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Ng Hui Hsien

Shooting and editing can be a rather solitary activity. What I think is important is the presence of a few people whose taste you trust, who are honest with you and who believe in what you do, especially when doubt cuts too close.

Ng Hui Hsien is a young photographer from Singapore. Trained in sociology, she is also a writer and researcher. Poetic and introspective with finely observed moments of fleeting beauty, Hui Hsien’s photo series ‘Between Stars’ has been showcased in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Her latest work was produced during a month-long artist residency in Iceland.

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What is your background and how did you get into photography?

I’m trained in sociology, but have always been interested in art. It wasn’t until I got a job as a writer that I started to learn more about art however. I was interviewing artists and musicians, reading about their work and going to their shows.

It’s hard to pinpoint how I got into photography. The camera was primarily a tool for me to create ‘mementos’ of my travels and times with people I care about. I eventually wanted to combine my interest in art with photography, and enrolled in a couple of photography classes. In my first class, I was photographing cracks and stains on old walls. Those marks were beautiful to me, hinting at traces, histories and at times past. Their allure is made more significant in Singapore, where there is a constant emphasis on the new. I named the series ‘Wallpaper,’ and wanted to print the images on very thin paper and hammer them onto the walls of the photography school as part of a student exhibition. I forgot why, but it didn’t work out. What I didn’t realise was that years later, these ideas that certain textures and objects could have an emotional resonance would return in my work.

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I was photographing cracks and stains on old walls. Those marks were beautiful to me, hinting at traces, histories and at times past.

That was 2008. I felt then that for your work to be respected or accepted, you seemed to have to work a certain way. You first come up with an idea, and then illustrate it with the camera accordingly. I tried that, but didn’t feel physically and emotionally engaged with the act of photographing. For years, I had an ‘on-but-usually-off’ relationship with photography.

One day however, I walked into a photo lab and the shopkeeper asked if I like to buy her compact camera. It was a Contax T3. That camera somehow felt right the moment I held it, and I started taking more pictures.

Being a film camera, it allows me to ‘just shoot,’ and not examine a screen after every shot. Being inconspicuous, it lets me wander around without attracting much attention. I can hence remain in a meditative state of mind where I am really, just looking.

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Late 2013, a void came into my life. I needed to fill that void, and turned to photography, treating it more seriously than before. Objectifs had an open call for their mentorship programme Shooting Home, and I approached artist Chua Chye Teck and photographer Tom White for help in putting together a portfolio. They were supportive and very kindly introduced me to the idea of sequencing. Tom also lent me Rinko Kawauchi’s Cui Cui and Jeff Jacobson’s The Last Roll, marking my first encounter with photo books.

I was accepted into Shooting Home, and following this, assisted at Obscura Festival of Photography, where I met people such as Festival Director Vignes Balasingam and book publisher and photographer Calin Kruse, both of whom have been very supportive. I was subsequently a workshop participant under Ian Teh and Kosuke Okahara in the 10th Angkor Photo Festival. Both Ian and Kosuke taught me to expand my photographic vocabulary. I am currently looking to pursue my photography as an artistic practice.

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There is a stillness and a poetic beauty to your photos, what are you interested to say with your photography? 

I am more interested in evoking a mood than with directing the viewer’s experience. My images do not have a clear storyline, but revolve around a specific range of emotions. I don’t want to say too much. I want to say just enough. I like to create a space where the viewer can have a dream-like experience for himself or herself. I hope that through that, feelings are stirred and the imagination is energised. Perhaps through this creative act on the part of the viewer, he or she may arrive at a different way of understanding one’s relationship with the world.

People have so far voiced sentiments such as melancholy, loneliness and wonder. A few have talked about dreams, consciousness and the nature of reality. I find these conversations interesting and inspiring, and am thankful for them.

Reality for me is always in flux. What you think you know is situated and constructed, and hence, always partial. I find a shifting of perceptions exciting. It’s fun when you see things in a new way, when you are not quite sure what you are seeing, or when there seems to be something more to what you see. Perhaps that may prompt questions such as, “How do we know what we know?”, “Does reality comprise more than what we usually see?” and “If so, how can we get at that through seeing?”

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Reality for me is always in flux. What you think you know is situated and constructed, and hence, always partial.

What’s your inspiration?

I draw my inspiration from experiences. It could be a line in a conversation, a piece of music that moves, an idea behind a play or an event in my personal life. I am particularly interested in mystery and subtlety, and I think there is elegance in things that are both simple and complex. In terms of specific artists, I am particularly drawn to Mark Rothko’s paintings, architectural works by Ng Sek San and the sensibility of filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai.

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Tell us about your Iceland residency. What was your project about, how did you go about it and what did you get out of the residency? 

When most people think of Iceland, the images that first come to mind are those of dramatic and striking landscapes. My initial intention during the residency at Fjúk Art Centre was to depart from these more commonplace associations, and bring out the surreal quality of Iceland through images that are more understated.

As the residency progressed, the geologically active landscapes revealed themselves to be a living, breathing ecosystem, with its own set of rules that I am still very unfamiliar with. Estranged from loved ones at the other side of the world, my engagement with this environment began to stir in me a mixture of emotions and thoughts. There was overwhelming amazement, when I sat by a lighthouse and watched the beautiful sunset, in full awareness that I was near the edge of the world. There was bliss, when I washed fresh cherry tomatoes under cool spring water that ran right from the tap, in a kitchen clothed with gentle sunlight. There were the understanding of timelessness and the insignificance of my existence, as I trekked on frosty glaciers made up of volcanic ash and ice, embraced by majestic mountains. There was appreciation, as I watched a father and son interact in a warm swimming pool, obscured by steam and sun. There was also gratitude, to some of the very gracious people I have met.

Of course, there was loneliness, as hostile snowstorms put me indoors. There was fear, discomfort and yearning too.

I am currently in the midst of editing the work with the intention of making a book. I will be attending a bookmaking workshop at Reminders Photography Stronghold later this year. Perhaps ideas will be refined then and the work, given more shape.

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What opportunities or support do you get as a young artist and photographer in Singapore?

Objectifs is very supportive of local artists, photographers and filmmakers. It holds exhibitions and organises Shooting Home, an annual professional mentorship programme that I have mentioned. It also hosts a monthly open salon, where people can freely share their work. Members of a collective called Platform are also supportive of photographers in Singapore. They are currently putting together a book project showcasing Singapore-related work. The Invisible Photographer Asia organises photography workshops and events as well. People who are interested in photography-related work can check these out.

There seem to be a lack of avenues to get funding in general for artists in Singapore. National Arts Council is the main source here. I think it is difficult for artists just starting out and who have little track record to get funding.

Shooting and editing can be a rather solitary activity. What I think is important is the presence of a few people whose taste you trust, who are honest with you and who believe in what you do, especially when doubt cuts too close.

huihsien.com

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