In this Invisible Interview we catch up with John Clang, arguably one of Singapore’s most successful photographers, and recent recipient of the President’s Design Award Singapore. John, or just Clang as most would recognise, is represented by The Collective Shift in New York. His work is personal, intimate and acclaimed – some like it, some don’t. We do, and we ask him to tell us more about his journey and the motivations behind his visual art documents.
Invisible Ph t grapher Asia: Can you tell us about yourself and how you got started in photography?
John Clang: First of all, let me thank you for inviting me for this interview. I feel honored :-) I’m a Singaporean visual artist who uses photography as a medium to express my thoughts. Since young, I have always been a very romantic, sentimental kind of guy. I was a Science student in a SAP school but my heart was in art. But I couldn’t draw to save my life.
I watched a Hong Kong TVB drama series with my family when I was 15. The lead role was a photographer and I really loved the way he lived his life in the film, so carefree and ‘artistic’, and able to express his mind freely. There and then, I knew photography was my world and that academic study was no longer important to me. I decided to pursue photography full time, and nothing was going to stop me. I told myself I would make sure to pass my exam, make my parents happy and then proceed to focus 200% on photography. Immediately after my O’Level exams, I went and worked for various photographers specializing in wedding, advertising, porn and fine art. And it was through these experiences that I knew I couldn’t just ‘WORK’ as a photographer – I had to live as a photographer, as an artist. That revelation kind of shaped my journey from then onwards.
(Editor’s note: SAP Schools are schools under the Special Assistance Plan programme in Singapore catering to select, academically strong students versed in Chinese Mandarin.)
What cameras or tools do you use to photograph and why do you use them?
When I first started, I used a 35mm Russian camera called Kiev. My second camera was a cheap 4×5 large format camera (I was 17 years old). I loved its formality and the idea that the image appears as a large format transparency. Imagine me lugging this monster around, catching the bus, and shooting all over Singapore.
My current camera is Canon a 1Ds Mark III. I like it because it gives me an image quality that’s closer to what I’m used to – film based stuff. It has more of a visceral feel to it, and is less technical, less hyper-sharp. To me, the camera is not the key to a powerful image. I don’t mind working with a Polaroid camera or even a phone camera, as long as it conveys the message and feeling I’m trying to put across.
Can you tell us more about the way you work – your photography technique or philosophy perhaps?
I’m more of an observer. I don’t carry any cameras with me. I prefer to see with my own eyes when magical things unfold. I want to capture that experience with all my senses, so that it can forever stick in my memory bank. So, in a way, I don’t really record with my camera, but I do use the camera to illustrate my feelings and experiences. These images become my mental diary, my life journey and each of them is about a phase in my life. I continue to learn something about myself and the world I live in when I look at them. I’m not into subjects with strong political or social statements. I prefer to focus on things that are closer and more immediate to me. They can be strangers, friends, families or objects around me. Through them, I can see the reflection of the world we are living in at that moment in time.
With regards to technique, I’m an artist who chose photography as my preferred medium. And I think it is very important to be very strong in the craft section, so that you need not compromise when you are trying to express your thoughts. Having a strong foundation in the technical bits allow you to create more freely and accurately. I emphasize the process of creating the image in my mind more so than the technique. Sometimes the process I want myself or the subject to experience will determine the technique used.
You recently won the President’s Design Award Singapore 2010. How do you feel about winning such an award?
It makes everything in the past seem PAST :-) I feel like a new person restarting my career, going into a new chapter, very exciting. Also, being the first photographer to win this award means a lot to the photography industry too. It is a very encouraging sign for young photographers out there.
Following on from that, the Straits Times called you the first ‘cameraman’ to have won the award. So what are you – cameraman, photographer, designer or artist?
How about Photographic Artist! Hahaha. Honestly, it’s the work that matters, not the label one puts on you.
You describe yourself as a contemporary artist, but we see visual journalism and documentary in your photographs, especially your personal work.
Well…. Contemporary Photography is just a term we humans created. It does not necessarily sum up to much. I do see visual journalism and documentary in my work though they are not exactly real-time capturing, nor staged. They are more about an output of images after processing through my mind. They represent what I’ve observed and felt, and the questions I have. I never provide any answers in my images, always questions, and through these questions, I live to know the answers or maybe not, but I will be aware of my thoughts and feelings. So yes, I agree with you and I am very glad that you manage to see that in my work.
You are a very successful commercial photographer. How do you balance time, intentions, and dare we say profit, between your commercial photography and your personal, more intimate visual documents?
I spend most of my time working on my personal projects. It has always been like this from day one. I will put most of my attention to my personal projects, making my time as an artist a very fulfilling one. I have very good assignment agents, Jae and Aeli from The Collective Shift, who believe in my vision. They will go seek commercial assignments while I keep focusing on my art. Usually the clients who come to me for assignment projects tend to already appreciate my personal projects and my sensibility. This makes the whole collaboration fun and enjoyable. My agent also represents Inez van Lamsweerde and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, both very highly original and respectable photographers. With my agents’ experience and reputation, they are able to convince clients why my thinking process and my work are suitable for their projects.
And one important thing to mention. For my personal work, I don’t shoot for commercial viability or appeal. I tend to approach my personal work in a visceral way where I can feel intimately connected. I’m fortunate that there are clients who come to me knowing I can bring some fresh, intimate visual approaches to their ideas. So, to be good at what I’m doing, I have to put majority of my time in living my life, observing the subtle changes and nuances around me.
Can you share with us some of your personal projects – tells us about the photographs and the motivations.
I recently did a series of portraits with my friends in which I took a picture of them at the beginning of the session, then have white make-up applied on their faces to erase their facial features, providing me a white empty canvas. Then I proceeded to project photographs of themselves taken earlier, precisely onto their own ‘erased’ face, giving them back their identity. What I’m trying to show here, simply put, is to demonstrate the perception people put on us at face value. Our face is just how we allow others to see us, while fiercely shutting our inner thoughts to ourselves. The entire session was a contemplative process that also involved the participation of the sitters.
Another project I’m working on right now is an expansion of my ‘Being Together’ series. I’m traveling around the world to various people, connect their separated family members via skype and projection, then photograph a ‘Family Portrait’ together. This project speaks about the phenomena of current diaspora in urban society, and how we use technology to connect ourselves. The series started from my family and my diaspora, and now I’m expanding this series to other families.
This is a good example of what I have always wanted to show in my work. I like my work to be based on topics and subjects that are not on a grand social or political scale. I prefer something much more mundane, personal, and by itself, I believe such experience and feelings are also shared by others too.
What is your personal favorite of the photographs you’ve taken, and why is it special to you?
I like the body of work I have created as they are reflections of myself and things around me. So I really don’t have favorites. Sorry.
Are there any other place or people you would like to photograph?
I love to photograph places I live in, and the strangers and familiar faces around me, not exotic places or exotic subjects. I prefer to observe people and things in my mundane surroundings. Such underwhelming subjects offer a lot more to me in terms of how I see my existence in this world.
Are there any photographers that inspire you, or whose work you admire?
Jeff Wall, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (conceptual artist who occasionally use photography), Thomas Struth and Gabriel Orozco (another conceptual artist). Filmmakers such as Hou Hsiao Hsien and Tsai Ming-liang I adore too.
Your camera has one shot left. What will you photograph with that last ever frame?
I will use a wide-angle lens and photograph myself. I’m curious about what’s behind me.
If you could travel in time, what year in the past or future would you travel to with your camera?
30 years later to see myself. I’m always curious to know more about myself.
More of John Clang’s work on his website: http://clangart.com