These photos show more than what's in them


  • Arts
  • Friday, 04 Nov 2016

Austrian photographer Klaus Pichler's Golden Days Before They End series at the Newton MRT station in Singapore. Photos: SIPF

The biennial Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF), which started in 2008, celebrates its fifth edition this year with the theme “The Archive”, which explores the use of photography as a tool for documentation. There are homages to veterans of photography such as Daido Moriyama, Roger Ballen and Li Zhensheng, as well as a broad variety of work from practitioners around the world.

“The photography festival was started out of a passion for photography, and we are happy to provide a platform for people to gather and celebrate photography,” says festival director Gwen Lee at an interview in Singapore.

Even as photography festivals are proliferating in this region, SIPF manages to pull off some first viewings of iconic and emerging work.

Daido Moriyama: Prints And Books From 1960s-1980s is the Japanese photographer’s first solo exhibition in South-East Asia, presented at the organiser’s headquarters, DECK. The organisers were given carte blanche in showing Moriyama’s work, and Lee had trawled through the photographer’s extensive archives in Tokyo to put the show together.

The search was narrowed down to his early years.

“I am interested in the formation of his visual language,” Lee said at the media tour.

Portrait of Shivraj Thapa wearing the Nepali topi at Paya Lebar in 1968. It is an archival photo from Zakaria Zainal';s Singapore Gurkha Photography Museum, which is the first photographic archive of the Singapore Gurkha community. Zakaria's exhibition is on at the National Library Singapore till Nov 13.
Portrait of Shivraj Thapa wearing the Nepali topi at Paya Lebar in 1968. It is an archival photo from Zakaria Zainal';s Singapore Gurkha Photography Museum, which is the first photographic archive of the Singapore Gurkha community. Zakaria's exhibition is on at the National Library Singapore till Nov 13.

The outcome is a selection of his best-known images such as the demon-eyed dog and the fishnet tights, as well as lesser known but formative work including the erotic series from the second volume of the legendary Provoke group.

In another regional first are Li Zhensheng’s photographs of the Cultural Revolution, exhibited at The Arts House. Li worked as a photojournalist during this period; officially for the Red Guard, unofficially for a rebel group. Fearful of repercussions, he had snipped off the unofficial frames and hid them under the floorboards of his house; these photographs would later offer an eye-opening and uncensored look at this tumultuous time for China.

Elsewhere, French photography collector and editor Thomas Sauvin shows a different side of China through ordinary snapshots. When he was living in Beijing, Sauvin had bought sacks of discarded photo negatives from a recycling plant and developed over 850,000 photos, most dating from the mid-1980s to 2005.

“These photographs are important because they were made by the people and give a view of the country outside of the propaganda or state-approved photos,” says Sauvin during a presentation of his work. At SIPF, he is exhibiting Hand-Colored, a joint collaboration with graphic illustrator Lei Lei, where they had used the archival photos to construct a narrative of a fictional couple, the photographs reworked in eye-popping colours.

Besides the big-ticket solo shows, the biggest curation for SIPF is its Open Call showcase, which attracted over 700 submissions from around the world. “We were really surprised by the high quality of the submissions. It made the selection process especially difficult,” said jury member Seok Jae-Hyun, an independent curator and editor of Photo Dot magazine from South Korea. The other two curators were Kazuko Sekiji from the recently reopened Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and Ingo Taubhorn from the House of Photography in Deichtorhallen, Germany. A total of 40 photographers from 18 countries were selected for the showcase.

The photographers come from all over, offering a varied selection of work. Among the many notables are Marciela Sancari’s poignant Moisés, Gao Rongguo’s Identical Twins, Donna Chiu’s interesting Somewhere Only I Know about motherhood and identity, Wolfgang Zurborn’s humorous Catch and Ellie Davis’ beautiful Stars.

British photographer Tom Stayte's selfie examines how image sharing and the Internet have changed the role of photography in the digital age.
British photographer Tom Stayte's selfie examines how image sharing and the Internet have changed the role of photography in the digital age.

In an attempt to better engage the public with photography, half of the photographers in the Open Call showcase are exhibited in MRT stations along the Downtown Line. At the Botanic Gardens station, the large-scale photographs of Singaporean-based photographers Juria Toramae and Marvin Tang, Akkara Naktamna from Thailand and Guillaume Hebert from France are lined on the walls along the moving walkways. After viewing the beautifully crafted photographs, which perhaps were not sufficiently lit by the existing station lights, I stopped to observe the reactions of passersby. Most paid scant attention to the work with a few giving them cursory glances as they hurried by. A handful stopped to have a longer look.

The rest of the exhibitions are scattered at various venues: A Room With A View, a showcase of Hong Kong-based female artists, was situated at La Salle College of the Arts, while the Gillman Barracks housed Roger Ballen’s Menagerie. Both exhibitions are now over but Ballen fans need not fret if they missed out on his show; the exhibition will be travelling to Wei-Ling Contemporary in Kuala Lumpur this November.

The Archive As Conversation showcase is located in shopping containers set up in the open foyer of the National Library. The makeshift containers work particularly well for some of the work, such as Tom Stayte’s #selfie and Thomas Gudzowaty’s Proof.

For Stayte’s project, a computer sits in the middle of the container, surrounded by paper. The audience is asked to take a selfie and hashtag it on Instagram. A special software detects and prints out the image, which is let to fall on the floor. It seems a fun exercise, but it is a chilling reminder of our unwitting participation in self-surveillance in this digital age.

A photograph from Kevin WY Lee's Singapore On Public Notice exhibition.
A photograph from Kevin WY Lee's Singapore On Public Notice exhibition.

Meanwhile, Kevin WY Lee’s Singapore On Public Notice looks at the city-state through its notices – some sad, some amusing. Kevin Lee created a little installation with his work; besides photographs, he had papered over the side of a container with ubiquitous notice examples where you can tear out little sheets with contact details. At the same showcase, Robert Zhao Renhui, one of Singapore’s most exciting young artists, presented The Dutronquoy Albums. Brad Dutronquoy had visited Singapore every year from 1942 to 1995, each time keeping to the same itinerary. The exhibition is made up of snapshots from his albums, one for each year, and presents an interesting look at these times from a vernacular point of view.

SIPF’s programme is supplemented with various activities, ranging from artist and curator talks to workshops, including one led by Magnum nominee Matt Black.

“We tend to undervalue photography and think it’s a universal language we can all understand, but it’s not. The festival plays a role in developing visual literacy through our activities such as events, talks and discussions. We place a lot of emphasis on visual literacy in our education programmes,” says Gwen Lee.


The Singapore International Photography Festival is on at various venues in Singapore till Nov 13. For more information, visit www.sipf.sg.

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