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Tom Stayte's piece #selfie

A room with a view, features works by six female artists, including Euston Mansion Hallway, Bonham Road, Hong Kong by Wong Wo Bik.

18 Folgate Street by Lau Wai.

Another highlight of the festival is Daido Moriyama: Prints & Books from 1960s-1980s, which will feature wallpaper installations, original prints, photo books and also never-before-seen works from the 1972 series Hunter.

The shifting identity of photography

Organiser Gwen Lee explains the theme and objectives of the latest edition of the Singapore International Photography Festival.
19/08/2016 - 05:50

WHEN you're holding a photography exhibition, what's the best way to engage as many people as you can? The fifth edition of the biennial Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF) may have the answer.

While the last edition attracted 106,000 visitors, co-founder and organiser Gwen Lee modestly estimates this year's number to be closer to 120,000. "It's a prudent figure," she explains, "because half of our exhibits at SIPF 2016 will be held in the public space."

To stimulate interest in the already-growing community, SIPF will be showcasing exhibitions across six MRT Downtown line stations including Botanic Gardens, Bugis and Newton with an open-concept trail. But putting that into motion came with its own challenges.

Ms Lee, also the co-founder of creative container art space Deck, explains: "If you look at the whole of Singapore, there isn't much gallery space for artwork. Institutions and museums have their own exhibitions, so we wanted to expand into new territories. But putting 240 pieces of art in MRT stations wasn't easy because while the act of beautifying these spaces is encouraged, there hasn't been much emphasis on giving artists the freedom and space to express their ideas."

The festival, which was launched in 2008, has grown considerably from its initial draw of 20,000 visitors over the three-week period during which it was held.

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However, "there's still room to grow," notes Ms Lee. "The photography community and its audience have both developed, but in Singapore, there still isn't a single museum dedicated to photography as a medium. They have three in China and two in Japan, and I think it's important to have a museum here too because it'll play a role in helping us understand how photography affects our daily lives."

SIPF is doing its part to explain the interplay between photography and our everyday lives. In curating the six exhibitions along with a series of talks, presentations, guided tours, workshops and portfolio reviews making up the festival this year, Ms Lee, 40, based her selection on the theme of The Archive.

She says: "The theme explores the nature and roles of photography in society. The acute shift in the boundary of photography, alongside technological advancement and the surging social platforms produced new frontiers and discovery as well as an indistinctive status of photography in both institutional and personal lives."

Stand-out works

Kicking off the festival is the winning proposal for the inaugural Curatorial Project Showcase, A room with a view. Curated by Carol Chow, a researcher and lecturer at the School of Journalism and Communications at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the project features works by six female artists.

One of the photographs is Euston Mansion Hallway, Bonham Road, Hong Kong by Wong Wo Bik, inspired by a drawing of a family gathering in a similar mansion in the 1930s in Singapore.

"Another is 18 Folgate Street by Hong Kong photographer Lau Wai, who says: "Seeing this house in London restored to its former state in the 18th and 19th centuries provoked me to create the series. It attempts to create a personal dialogue between visitors and the house through images that contain familiar and foreign elements and explores confluent relationships between fiction, history and reality." 

Of the exhibits, Ms Lee notes: "We hardly see the presence of curators in photography exhibitions, and people often ask what their role is. What a curator can do with photography is to actually bring out more of a message than the photographer can, so when we were looking through the 15 submissions we got from this open call, we wanted something with a clear framework and strong message."

This is also strongly evident in the piece #selfie by UK-based Tom Stayte, who commissioned a bespoke computer software to access the publicly available Instagram API and appropriate all images tagged "#selfie". The images are then printed using a thermal receipt printer and allowed to fall onto the floor and accumulate during the exhibition.

Ms Lee adds: "These are essentially self-portraits and as they are, can mean anything to anyone. That's why when someone like Tom Stayte steps in and casts it into a narrative, it has a more central role."

Another highlight of the festival is Daido Moriyama: Prints & Books from 1960s-1980s, which will feature wallpaper installations, original prints, photo books and also never-before-seen works from the 1972 series Hunter. The Japanese contemporary photographer's images are noted for capturing the breakdown in Japan's traditions, capturing life during and following the American occupation of Japan after World War II.

Out-of-focus aesthetic

"It's particularly interesting because of his style of photography," points out Ms Lee. "The medium originated as a way of documenting events or providing evidence, but Moriyama developed this blurry and out-of-focus aesthetic which wasn't about documenting anything but it still embodied the spirit of the time when people were feeling a great social detachment from the chaos happening on the street. So it also shows the development of photography from a medium of documentenation to an expression of a viewpoint."

  • The fifth edition of the Singapore International Photography Festival will take place from Aug 19 to Nov 13 at Deck and other locations island-wide. While some exhibitions are free, passes for the entire festival are available at S$50 from the festival office at Deck. For more information, please call 6734 6578 or visit