There are no afternoons like having a chat with local street photographer Aik Beng Chia at his favourite breakfast joint – Heap Seng Leong coffee shop. He dishes out anecdotes after anecdotes of encounters during his shoots, much to our amusement. The streets are never easy. You’ll meet different sorts of personalities – from the hostile ones to the ones who bring faith to humanity. But that’s where life happens and that’s how Aik Beng keeps us addicted to his raw documentation of life in Singapore.
The street photographer started taking pictures in 2008 after getting an iPhone 2G. Since then, his photos have been exhibited and published internationally. One of his accomplishments include the publishing of his first monograph “Tonight The Streets Are Ours” by the Invisible Photographer Asia in 2013. The book presents the quirks and happenings of Singapore’s Little India after dusk.
Nookmag (N): Hi Aik Beng, you’ve been involved in numerous photography projects over the years and you’re recently contributing to The Guardian and the 24-Hour Project. Tell us more abut what’s new for you these days?
Aik Beng Chia (ABC): I contributed to The Guardian and I’m also a contributor for Everyday Asia. The Guardian contacted me and wanted me to share what I see on a day-to-day basis. The travel section usually shares postcard photos, but for Singapore, its editor wanted MY Singapore through my eyes. They saw my instagram feed and liked it. It was a three day post – on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The responses were mixed because some of the followers like postcard images, whereas some preferred it that way because it was more of a day-to-day view of an island. Overall, the response was positive. The Guardian team was glad I could do it.
The 24-Hour Project was initiated by a friend from New York. It was part of a social bonding initiative. When it came out a few years ago, they messaged people they know who wanted to do something together. The project is a 24-hour recording of the city that we stay in. This is the third time I am doing it. I’d post a picture every hour. I see it as social bonding to share how our cities or countries look like in the span of 24 hours.
The recent project I did was about Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), and I took that up because it was a historic event and I have two kids that are very young. It is important for me to record these images for them. When they are older, they have visual cues of what is being taught in the textbooks, to understand what happened when LKY passed away. It is a personal project for my kids. I wish I could spend more time on the project but being a father, I need to divide my time and I only went out at specific times and areas to record these things.
N: How do you think street photography differ from photojournalism?
ABC: I think photojournalism is a responsibility, where the picture that you shoot must be honest, and is for the world to see. There is a lot of responsibility, that you have to tell the right story and it has to portray the truth. Street photography does tell certain stories but it is candid, and not to a press level. It is recording the daily life to me. I am not so much trying to be Henri Cartier-Bresson, trying to go for the moment. I think more importantly, my work shows the everyday life in Singapore. I don’t travel a lot. I only travel when I am being paid to go for assignments, but other than that, when I started photographing Singapore, the biggest challenge to me was – how do you see Singapore?
We always see the pretty side of Singapore, and the mundane side of Singapore is boring – that was my challenge. How do I photograph the mundane things we take for granted and walk past without giving a second look, to make people see a second time?
There was one time when I met my mentor Kevin WY Lee from Invisible Photographer Asia, I told him I always envy people who travel. They get to take beautiful photos and I wish I could do that. His reply to me was – you don’t need to travel to take beautiful pictures. Shoot your own backyard! A photo does not need to be pretty – not his exact words but this was what he meant. So he said, “You’re in Singapore, why not shoot Singapore? Shoot what you see, and honestly, not beautiful or composed shots. Shoot honestly.” That’s how I started. I spend more time walking, opening up my eyes to little things that people may miss. What appeals to me is not the pretty Singapore, but the real Singapore – the heartlands instead of the Merlion Park. There is a lot of synergy. I take walks… in industrial parks. I may not even take photos. A lot of times when a photographer goes out to take photos (maybe not all photographers), there is always a pressure to have one keeper shot, one kill shot. I used to have that but through the years of photographing, I realised one thing… moments – if it happens, it happens. If it doesnt, let it go. There is always another day. I don’t feel disappointed nor do I feel that it was a waste of my time. The beauty lies in the experience and what you see with your own eyes.
Once, I got free tickets to attend the National Day Parade at the float. When the fireworks came out, I did not take a picture even though I had a camera and a phone with me. I just sat there and enjoyed the fireworks while others were busy snapping. From time to time, I enjoy photographing sunrise and sunsets when I can. But sometimes, I don’t shoot, I watch. On my recent trip to New Zealand, I was commissioned to go there by Mcdonalds to do a live feed on the first sunrise. I shot on the first day and watched on the second day. Third day, I did my job. Fourth day, I watched. So… nothing beats experiencing it. Take for example LKY’s passing. I did not go down to the Istana, where a lot of people took photos of. I chose to go to the coffee shop to watch the thing amongst old men. After I have watched that, I took out my camera to shoot. There are some things that you have to know when to shoot and when not to. To me, these moments are important. When they did the last tribute at the university, I saw the cortege and observed a moment of respect, a minute of silence for myself. Once it was up, I snapped. Why? Firstly, I am not a photojournalist. I am not paid. I am just an ordinary Singaporean.
