By Mohammad Khamsya Bin Khidzer and Sim Jui Liang
[Editor’s note: Mohammad Khamsya Bin Khidzer is a sociologist with an interest in race, religion, public policy and migration. Sim Jui Liang is a Research Associate (Special Project) at the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore.]
In 2014, a group of friends started mentoring nine underprivileged teenagers who lived in public rental housing in Singapore. We started by introducing them to the basics of photography. The idea was for these teenagers to capture what they felt were important elements in their neighbourhood of Lengkok Bahru and their lives, rather than having us capture what we imagined to be representative of life in a public rental neighbourhood. We distributed film cameras to the teenagers and deliberately gave them ambiguous, open themes that they were supposed to creatively interpret and capture on film. They were: 1) Everyday Life, 2) My Spaces, 3) Family and 4) Important Stuff. Five months in, we collected over 400 photos, some of which were eventually used in two public exhibitions at SCAPE, a non-profit youth organisation, and Artistry Café in 2015. In the text below, we reflect on the issue of representation in structuring photography programmes for underprivileged groups as well as the politics which undergirds the curation of a photography exhibition.
Inequality, Representation and Photography
Photographic representations do not just shape people’s perceptions of a subject but also affect the subject too. For instance, photographers’ expectations of poverty often lead them to ‘force the frame’, pushing photographic subjects to behave or appear in accordance to pre-conceived notions of what poverty entails. But some of these ‘subjects’ contest such framings of despair, even negotiating for greater involvement in representing themselves in photographs. Some photographers have in fact collaborated with them.
The very idea of incorporating photography into our quasi academic inquiry of class inequality was inspired by this turn in photography to include the ‘subjects’ as participants in the process of constructing the narrative. The main idea was to upend the inherent unequal dynamics in the practice of photography and to grant agency to the human constituents of photographic images. To that end, rather than capturing subjects in their ‘natural’ environment or constructing a narrative to represent them, the photographer facilitates the shaping of how they wish to be presented to the public either through co-organising an exhibition or giving them cameras to take their own photos, which was something we did for this project.
In this sense, we appear to be ignoring the photographers’ right to project their own interpretations of what they feel to be relevant in their artistic field. In fact, some would argue that this very process of interpreting and creating a narrative is what defines photography as a craft. It is indeed a valid concern. However, we feel that the whole poverty angle has been grossly overplayed, even fetishised to a point where such images do a disservice to not just the people they’re supposed to represent but also to the discourse on inequality. We view the shift in how photography is being practised – especially when dealing with vulnerable subjects – as an important step in quelling the expropriation of photographic narratives which, more often than not, lead to crass poverty porn. Ultimately, we feel that the answer to the question ‘who stands to gain from the production of images?’ should somehow address the issues raised by our young collaborators from Lengkok Bahru and by this, we don’t just mean parroting the clichéd ‘raising awareness’ argument. Beyond that, we believe that the programme should at least instill confidence in the participants and hopefully link them with opportunities brought about by their participation.
Going Old School with Film
Going in, we had to decide what the programme participants would be using to take the photographs. For a start, we didn’t even pretend to be experts in photography. Sure, we knew the technical basics of DSLR photography – ISO, aperture size, shutter speed. After a 10-minute tutorial on YouTube, we knew the basics of photo composition. But we didn’t want the technical aspects of photography to overwhelm the young participants and displace the storytelling aspect. One of us had the idea of using vintage point-and-shoot film cameras. They could be had for cheap and were pretty easy to use. The only difficult part was refilling batteries and of course, the film. Apart from introducing them to vintage photography equipment, we also thought that it would be interesting to expose the participants to the non-immediate dimension of film photography; sans the ability to review and edit the photographs, we hoped to be able to elicit the rawness of youth in the captured images and deliver a more impactful narrative. The lack of review capability and limited exposures (24 per film roll) however would force the participants to put in more thought in the composition of frames to be captured.
We felt compelled to highlight the extent of inequality in Singapore. But we didn’t feel that presenting heart-tugging images of hardship would be the most effective way of doing so. Inequality is an extremely complex issue and what is often lost in the discussion are the voices of the very people who live it. Letting the youth participants dictate what they wished to capture was one way of empowering them to highlight the ordinariness of life in public rental housing. At the same time, we wanted the audience to be able to identify the nuances in the photographs, to consume the images not just as representations of something alien (which often lead to the fetishisation of the poor) but also as symbols in a life world which, while constraining by normative standards, form part of the everyday routine for these individuals. Focusing on the life world of the programme participants was one way in which the seemingly polarising objectives of empowerment and the presentation of inequality could be achieved. We assigned them four interrelated themes to work with: 1) Everyday Life, 2) My Spaces, 3) Family and 4) Important Stuff. The process was as interesting as the photos that the youth participants took. Every week, we gave them a new roll of film and we collected the spent film roll for processing. We repeated this for about five cycles. Because it was the first time they actually used film cameras, the first few cycles yielded poor photos. Some of the exposures were totally unusable because the curious teenagers had tinkered with the cameras, leading to overexposed photos. Eventually, they learned to maintain the cameras well and produced great photos over the span of four months.
