A parked bicycle with an old-fashioned horn greets you as you walk into the photography exhibition. Passed the “corridor”, you enter the “living room” where an old Toshiba TV set plays in front of a retro fitted sofa and coffee table. The “suspended living space” further consists of a dining corner (complete with grandma’s foldable green marbled table and lacquered chopsticks), an elongated bedroom (with wooden dividers, a mirrored dressing table, shelves, cushions and a rocking chair), a study corner and a not too common darkroom. INTER-VIEWS, the exhibition, gently guides its viewers to an experiential and personal understanding of its artworks, carefully assimilating photographs into a living environment.
Photovoice SG is the non-profit arts organisation responsible for the exhibition. It is headed by four passionate artists, Jennifer Koh, Jasmine Seah, Koh Yee Ling and Tan Ngiap Heng, and sixty volunteer mentor photographers. In the past year, the people from Photovoice SG have been organising photography workshops with “fringe communities” (communities who are less heard and visible in the society), teaching them basic photography, story writing and how to express themselves through concepts and themes. The exhibition marks the first anniversary of the group and their efforts to engage communities in participatory photography, not only allowing participants to make images of their own narratives but also to encourage discussions and reflection of their stories and works. Featuring images from four projects, INTER-VIEWS consists of works by young people on the autism spectrum (from the project Spectrum Through The Lens), children of ex-offenders (Breaking Walls, Seeing Stories), young adults who have experienced or are at risk of early psychosis (kal-eidos-cope) and persons living with HIV (Picture Positive).
Each series of photographs tells a story. Here an artist remembers the old places where she used to hang out for fun and there someone else imagines what it must be like to be the last person to move out of an old block of flats slated for redevelopment. Perhaps you look upon the images with nostalgia or maybe you are too young to remember and rediscover old Singapore through their memories. These images are a window into the everyday lives of people through not a third party documentor but the storytellers’ own voices, eyes and artistic creativity. Professional photographers and artists from Photovoice SG take on the roles of mentors, facilitators, curators, organisers, administrators and publicists and place the communities/participants in the foreground, equipping them with the skills and resources to express and communicate themselves through art. Some of us might be unfamiliar with this concept. The Artist here is not the rare, soulful and talented individual who produces works of art by herself. She is instead a multi-tasking instigator who brings people together so that they may create art. Rather than monopolize the practice, she opens it up, raising the possibility of and giving permission to everyone and anyone to be an artist.
The idea of putting cameras into people’s hands to record, identify and represent themselves and/or their communities is however not new. Called photovoice (and now we know where our organisation borrowed its name from), the technique was originally conceptualised by Caroline Wang as a participatory research methodology to find out the needs of participants in a health programme. It involves not only documenting with photographs but also include reflections, critical dialogues and discussions of the photographs taken. Ultimately the research is to inform and influence policy change. The method is further popularised by the documentary ‘Born into Brothels’ by documentary photographer Zana Briski. In this story, children of sex workers in Calcutta were taught and given cameras to take pictures, and effort was taken to better their lives with funds received from the sale of their photographs.
In Inter-Views, you read into the artists’ statements and bring your eyes over the details of the photographs. These images crack open the worlds of the artists in different gravity. On the foldable dining table, a series of images by a HIV positive artist stares back at you. Beside the images of food is placed a pair of chopsticks. The statement says, “… This photo shows the contrast between support given to me from my friends and family.” A certain courage is needed for the artists to reflect upon their lives and expose their worlds to someone else, not least to a stranger like you. In reciprocity, the viewer’s or your willingness to step into another’s world reveals an openness, an investment of emotions and sometimes an inspiration to action (hopefully). Therein lies one of Photovoice SG‘s purposes in doing the work that they do- the effort to “effect change” by engaging viewers in the issues faced by these communities through visual storytelling. Illustrating this are the thoughts of Photovoice SG‘s co founders (from their self-published book INTER-VIEWS) “…we were less concerned about how technically excellent or precise these images were, than the importance of them evoking a feeling of honesty – and in turn, some kind of raw beauty, some kind of truth.” Later on when you absorb the artworks with matching honesty of your own, maybe reality has become slightly tinted. The exhibition write up warns of their intentions to make “Change in one person’s consciousness, change in the collective narrative and a shift in understanding what is “valued” and “valuable”.” Are you the same person as before?
Now walk through the suspended living space again but this time read its contents with the photovoice method at the back of your mind. You begin to wonder what happened during the process of creating these photographs. How did the artists decide on the themes of their images? What thoughts or ideas went through their minds when they took them and when they talk about them? How did the mentors facilitate? In what ways did they help the artists? In front of you, the two-sided mirrored dressing table stands, reflecting you and the photographs placed on the table at multiple angles. An uneasy feeling of being confronted creeps up on you as you look at the photographs showing one person’s journey through the stages of psychosis. The experience is rather unnerving. And who made the decision to place the artworks on the dressing table? Who curated and installed the artworks?
These questions about the projects’ process pull together the different elements that contribute to the final product – ie the exhibition. While most of us, the viewers, only arrive at the end of the production line, there is a great number of people behind the scenes who have supported it with their valuable perspectives and advice. The fact is INTER-VIEWS is a collaborative work. It will be a mistake to box your interpretations into a charity bin of sympathies for the artists, their stories and their backgrounds. Revealing the process behind the exhibition shows the hard work, effort, learning and reflection that the artists have put in, and the agency that they now have to tell their stories. Accompanying them are the many hands that contributed to moulding the final art piece placed on the mantel. First, the collaboration is seen between mentor and participant through the artworks and the artist statements. Mentors teach and advise participants and together, they select images that are suitable for the exhibition. Second there is collaboration in the curation and presentation of the artwork to the public. Curators take the images and install them in certain ways, making a conscious decision to affect your viewing experience. The context in which the images are presented contribute to the telling of their stories just as how the mirrors of the dressing table flavour your experience of the photographs. Or how the living space concept frames the hospitable and inclusive character of Photovoice SG’s fruitful year of existence. Together, INTER-VIEWS is created and that is one of the greatest thing that this reviewer sees about the exhibition. It has come through and arrived at this point, an almost seamless collaboration that is not pretentious and that has brought out the effort and honesty of the stories with integrity and dignity. The collaborators of INTER-VIEWS, from its heartfelt individual projects to celebrate its 1st birthday exhibition, have not and will not rest till they have gone all the way. They deserve an applause for a year fully lived.
Catch INTER-VIEWS the exhibition from 10 to 29 April 2013 at the National Museum of Singapore, the platform, level 2.
If you like what you see and would like to bring the pictures home, check out their newly published book of the same name. A dazzling 172 pages, it consists of photographs and stories by the participants of all four projects. INTER-VIEWS the book retails at S$25.
You may order a copy of the book from http://bit.ly/YUWoiQ
For more photos of the exhibition and book please go here.