You might think photography festivals are exclusive events, experiences which only professional photographers would attend. These myths are exactly what the Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF), organised by DECK, seeks to dissolve. A biennial festival that celebrates the works of photographers around the world, the SIPF presents itself as an important but more significantly, a welcoming space for critical discussion on and public appreciation of photography in Southeast Asia. I was drawn to one exhibition in particular – ‘Singapore’ by Nguan.
Author’s disclaimer: I am a huge fan of film photography and perhaps spend way too much time scouring Instagram and leading photography portfolio websites like Flickr, VSCO, and 500px for film photography – a type of photography that captures images on plastic film sheets containing light-sensitive crystals, which differs from the more common digital photography which digitises images and stores them as computer files. Trawl the internet religiously for just over a week, and I can almost guarantee that you will spot the occasional photograph of something familiar – a shot of an HDB flat or a familiar MRT station in enchanting pastel hues:
This is how I discovered Nguan.
Nguan is an enigma, and this would not be the first time the internationally-acclaimed Singaporean photographer has been described as such. His signature aesthetic of pastel hues is instantly recognisable and has appeared on many esteemed platforms such as Monocle, the New York Times Magazine, SomewhereMag, and It’s Nice That. This year, Nguan is the first Singaporean to feature in a solo exhibition at SIPF, alongside exhibitions by esteemed photographers from around the world like Laura Letinsky, Mark Neville, Rinko Kawauchi, and Tomoko Sawada, amongst others. Nguan’s exhibition, Singapore, is being held at Block 9 of Gillman Barracks, the surrounding compound of which boasts other treasure troves of art and installation, sitting quietly in their respective art galleries.
Singapore draws visitors from all walks of life – upon entering, I was greeted by the sight of a group of teenage boys, a man and his elderly mother, a family with three children, and several tourists carrying way too many brochures and pamphlets from the other exhibitions in the Gillman compound. Observing the visitors in the gallery, I was pleasantly reminded of the very charm of Nguan’s work, Singapore in particular: amidst his quiet and gentle colours, there is something every Singaporean can relate to:
This could partly be because his Singapore-based photography series freezes and focuses our attention on the moments between. Captured in soft hues are the moments that, if we blink, or spend one more second staring at our smartphones, we would miss entirely. These are the things we pass by on our daily commutes to and from school or work, the scenes at the playground which we walk hurriedly past. These are the moments we usually fail to recognise or give a thought to, and the moments that Nguan has immortalised in rolls of film over the years. They say photographers capture the sights they hold dear, and perhaps the overwhelming appreciation for his work is a reflection of the Singaporean need to hold on to whatever is left of our yesteryears – even and sometimes especially if it means responding to the demand for the commodification of nostalgia.
But who can blame us really?
Memories exist in locked spaces – in sights and in sounds. The destruction of the landscapes that connect us to our childhood and the roots of all we know are constantly being defined and refined in an age of globalisation and infrastructural development. In a Singaporean landscape that changes so fast and so suddenly, perhaps we find ourselves grasping to preserve what we can no longer conserve.
As a Singaporean myself, it was with a slight pang of shame that I realised the irony of only recognising the beauty of these little moments when presented with large-sized photographs in a gallery; when in fact such sights are all around me every day:
Known for only working within a very restricted timeframe during the day, specifically during the very last few hours of daylight when the sunlight is not as harsh, Nguan’s pastel hues portray scenes of Singapore to dreamlike effect. Usually, I am used to seeing these shots on social media in sizes far smaller than those which line the walls of the gallery. A first glance may invite a response like,
“I don’t understand how he can make a photo of potted plants so beautiful!”
But let your eyes linger for another moment and you’ll soon realise there is a trace of loneliness which lies under the dreamy hues of these photographs. The soft pastel colours juxtapose against darker themes of loneliness and isolation, suggesting a shade of unhappiness:
Perhaps this is indeed the state of not only Singapore but of our individual lives. Days and days are carefully framed and curated for Nguan’s followers to see – similar images can be found on his Instagram feed. However, look more closely and one will recognise undertones of the truth of human loneliness, a theme that Nguan’s work communicates with delicate nuance in all its beautiful pastel glory.
Singapore, by Nguan runs at Gillman Barracks till 28 October.