The user’s viewpoint

As per the brief, I set out with the intention of photographing two or three spaces or buildings and trying to describe them from the user’s viewpoint. My initial reaction was to photograph in some sort of house of worship for the first space/building. This would mean definite areas where people would need to be in specific positions to pray etc. I decided to photograph in a Buddhist temple. This would mean getting down to kneeling height to take the photographs. I also realised that I would not be able to walk in off the street and photograph from the monk’s point of view. I decided instead to photograph from the visitor’s point of view instead.

Initially I thought that I would just photograph from the viewpoint of those kneeling in front of the altar. However, as I looked and thought more about the space and building in general, it become evident that this was only one viewpoint I would need to cover. There were several types of ‘users’ that came in the shape of visitors. Myself, an expat, not there for religious or tourist purposes (although one could argue the latter point) but, if you will, the aesthetic view. The tourist, there solely to experience the temple as an exotic location without any overt religious intent. The Buddhist tourist, there to experience the temple and it’s environs but, of course, also to pray at what is quite a famed temple in Singapore. And finally the local, who either was going there specifically to pay homage or was just passing and felt compelled to walk in.
So I felt it necessary to photograph the space from more angles and more spaces. It is quite a large temple with many users, rooms and spaces and I realised that this fulfilled the brief even though I remained in the same building. The temple is built over seven floors and over a large surface area. Level 1 and the mezzanine are connected in physical space with a viewing gallery on the mezzanine level.
As the user walks in to the temple they are immediately greeted with prayer cushions to kneel at. What made me interested to make this photograph was the very obvious sign for donations as soon as you kneel down. It is right at eye level and unavoidable in to see in the kneeling position. One could see it almost as point of sale for the devotees as they first enter.
I started with a camera angle that I perceived to be roughly human eye angle. I started at 35mm but found it didn’t do justice to the peripheral vision I was picking up so instead used 24mm which was the widest angle available to me. I also tried to give where possible, a deep depth of focus to replicate how the human eye perceives the scene. I used this set up for all subsequent shots.
The second image again depicts the viewpoint of the Buddhist tourist or local, at a kneeling position on the ground floor of the temple, looking in to the altar. I have intentionally left the barrier across the frame as this obstructs the user when they kneel to pray. The viewer can also see the cushions in front of the barrier. At the top of the frame the viewing gallery can be seen as a dark strip on the left and right hand sides. Kneeling
My third and fourth image shows the view of the non-Buddhist tourist (of course the assumption is that they are not Buddhist but their mannerisms and general approach to the spaces would suggest they are not). It is from the viewing gallery on the mezzanine and is trying to replicate the obstructed view through the blinds put up for privacy. This is from a regular standing height and is trying to show how the viewer/user must peek through the gaps in the blinds to get a view of the prayer hall beneath. It is almost voyeuristic in its nature and would be if the was no awareness of anyone watching. I made two different photographs of this, the first showing what I was trying to replicate in the second.
The fifth image is made at the prayer wheel, again the Buddhist tourist. This is at the top of the temple on the roof (hence the change in colour temperature) in a pagoda built specifically to house the wheel. Although taken from head-height, the head and eyes are inclined downwards towards the base of the wheel in silent prayer before taking hold of the bar and pushing the prayer wheel round in a clockwise direction as can be seen in the image.
The final image is down in the basement and shows the eating area. This is a public area but I suspect that fact is little known to the public at large. The image is take from my point of view seated at a dining table. Here I sit at a empty eating area save two people opposite me who I presume are staff or volunteers, one of whom is asleep. So, here was another group of people who could be classed as ‘users’ as they didn’t appear to be working and were suing the space for their personal purposes. I also overlooked them in my initial appraisal of the situation. The space is very simple and un-fussy unlike the other areas I had photographed. The wooden slats look strangely alpine and out-of-place here. The lighting is also very different from the rest of the amazingly warm rooms and gives off a sickly green hue.

There were a few factors arising from this exercise for me. First was the definition of the space and the user. I started out thinking I would just make photographs of the immediate hall of worship and the monks within it. However, it soon became apparent that this wouldn’t be sufficient (in my eyes) for achieving the user’s viewpoint as the users are numerous and each has a story. Much of temple is open the public and as such there are many different users and quite possibly some I will have missed.

I discovered how much the building and spaces rely on the human aspect to work for the photography. I suspect this is not true with all buildings but a lack of human activity in and interaction with this building would have left me with a very different set of photographs. I almost found myself slipping in to a street photography style as I tried to use the user viewpoint and had to try hard to make sure it was more about the building than overtly about the people using it.

I also found it difficult to discriminate between spaces within the temple, I could not see a clear dividing line and when to stop photographing. They all seemed intertwined to me. One would not exist without the other in the physical sense but also all these separate spaces under one roof are necessary spiritually for the temple to work as it does. I feel I may have gone off topic from the brief somewhat but in studying the viewpoint of the user it opens up more metaphorical questions about the building and spaces within that building that all interact with each other. Looking at it from a wider viewpoint, the temple is a central point in Chinatown and very much dominates the immediate area. This dominant feature can also be seen from different spaces around the immediate area. I made some photographs from a void deck nearby taking in the basketball court and children’s playground (from a basketball player and child’s viewpoint respectively). Again, I found myself expanding my search for images beyond the physical confines of the temple and in to the surrounding areas which were still in the influence, both physically and spiritually, of the temple.

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