An exhibition of Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama’s works was on trend, but missing a critical edge.
Singapore is having a moment with all things Japanese right now. In September, fashion giant Uniqlo opened a global flagship store in Orchard Road, forgetting its 24 other stores across this city. Homeware retailer MUJI is also expanding here, opening a flagship store next year to join its existing 10 outlets in Singapore. This year also saw the opening of two Japanese food markets, as if there was not already enough Japanese restaurants in this little red dot.
Amongst this Nippon tsunami is also the Southeast Asian debut exhibition for Daido Moriyama, Japan’s “father of street photography” as part of this year’s 5th Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF). Unlike the consumer-friendly minimalist and kawaii sheen the country has sold to Singapore, however, Daido Moriyama: Prints and Books from 1960s—1980s, confronts viewers with a dark, gritty and stark portrait of Japan.
Framed up, wedged in a wallet, on a phone, shared online, etched in our minds—we hang on to these references that remind us of where we’ve come from.
It’s been almost two years since I’ve last seen Singapore. Away from home, all I’ve had apart from my own pictures are those from the news and what friends and family share online—snapshots of how home has grown through the lenses of my fellow citizens.
Marina Bay with its iconic “integrated resort” has overshadowed the Singapore River’s line of shophouses and skyscrapers as the shorthand for the nation’s success. Our list of old places has matured beyond colonial relics to include modernist complexes and even the iconic dragon playground. The index for the city’s pace of development is no longer the skyline of towering cranes, but how crowded our trains and streets have become.
The frames Singaporeans use to look at their home are changing. It shows in the subjects we picture, but also in what photography means to us today. Is picturing a Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian still the quintessential portrait of Singapore society? When did photographing and shaming online become our way of handling outrageous acts we encounter in public? Should photos of our nation’s late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew be restricted from public use?
These questions capture some of the issues Singapore faces today. Pictures of home are not just illustrations but also reflections of who we are, projections of how we see the world, and symbols of our community. A photograph’s flat surface belies its third dimension: as a platform for discussions on the people, places and things that matter to each one of us.
This social element is what defines contemporary photography. Making a picture is not just framing a subject and pressing the camera shutter (or in today’s case, tapping a screen), but also sharing it with others—a process that envelopes pictures with meanings beyond just the photographer’s point of view.
This is how our pictures of home are made: through the conversations we share about what we see, what we remember seeing, and even what we hope to see. While the realities depicted in pictures will one day fade or even be challenged, the meanings they hold for each one of us is what helps us see home clearly, wherever we may be.
Photography is a tool that has been used by many to interrogate and document life in a city. For the last five years, Zhuang Wubin has been researching and working on an upcoming book about the history of independent photography in Southeast Asia. FIVEFOOTWAY speaks to the independent researcher about the region’s photographers and how they have used it to keep their cities open.
What is independent photography? I use this term to cut across all genres of photography. The photographer works on his or her own, and the project is initiated on his or her initiative. It can be any kind of photography, e.g. documentary, conceptual, contemporary, even photoshopped work.
But to define independent photography is not so straightforward. You might product a body of work about stateless refugees in the world. The first three works were not funded, but you eventually sold it. So when the work is sold, is it still independent? For me it is, because it is still created by you, and the selling occurs at the end.
After that, a non-governmental organisation may like the work and commission you to do something similar in a different country. I still consider this independent because it is something you initiated, and someone has simply funded you to take it further.