Why I Photograph

Deeply influenced by Eugene Richards’s documentation of his late wife who lost a battle against cancer, and Michael Lutzky’s essay about his dad, I was determined that I needed and could photograph my ill father.

My father passed away Feb 17, 1992, when I was in my final semester at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Because I had just returned home the Christmas before to visit him, and the new semester was already in full swing, the family decided that I need not come back to Singapore for the funeral. This was a decision that would haunt Mom for many years, despite my saying many many times that it was okay.

I first found out Dad was dying around Oct/Nov 1991. My second sister had called from Singapore to ask me to return home during the fall holiday. Just one semester away from graduating, I told her I would rather wait till summer 1992 as I wanted to save the family some money.

“You need to come back because Dad is very sick,” I was told.

By early December, I was home, with many many rolls of black and white film.

Deeply influenced by Eugene Richards’s documentation of his late wife who lost a battle against cancer, and Michael Lutzky’s essay about his dad, I was determined that I needed and could photograph my ill father.

By late December, when I returned to Columbia, Missouri, I had not shot a single frame.

I just could not.

It was just too painful.

Sadly, by the time I had returned to Singapore, Dad’s condition had deteriorated to a really horrible state. Already very skinny, my old man was left with just skin and bones.

But that was not the only sad scene.

Every day, I would watch as my Grandma, Dad’s ageing mother, used a sharp pen to poke at the base of his legs. The pain in his stomach had gotten so bad that in order for him to feel less painful, Grandma had to inflict pain elsewhere so that he could forget about his real suffering.

Grandma was by then in her late 70s, but she was, in comparison, in much better shape than her beloved son.

Outside his room, Mom was constantly busy. She was always busy talking on the phone to friends or relatives, chasing every possible lead to a cure for Dad’s cancer, or she would be busy cooking for him. Or she would be talking to holy men who claimed to be able to fix Dad’s problems.

It was not a pretty sight at all, and I couldn’t even bring myself to make a photograph. Not once.

I got to spend a bit of time with Dad during the short visit, in which he would tell me the one thing that I never forget in my life, “Whatever you do, just try to be the best in the world.”

I had brought home some clippings of my works and articles about me from the USA to cheer him up. My proud Dad would show them to friends and relatives who visited.

I remember taking him once to his doctor’s appointment. Carrying him on my back down two flights of stairs, I realized how light he had become. I also remember wanting to beat up the doctor who asked me, without examining Dad, if I already knew he was suffering from a terminal disease.

Of course I did, but shouldn’t a doctor look again in case of a miracle, instead of just writing him off?

I don’t remember now if I left Singapore that December, I was still harboring hope that Dad would live till mid-1992 for me to graduate and come home for good, but I certainly remember how I learned about his death.

On Feb 17, 1992, my phone in the bedroom rang in the wee hours and that triggered the answering machine in the living room. I was about to mute the machine when I heard my then brother-in-law asking my then wife, “Does he know his Dad has passed away?”

I think it was about 5am, and that message never left my mind for days. In fact, it did not leave me for decades.

That day happened to be first day of the Pictures of the Year contest judging and I had signed up to be a volunteer. Sleepless after the call, I left the apartment early to be at the judging venue, keeping myself busy by moving tables and chairs.

I also remember telling every one that I met that day, “My Dad just passed away.”

It was only days later that I finally broke down and cried like a baby.

By August that year, I had graduated, divorced and returned to Singapore to start work. I remember vividly Mom’s cries, even before I reached our door.

“Your papa is gone, your papa is gone.”

That afternoon, I went to pay respect to Dad for the first time and made the picture above.

For years, Mom would still tell me how she had regretted her decision not to bring me home. I told her many many times I never blamed her, but she blamed herself.

Making pictures of Mom during her three months struggle was not the most ‘natural’ thing for me. I didn’t start photographing her till a few days after her first diagnosis.

During her last long stay in SGH, and in and out of ICU, I also stopped making pictures for two weeks.

In many ways, I had to force myself to do it.

Many times, I just felt like I should stop photographing totally.

So I don’t always know why I did what I did.

I am pretty sure I wanted some images to remember her. I am also very certain I wanted to show the world how brave she was. I am fairly certain that I have convinced myself that I have a duty to do that. But duty to whom? To what? What could I possibly achieve with my photographs of Mom and my family?

I am very sure a big part of me says, “you are a photojournalist, a documentary photographer, you teach photojournalism, you encourage your students to make intimate pictures of their family, so you should not be a hypocrite and exempt your own loved ones from the focus of your lens.”

What I am more certain about is that my family loves me, and wanted to give me a chance to ‘experience’ what I missed back in 1991-1992.

During the past few days, I have wondered why I had not requested my family to make pictures of my Dad’s final days.

I wondered if I would feel better if had seen pictures of his funeral, and if that would make his death more real, more immediate.

Perhaps, perhaps not.

What I feel most comforted these few months is that fact that I had the chance to care for one of my parents, something that plagued me for many years after Dad’s passing. That Mom need no longer feel sorry for not letting me see Dad in his last moments because through her, I managed to get glimpses of that, regardless how different it might have been.

Whether I made pictures or not should not have really mattered.