In October this year, I was fortunate enough to be selected to attend a five day mentorship with Magnum in Singapore. As it happened this fitted in very well with the section of The Art of Photography module that I am currently finishing (Part 5). The workshop (or mentorship as it was called) was run by Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen. Although a good five years younger than me it soon became apparent that he has spent the majority of his life (so far) in photography. He threw himself in to it at the age of 19 when he left home (after a brief internship at Magnum) to pursue his interest in Russia and it’s states. The word ‘interest’ would downplay what he actually felt. When people are interested in a place they usually read books about it or maybe even travel there for a holiday and write about it. Jonas decided not just to travel there but, with no experience at all, take 400 rolls of Fuji film (supplied for free by Fuji much to his surprise), a camera he did not know how to use and spend 9 months in the bleak backwaters of the former USSR learning how to be a photographer. He realised shortly after he arrived in Birobidzhan that, although he had the means to make the photos, he had no means to develop them and so spent the next nine months photographing ‘blind’ with no way of telling what he had until returning to Moscow and finally getting the films developed. Sufficed to say he seemed to have found his calling although Jonas would argue that people’s destinies are not decided like this.
Alongside me on the workshop were eight other photographers with diverse backgrounds and aims. They came from far and wide; Australians, Indians and Singaporeans among them. It was a mixture with almost all willing to put their own point of view forward and be constructive about it. I found this refreshing as I live in a country and region within which people are not used to putting forward their point of view, so this in itself was invaluable.
The idea of the workshop was, with the guidance of Jonas, that we produce a set of images within a remit set out at the beginning of the course. We started by showing a selection of images we had chosen ourselves before we started, to give each other an idea of what we were already shooting and the style we were accustomed to shooting in. I found (or felt), in retrospect, that I had chosen images which I thought would please others rather than what actually represented my style. A lesson in narrative really. It’s not always the best technical, pretty images that suit the need. Others showed images in much similar sort of vain. All that is except one of the women who, in contrast to the rest of us, brought along prints from her 35mm film camera. They were very different to the rest of our photos and she looked to be someone prepared to take a risk with her photography. She showed straight prints and montages cut from several different images. Not necessarily my cup of tea but certainly different.
This risk taking was what the workshop ended up being about. Not just in getting in to areas that we as photographers felt uncomfortable in, but also with the images themselves. I have had similar comments from my course tutors but of course at a distance it is less compelling than when you are actually confronted with it by your peers and a world class photographer.
Essentially we had four afternoons to shoot and edit and four mornings to discuss and critique our resulting images from the previous day. Of the images we had shot in any one day we were to select twenty to thirty. Ten first selects and twenty back ups.
On the first day we started at a very sociable 930am. We soon realised that this was nowhere near enough time to get through everyone’s images, form constructive criticism on them, discuss wider issues at hand about how to proceed, listen to advice forthcoming from our mentor and get back out and shoot in the afternoon. So from then on, the start time moved to 8am instead.
My topic, at my suggestion, centred on photographing the HDBs in Singapore. The idea was to get a little deeper in to the culture of the HDBs, not just shooting the facade but also something a little deeper and more unusual. It also meant getting out of my comfort zone and getting a little more ‘up close and personal’ with the subject. So out of my comfort zone meant getting closer to people and things to take their photo. Not just with 50mm but wide angle in a photojournalism style. I wanted to get under the skin of the subject somewhat and produce some photographs that people would be unused to seeing. Thus far (before the course), my images had consisted of photographs that looked visually very similar to many others as below.
On the first afternoon out I realised how long it had been since I had shot anything other than college exercises and assignments or commercial shoots for companies. Shooting for myself, albeit with a remit, was difficult and I struggled to get what I felt were any usable shots. I couldn’t get my head in to the situation which is quite unusual for me. I also felt under pressure which surprised me. I could see no discernible reason that I would feel under pressure; I had paid for a course that I wanted to be on, it should be up to me what I did and how I did it. Still, the pressure certainly told. By the evening, unhappy with what I had, I went out again to shoot in the last vestiges of light. It proved a happier hunting ground than the afternoon had been. I suspect that under the cover of darkness maybe I felt a bit easier about taking these photos. It also provided me with different colour options which I hadn’t had before, the blue hour and fluorescent light combining to give some interesting hues.
This sort of image was enjoyed by my peers which put me on a slightly different track with my thinking. I would normally have disregarded the above image as too abstract, not technically good enough. I did, however, like the colours and flower detail on the left.
After the second day’s review my outlook had changed. Not least because I had a better idea of what I was looking to achieve. After discussion I decided to try and find someone who was willing to let me in to their HDB to get a more personalised feel for the home. I tried a few contacts, none of whom were too keen to be photographed in their homes. By the end of the day I was no further forward with the idea and settled for shooting at an HDB area that I knew had some shops underneath it to enliven events. I produced some decent images and I was happier with what I got. I had also got consciously closer to my quarry. I was looking for more close, candid shots that still told a story. I was also looking for an explanation of what the HDB is and for more detail.
On the Sunday morning (third day), I went out early for first light before the course started at 8am. I went for an area I knew would have plenty going on and also help to add another strand to the explanation of what happens within the confines of an HDB block. I shot in and around the market area in a large HDB block in Little India. These images would be edited on Sunday night and presented on Monday morning.