N: What are your thoughts on voyeuristic behaviour, especially during sensitive moments like these?
ABC: It is subjective – there is no right and wrong. Sometimes people may not like it, but sometimes you have to do it. I used to shoot homeless people on the streets, beggars. But I was naive back then. One day, I realised that I am not doing something good at all. When you photograph something, you are responsible for it because of what people see… people read it in different ways. Take the homeless people for example, what would the reaction be if I post it now? The discussion will be about poverty. There will be a debate about how Singapore is so wealth out, but there are still poor people. But for me, as a photographer, what can I do?
I shot a homeless man by accident in Little India. It was of him about to eat an egg, and that egg was taken from those chinese offerings. That go me thinking seriously about photographing people and beggars on the streets. I decided to help him through my social network connections. I said I went to visit him and he was unwell and if anyone had any clothes or whatever, it would be great; just let me know and we can help him out, but we need to control it. If there are too many donations, he cannot do anything about them as he is living on the streets. I went back to look for him during Chinese New Year and he wasn’t around anymore. I still dont know what has happened to him. Some said he had relatives to take care of him.
There was another shot of a single room flat in Chinatown. I was actually trying to take the housing estate. I walked past a corridor and smelled this foul smell coming out from this house. I saw that the door was ajar, and peeked in out of curiousity. I thought maybe (touch wood) there was someone who had passed away, like an elderly, and no one knows about it. I saw that it was dirty, dusty and messy. I took a shot of that. When I pushed the door open, I saw that there was a man lying down, naked.. dirty, on a mouldy mattress. I took a shot also. But did I share the photos on social media? No. Till today, only my close friends have seen the photo. I did not share them because I knew I could not help him. And I knew that maybe there were some social workers who tried to help him but he turned them down. So it’s very grey, you know what I mean? You want to do something but there are a lot of things involved. I choose when to share and when not to share.
Talking about privacy, I will not ask for permission a lot of times. I will try to avoid it because I want to capture that candid moment, that natural and off-guard self. Generally Singaporeans don’t like to be photographed. Simple – they are afraid they will appear on Stomp or newspapers. From experience, they will be afraid that they are being Stomp-ed. What I do to educate them is to tell them that I am a photographer, and I enjoy photographing humans and these are some of the pictures that I have shot. After they see the photos, they would say, “Oh okay la okay.” I will tell them where I will share the photos.
Sometimes, I will catch them off-guard but afterwards I will tell them, “Hi, I’m so sorry. I actually took a photograph of you.” If they insist they don’t like it, then it’s okay, I will just delete it.
There is a project I did called In Your Face. I literally go up to strangers and take a photo. It may look very rude and offensive but actually, I will show them and they will laugh. If I really want to use some of them as my subject, I will let them know that I want to do so but not now… they can just carry on with their own thing but be prepared for me to go in their face and surprise them.
N: Among all your encounters on the street, which one in particular touched you the most? Any unpleasant confrontation?
ABC: One night, I was working late. I had my supper, and I parked my car near the Mcdonalds at Seng Kang, near a swimming pool. There was a car in front of me, though it was quite a distance. I was eating my burger, and i saw that the night scene was quite nice, so I took some shots using my phone. There were some bikes speeding past and I was learning how to do the panning on the phone. The next moment, the guy from the car in front of mine came over, shouted at me and beat me up. He threw my phone on the road and all that, and claimed that I was photographing him and his girlfriend in the car. I told him, “Dude, I am using a phone, not a DSLR with long lens. How can I capture you guys in the car? God knows what business you are doing inside.”
He said I was not allowed to take photos and I told him that it was a public road – if he was soliciting, he’s not allowed too… so what’s the problem? He got very upset and gave me a punch. He waited. I did not retaliate because I knew I could press charges against him under road bullying as I was on the road. But I didn’t. He said he would call the police but he did not, because he knew he had threw a punch at me already. He was actually waiting for me to go off so he could run me off the road. I showed him the pictures and told him that I don’t have a single picture of his car. He accused me of deleting them. I was taking photos of the bridge and I even Instagram-ed it. I called the police and showed them the proof – that I was having my food while posting the photo. He asked if I wanted to press charges and I said no as it’s a small matter.
Another incident was when I wanted to capture some architecture shots for myself. I was at this block on the common corridor, and I was photographing the block opposite me. This aunty came out and started scolding me. She said that I was not allowed to take photos here. I told her that this is a public housing and that I was on a public corridor, not at her door or taking photos of the inside of her room. She asked me to give her my IC – why should I give her my IC? So I ignored her and did my job. I went down floor by floor. She followed me, you know? From the 11th floor until the ground floor. I took my time and carried on with my shots. When we reached the ground floor, I asked her what she wanted to do and told her to call the police if she was not happy. She said, “Why should I call? You call la.” And I was like, “Why should I call the police when you were the one who wanted to?” It was funny. While waiting, I posted a status on Facebook and some of my friends who are policemen and investigation officers asked if I wanted them to come down. I said, “No it’s okay, thank you very much.”
