“What is the use of having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling?”
-W. Eugene Smith
Perhaps I’m trying to explain away my inadequacies as an interviewer, but it is difficult to talk about photography in a meaningful manner.
That’s not to say that you can’t speak of its technicalities, or the ethics behind it, or the details of framing and composition. But the essence of photography — its quality of distilling an essential moment, rendering it impervious to the passage of time — is something that can only be expressed through the medium.
To Aik Beng Chia – or ABC as he is commonly known – the emotion that drives him to take each photo is an awful lot like falling in love. More specifically, he compares it to falling in love for the first time.
With his self-deprecating and humble manner, Aik Beng would quite likely balk at my labelling him as one of Singapore’s leading street photographer. He began his first foray into street photography in 2008, shooting candid shots on his iPhone. Since then, his work has been featured in such eminent publications as The Guardian, and at a myriad of international and local exhibitions.
We’re having coffee at Heap Seng Leong, one of the oldest coffeeshops left in Singapore, situated along North Bridge Road. It’s an old-fashioned haunt, a coffeeshop that still sells kopi gu you — a sinister-sounding but strangely appealing concoction of black coffee with a slab of butter. Plastic chairs and old plywood tables litter the dimly lit interior; tin biscuit cans and antique radios clutter the top of shelves.
“I discovered this place sometime in the mid-2000s,” Aik Beng shares with me. In a strange inversion, he’s drinking a Coke Zero, while I’m the one partaking of kopi gu you, soft-boiled eggs and toast. “My office was near Arab Street. This place used to be my hideaway.”
The poignancy in Aik Beng’s photography lies in his passion for documenting the truth. During our conversation, I compare him to a visual historian. In hindsight, the comparison is flawed. A historian’s search for the truth lies in the seismic trajectory of nations; Aik Beng’s search for the truth involves capturing the emotion of individual stories.
It is a humble-sounding truth, but an important one for a young nation like Singapore to keep in mind: The soul of a nation is to be found not in the vast halls of power, or in the ersatz elevator music of shopping malls, but on familiar streets, old void decks and overlooked side alleys.
What is it about this venue that you like?
I prefer old coffee shops to cafes because of their flavour and character; also, I’m not much of a hipster.
This place, at different timings, will have certain characters that are quite interesting. Sometimes I’ll just sit here – have my Coke Zero or my coffee – and just look.
Coffee shops like these… there aren’t that many left. A few of them have already closed down. There used to be a lot of them. That’s the reason why I have a special attachment to this place, even until today.
Has your background as an illustrator and designer influenced your approach towards photography?
Mainly due to aesthetics, because of the nature of the job that I was in. It kind of helped me to look at things differently. We’re so used to beautiful, crafted images; photoshoots on magazines and all that.
But graphic design only plays a small role in my photography, mostly in terms of composition. Back then [when I started], I was influenced by Henri Cartier for the composition, and Eugene W. Smith, who was more towards documentary. But now I’m into the photographers who are into everyday life, like Jun Abe.
But the main core of it came from movies… Wong Kar Wai.
In The Mood For Love?
Yeah… the overall feel still comes from movies. Till today I still watch a lot of movies, more than photo books. Even though I buy them, I do it to see the photographer’s work, not so much, “Oh, I should try to shoot like this”. It’s not so much the film director but the cinematographer, the DOP; Christopher Doyle is one of them.
It kind of makes me look at how I should frame life as it is. In a movie, a frame can be a photo. I tend to inject that kind of composition and mood [into my photos].
In a way, taking up photography was a reaction to your work environment?
We don’t like our day jobs to be honest. Of course, we do to a certain point. But it’s not always what we love. A day job will feed you and help you bring home your bowl of rice. But in terms of your self-expression?
I’d never consider doing photography full time. I’ve seen some of my friends who took the plunge, and they ended up not enjoying what they’re doing, in the sense that they have to commit to becoming a commercial photographer. They don’t have time for their own personal work.
My main concern is that I don’t want to lose that passion, I don’t want to lose that fire, I don’t want to lose that love for what I’m doing.
How do you juggle your photography and working at an ad agency? I know the hours can be crazy.
The hours can be ridiculous. I just try to squeeze in time — before work or during lunch — or if I work late and have a few hours, I’ll just take a walk. Most of the time I don’t plan what I’m going to do. Most of the time the images come to me.