The photos from day two were better received on the third morning of review with the hand prints on the wall (above) getting a surprising amount of attention as they weren’t in my top ten and also (I feel) represent my usual style (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). However, other images also created debate, particularly the image of a padlock on a gate (rather loosely representing security) much to my surprise. It divided opinion on whether or not it could or should be included in the story that I was trying to tell. Such was the feeling over it that it became something of a standing joke over the remaining days! This opinion and comment was welcome and is something that every photographer wants and needs.
My mentor had decided that he hadn’t got a clear idea of what the physical structure of an HDB block looked like. This was something I had been puzzling over as I didn’t want to give a straight shot of an HDB as I knew it wasn’t going to fit in with the slightly grainy, grungy feel that was starting to develop within the work I was producing. Ironically the shot became something of a bug bear with me in that the more I thought about it the harder it became to think how to do it.
That afternoon, as I was sitting at lunch with some of the other attendees, I finally found someone who was willing to let me in to their home to photograph. Luckily they were on the end of an MRT line so I jumped on a train and was there within an hour. They lived in Punggol, an area renowned for the amount of HDBs, for the development of many new ones as well as being a community. Some of the images along the way were very interesting and I tried to shoot en route to the rendez vous. Some of the images were OK but really it was the home that I had come to see. I didn’t really know what to expect as I know all HDBs are very different once you get inside. I was greeted at the door by a very welcoming couple who bid me come in. I started to take photographs and the initial feeling was how sparse the decor was or material possessions were. It left a very clean feel to the place, especially with the flood of light coming in through the north facing window in the living room, bouncing off the white walls. The bedrooms by contrast were much darker with the curtains pulled to hide from the sun and keep the bedrooms relatively cool. This led to some interesting, contrasting shots to take. The only room of the home that had any clutter in it was the room that the landlord kept her possessions in.
The couple were very relaxed and I left having taken a fair amount of photographs but being unsure whether I had managed to develop my story any further. Sufficed to say I had also taken a number of photographs of the HDBs themselves to try and give a better idea of the physical structure.
When I presented my photos the following morning (Monday, day 4) I was disappointed to find that the various images of the couple in the HDB weren’t met with too much warmth. Too ordinary was the general consensus. I must admit, I found it very difficult to get a context with the people in the shots. However, the ‘place’ shots from the bedrooms excited a good response so at least my time hadn’t been wasted. The images that brought most response and again some debate were the shots I had taken the previous morning in and around the market (the debate being more about location than image this time. Did the market count as part of the HDB? ‘Yes’, was the consensus as it lies directly under and is connected to the block. It is where the people living there shop for their food). Again, the light had helped me significantly with the slightly ethereal quality that was creeping in to my images and series.
By the Monday afternoon I felt I had a fairly cohesive set of images but needed to concentrate on finding the definitive image of an HDB block. I thought what would work was one of the newer buildings that towers over the CBD and Chinatown. I walked for sometime through the general area to try and discover a suitable vantage point to shoot from. Along the way other opportunities presented themselves although I wasn’t sure they would fit in necessarily with my final edit. However, with it in front of me, it seemed pointless not to make the photo.
Eventually I found the viewpoint that I was looking for. In fact it was one that I had been to many times before. I probably hadn’t thought of it earlier due to the fact I was too centred on the new and exciting that I was trying to get to. In the end it worked quite well. I was after a clear, ‘straight’ shot of the HDB but with the added context of it towering above the red tiled roofs of Chinatown. I think it says a lot about Singapore and it’s government’s attitude to put something this tall next to something so traditional, low rise and representing Singapore’s heritage. In fact this last afternoon of shooting found me quite tired and shooting just for the sake of it. In retrospect I should have stopped earlier as a great raft of the shots were never going to work. Another lesson learned.
The image above was well received on the last day of the workshop and nearly made the final set. But not quite. That morning I discussed my final assignment for TAoP with the group mentor, Jonas. He gave some good advice which I could use alongside that of my tutor. During the afternoon we chose our final images and turned them in to a cohesive presentation for public display that evening. The pressure I had felt thus far seemed to dissipate as the images were finalised. I was clearly not worried about the public viewing (not surprising to me to be honest) so it must have been the peer review and my own expectations that were causing it. That evening we all showed our final photographs to the assembled public at large in a small viewing (probably 40-50 people in all).
The workshop turned out to be a very enjoyable experience and a rewarding one too. The five days were well spent gleaning expertise from the mentor and also personal experiences from my peers both during the course and their lives. The five days were a microcosm of any shooting experience. Ups and downs, losing one’s way and finally hitting the mark. The course gave a great stepping stone towards the narrative side of my final assignment. Indeed, I think I could have submitted it as a finished piece. However, I needed to think for myself for the assignment!
I take away various aspects from this workshop; the clear need to plan ahead and think of the shots before taking them, to be more adventurous, that the position of the images in the final presentation is very important, that I need to create more personal projects for myself to keep my photographic invention fresh and challenging. The first selects aren’t always the final selects which I must be very aware of in the presentation of my final assignment. I felt that the process was much more important to me than the actual outcome.
Below are the final ten images that made the cut.