After 6 years in the museum industry, Gwen Lee decided to pursue her first love; photography.  Since then she has tumbled down the rabbit hole into the Wonderland of silver halides. Along with friends Gwen established a biennale photo festival in 2008, now known as the Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF), an international platform in South East Asia.  In 2010, she was awarded for her contribution to the Singapore arts community by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Trade.

In 2014, Gwen created a brand new creative container art space, called DECK, to provide a platform and residency programme for photographers. DECK was awarded the President’s Design Award in 2015 in Singapore for its innovative design and impact on the arts community. Since 2008, Gwen has curated and organised over 45 photography exhibitions in Singapore and overseas.  On a regular basis she gives talks on professional development for photographers and participates as a jury and portfolio reviewer in Asia and Europe.

You are the co-founder of SIPF, how did the idea come about in the first place?

Way back in 2007, when we were looking at the arts landscape in Singapore, there was no University for photography, festival or platform for artists and photographers who had received an education in photography, to share their work with a wider audience, so that’s how the idea came about.  We wanted to create a place where the emerging and the professional photographer could meet and discover that photography as a medium could be dynamic and find out the stories behind each other’s work. SIPF is passion driven; every one of us has a full time job, as teachers or as working photographers but we all decided to make it happen and it launched in Oct 2008.

How has it evolved over the ten years since it launched?

The changes have evolved in line with the changes in the medium. In 2008, the public were yet to be entranced with Instagram or Facebook. Then, people still had curiosity about photography – and viewed it as something not just stuck in a screen but as something you’d see in an exhibition.  We have also started to see a change in the story.  Now people are not just looking at the home and ourselves.  The subject matter has broadened out to be much more diverse. In 2008, you wouldn’t have seen photography as installations, as sculpture or utilising sound.  By 2014, we started seeing a cross discipline approach, using language, film, sound and book form.  How photography is now experienced has also changed and goes in parallel with that. The programs have also developed. The festival has always had this important role of bridging the understanding of the creators work to that of the audience.  In the first two editions, there was no education outreach, no school program and nothing for the juniors but by the 3rd edition, we got feedback from the audience that they were interested in coming down and bringing students from high school and junior college and wanted to be involved in seminars and workshops.  

We are always listening to what people want and that informs the program changes.  In 2018, the photo book has been introduced as a brand new component in view of the rising interest in them in Asia so again it has evolved along with the pubic.  Ten years ago, an open call for photo books would have received no more than five entries but this year we had over 200 submissions! Eighty-two photo books made it to the exhibition and from those, the international jury made its final decision on the winners.  It is exciting for the jury too because we tend to see a lot of photo books coming from Europe and the US but in Asia they usually come from Japan. Now other parts of Asia, such as China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines are starting to make their own photo books so that is also a new discovery for the jury.

Curator’s tour for Between Love & Death: Diary of Araki Nobuyoshi at DECK

Why did the jury want to come here?

Curiosity. For some of them, it is their first visit to Singapore for both Sebastian Arthur Hau, from Germany and even Yanyou Di Yuan from China.  I guess that another reason they are interested in coming here is because of the festival as a platform with its program and here we also have no language barrier in terms of conveying ideas.  I guess that makes it much easier.  Imagine if I was travelling in Japan, I’d sometimes struggle and not all Japanese could verbalise their ideas for me to understand.  In Singapore, it is very simple and easy.  

I think the whole dynamic for the arts scene here has shifted massively. In the past there weren’t many photo exhibitions but more and more we are seeing the importance of photographers showing their work here publicly. Ten years ago, at the time of the first biennale, we had no National Gallery or Gillman Barracks.  In terms of photography it has changed a lot too.  In 2018, we have had a female Singaporean photographer confirmed as a Magnum photo agency photographer, Sim Chi Yin. She is the first Asian woman, which is a real achievement in the world of photography.

What is different about this year’s SIPF festival?

Overall, this year, it has taken on a very personal departure, meaning that we are looking at work that either the photographers have created out of something that drives them personally or based on their inner beliefs. These personal stories have a universal connectivity and relevance through the ideas of love, death, compassion and this ideology in the essence of believing in something that makes people persistent. Chinese photographer, Jiang Jian, was so deeply moved by a charitable organisation supporting orphaned children to find homes that he embarked on a long-term documentary project about orphans and their lives between 2004 and 2014.  The connection of the individuals to him and this idea of compassion and love and its ability to change, makes us reflect on what we value in life, which got me intrigued.  I am getting sentimental about life’s journey – you never know what path of adventure it will set you on. In 2008 we were passionate and we wanted to actualise our ideas but didn’t know what journey we were embarking on.  I think it is the same for a photographer; something shakes them to their core and they pursue it wholeheartedly to put that into image.  That is something that we are celebrating actually, that driving force. 

