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Through the Veil of Fumigation: Photographer Kathy Anne Lim on Memory and the Environment

In her photography project White Noise, Kathy Anne Lim documents the process of fumigation and how it takes over familiar spaces in Singapore, while exploring the concept of home. Having returned to Singapore in 2020 after studying in London, Lim had to reconcile her memories of the Little Red Dot with its present state after several years away.

Looking at the photos, I observe the clouds that fumigation creates and how they lend a magical quality to spaces, conjuring thoughts of witches stirring cauldrons.

There’s a certain relatability to the photographs too. Growing up, I would wake up to the sounds of fumigation. As an adult, I would observe the fog rise up the buildings and know to close my windows if it came too close. With our visions obscured, I can’t help but wonder if fumigation leads us to overlook our impact on the environment.

Scientifically speaking, fumigation is toxic and harmful to those who work directly with it without any protective gear. There have been several studies on the harmful effects of fumigation on the environment, as it impacts not only insects but also other living creatures in the ecosystem, such as fish, frogs, and birds.

As our homes undergo fumigation and clouds of disinfectant envelop our surroundings, I wonder if we possess the courage to remain and observe what is unveiled before our very eyes.

Upon discovering that Lim self-published her series White Noise as a photography book earlier in 2023, I was keen to speak with her. We discussed her experience of photographing fumigation, the influence of living in Singapore on our perceptions of home, and how fumigation symbolises change and memory in her artistic practice. Read on for our insightful conversation.

Why did you choose to document fumigation and what drew you in?

In 2014, I came down with dengue fever before returning to study in London. It was a painful experience which delayed my flight for weeks. Therefore when I was overseas, my last memory of home was intertwined with this illness, making me homesick.

For a long time, I contemplated how I could represent this fading sense of home. It was only when I revisited some images of fumigation that I had taken in 2011, that the idea dawned on me to use fogging as a metaphor for loss and migration.

As Singapore is a city that changes quickly, the landscape differs so much from what we remember. Trying to pin down a fleeting memory is a universal experience. By nature, photography captures time, so I found the medium suitable to for this series.

Therefore, this work bridges the autobiographical and the anthropocene, as fumigation reflects the human impact on our environment, and how our environment, in turn, shapes our lived experiences and memory.

The first thing that I noticed when I saw White Noise was how the clouds of fumigation obscured parts of our vision. For me, the fog highlighted how we may forget our roles in environmental change and made me aware of my present environment. Was this something you intentionally set out to explore?

My conceptual documentary practice focuses on themes of memory, technology and displacement. Projects often start with researching a topic, referencing literature and wrestling with the concept. It takes a while to articulate a complex narrative, but once this has been shaped, the photography process becomes more fluid.

While photographing scenes of fumigation, it dawned on me that the built landscape has changed but the flora in certain estates remained familiar to that of my childhood. As a child, you might suck the nectar out of ixora flowers. But now seeing them surrounded by this alarming smoke might prompt you to think about urbanisation, globalisation, and displacement. 

How do the environmental challenges at our doorstep affect us? What other ecological changes, which are present but go unnoticed in our everyday life, signify this? This line of questioning plagued my mind as I photographed.

You exhibited White Noise in Bangkok earlier in 2023. What was that like?

Earlier this year, the project showed at Kathmandu Photo Gallery in Bangkok. Interestingly, the curator, Akkara Naktamna, drew a parallel between the fumigation smoke photographed and the PM2.5 dust particles in Thailand, which are often caused by forest fires, urban vehicles, and people burning agriculture waste to prepare for harvests. (These dust particles have a diameter of less than 2.5 microns and can lead to long-term harmful respiratory health effects for those who inhale them.)

The images were displayed on the gallery’s second floor, meaning that you could see the PM 2.5 dust particles clearly from the window, showcasing the different scales of air pollution present in the region. 

When you returned to Singapore in 2020, you started this project to merge the ideas of home and memory. Seeing how the project has run so far, how has it evolved and what new meanings have arisen?

Despite documenting fumigation in Singapore since 2017, I shot the bulk of the series when I returned in 2020. Photographing during Covid-19 meant that there were fewer people on the streets due to the circuit breaker measures. We understood that Covid-19 was airborne and dangerous, and I found a connection between the virus and the sense of unknowing which I was experiencing at the time.

At the beginning, I photographed fumigation, fumigators, and the respective fumigation companies. However, when I viewed the images collectively, there was something unnerving about the combination of the fumigation and the ongoing pandemic. There was an appropriate, apocalyptic eeriness that mirrored the presence of fumigation smoke, as people would avoid the smoke when it was on the streets or in housing estates since it denoted an unclean environment. 

This encouraged me to look more closely at the smoke without any preconceptions and hone in on its elusive nature, prompting me to think deeply about the work’s presentation and sequence.

In an attempt to recreate this sense of mystery, I laid out the publication so that when someone views the book chronologically, the images appear more abstract, with built and environmental forms seeming out of context. However, as one journeys through the publication, the images reveal more of the landscape in which the fumigation is photographed, and you get a sense of the scale of the fog in comparison to the built environment.

What was it like following the fumigation teams?

I first reached out to pest control agencies and received responses from those who allowed me photograph the fumigation process as part of a barter trade. This meant photographing images of the business’s other services in exchange.

Even then, I found that the sites that the agencies fumigate are limited, as they are contracted to fumigate specific neighbourhoods and districts, and often return to the same locations. 

Following this, some citizens saw that I was embarking on this project and sent me notices for upcoming fumigation in their neighbourhood, which I would then photograph. This allowed me to document a range of locations as opposed to only those which the companies were scheduled to fumigate.

Using a medium format camera—which requires looking down into a viewfinder unlike the viewfinder of a modern digital camera—results in any image you see in reality being flipped from left to right. Photographing within a cloud with such a medium format camera made it hard for me to orient myself. While I grew used to the smell of chemicals during the process, the smoke made me tear up, making it difficult for me to photograph in many instances. 

When it comes to fumigating spaces, I find that even the fumigators grow invisible and become lost in the fog. How did they feel working on it—did they experience any mental or physical effects? How did following the fumigators around relate to your work? 

The fumigators I worked with wore personal protective equipment (PPE). This meant I did so too, while photographing the fumigation process. Those involved are quite well protected from the chemical gas, though most fumigants are toxic to pests and humans to a certain degree. However, the workers don’t engage in fumigation every day; they also handle other pest management cases, such as termite inspections or disinfection services.

Nevertheless, fumigation has been a pest management method in Singapore since the 1960s, as documented in the National Archives of Singapore. I cannot speak on behalf of the workers, however, as I was following the team, I found the work to be physically demanding. 

I also discovered that fumigation is weather dependent, as rain washes away the effective chemicals and renders fumigation efforts futile. This resulted in the images being quite vibrant, as we only went out when it was sunny.

Overall, what interests me more is how fumigation symbolises the unknown and unprecedented; it mirrors and disrupts our expectations of human nature and the built environment.

Kathy Anne Lim’s White Noise has been published into a book (Edition of 300), supported by Women Photograph, designed by Yanda (Do Not Design) with words by Lim and Clara Peh.

You can purchase her book at, Basheer Graphic Bookstore and Objectifs – Centre for Photography & Film.

Click here to learn about the artist.

Feature image courtesy of the artist.

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