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Normalising the Abnormal: A Conversation with Photographer Woong Soak Teng

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Sunlight pours into the room as Woong Soak Teng (or ‘Soak’ as I and many of her friends affectionately call her) stands speaking to a visitor who has come to view her latest project at the Objectifs – Centre for Photography & Film, rules for photographing a scoliotic patient.

Soak motions for me to wait as I walk around. 

I have known her for a few years now and as familiar as I am with how she imparts her calming presence to her projects, I am still surprised by how she has managed to effuse her way of seeing into the exhibition space. Much like her previous art projects, how they grow, where they fall, some pictures of representation and ways to tie trees, Soak’s way of seeing the world and expressing it through art is unique and enduring. 

Throughout her years of practice, Soak has been awarded the Steidl Book Award Asia, Objectifs Documentary Award 2021, Kwek Leng Joo Prize of Excellence in Photography 2018 and the Singapore Young Photographer Award 2018. Many photographers, including myself, look up to Soak. It’s not difficult to recognise her work when you spot it — it’s moving in its simplicity, quietly seeing the unseen. 

Soak walks over to me now, and we begin our conversation.

Installation view of rules for photographing a scoliotic patient at Objectifs – Centre for Photography & Film.

I like how the process of your art-making feels like the traditional process of photography — something that takes time and patience to think through, something cathartic. As someone with scoliosis, how was this project cathartic for you and what kinds of new thoughts arose for you as you worked on this?

Installation view of rules for photographing a scoliotic patient at Objectifs – Centre for Photography & Film.

It was my first time having in-depth conversations with other scoliotic individuals and exchanging stories about our journeys. I learnt that every person takes a different path with the same condition and that there are many variables in life that alter the lived experience. Personally, it is also a process of remembering events and emotions that took place across the last 17 years. Memories of pain and trauma can become hazy over time, as a coping mechanism as our bodies heal. It is this same distance away from my own adolescence that allows me to pick up the topic again and relate to other scoliotic individuals intimately, while expanding on broader ideas more critically. 

I hope it has also been a cathartic process for the individuals who participated in this project. For many of them, it was their first time meeting and speaking with another scoliotic individual who could relate to what they have gone through. Some remarked that it was their first time seeing their backs in full view, while others mentioned that they had been longing to have their scars documented. 

A scene from the film Yi Yi directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang in 2000 often replayed in my head. In a scene between a father and son, the conversation goes: 

Son: Daddy, you can’t see what I see and I can’t see what you see. So how can I know what you see?

Father: Good question. I never thought of that. That’s why we need a camera. Do you want one to play with?

Son: Daddy, can we only know half of the truth?

Father: What? I don’t get it.

Son: I can only see what’s in front, not what’s behind. So I can only know half of the truth, right?

There’s a beautiful parallel between the forms in the art we celebrate and scoliosis, which you’ve highlighted in your exhibition. It’s interesting that we consider such contorted postures in art to be normal and celebrated (even replicated) but when these postures naturally occur within a person, it becomes ‘abnormal.’ As an artist and person with scoliosis, how has this made you reconsider art in general?

Art has the ability to present different perspectives, and in ways that are open to interpretation. Art-making creates a space where we can attempt to make sense of the many contradictions in life. I see beauty in distortions and imperfections, which manifests in my works. With this project, perhaps it is the imperfections in my (own) body that motivate this way of seeing. In turn, I tend to make art that subverts traditional ideals of aesthetics and beauty.

A spread from the photobook rules for photographing a scoliotic patient, published by THEBOOKSHOW and designed by Macarius Eng. Image courtesy of Macarius Eng.

In Scoliosis edited by P.A. Zorab and published in 1969, it is observed that while the contrapposto in ancient Greek sculptures are celebrated as powerful and dynamic immortalisations of the human body, asymmetry, in reality, is perceived as deformity. Fast forward to more than five decades later, it remains a fair observation. The marble sculptures by British artist Marc Quinn are reactions to these Neoclassical ideals. The art of the past represents the beliefs of a bygone era and contemporary expressions should speak for the values of today. I think it is important to create honest works that are relevant to our times. In the context of this project, it involves reconsidering our relationships with what is deemed ‘natural,’ and how we are conditioned to think about abnormality.

In all the images you’ve created, the medical rules of light that you’ve found in your research seemed to have been applied. (In the project, Soak mentions that there is a specific way to take images of scoliotic patients in the medical world — against a dark backdrop with light coming from the side.) It’s managed to create such a beautiful way of expressing the individuality of the subjects and scoliosis in general.