Organising, Interpreting, Curating the Exhibition
Essentially, curating an exhibition requires the act of interpreting ‘data’ in the form of images and presenting them in a way that relays an idea or message. As such, curators can be said to inhabit a position of authority vis-a-vis the audience and in this case, the producers of the images. Although we started out with the intention of including the Lengkok Bahru teenagers in the selection of their photographs, we were constrained by prohibitive deadlines. There just wasn’t enough time to train them in the basic qualitative method of identifying and surfacing (inter-connected) themes from the myriad of photographs. Naturally, the task fell to us as facilitators in the programme. As we went through the hundreds of images appearing on the projector screen, some questions were raised: How do we avoid over-interpreting the significance of some of the images? How do we move away from transposing our preconceived notions or even ideals in these photos? Does the photo of a goldsmith shop front reflect the participants’ sensitivity towards their low socioeconomic status and/or their aspiration towards material wealth? Is the image of a milk carton in the fridge supposed to inform viewers of the photographer’s awareness of nutrition?
Our immediate response to this problem was to return to Lengkok Bahru to talk to the teenagers. It wasn’t that we hadn’t spent enough time in Lengkok Bahru. We were there quite frequently. But we realised that we were so absorbed in the execution of the programme that we missed getting to know some of these participants and more importantly, how the photographs connected with their lives. Fully aware that some of these teenagers were reticent, we probed them gently to uncover their motivations for taking certain photographs. We learned more about their lives, daily routines in the neighbourhood and, most importantly, their dreams. Through this approach of triangulating data, we felt that we managed to bridge the interpretive gap and better represent the images and the biographies behind these images. Eventually, we arrived at three overarching themes for the exhibition: 1) Lengkok Bahru, our Home, 2) Strategies and 3) Aspirations.
The theme of ‘Lengkok Bahru, our Home’ is rather self-explanatory with the participants focusing on the physical landscape of their neighbourhood, such as the façades of the housing blocks that they stay in and the stairwells. Some participants also invited us into their humble abodes, through the images of clothes hanging in the kitchen and a set of exercise dumbbells left on the floor. Contrary to the stereotype of impoverished families as dysfunctional, many of the photographs portrayed close-knit ties among family members and neighbours. A crowd-pleaser among visitors to the exhibition is a photograph featuring a participant’s adorable cousins strumming the guitar on bed. Even the neighbourhood’s cat made an appearance in the photographs. In visual ethnography, images provide viewers with a brief insight to the thinking of the photographer; in this case, the capturing of such intimate spaces, all of which mean something important to our photographers, represent the everyday spaces they utilise. In documenting these images, the photographers indulge in place-making, creating associations between identity and place. It is here that we truly discover the malleability of the idea of ‘home’ and its connectedness with a variety of other appropriated spaces seen in the pictures – the corridor, the street soccer court, an empty bus, the community centre, the study space at the void deck or the library. Home for these photographers ceases to be a mere place of dwelling and expands to include public spaces, which can be privately appropriated for however long they deem comfortable or possible.
The home-place-space dynamic is closely tied to their socioeconomic status. Living in relatively small and spartan public rental flats where they don’t necessarily have access to their own space, luxuries such as air-conditioning, WiFi, computer or even quietude, the Lengkok Bahru teenagers actively look for ways to appropriate usable spaces. They spend countless hours engaging in outdoor play, strumming the guitar, singing and mingling with their friends at the common corridor. A photograph of a boy lying on the corridor exemplifies this agentic stretching of the limits of home. Other photos depict the façades of the neighbourhood’s library and community centre; they do not look aesthetically pleasing but to the participants, these places afforded them luxurious spaces to complete their school assignments. Finding ways to overcome the challenges imposed by their physical living environment and socioeconomic status could be equated with ‘Strategies’. The teenagers’ spirit of improvisation is aptly portrayed in a photograph of a construction cone standing on a parched field. The construction cone was used by the soccer-loving teenagers as a makeshift goal post.
Perhaps best encapsulating the theme of ‘Aspirations’ is the photo of two pairs of cleaned soccer boots perched securely on the window ledge, left to sun. No surprises here – the photograph’s creator harbours hopes of making it big as a soccer player. Another photo features two rows of dancers – mostly females – clad in colourful traditional Malay costumes and striking elegant poses. They might be part of a dance group in school but to the photographer, it symbolised her dream of performing on a bigger stage.
