Asia Boleh

In a recent dialogue session between the new Information and Arts Minister of Singapore and local visual artists, the topic of building a museum for photography came up.

I was told by different people that this had become a favorite topic in some circles. Often, such talk is accompanied by names of prominent individuals who are viewed as the people who could pull off the mammoth feat and put this idea into action.

That it is probably still in the “dream” stage is not a concern to me at all. Let me say this for the record: I am as eager as anyone who is concerned about photography to see this become reality. I dare say that this dream of having such a centre is probably shared by every Asian photographic community, and that there are many reasons why the idea of building such a centre is hogging everyone’s attention.

A simple reason is this: young nations have come of age and concerns of heritage and national identity have moved to the centre-stage; in other words, people want to have their unique voice and vision heard and seen.

In pragmatic Singapore, one can argue that a reason to have such a “luxury” will be that with the focus shifted to the creative industry, such an investment has the potential to yield substantial economic returns. Singapore already has a performing arts centre in the form of the Esplanade; together with a visual arts centre, there will certainly be more synergy towards that direction. Since I will not be the one signing the cheque, I can only be indulgent here and reveal other less tangible but equally important reasons for a photography museum.

Most people, when asked about photography in Asia, will say that it doesn’t have a long history or a strong tradition. It is also not far-fetched to say that in this part of our world, success is often still measured by how well one does in the West, leaving little concern in general for Asian photography.

Photography has had a vibrant history in Singapore and local photographers have been using their lenses to reflect the times in which they lived in. In making these photographs, they were writing history. How can such an important task be not deserving of a proper place where future generations can go and learn about how our ancestors used to live?

Ask people in Singapore’s smallish art circle to name one thing they know about Chua Soo Bin, and most will probably tell you that he owns a flourishing gallery in the same building of Singapore’s Information and Arts Ministry.

But very few will know that Chua has had an illustrious photographic career. Chua shot top-notch advertisements for Singapore Airlines, helping to put Singapore and its national airline on the world map. This was no small feat considering Singapore’s unexplainable love affair with foreign talent. Understanding as well the need for marketing, his method of self-promotion was to place his portrait on a wanted poster listing his “crimes” next to it. You can say Chua was ahead of his time and of his peers.

Ask the new generation of Asian photographers if they know who is Sam Kai Faye, Terrence Khoo or Kyoichi Sawada, and one is likely to draw a blank. Like the legendary war photographer Robert Capa, Sam, Khoo and Sawada all died covering the war in Indochina. The difference is that Capa is honored all over the world, while the other three remain obscure.

Capa deserved all the accolades, but a close examination of the trio’s achievements will tell you what I am concerned about: they were hardly remembered or talked about at all.

Sawada, a Japanese, won a Pulitzer Prize, photojournalism’s equivalent of an Oscar, for his war coverage; Sam won the only known World Press Photo award for Singapore; Khoo, another Singaporean, left a hefty sum of insurance money which was used to set up a medical scholarship.

These are no small achievements, however we choose to weigh them.

In 1965, the year I was born, the Photographic Society of Singapore published an important book called “Pictorial Photography”. Comprising work by the Society’s giants such as Yip Cheong Fun, Lee Lim, Wu Peng Seng and Kuou Shang Wei, it was considered a tour de force at that time it was published.

I loaned the book to a friend two years ago but it was never returned to me, so I tried to replace it by making a visit to the Society’s clubhouse. Much to my disappointment, the young man who worked there did not even know the existence of the book. In the end, I had to walk him to the club’s library and point it out in their collection.

History is often just history, out of sight and forgotten. If people don’t even know it exists, how do they find it?

Lying all over Asia are negatives filed away in yellowing envelopes, in rooms with no humidity or temperature control. Considering the poor storage conditions, these negatives are the lucky survivors, for many more are likely to have disappeared and are now seemingly impossible to locate.

These precious historical documents, which I liken to “cultural currencies”, are all at risk and need quick rescue. A national centre is the ideal place for these priceless commodities.

The optimist in me believes that eventually, some national museums of photography will surface in different Asian cities. But I doubt much can be achieved by just waiting around and dreaming about them.

Individuals and corporations with the means and hearts can make a difference. For that, it might be useful to see how one individual did it in Norway.

Leif Preus is probably not a name that will ring a bell in Asia but this Norwegian created the Norsk Museum for Fotografi (Norway’s National Museum of Photography). Opened in 2001, it is located in Horten, one hour’s drive from the Norwegian capital of Oslo.

The museum started with Preus’s private collection, which the state paid about US$7 million for.

Recently, when news that Preus’s collection was up for sale, it attracted attention from all over the world. South Korean conglomorate Samsung was reportedly one of the interested parties prepared to pay a handsome price. But Preus insisted that the collection remain in his beloved homeland.

Preus is a perfect example of a man who gives back what he takes. A humble man who built a very successful photography business, he put his money back into photography through careful acquisitions.

I suspect many readers of this magazine are people in important positions who can make such a difference.

I would like to just plant this thought in your head: You could all be the next Leif Preus.

The column first appeared in Grain Magazine.