From December 2, 2022 to August 20, 2023, the National Gallery Singapore displays Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia, the region's first significant study of photography.
The National Gallery Singapore presents Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia, the region’s first significant examination of photography. Despite its clear potential to affect historical narratives and shift views, photography has been mostly excluded from the region’s photographic and art history. Living Pictures, through over 300 photographs, aims to elucidate this history, framed by a crucial question: what do photographs do?
Living Pictures begins in the 1800s, with European photographers capturing unique photos of the region and its people for European eyes. As cameras became more widely available, those who had previously been subjected to its othering gaze took the opportunity to create photos of themselves, resulting in a variety of studio portraits that allude to modes of self-fashioning and performance. Through the ages, these early photographs have changed our understanding of Southeast Asia.
Photography has had a fractious relationship with reality, most notably in photos taken for documentary purposes. Images from the Second Indochina War, including those by former Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, Vietnamese photographer V An Khánh, and late Singaporean photojournalist Terence Khoo, challenge notions of documentary photography’s neutrality and functions as they circulate in the public domain.
As the show progressed into the present, greater understanding of its subjectivity elevated photography into the domain of art, which was also part of a larger global shift toward conceptualism and institutional critique. Pramuan Burusphat and Nap Jamir II, for example, experimented with novel approaches of image generation. Many people turned the camera towards themselves as they pondered the image’s imagined spaciousness.
Crossing the Farther Shore (2014) by Dinh Q. Lê is an immersive weaved structure comprised of over 5,000 found photographs from pre-1975 South Vietnam that interweaves personal histories with contentious historical narratives, exploring the tensions between them and the role of photography in memory. Memory and imagination also play a role in Heman Chong’s God Bless Diana (2004), a business that sells postcards with generic images of urban life for $1 each. Chong’s art challenges the gallery’s passive, static nature by encouraging active circulation of his photos.
Such proliferation of images draws closer to the digital age: digital spaces for circulation and consumption have elevated photography into the dominant visual medium of this generation, and social media, predominantly image-based, continues to shape the way we view the world and engage with each other. Living Pictures ventures into this online world with four notable photographers— Nguan, Shwe Wutt Hmon, Veejay Villafranca and Agan Harahap—presenting a selection of their works on National Gallery Singapore’s Instagram page.
Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia is accompanied by an exhibition catalogue with full-colour plates of works from the exhibition and contributions from curators Charmaine Toh, Goh Sze Ying, Roger Nelson, Roy Ng and Kenneth Tay, as well as pre-eminent scholars Alexander Supartono, Daniel Palmer and Kevin Chua.