In 2011, a few short months after the passing of my beloved grandfather, our long-suffering CPU tower gave out. This in itself is fairly ordinary an occurrence – electronics fail. But this was altogether more significant because on the hard drive of that machine were the last photographs we had of him.
This was in the days where everyone had a point-and-shoot digital camera in the house, but relied instead on the 2ish megapixel snappers on the back of their flip-phones instead. The iPhone had been released a few years prior but had yet to establish itself as the ubiquitous device we know today – in fact, the only person I knew who owned one was my grandfather himself. We had backed up the photographs from my mother’s Motorola. The phone had been lost to a spilt cup of tea – and when the CPU booted up and conked out for the last time, the images were lost, too. Memories in the decade since have begun to fade, which leaves me thinking long and hard about what it means to take a photograph of someone you love, immortalizing them on some level and ensuring that you always have something to hold fast to.
I should be so lucky. We had moved in the time since then, and many of the old albums that we had with pictures of him, pictures from his wedding, pictures where he held me as a baby, pictures of him with his family, pictures of him in his element in suit and tie, have been packed away into boxes and crates that we’ve long since mixed up. I don’t have photographs of him as I knew him, and I don’t have photographs of him as he lived his life, either. And some photographs they would have been – he always had a penchant for the flamboyant, dressing in batik and satin as often as possible. I, unfortunately, did not inherit his ability to pull off such flash.
Maybe I should have archived the photographs myself. Maybe I should have taken them myself. Maybe I should have printed them out and kept them in little boxes, stored away. I’ve done it before. I still have the notes that my mates wrote to me at the end of my Secondary 1 orientation. I still have the wrapper for the barley sweet my mother once bought me on a particularly bad day in Primary School. It’s been more than a decade since either of those things, and I’ve guarded these memories with my life.
My grandfather’s last days had been difficult. He had always been a strong man, walking tall. He had worked his entire life in public service. He had travelled the world, an ambassador for Singapore’s National Safety Council. Each time he touched down in a new country, he would seek a souvenir to take with him. These first took the form of stamps, eventually growing to include coins and banknotes. He loved them all and kept them in little albums, prized records of his adventures and his service. I remember sitting at the foot of his bed at the age of ten, eleven, fifteen, as he told me about each one. I remember the rush of pride when he told me that he wanted me to take over the business of collecting for him. And I remember the smile he had each time he returned from a work trip – as my dad and I picked him up for the airport, or as we went to visit shortly after his return, my grandfather would be waiting excitedly himself, a set of coins, a set of banknotes, and a stamp or two stored safely in his breast pocket. He would beam as he gave them to me, and beam even brighter when I pored over them in fascination.
I was his favourite. I was not the oldest, no, but I was the only one who had the patience, the energy, and the inclination to hear about these things from him. He left me his albums when he passed. Stacks of banknotes from all over the world. Coins dating back decades. And an album full of stamps, but without a single photograph.
As I write about him I cannot help but get slightly emotional. Part of me wants to dismiss the tear that wells up – but the better part of me knows that my grandfather would never have done that. I remember when he came to visit one day and found my arm in a sling – I had dislocated my shoulder just days prior. He could not speak. He hugged me. And my heart broke as I saw the tears stream down his face.
I saw him cry only one more time after. As I said, his last days had been difficult. He very suddenly and very completely was laid low by a respiratory illness. His health deteriorated fast, and this strong man, this hero of mine, was all of a sudden dependent on machines to sustain him and nurses to care for him. He flitted in and out of consciousness.
The day before he passed I remember sitting with him in the ICU – his eyes opened. Wide. He stared at me for a long moment. I would not have known that he could see me… but for the fact that his eyes filled with tears yet again. I love you, I said. I don’t remember saying that to him before that. And I certainly had no opportunity to say it since. I pray that he heard me.
The image of him staring is etched in my mind. I can still see the waveform of the heart rate monitor. I still remember our last conversation. I just wish I had a photograph.
