“But there is nothing here to shoot…”

Tay Kay Chin

Jeff Chouw is a dangerous and crazy man, the sort that you probably will avoid, or at least be advised to stay far away from. If you were to run into him in the ‘happening’ side of Geylang, you will automatically assume that he is a seedy man there for unsavoury reasons. In person, Jeff alternates between good English and Hokkien profanities. On Facebook, at least half of his postings are not family-friendly. And by his own admission, he knows some ‘interesting’ people. You know, that kind.


With his beard and tummy, Jeff could pass off easily as a baddie in Hong Kong triad movies, though not quite the street-fighter. When he dons a bow-tie, tuxedo and black-rimmed reading glasses, he resembles a mafia accountant or lawyer, the kind that fixes things and people, without actually getting his fingers dirty. The kind that smiles wryly, but is someone you don’t really want to mess with. Simply put, there is something mysterious about him.

But Jeff is really quite an ordinary Singaporean. Trained in Australia as a marine biologist, he then spent five years working in a research institute in National University of Singapore, where his main responsibility was environmental impact assessment. He tendered his resignation a year ago, citing boredom as the main reason. The other reason was that he wanted to try to make a living as a photographer. A decade ago, a Singaporean man quitting a ‘decent’ job to make pictures would have been extraordinary. These days, full-time photographers in Singapore are a dime a dozen. But Jeff doesn’t just want to be a photographer, he wants to be a really a caring documentary photographer.


I first got to know Jeff, now 33, when a mutual friend told me about his first solo photo exhibition at The Substation in 2007. His topic was opposition leader Chiam See Tong and his quest for his sixth term as MP of Potong Pasir during the 2006 election.

The sea, no doubt, is Jeff’s first love; and politics was far from his mind until his return to Singapore in early 2001. “I was fined for not voting in a General Elections,” he said, “it was strange because I was studying in Australia.” Instead of just paying the fine, the incident piqued his interest in local politics, the players, and the processes. “I thought I should spend some time finding out how things work.” As for the project on Chiam, he shrugged it off as “no big deal”. Getting access to the opposition chief was really easy, according to Jeff. “I just called someone close to him and the guy just said, ‘Sure, come’, and the rest was a matter of just showing up and keeping his eyes open.


Recently, he started a project called ‘Car Head Photos’, also known as ‘Lorry Photos’. Jeff’s research suggested that a lot of people in Singapore die without a decent portrait of themselves to be used at the funeral, or for mounting at the front of a hearse Jeff wants to use his photographic skills to make good portraits for that specific use. And I offered my little advice: “You can use this tagline on your name card, ‘Nobody Should Go Ugly’. Substitute the word ‘Go’ with ‘Leave’ or ‘Die’ if you prefer.” I know from his past works that the lorry photo idea is an extension of his desire to map out the changing demographics of Singapore. I told him that I had started a blog at nationalportraitgallery.wordpress.com, for all kinds of portraits done locally and that his series belonged there.


Jeff has just found out that the full-time photography job he applied for was officially a no-go, so now, it is back to the drawing board. Our mutual friend had wisely pointed out that his works are not suitable for commercial photography. “But is that even what you want to do?” I asked. He replied, “Not really.” “Then don’t even think about it,” I said, “Maybe you can turn this ‘lorry photo’ venture into a real business. Perhaps you can work with social welfare groups and bring this service to lonely old folks staying in nursing homes.” That seems to be the best compromise since documentary projects are not financially rewarding in Singapore. Being a commercial photographer will, sooner or later, just kill his enthusiasm for making pictures. He needed to find a way to make some money to sustain his projects, without giving up his desire to use photography as his tool for social research.


At a talk I gave recently, I was asked for my assessment of the state of photography in Singapore, and whether the fear of getting into trouble has discouraged people from attempting to tackle some of the more controversial issues. My view was this: In terms of technicality, Singapore photographers are high up there with the best in the world. But in terms of subject matters tackled by Singaporean photographers, I would say there is nothing much to crow about here, which I found worrying. Of the Singaporean portfolios that I got to see in the past five years, less than a handful made me sit up and ask, “Hmmm, just who is this photographer?” Most were forgettable mixtures of pretty travelogues masquerading as social documentaries; and I also saw a lot of ‘big’ projects that I didn’t understand.


I have heard Singapore subjects/topics don’t sell in the world stage – they will thus not receive recognition. If every photographer here only cares about the fame and recognition he stands to receive if he works on a project that has a big market appeal, then who is going to reach deep inside them to find stories that are close to the heart? Surely there has to be social issues worthy of our Canons, Leicas and Nikons? And please don’t tell me the authorities will hunt you down if you work on something controversial.

Jeff joked about wondering if he would have to spend a few days in a cell for his project on Chiam, but otherwise, he agreed. I am worried that in 50 years, there would not be any meaningful archive of imageries that would be reflective of our living conditions. And who can we blame but ourselves, the people with the power to make a difference? Doesn’t anybody believe in the power of photography to tell personal stories anymore?


Perhaps a reminder is in order that history is actually a ‘big’ word made up of two smaller ones – his story. It is not too late to believe your pictures of void decks, of corridors, of hawker centres, well done or not, are as important as winning that international award. Try using your lens to write the first draft of history. Enough people out there care. But most of all, you should care. I am looking forward to look at Jeff’s lorry photos. You should too.


Tay Kay Chin, a former newspaper photographer and design director, splits his time these days on his personal documentary projects, teaching photojournalism at the university, and selected commercial projects. Jeff’s works can be seen at http://www.illuminate-photos.net/