By Ariffin Sha For far too long, we have been hearing people – from academics to activists – harp on the ever widening income inequality prevalent in Singapore. From Roy Ngerng’s analysis on income inequality to Professor Tommy Koh’s first new year resolution, you may be forgiven for thinking that you have heard it all and seen it all when it comes to income inequality. Such narratives generally assume that we need to speak up on behalf of the ones who may have fallen through the cracks, with the assumption that they are unable to speak up for themselves; and when they do, it is often with anguish and despair. However, with the right tools and guidance, the ability for the “silent majority” to voice out might surprise many, and with beautiful results. Project Lengkok Bahru would serve as one such example. In the Interim Last weekend, Kopitiam Lengkok Bahru (KLB) organised a photography exhibition at SCAPE. KLB is made up of a handful of NUS graduates who have a background in sociology or industrial design. Called “In the Interim”, the exhibition was sponsored by Project 50/100. It featured photographs from nine youths who live in rental flats in Lengkok Bahru. At the exhibition, I had am intriguing conversation with Mr Shamil Zainuddin, a sociology student and one of the founders of KLB, who shed light on the inspiration behind the project.
“We wanted the children to speak in their own terms. After all, they are the experts of their own world. This ties in with the ethnographic approach which I have learnt as a sociology student in NUS. In fact, all of us in KLB are researches and we’re trained in the ethnographic approach. We want the youths to express themselves. We want them to tell their own story through pictures of what they experience everyday in their lives and have as much fun as possible doing it. All we did was play the role of facilitator. It’s pretty much a blank canvas for them. “We are also very conscious about the fact that we worked with a particularly vunerable group of people – both because of their age group and their socio-economic background – and we worked closely with Beyond Social Services (BSS) to protect them. You see, we didn’t want the children to be exhibits. We didn’t want people to look at our photos and say “Oh, look at those poor kids.” We certainly did not want poverty porn. Lengkok Bahru is an area with a lot youths These youths are brimming with energy and they can definetly speak for themselves. This project shows that they do have something to say. They certainly do have a unique, experimental and raw way of expressing themselves. We wanted to them to feel empowered. We provided them with the film cameras and they told the story by documenting their own lives. They are the stars.”
Home, Strategies and Aspirations The exhibition is divided into three parts: Lengkok Bahru as Home, Strategies, and Aspirations beyond Lengkok Bahru, each depicting the different facets of life in and around Lengkok Bahru. Despite the different sections, the photographs were exhibited intentionally in a manner that was organic and not too structured. In the first section, the youth photographers took pictures of Lengkok Bahru – their home. Their photographs featured the vicinity, their houses, their beds and even the neighbourhood cat, Milky (which unfortunately was killed by a vehicle recently).
Danny proudly showed me some of the pictures of his home that were on display. One of them showed his two siblings and his bed, the same bed he has been sleeping on for the past 15 years of his life. In Strategies, the pictures tried to capture how the youths spent their free time in Lengkok Bahru and how they dealt with stress. You could see pictures of friends playing guitars at the common corridors and staircases and also some interesting pictures taken at the street soccer court.
The exhibition culminated with Aspirations, where all nine youth photographers shared their dreams of the future.
Idealism may be a lost virtue in modern Singapore but it is certainly alive in kicking in these young men and women. They all have big dreams and are determined to pursue their passions. Danny told me that he wants to be either a policeman, a Chelsea player or a photographer when he grows up. Asnur, too, shared the same aspiration in photography. As part of the exhibition, participants had the opportunity to pen words of encouragement and admiration to the youths. They could also purchase postcards with pictures taken by the youths printed on them.
For those who missed out on the invigorating exhibition and the chance to talk to the young photographers, fret not – the exhibition is one part of a series of events KLB is currently working on. The team will be will be organizing a seminar on 2 July at Artistry Café, and also have plans to to launch a website by the end of the year, which would showcase more of the youths’ photographs and stories. The group can also be reached on their Facebook page where you can get the latest updates for the project and interact with the team. Telling stories, developing youths Mr Shamil also shared that when the project first kicked off, the nine youths were quite shy, awkward and introverted – a vastly different description of the sames youths I met at the exhibition. As soon as I stepped through the door, a confident teenager by the name of Danny walked up to me, introduced himself and offered to walk me through the exhibition. Asnur, another of the young men in the team, was reserved when I first approached him but as we continued to converse, he opened up. “I have only been living at Lengkok Bahru for the past 3 years,” he said. “Before that, I lived in Jurong. I think one think that Lengkok Bahru has that Jurong doesn’t is the Kampong Spirit. I really like that!” After the mutual following on Instagram, he started to explain to me the stories behind the many beautiful pictures he had taken. It seemed as though every picture had a story behind it and he preferred telling me about himself through the photographs. “For me photography should not be just about taking pictures. We shouldn’t think of it as just taking a snap and uploading it on Instagram. It is much more than that. Photography, to me, is like storytelling. Every picture tells a story. Some pictures tell more than one story. The photos we take must tell that story.” Indeed, Asnur’s images were fairly amazing. His love for photography was first ignited when he was 12 and his parents bought him a camera for passing his PSLE. Ever since that first taste, he has been “addicted to photography”.
At the tender age of 15, Asnur has a startling portfolio on his Instagram feed where he has been showcasing his work. He tells me with a glimmer of wonder in his eyes that never in his wildest dream did he imagine that his pictures will be seen worldwide. According to him, his pictures have been featured in magazines and some t-shirt companies are currently negotiating for rights to print his works. Asnur would also be holding his solo exhibition on 11 July at Queenstown Library for a week-long showcase where he will no doubt gladly oblige participants with an autograph.
I also asked Asnur what advice, if any, would he give to youths who may be going to a struggle or a rough patch in their lives. His answer reflected a level of maturity that is undoubtedly beyond his years.
“The first and most important thing I would like to tell them is that, you are not alone. Do approach your counselors, teachers and friends. Talk it out, let it all out from your heart. If you can’t find someone, always remember that there is this thing that will never fail to have our backs – family. Don’t keep it bottled up. Life goes on and it will get better.”
Meeting and talking to young people like Asnur and Danny was definitely an inspiring, refreshing and uplifting experience. To see their works of art too made me appreciate and understand their stories, their struggles and their triumphs even more.
I’m no art critic, but I definitely enjoyed myself at “In The Interim”. I also learnt a lot in the process, both about the young lads and life in Lengkok Bahru. In reflection, life was not too different when I was growing up Kallang Bahru. Just like Danny and Asnur, we did spend a lot of time playing football and games, with little or no inhibitions to our dreams. In fact, I would argue that as much as we would like to think that our lives were different due to the differences in our lives, we do have many things in common. That, in essence, is the least of the power of the arts – the ability to bring people together.