How has your audience changed?

Their willingness to be engaged is great. The energy drawing them in is fantastic. Every edition of the festival we always encounter a new audience, even for places like the Gillman Barracks, we were drawing in hundreds of people.  It is rewarding that they are getting connected.

At the very beginning, I talked about how we grew.  Three editions ago, we were focusing on visual literacy but we don’t see the need to focus on that now and that is a good area of development.  I’m not sure if they are growing in depth or if they are looking for novelty though.  Sometimes I feel that if everything is spread out broadly then everyone gets to try something.  

Tour of DECK with Mr Baey Yam Keng

What has deepened the audience’s experience?  

In Singapore we have some really exciting parties and big concerts in with arts. It is always changing because there is also this kind of fear that if we are not exciting enough, people won’t come.  However, in the end, we unfortunately see a very similar kind of formula being used in a lot of the larger arts based events like the Night Festival and Gillman’s After Dark event.

I am more interested in creating something that matters. Enabling an exchange of ideas and a programme that matters to the people.  I want our programme to stay with people and nurture and inspire them.  People have given us feedback on the photo books and they thought they were so exciting and couldn’t imagine how we could end up with only one winner.  They hadn’t seen something like that before and that it stays with people.  I want to celebrate that.  I guess we are doing surveys diligently across our venues where our gallery sitters take down audience feedback.  So far it has been very positive.  

The feedback is for us to understand whether the audience can digest our programme well and whether it is challenging or not.  In 2008, we started by offering the audience liquid food, something easy to digest, then we moved onto soft foods but now they have grown in sophistication and want something more challenging.  The feedback tells us what people our programme is reaching and what they are attracted to or not interested in. That then feeds into how the future programming and exhibitions are planned.  In 2008 we used that feedback to get funding. For the first edition we didn’t get any from the arts council so we used it to prove that there was a real interest and curiosity in a photography festival and that people considered it as a form of art.  Then we realised how useful it was and now it happens for every edition.  This year is very extensive and conducted both internally and externally.

What is the most challenging thing about putting together such an extensive festival program?

I guess you have seen how dynamic the audience is; they are growing fast and becoming more sophisticated in their tastes and expectations.  I guess the audience is also very busy.  This year, the festival is over a longer period of time.  By the time that people have found the time to come along, exhibitions are often over so for this edition we have made sure that all of them run for at least a month.  If not, it is just too fast.  Apart from commercial shows, a lot of exhibitions come and go very quickly in Singapore these days.  There was an audience survey done by the National Arts Council years ago and one of the biggest issues the audience face was a lack of time. It is hard to then decide between attending dance, theatre, or an exhibition.  For the visual arts, we have to think about how we can work with a lack of manpower but give people the opportunity to come back and enter at different times and places.

Another challenge is always the funding.  I guess that isn’t new but now the big galleries and spaces are getting the largest chunk of funding from big corporate sponsors.  The more funding we get, the more we can lower the access barrier to the public. It is always a challenge whether to charge or not to charge and we always try to see how much we can do for free.  All are free this year except for two of them.

Probably our biggest challenge is space.  If you look around Singapore there is a real scarcity of space, which is a problem. It is tough to secure spaces and get them to commit to a three-month journey and a one-month exhibition. We normally have to plan 12-14 months ahead to make sure they are available and that is a constant challenge.  It is also why a lot of exhibitions here aren’t longer than two or three weeks.

What are the main responsibilities you have as the Festival Director?

At the point when we were planning, when we started out in 2007, the photographers naturally turned to me as the Festival Director because I knew about curating and putting together a program so that role came to me.  At that time everyone did everything; from ushering people to putting out chairs.  As the scale of the festival has grown bigger, we have had to implement an organisational structure so that by the third edition we had an education programmer and a full time outreach officer.  Since then, a lot of people think that setting the tone for the festival is my job but the biggest part of my role is to find money. 