By reclaiming these medical rules, I feel that you’ve given back some sort of agency to these subjects. Did you realise this as you went through the process or did you already know from the start this would be something empowering?

While there are some similarities in how lights are used to illuminate the participants and medical objects, I don’t carry the set of rules in mind when photographing. The rules exist in the realm of irony, since all bodies and the progressions of scoliosis are vastly different. I focus on working with each individual based on their personalities and unique body contours, and on responding to the different personal settings we are in. 

The ‘reclamation’ comes in the form of making photographs with a completely different intention. Unlike medical photography made for scientific investigation, the photographs are made for and with scoliotic individuals with the desire to create visibility for a condition that is often tucked away beneath clothes. In pointing a camera at another person, there is a fine line between empowerment and exploitation, so a key part of the process lies within the interaction and communication with each individual to ensure that they are represented in a manner that they are comfortable with. This goes beyond the rules of light and is something I am still learning about.

A spread from the photobook rules for photographing a scoliotic patient, published by THEBOOKSHOW and designed by Macarius Eng. Image courtesy of Macarius Eng.

The foam bodies are contemporary versions of the cast. In the past, medical practitioners used plaster of Paris to create moulds for brace-making. With technological advancement, an orthotist today utilises digital capturing techniques and online software to print three-dimensional moulds made of hard foam. They are much lighter and quicker to produce as compared to traditional casting methods. In my conversations with local orthotist Nigel Wong, we casually refer to them as ‘foam bodies.’ To create a brace for controlling scoliosis, a manufacturing process called ‘thermoforming’ is used, whereby a plastic sheet is heated up, wrapped around the foam body and allowed to cool.

A snapshot of foam bodies in an orthotist’s workspace.

When I first visited Nigel at work, the dominating presence of the foam bodies was immediately striking. Each foam body is a representation of a living person’s torso. I found a strong parallel between them and the ancient Greek sculptures mentioned by Zorab. It was unexpected to find a dozen marble-like contemporary sculptures in an orthotist’s workshop! Once each brace is custom-made for the patients, the foam bodies are usually destroyed and disposed of.

The foam bodies as they appear in the  photobook rules for photographing a scoliotic patient, published by THEBOOKSHOW and designed by Macarius Eng. Image courtesy of THEBOOKSHOW.

The orthotist’s trash became my gems as I brought them back to the studio and later photographed them. In documenting these medical objects, I respond to Zorab’s observation by highlighting the unique forms of each asymmetrical foam cast, beyond their original medical function.

There are two parts to the book you’ve created alongside your exhibition. One part echoes the research images, interviews, and layout that medical texts and research have (which can be very cold and sometimes inaccessible). However, in the other part, you’ve managed to create warmth and humanised the topic of scoliosis by interviewing various people about their experiences with the condition. Was this intentional?

Documentation of the photobook rules for photographing a scoliotic patient, published by THEBOOKSHOW and designed by Macarius Eng. Image courtesy of Macarius Eng.

The strong parallel with medical documents in the photobook was designed by Macarius Eng. He set out to design a photobook unique to the topic of scoliosis by adopting similar layouts used in medical research. This was complemented by the use of what he calls a ‘scoliotic gutter,’ where the type is set with ragged margins so the text blocks are irregularly-shaped. The form of the text in every conversation is customised differently, akin to how the orthotist custom-makes distinct braces for each patient. I’m grateful that Macarius brought in his sensibilities and sensitivities in design to marry the book medium with the subject matter.

A spread from the photobook rules for photographing a scoliotic patient, published by THEBOOKSHOW and designed by Macarius Eng. Image courtesy of THEBOOKSHOW.

The conversations with scoliotic individuals grew to become an essential half of the project. They are titled after the question that I often began the dialogues with: “When did you find out you have scoliosis?’”

In the medical field, the destination is key and healthcare professionals are focused on detecting and solving problems. In the larger scheme of life, a diagnosis is only the beginning of a life-long journey that builds identities and characters. The interviews bring about the act of recollecting, reenacting, and retelling the series of events that make up who we become and continue to grow into. If there is any warmth that comes through in the conversations, it is perhaps because they arise from exchanges between two scoliotic individuals bonded by the same condition.

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‘rules for photographing a scoliotic patient’ will run till 19 June at Objectifs, 155 Middle Road Singapore 188977. Details can be found here.

You can learn more about the photobook here

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