22 November 2017

A rare interview with enigmatic and cherished photographer, Nguan


22 November 2017


To say that the photographer Nguan is enigmatic may sound a bit dramatic, but really, it’s an understatement. Although he has built a following of over 100,000 doting admirers for images which show the simple beauty of Singaporean everyday life, he never gives away anything personal. He rarely speaks to journalists and he never shows images of himself. Regardless of the fact that Nguan doesn’t caption the images he regularly uploads, thousands upon thousands of likes quickly follow.

“I just want to be known through my work,” Nguan tells It’s Nice That when asked about whether this secretive existence has been a conscious decision. “I live in Singapore, where there are few advantages to fame. I don’t want to be recognised at the supermarket while I’m buying toilet paper. Especially when it’s on sale — I usually get two jumbo packs.” This humorous response already paints a different picture of the photographer than what we expected. Despite taking photographs of everyday people, objects and movements, his images are quite serious, as well as romantic, filled with the light of the city he shoots in.

Nguan’s photography is difficult to describe. There is a certain aesthetic for sure, encapsulated by a pastel colour palette, a technique that has since been emulated by hundreds of other inspired photographers, and is a process which developed from a strict shooting regime: “I only work during the last two hours of daylight, when the sun is low and everything is aglow,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter if something amazing is going on earlier in the day — if the light is harsh, I’m not getting out of bed.”

But other than the colouring of his photography, two of Nguan’s subjects are never the same, and in turn he has created a portfolio of photographic moments, ones that if you blinked you would of missed. “I feel like my camera is predictive rather than reactive,” he explains. “There’s no time to react when life is gushing by — it’s all about anticipating what might occur, believing that it will, and committing to that belief. Sometimes the picture happens, and other times it doesn’t. 

Nguan has just published his new book Singapore, a portrait of his home city shot over a number of years. “My process is one of improvisation with my surroundings,” the photographer explains. “Sometimes I move around a lot, while on other occasions I stay still and wait for pictures to come to me.” This waiting process is paired with taking numerous photos, just incase. “I typically carry ten rolls of film, and I shoot liberally until I have a single frame left. Then I make my way home, knowing that I have one shot in case anything compelling happens during the walk or train ride back.”

Singapore features a series of photographs cherry picked from 2007-2017, displaying Nguan’s “ambivalent relationship” with the city. “Perhaps this is evident in the pictures; though the surfaces of my photographs are tender and dreamlike, an undercurrent of despair runs through the book.” The stillness of the photographs showcase this element of slight unhappiness in shots like a portrait of a girl whose hair is gently lifted by the wind, a man desperately looking for something down a drain, or a towering block of flats. “If the work is a love letter to the country, as it’s often perceived to be, then it’s a rather fraught one,” says Nguan. “In Singapore I persistently acknowledge the drawing of our social fabric, the cost of rapid economic progress and the isolation of life in a teeming metropolis.” 

The photographer’s aim for the book was to propose “a new iconography for the city,” mostly due to the fact that he “was tired of the conventional one,” Nguans says. “In the book, several elements occur again and again, much as leitmotifs do in operas.” One, “the versatile, stackable plastic chairs that are ubiquitous at local eating establishments, weddings as well as funerals,” crops up regularly. 

Viewing his book from halfway across the globe, the photographer has painted a portrait of Singapore for us to cherish. From bougainvillea flowers, “there is a variety named ‘Singapore pink’ that is almost as common as grass here, or the high-rise housing estates which the vast majority of the population inhabit”. But one part of the city’s structural landscape has stuck with the photographer for the majority of his life. “There are those crumbling, curling concrete spiral staircases, found at the rear of our oldest buildings,” he says. “Their origins are less glamorous: they were built to facilitate the easy removal of buckets of human waste before modern sanitation was introduced. But I find them so devastatingly beautiful. I’ve been obsessed with them since I was a child, and now I’ve made them mine.”

All but one of the photographs featured in Singapore are of complete strangers and as Nguan explains, he likes to think of the book as a “mythical portrait of the country made using documentary methods”. A favourite image of his, “a girl gazing right into my camera as she slouches on a public bench with her slippers kicked off, a badminton racket in hand and a printed rainbow in the background,” sums up his eye, tone and subject matter in one swoop. “The image has a sentimental and languorous quality, but it’s also awkward and slightly tense. This ended up being the tone for the entire series, and it was this picture that led me to discover it.” 

Looking through ten years of Nguan’s photographs in book form feels like the ideal way to pause, admire and then treasure his work, despite the fact that you could argue he has built a career from Instagram. But, at a time where social media is all encompassing in our lives inside or out of the photographic sector, Nguan shows how you can make it work for you, rather than being a slave to the app. Circling back to his decision to remain relatively anonymous, and in spite of being one of the world’s most adored street photographers he says: “Who would want to be photographed on the street? Not me.” 

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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