Real Faces, Real People, Real Love in Vietnam.

Nancy Borowick at Objectifs in October this year

You would expect that Nancy Borowick‘s photographic series, A Life in Death, would evoke feelings of dread, fear and sorrow, for it deals with a difficult subject – one of the most difficult subjects of all – the terminal illness and death of a loved one. Or, in Borowick’s case, two loved ones – as both her parents faced, battled and eventually succumbed to stage 4 cancer together. Many of us would wring our hands, cry, rage, but Borowick chose, instead, to document her parent’s, her family’s and her own journey through illness and death with her camera.

 “… I needed to find a way to process what we were going through as a family and naturally my camera became that therapeutic tool … In a world that was spiraling downward rapidly, my camera became my lifeline and documenting our story brought a different kind of healing to our pain.”

What emerges, surprisingly, is a beautiful and, dare I say, joyful, pictorial story that celebrates love, marriage and family, hope, courage and a life (in this case, two lives) well lived.

Nancy Borowick, A Life in Death. Image credit: Nancy Borowick
Nancy Borowick, A Life in Death, Image credit: Nancy Borowick

Curator Emmeline Yong explains that the annual Women in Photography showcase was born out of a desire to “…reflect the diverse, exciting and important stories that have been explored by women photographers in recent years.” Given the dominance of male photographers in shows both local and abroad, Objectifs felt that it was important to include the perspective of women in the field – women from diverse backgrounds, communities, beliefs and artistic practices. While emphasising that this is not, of course, strictly the prerogative of women photographers, Yong suggests that women do often bring a greater empathy and sensitivity to the way they approach subjects and issues, adding that a woman photographer may be allowed access that may be denied to a male photographer, for example, when shooting a domestic scene in more conservative societies.

The other photographers whose works are not specifically described here deserve mention as well: they are  Bieke Depoorter, Sandra Mehl, Émilie Régnier and last, but certainly not least, Singapore’s own Bernice Wong. All have, in their own unique and individual way, produced compelling and moving works that add to the strength of the exhibition.

The final event for Women in Photography 2017 is an evening slideshow projection on 15 November, featuring works from the Asian Women Photographers’ Showcase 2017. 14 emerging photographers from Asia will have their works shown. It would be a great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone and catch both the exhibition and the slideshow that evening, if you can.


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