When I started the role of the director in 2008, the first thing that people came to me for was budget.  We started spontaneously and with passion and when we began inviting international guests and speakers, there were a lot of costs attached to that.  It dawned on us that we needed to fundraise for money and that’s when an overseas festival director asked me, over chicken rice, what I thought was the biggest part of the festival director’s role. I said putting out the programmes, he corrected me and said my main responsibility was to find the money.  That’s when the survey started because we needed something concrete in numbers in order to convince our future partners.  My other responsibilities as director are basic accountability, report writing, funding and budgeting, which are not the most exciting aspects, but I took on the role because I believe the festival is an important platform.  Someone has to do that so I started writing and talking to different people.

Opening Speech for Singapore by Nguan and Entity of Spatial Existence

What parts do you love doing?

My biggest joy is engagement with the photographers.  Their inspiration has always been important to me.  To hear and see their work from their perspective, through their eyes.  That energy makes my heart burn.  Two years ago, when we had Daido Moryama’s work in Singapore. He was concerned, because he had never exhibited here that Singaporeans wouldn’t understand his work. That’s the part I enjoy – putting together a curatorial framework and spending time with the photographer in conversation to find out why their work matters.  I love long-term projects that have a longer-term impact for the photographers.  Last year, we made a cultural partnership with a festival in China and that ended up with a residency programme for three Singaporean photographers for two months there.  Afterwards, they brought their work back and talked about their encounter, new creations and the environment.  By looking at what they had been doing, that long-term engagement deepened because you can see something over a period of time that’s built up and the results are beautiful.   I hope that the festival has that enduring impact on the participants and the audience, which I love.

Why is photography your passion, over other visual arts? What is its power?

Must there be an answer about things that you are in love with or passionate about? As a teenager I was involved in my school photography club but I don’t think that that is sufficient as an answer for my focus. I think when I look into photographs, especially sometimes, I cannot answer why but they have an ability to stir and pierce my heart.  There is something that triggers emotions, feelings or a chain of thoughts that you can’t put your finger on, I just love it.  Even at university, I was in a photography club but that’s how I got involved but it doesn’t explain why.  You can’t explain love.

Briefing for SIPF volunteers at DECK

What aspect of the arts do you want to learn more about or perfect?

At one point I was very curious about Chinese calligraphy. I thought it would be interesting to put words into writing.  I know it sounds so different from the visual image but I don’t feel that words can always explain something but sometimes I feel that pictures are also never enough alone either. I love the idea of slow art that is mindfully produced. At one point, I thought that I would love to go into gardening and do an organic garden in front of Deck. I love it because I have always taken joy from something that grows over time. Whenever I embark on a new festival, I always plant new seeds in the soil in my office.  This year I planted three pots – tomato, basil and a local bean plant. After I have planted them, I tend to and talk to them and as the project starts, I see the plants grow. I always do that because I believe that my projects need to take roots.  Maybe I can’t control it if it bears fruit but I feel like I’m the gardener tending to them and I’m responsible.  Seeing them sprout and grow makes my day. At some point, I’d like to be a farmer or a gardener.

Nowadays with smartphones, everyone has become an amateur photographer. What do you think we can learn from amateur or professional photography in exhibitions?

I asked the photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki the same question.  He said that he could not accept smartphones as photography because the image is always stuck in the screen and not in a tangible form.  You can understand his point of view when you look at how Araki’s generation deals with materiality, negatives and photographs. 

In my opinion, it’s regardless of the medium. What is really exciting are the ideas behind the image, whether you are using a large format, or just your phone.  This is still shifting which makes it so exciting.  While we thought it was digital cameras that changed everything, now Instagram and social media have come in and shifted the whole dynamic again.  In ten years from now it will be something else.

The ideas behind image are important, never before have we been so surrounded by visual images.  The amount produced now in a year is equivalent to the first 50 years of photography.  Can you imagine how many images are around us?  It is very interesting material for people to explore and consider; how and what the visual image will express is the key.  Interestingly, when I brought some master’s students for a guided tour, they were looking at Araki’s photos and they saw them as objects rather than photography because they were in printed form.  It’s interesting to that generation of photographers that the materials they have left are now treasures.  People are making images but it is no longer tangible material so this is the whole point.  Some people read e-books but I still like to hold a book in my hand because I find it enduring.

Singapore International Photography Festival runs until 9th December 2018. For programme highlights, please check here. If you’d like to read more of our artist interviews, look here and more of our blogposts here.

Creative Arts Social is a not for profit organization. We believe that art is for everyone. We all have the creative potential to understand, connect with and benefit from the arts. For more information about the work we do here.  


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