Sort of like catching butterflies.
Mm, I’ll just go out, see where I want to go. I don’t have any plan. Wherever I am, I’ll see if there are images coming to me, if the images are there. If not, it’s ok. Life still goes on.
Has that always been your style?
I initially used to work on themes, trying to look for this or that theme. I didn’t like it because I ended up feeling very frustrated, and ended up wasting other shots just to focus on that one theme.
So I said fuck it, I’m not going to do it. I’m going to just let it be, and let it happen organically. I strongly believe in that.
W. Eugene Smith once said that every photographer should have a purpose. What’s your purpose as a photographer?
My purpose is very simple: To record what I see every day. Singapore is constantly changing. Architecture, landscape, even the people are changing. Maybe when I’m that old you won’t see this kind of uncle anymore. It’ll be very different people. So it’s just about me recording this time [period].
Like a visual historian.
For as long as I live, I’ll just keep on recording. I think all these are very important records to show our future generation how the everyday life of Singapore was. It’s a bit like how we love to look at Singapore in the 20s, in the 30s.
And we’re such a young nation.
People ask me, ‘Why uncles and aunties? Why not models? Why not hot chicks?’ I mean, models, hot chicks? I see them everyday.
But random uncles? They’re full of character. They went through the Independence period. It shaped them, in terms of the way they are, the way they carry themselves. Some of them may not be glamorous, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is they went through the days before Independence, and they’re still alive now.
I wanted to ask you about the series you did on Lee Kuan Yew’s passing.
Initially I didn’t want to shoot that, because I felt that everyone was doing it. But halfway through I realised that I should do it too. Not because I was jumping onto the wagon of everyone doing it, but because I felt a sense of responsibility.
I’ve come to realise that every photographer sees things differently. It’s very important to get involved, so that the future generations will be able to see the event from different angles, through different photographers’ eyes.
Were there other impulses behind it?
I wanted to see how the heartland mourns the passing of our first Prime Minister. I wanted to see that, instead of standing at the Istana, in front of Parliament with everyone, taking the same scene.
So I went to the heartland. I went to the alley. I went to the wet market. I went to see people paying tribute in their own ways. Everyone was at the Istana when the convoy left [on the day of the funeral].
I was at the coffee shop, because I wanted to show how the heartlander looked at that moment. There were people ordering food, but all of them were looking at the TV screen.
I discovered an alley at Jalan Besar where a karang guni man collected scraps and photos of LKY and made an altar. He even had a bus number, and the numbers on it was the date of his passing. Can you imagine that?
Your photos have an idiosyncratically Singaporean sense to them. Do you think you’d be able to capture the essence of a different city?
I think every city has its own flavour. Every city is different in its own way. But my style — my way of looking at things — will still be the same. The way I look at Singapore, in terms of how I want to capture a person or a cityscape, is applied everywhere I go. Tokyo, Hong Kong… It’s the same approach.
What is it that makes you want to shoot Singapore?
The honest fact is that back then I didn’t have the luxury to travel. My mentor said to me, “what’s wrong with shooting in your own backyard? If you can’t shoot in your own backyard, what makes you so sure that you can shoot if you travel?” It kind of hit me. It makes a lot of sense.
We all know that Singapore is — to a certain point — a little hard to shoot because everything is so familiar. The challenge is to show that there’s no excuse. A lot is based on observation: How you look at things, what you pay attention to. If you can’t be bothered of course you won’t capture anything.
I think it’s tragic that we’re destroying the heritage we have.
Rochor Centre, Thieves’ Market… Little India is changing in a sense, after the incident [the riots in 2013]. So these would be the 3 main areas. When I started [doing photography in 2008], Chinatown was already gone, and Arab Street.
What are your thoughts on the pace of modernisation in Singapore?
It’s very subjective. Sometimes change is good. But too much change can be no good, in the sense that future generations won’t get to sense or taste or smell it. Everything will be on social media. I feel like certain places need to be preserved. They’re even looking to get rid of the last kampong in Singapore.
They’re tearing down a block of lowrise flats near where I live.
Exactly. And all the other super old ones they pimp up. Seriously dude? Singapore needs to… we always talk about safety and hygiene, but I’m sure we can compromise. Just leave it there so people can see how it was like.
