She cuts a petite figure, but Sim Chi Yin’s voice rings loud and clear.
The 40-year old Singaporean was drawn to capturing light and shadow from a young age, and she soon recognised that her two strengths – photography and writing – would be her tools to tell powerful stories about the people around us and the world we live in.
(Video credit: https://chiyinsim.com/bio/)
And she’s certainly been lending her voice to campaigns that matter for quite some time now. Founder of the group Migrant Voices, Sim and her friends launched a campaign in 2003 called Day Off, where they photographed different migrant workers on their day off and the things that they could do on these precious free days. In 2006, she gathered 12 other professional photographers for a project called Inside Out, where the team photographed migrant workers of different ethnicities – Thai, Burmese, Indonesian and Filipino. Each photographer also took on five of these migrant workers as students, teaching them basic photography and giving them point-and-shoot cameras and film to photograph moments and scenes from their every day lives. Inside Out took up six pages of the national newspaper on a Saturday, and the exhibition, held at Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film, was opened by the parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of Manpower.
“I kept thinking, how can we communicate in a society that is not familiar with this language of rights?(I’ve learnt) that strategies of speaking are very important and specific to cultures.”
Sim Chi Yin
To date, the Beijing-based photographer has built a resume padded with accolades. Her photographs have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Time and National Geographic, among many others. She won the prestigious Chris Hondros Award in 2018 and is the first South-east Asian photographer to be a member of Magnum Photos, a prestigious co-operative, one of whose co-founders is the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
I spoke to the first Singaporean Nobel Peace Prize Photographer about her most recent challenge: a two-month trip to capture photographs that embody the spirit of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a global activist group.
How have you navigated this topic and conceptualised the exhibition to speak to people in Singapore?
This piece wasn’t made for people in Singapore. The way the curator and myself thought about this is, we wanted to create a space that people would want to navigate. Read it at their own pace.
The photograph captions are detailed enough to give specific details about the scene. And the work can be read at two levels: if you really want to know what this scene is all about, you can get that from the captions.
But at another level, it’s the mood that these pictures create in this specific gallery. It’s kind of almost not so consequential, at this level, what the pictures are literally of. Because the work is metaphorical at one level, so it can be read in different ways.
Shooting the Nobel Peace Prize is a big deal. What do you think of the impact you’ll make with this campaign?
I think even if I manage to arouse curiosity in a small number of people who come and spend as long as 40 minutes getting lost in the work, then I think it would have achieved something. I don’t know if we can change people’s mind about nuclear weapons, but all I am trying to do with this work, whether it’s shown in Oslo, Italy or Singapore, is to get people into it in a contemplative and meditative way.
Why did you choose to turn the gallery into a diptych?
It’s an attempt to get people to look at the issue of nuclear weapons in a new and different way.
I came up with the idea of pairing these pictures because I’ve been doing archival research and came upon pictures that I kind of wonder – what happens if I put this next to this? An additional layer of reading that arises from the diptych-ing.
I also had the help of Katrina, our curator for the Singapore exhibition, who decided from the beginning that she didn’t want to have diptychs on a single plane like how it was exhibited in Oslo and Italy. We curated the experience of looking at these diptychs and taking in the intention of my original work across the whole gallery.
A Belgian art collector who saw your work made a comment on “how does it feel to make something so horrific so beautiful”. What are your thoughts on capturing the aesthetics of war?
For me, the beauty is a way into the work.
From the beginning of this work, my intention was to reach out and speak to people who disagree with the nuclear disbarment crowd. Beauty is a hook into that conversation. I could show you the genetically deformed babies, the mushroom cloud explosions, the blood and gore. I could do all that, and tug at your heartstrings. But I would have lost half the audience from the get-go.
On this polarising topic, I decided to take this open-ended approach. It’s more about the mood it creates and the contemplation it takes you to.
Note: The multi-disciplinary installation titled Fallout is now on display at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. Sim’s exhibition Most People Were Silent, featuring works from her Fallout series, is on at LASALLE College of the Arts’ Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore till tomorrow, 10 October 2018. There is still time to catch this impactful and important show before it closes!