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THE first image you see at this photo exhibition is that of two rhinoceroses resting side by side in a hot and arid landscape. The image looks perfectly ordinary - until you realise how abnormally small the rhino's horns are. It's as if these animals have evolved to have less-visible horns to avoid their most dangerous predators - human beings.
As you walk down the aisle displaying other works from Robert Zhao Renhui's extraordinary series A Guide To The Flora and Fauna of the World, you see more snapshots of the future as imagined by the Singapore photographer. There is a square apple, a fluorescent zebrafish, a colourless goldfish with only a strategic patch of gold on its crown, among others - all supposed results of man's wanton tampering with nature.
The strength of Zhao's inventions is that they're not far-fetched. Considering the advances of biotechnology and genetic engineering, you might easily envision a world of square apples and pet fish in fluorescent colours, created to gratify human whims. But at what cost? The hornless rhinos provide clues.
Zhao's series opens An Ocean Of Possibilities, an exhibition which explores a broad range of narratives in a world riven by political, social and economic motives. A collaboration between the Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF) and the Noordelicht International Photo Festival (NIPF) of the Netherlands, the exhibition at the ArtScience Museum features over 200 works by 34 photographers from 21 countries.
Some take the classic documentary approach, while others rework found images into striking new ones. Many choose to document specific socio-political situations of a particular community or region.
The photography of Polish shutterbug Tomasz Tomaszewski, for instance, captures contemporary life in the Ghanian town of Elmina which used to be an important port for the Atlantic slave trade. Today, Elmina is a fishing village where the fisherman have established cooperatives to help each other. The photographs depict their joys and struggles which, at least on the outset, don't appear to be any different from those of other fishing communities.
Another socially-charged series is Ana Galan's In The Quest For Utopia. The Spaniard photographed several Burmese individuals who fought hard for democracy in Myanmar. However, inscribed across their images - almost like intricate prison bars - are passages from the Burmese constitution that limit the people's rights while strengthening the government's powers.
Yet another striking series belongs to Nermine Hammam. The Egyptian artist culls Internet images of police and army brutality in the months following Egypt's 2011 revolution. But instead of showing these images as they are, she embeds them in traditional Japanese paintings. The police thus appear attacking civilians, while ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock style) flowers bloom near them or a flock of herons glide by.
The stark contrast between the violent, gritty images of the revolution and the elegant beauty of the Japanese motifs only serves to heighten the shock of the former. In an information-overloaded world inured to violent images, Hammam's conceit throws the threat of police brutality into sharp relief.
SIPF director Gwen Lee worked closely with her Noordelicht counterparts and attracted about 1,000 submissions from international photographers for the exhibition. The list was whittled down to just 34 which the panel felt covered a broad range of concerns faced by different communities.
Says Ms Lee: "As the year comes to end, we felt it was a good time to reflect on where we are and where we are going."
An Ocean of Possibilities is now on till Dec 28 at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands. Tickets at S$6 for adults are available at the door or from Sistic