When it comes to snapshots of Singapore, we’ve become rather accustomed to the familiar images of a glittering metropolis. You know, these:
That is what Singapore looks like. Or, at least, that is the likeness that glitters and twinkles on screens the world over, the image that lingers on TV sets of Formula 1 viewers for a few primed, timed seconds each year, the backdrop that will, inevitably, be dazzlingly sequinned with fireworks come this SG50 National Day.
Twenty-year old Sean Cham, however, likes to take snapshots of a different sort of Singapore. He’s the mastermind behind a photography project he calls ‘Yesteryears’, in which he composes photos of abandoned or near-forgotten places in Singapore. These photos are accompanied by a brief caption about the location’s history and significance (although the places are not named explicitly, for reasons mentioned later).
What stands out about these photos is often Sean himself; he places himself in each and every one of his shots, posing in character to better allow the viewer to try and visualise the place as it once might have been. The results of these self-portraits are often fascinating: decked all in white, Sean’s expressions and posture revitalise the desolate, faded backgrounds, hinting at their former life and energy.
It’s worth noting that everything we see has been done by Sean alone. He travels to his location, sets up his camera, poses, shoots and edits entirely on his own. The resulting self-portraits are a curious blend of photography and theatre, with Sean’s knack for crafting dramatic scenes complimenting his skill with a camera. The theatricality of his images certainly has roots in his drama background, Sean having directed and acted in several plays during his time at Raffles Institution. He also points to his time spent studying Art and Study of Visual Arts at A-level, which nurtured a partiality towards using stark, plain colours in his work, not least white.
As is fitting for SG50, the ‘Yesteryears’ project is showcasing 50 images of Singapore, which Sean tries to post every Sunday, “as much as possible”, he adds with a chuckle. He speaks with Mothership.sg to answer a few questions about his project.
1. Tell us about how this whole project began. How did this idea form?
Well, it started quite randomly, a premature version of the idea just came to me and I took the first photo the same afternoon, on 30th September 2014, at Kampung Lorong Buangkok. It started purely as just wanting to do something art related to cure my boredom, but it was certainly also triggered by the recent tearing down of buildings and ongoing en blocs, including my maternal grandmother's HDB unit as well, where I grew up for the first two years of my life. The place held many memories for myself as well as my family. So what sparked the project was essentially the whole idea of places being vessels of memories and stories, and these stories ending tragically of either being left to rot within the precincts of the city or being completely demolished.
I want to capture these places, and the stories that resonate within their walls, to let them live on forever in pictures. I want to explore past the veneer of this garden city into the ghettos and depths of our nation to resurface these places, and let their stories be heard again.
2. How do you find and select your unique locations?
I did quite a bit of research by reading articles online or surfing through Instagram. There has been a surge of people trying to explore such nostalgic places as well, probably because of SG50 or the whole 'I Remember SG' campaign, or maybe because of the lack of (mainstream) places to go in Singapore, as many have 'complained' or lamented about….
3. It's interesting how you are the only person in your shots. If there are multiple figures depicted, it's still you, appearing in different costumes and poses. Why just you?
The photographs are self-portraits, so they are composed and shot entirely by myself, of myself. Self-portraits, as a genre, capture the artist through the own hands of the artist himself, be it through painting or photography. One famous artist who does self-portrait photography would be Cindy Sherman, and a more contemporary artist would be Alex Stoddard, both of whom I admire and respect very much. I could have just shot the buildings/places as they were, but I decided to add the element and presence of a human subject to let the audience try and connect and imagine life within the walls of the place.
Some photos might appear to be abstract/surreal and not have a direct relation to the place (i.e. chessboard piece) but the humanistic approach and element will allow the viewers to connect to the place even though they have never physically been there themselves.
Why me instead of hiring actors to pose? Well, it's a very performative process (with my theatrical background, it's very much like method acting), where I immerse myself in the place, gain inspiration from the place, and imagine life and the people living within the walls in the past, and… who better to capture this entire essence than myself, the artist?
5. Why white?
I chose white because it was clean, universal, and in that way free of any cultural or religious bias. It is easy to relate to, without the audience bringing in any other references from other colours. It allows the audience to see the photograph without any other distractions, and appreciate the beauty and colours of the places without any other elements 'upstaging' it. The clothes/props merely add as a tool for the viewers to better relate to the place, with recognisable objects/symbols like a chaptek or a rabbit mask.
6. Is there a reason why you don't reveal the location of your shoots? The captions accompanying the photo will refer to 'the school' or 'the jetty', for example, but tend not to name the place or reveal how to get there. It all seems very mysterious...
Well there might be certain legal issues to do with entry and access… Haha. But this also allows the audience to read up and research on these places themselves, to learn more about the history of the place or even how to get to these places themselves. This allows for audience interaction, and for them to go through the whole exploration process themselves as well. Why not have a go?
All photos by Sean Cham.