Now you don’t get to see the housing the government built in the 60s and the 70s. They’re all pimped up. I don’t know who the fuck gave them that idea. I’d rather they just leave it there, make sure the place is clean, do renovations inside the apartment, make sure it’s structurally safe.
So in the end, we’ll rely on old footage, heritage photos? You don’t get to see, smell or experience it.
You mentioned in previous interviews that you shoot primarily in Auto Mode. Has that changed?
Most of the times I shoot in auto, but I’m not so anal about it. I’m not so technically well versed when it comes to using the camera in manual mode, but I’m open to learn, to explore. But sometimes — like in my escalator series — I shoot in manual, because of what I want to achieve.
Do you think that learning too much about the technical aspect of photography would negatively influence your style?
No, I don’t think so. I think the technical aspects help you to achieve what you want, but you shouldn’t get sucked into it. I would rather someone come up and say, ‘Hey, your picture really touches me. It gives me a very nice feeling. It opens up my eyes. It makes me think.’
I’d rather people come up and share that, instead of asking, ‘What ISO do you use? What lens do you use? What brand is your camera?”
What do you think is the most important element of a good photograph?
When the viewer feels something. The saying goes that a photo means a thousand words, but it could also not mean anything. It’s very individual, and for me, the photo has to have some form of feeling to it. That’s a very important element.
It’s not so much about the composition, or the framing, or the technical aspect.
Could you elaborate on that feeling?
I can’t describe it in words; it’s a feeling that triggers me to take the photo. It’s like love at first sight, how you’d feel if you saw a pretty girl.
A lot of times when I shoot, I have to have that feeling. It could be something as simple as an uncle having his coffee, but if I feel something about the way he drank his coffee. I would photograph it.
If you don’t have that love at first sight, how are you going to take that photo?
Do you have any tips for the photographer who’s just starting out?
Just be honest with what you do, and what you want to photograph. Photographs don’t lie, but they can show your intentions. If you get caught up doing something you’re not feeling honestly about, it shows.
I’m not saying don’t do staged photos. I mean honest in terms of your intention. Do you want to get more likes, more followers? For me when I started, all I wanted was to capture what was close to me, and to share what I see with my friends. It was a very honest intention.
You just have to go with the flow, embrace it. But maintain your core, the honest values that started your journey.
Is that honesty part of your sense of ethics towards photography?
I wouldn’t say that, because some of my photos are not ‘ethical’. I photograph people without permission and all. So I won’t say it’s ethical, but it’s more of a good base to begin with.
I know there are some of my photos, where a lot of people disagree with the the way I photograph: Not asking; sometimes snapping close to their face. Of course, some people don’t like it.
I’m not trying to justify what I do, but I just want to capture the person at that point of time — what he does, who she is — whether they look good or not. I don’t mean to make my subject look bad, or discredit them. I just want to capture that moment — his expression, or her action— because it was that moment that attracted me.
There are certain times when I do ask strangers for permission, like if I want their portrait. But for everyday moments, asking first would ruin what I want to capture. It’s not that I don’t want to give [the person I’m photographing] respect, but I want to freeze that moment in time.
That sounds like a good, brave mindset to impart to a beginner.
There are a lot of times when I get turned down. It’s quite common. It’s not the end of the world. Just say ‘thank you’ and walk off. Don’t cry; don’t get discouraged. You’re not asking for money, you’re not doing anything wrong, and you’re not going to be struck by lightning if someone says no.
Is there one image from your childhood that you wished you had a photograph of?
The rojak man on his bicycle. As a child I loved to eat rojak, and when he came [down my street] I would run to buy rojak. Or the roti man, with the container behind his bike. That’s one image from my childhood that I wish I had a photo of – the rojak man would have this bowl that he would pull out and the kids would all crowd around. You know that scene?
What emotions drive you to do the photography that you do?
I guess it’s because of change, modernisation. Everything comes and goes, appears and disappears. That’s why when I see something, I don’t care if it’s ‘boring’ or not. If I feel something, I want to capture it. The next moment? It might not be there.
That’s the emotion I have when I photograph. Maybe I’ll photograph this place, but in a few years, down the road… Nothing lasts forever.
Our thanks to the good folks at ION Art Gallery for the interview opportunity.