To a large extent, these themes are in line with the objectives of this project – to make visible the rather invisible experiences and narratives of individuals living in public rental housing in Singapore and to debunk some of the stereotypes and myths associated with poverty. For instance, in a society that prizes meritocracy, individual attributes (such as a lack of ambition) rather than structural impediments have often been highlighted in the discussion on income inequality and social mobility.
At the same time, we were wary of the possibility of unintentionally generating the effect of poverty porn through the photos exhibited. It was imperative that the photographs selected, while raising awareness of the challenges faced by the participants and their families, also illustrated the human agency and empowerment as embodied in the teenagers. This explains the exhibition’s emphasis on the participants’ aspirations and strategies. Given the sensitive nature that the issue of income inequality poses to some people, the representation of Lengkok Bahru and its residents is intertwined with ethical considerations as aforementioned. Initially, one of the photographs selected under the theme ‘Lengkok Bahru, our Home’ featured the father of one of the participants. When the exhibition date drew closer and as we were unable to obtain permission from him, we decided to err on the side of caution by removing the photograph from the exhibition.
Of Light Leaks and Dreams
For any other exhibition, to showcase photographs which are out-of-focus, poorly composed or over-exposed is tantamount to committing career suicide. Yet quite a number of the photographs we chose to exhibit had these ‘flaws’. Rather than rejecting them outright, we decided to embrace photographic ‘flaws’, incorporating them as a central feature in the overarching narrative. The purpose wasn’t just to invite the audience to reflect on art accessibility and cultural capital as crucial to producing art, but to also rethink the ideals of photography and art. Do light leaks necessarily mean that the camera needs better sealing? Or are they symptomatic of photographer-related idiosyncrasies? For our mobile phone-dependent participants, using the film camera was a novelty that quickly became a source of anxiety. Unsure if the film had been properly locked in the camera and whether the images had been captured on film, some of the participants actually opened up the film compartment to reassure themselves. The result: yellow-hued spots which engulfed parts or all of the images. Of course, there were purists who remarked how our presentation of these overexposed pictures as ‘artistic’ had degraded the craft. If so, they had completely missed the underlying message we were trying to present: that the medium, flawed as it may be, is the message. We wanted the audience to be able to accept this amateurism and use it as a starting point for interaction with the photographer’s life world to better understand a different side of Singapore.
Although we had lofty ambitions for the project, we really didn’t expect much given the circumstances. Without any financial support at the beginning and juggling full-time jobs, we were never able to fully commit to the programme. But the enthusiasm showed by the teenagers willed us on and as we continued working with them, we realised that there was so much that we could achieve together. So even though the teenagers weren’t directly involved in the selection of the pictures for the exhibition, they contributed through other ways such as availing themselves as docents at the exhibition, addressing the audience in the question-and-answer session and the creating of the exhibition space. On the eve of the two-day exhibition at Scape, some of the young photographers brought along cherished belongings such as a soccer jersey and a tournament trophy to be displayed alongside the photos, thereby adding personal touches to an otherwise formal space. Throughout the whole process, the participative element remained intact and this happily coincided with our objective of instilling confidence in the participants, who narrated their biographies within the context of Lengkok Bahru through the photos.
Their interaction with the public wasn’t at all scripted. Rather, the teenagers spoke earnestly and very honestly of their circumstances. Now this may seem like a normal occurrence one expects in exhibitions but the fact is that these teenagers are very shy and not used to being given a platform to be listened to. Thus to see them seize the opportunity to tell their stories to strangers filled our hearts with pride and joy. It was a poignant moment, one which reflected the potential that participative photography holds in effecting small yet very substantial changes to the lives of the participants. Inevitably, this programme has not eradicated the problem of economic inequality in society nor has it claimed to be. But, it is an important start; an essential experiment, one which marries the sociological paradigm, with its durable concepts such as social and cultural capital, and the visual medium of photography.
As a means of collecting data, photographs taken by the participants yielded more than we could have gathered through merely doing interviews. Photographs provide an insight to how these teenagers view their world, how they make places intimate through the appropriation of spaces and how they define home, family and success, beyond what they would usually describe in words. Furthermore, the images which were washed out as a result of the light leaks reflected the anxiety the teenagers faced as a result of dealing with old technology, which effectively denied them the luxury of immediate review found in cameras today. Somehow, the effect gave the pictures an attractive sheen, a layer akin to the rose-tint lens through which we often perceive youth and childhood. In a way, this is true. The images depict the rawness and innocence of youth, of dreams and aspirations which bask in accidental light leaks. But make no mistake, dreaming in light leaks is precarious; indulge too far in this romanticism and the images disappear, completely washed out along with the stories and aspirations of the youths in Lengkok Bahru.