Personal Projects

Foreign Talents: The Hands That Built Our Homes

What do you do when you are ‘banned’ from traveling for a year?

One of the great photographers I admire is the late Indian master, Raghubir Singh.  Born in 1942 in Jaipur, India, he died in 1999 in New York City.

Given his talent and reputation, he could have photographed anywhere he wanted; but Singh chose only to focus on his beloved India, churning out one masterpiece after another.

Even after he was gone, his works continued to be loved and showcased.

I had often wished that I could be as “focused” as Singh. I wonder how wonderful and sentimental it will be, if I can say I only have images of Singapore, and nothing else.

But if that is what I desire, how do I reconcile it with my desire to see the world?

Maybe midlife crisis has arrived early for me, but I am more and more a believer that I can, and I should, make more personal pictures of Singapore, including those that have little or no value to others.

I have a bigger point to prove: that there are a lot to photographs to be made in Singapore, if we are prepared to open our hearts and eyes to recognize that even our ordinary isn’t that ordinary.

I think it is also important, that as a photographer, I am contributing a small part to our collective memory. Whether or not it is appreciated by others is not something I am too concerned about.

For almost a year now, I have stopped all personal projects to focus on making sense of my archives, which span almost 20 years.

In a way, I was forced into this after a major hard-disk crash wiped out a big chunk of my work. On the other hand, I was acutely aware that I am shooting a lot and not organizing them.

This blackout period has been very painful and I feel like a ferocious dog being chained up, and just waiting to explode into life.

To make the situation worse, I have also been grounded for the past few months to supervise the building of our little home. The “travel ban” is in effect till at least mid-2009.

What better way to make myself useful at the same time, than to make portraits of the workers who are putting it together? I am literally, making pictures in my own backyard.

But being the owner doesn’t mean I can just boss them around when it comes to photo-taking. Some need a lot of persuasion.

Through photography, I am getting to know a little more about the individuals who are helping to piece our future home together.

I am curious, for instance, to know what brings them to Singapore, and who they left behind.

Xu Hua Lin is 29 and came from Jiangshan, southwest of Shanghai. He has been here for less than a year and calls his wife in China at every lunch break. Their son is barely one and the hefty bill to raise a child is the main reason why Xu has to work abroad.

Fang Xi Jun, 46, has been here since 2001. The Hangzhou native has a son who is 22 and works for an elevator company in Nanjing.

It is hard to capture every single one of them. Sometimes, I thought I could wait a day or two, only to find out that some of them are not coming back again.

Fang and Xu think they will be working on our home till at least mid-December. After that, they are off to the next available job. After that, it will be another new batch to work on the bricklaying.

Maybe it is just fate, but the spot which I have chosen to make their portraits is where my future studio and home office is sited. I am planning to frame some of the pictures and hang them near where they were taken, but if that doesn’t materialize, I hope I will always remember them when I am down in the basement, slogging away.

Sometimes, being grounded is not such a bad thing.