Quite some time back, I was photographing the streets of Haji Lane and that it happened that this restaurant was in the picture. The owner came out and started scolding me and said that I could not take photographs there. I asked him why not? He told me that I cannot take a photo of his shop. Told him that I am not, and even if I am, I could do it since it is on a public road. So I said ‘fuck you’ and walked away.
N: It was interesting how you collaborated with FLABSLAB to do a behind-the-scenes shoot for the W/OMEN book launch. How was the experience?
ABC: They posted a status on Facebook saying that they were doing their annual calendar and were going to shoot photos of women. I misread it and thought that it was an invitation to join them for the shoot. So I replied that I wanted to come and they said okay. I realised that it didn’t sound right. So I asked if this was for their corporate calendar and if there would be a photographer to shoot. They answered yes. I told them I won’t be shooting then as it was not very nice to the photographer. They said that I can shoot behind the scenes.
It was a misinterpretation that turned into an opportunity. That was my first time shooting nude, and I’d usually shoot street and not models. It was an opportunity that allowed me to shoot without paying the models or studio fee. It was fun. I prefer to shoot candid moments and not so much posing shots. I enjoyed it. I only took the photos when the main photographer was reviewing his shots (when they were doing funny things).
N: Were you uncomfortable with the shoot?
ABC: No. I got questioned a lot of times if I was turned on. Honestly, no. When you are shooting, you would be so focused on what you want to capture that you don’t think about these things. And if you are, then you’re a pervert. I do ask photographers who shoot nude and they said the same thing. If you want to think about it, it is not right as you are doing your job.
N: What is your opinion on Terry Richardson and other controversial photographers who shoot women?
ABC: It’s very hard to say. I cannot say that he is right nor can I say that he is wrong. I cannot say what people are saying is true or not. The truth only lies in the photographers and the models. Anything can happen, both models and photographers can accuse. At the end of the day, who is telling the truth? Nobody knows.
N: What are your observations of the street photography scene now?
ABC: More people are interested in recording the things around them. The only thing is, they have to know that they are responsible. A picture can create havoc and it is up to your own discretion what to post. A picture can tell so many things. Let’s say I post a photo of a women selling tissue paper. There will be a group that says that she is a poor thing; some will say that the photo is a hoax. The truth is, you don’t know too. Only she does. Every photo that you take, you have to be responsible and try very hard not to discredit the subject.
Some photos that I have shot may discredit the subject, but I make sure he or she is not fully seen or can be identified. Maybe friends may know but strangers may not recognise. One of the photos that I shot for The Guardian was of a man, who was taking break at Chinese Garden. I knew that there was a photo fountain but don’t know when it would activate. When i pressed the shutter, it did. The position of the splash was at the groin area, and it looked as if he was pissing. I didn’t mean to discredit him, but it was a pun. I didn’t want to post it but The Guardian gave me the okay to post whatever I wanted as long as it was not slamming a religion or race and all that. I showed The Guardian’s travel head and his view was that the shot is not offensive. In fact, it is good.
N: You’re notorious for shooting with your mobile phone. What other cameras do you use currently? Do you enjoy experimenting with different cameras?
ABC: I use a Fuji X100 T. It depends on my mood. I would bring both my camera and iPhone out. They have WIFI function. Previously, I only used my iPhone because the cameras did not have WIFI function and I would rather use the phone to edit my photos on the go and upload. I would use both cameras to take one photo. It doesn’t matter what I use, what matter are the subject and content. It is about your connection with the photo or the subject you are photographing. I’m not so much into thinking that composition and depth come first. I am more into connections – the photos have to speak to me. I shot a lot of my photos because I felt something – it may be something simple that is beautiful and makes me happy or it can be something profound that speaks to me. Then I will look into the composition and depth of the photos. Some things may be nice but if I don’t feel for it, what’s the point?
N: What are your aspirations for street photography? How do you think you could take your art further?
ABC: I do not have any plans. For now, I’ll carry on shooting and let it grow organically. I don’t have any long term thing to do with it because to me, it is my quiet time, it is a time where i can be alone and look at things and think them through. It helps me a lot as I meet people from all walks of life. It helps me to value things, not just me but for my kids. Instead of telling them a bedtime story, they want me to show them my photographs and tell them what I do, my childhood stories. It is important. Before they sleep, I would tell them that daddy shot something today and describe what happened. They may be too young to understand but it’s the bonding and time that allow me to use my images to educate my kids.
Also, photograph for yourself, not for other reasons like to be famous or have a lot of likes. For my case, I didn’t ask to be famous or have a lot of followers, even if my number is small compared to others. I would rather grow organically. If they like my photos, I am happy. If they unfollow me, it’s fine – it is not the end of the world. You have to be honest in your photography. Don’t do it for personal gain. If you are going for that path, I’d rather you don’t photograph. It defeats the whole purpose. Be honest with yourself.