It was years after my grandfather’s passing that I first picked up a camera. I wish I could say that I was fueled by some deep compulsion to document reality, or perhaps by a fundamental calling to tell stories through images and compositions. I wish I could say that the lack of photographs of Grandpa lit a fire within me. But it hadn’t. Not yet. The truth is that I happened across a good deal on a camera and figured I’d give it a shot. There have been moments, though, when this felt like something more.
Writing was for a very long time my medium of choice, but over time it became… less so. Over time it has become very much my secondary, where I now instead regularly choose to depend more heavily on sensor and lens than I do on paper and pen. Of course it is possible to do both, but there has been, to me at least, an almost seductive quality to peering through a viewfinder, composing, and actuating the shutter. Creative writing courses often call on us to show rather than tell – what better way to show than with photographs?
The fact is that a photographer is simultaneously part of a moment and apart from the moment – the act of documenting life in this way and tinkering afterward with the files to favour either the art of expression or the art of accuracy requires the camera-wielding individual to observe as reality unfolds, anticipating moment after moment, ready to capture a frame without disturbing the truths it contains. We are duty-bound, in other words, to capture moments without disturbing them, be it with our presence or with our absence.
Perhaps this little space between the margins feels to me like safety and home. It is not the first time I find myself occupying such a space.
I am Indian-Muslim. I’ve been told that this, in addition to my features, suggests that my family history is not homogenously Indian. Apparently Mughal men and women were the ones responsible for bringing Islam to my ancestral villages in Edava on my father’s side and Mayyanad on my mother’s. I can’t quite work out when exactly our presumably Hindu ancestors converted to Islam. Believe me, I’ve tried, but even tracing back my lineage four generations on each side of the family tree has yielded no clues. It did tell me, though, that my great-great-great-great grandfather was a seven-foot-tall giant of a man famous in his district for his ability to throw a rock at the top of a coconut tree with such force that the fruits would fall. Little wonder that my grandfather walked tall and strong himself.
More to the point, my faith is a core component of who I am, and constitutes the basis of much of my character, many of the things I do, my cultural identity, and my perceptions. Contrary to what has very strangely become a popular belief, though, it is in fact possible to be Muslim without being Malay. I can’t tell you how many times I have been met with outright disbelief when I tell people that I am, in fact, Indian. I suppose it can be a little tricky, granted, seeing as I studied Malay in school – my parents were convinced that this would be the easier language to learn and the more useful one, in the long run, for a Muslim to be fluent in. While this has all proven, at least to an extent, to be true, there have been some unforeseen outcomes.
‘Culturally stateless’ is how I sometimes describe myself. By not speaking any of the Indian languages (admittedly, shamefully, not even my own Mother Tongue), I have often found myself on the fringes of social settings chiefly occupied by my fellow Indians. Speaking Malay, though, never really gave me an alternative place to belong. Having learned Malay almost entirely for academic purposes, the way I speak it is often off-putting to more colloquial speakers – I’ve been told that I sound like a newscaster. I suppose I do. Islam, though, has formed the backdrop of a whole host of shared practices and experiences, all of which transcend the ostensible differences that arise from race.
None of that, however, provided as I grew up sufficient grounds for commonality with my peers. I was too Malay to be Indian, apparently, but somehow not Malay enough to be Malay. While people my age often code-switched to their mother tongue, I instead felt most confident in English. I do not speak my mother tongue. That community is not within my reach, at least in the sense that I would have wanted it to be. I do not speak Tamil, spoken by the majority of Indians locally. That community is out of reach for me, too. And although I speak Malay, I speak it with the twang of someone who brings his rules of enunciation and pronunciation from English.
From a young age, I have been told that I speak well. I learned how to talk sooner than my peers – there are videos out there of me speaking fluently when I was as young as two years old. My mother made special effort to hone this talent and very consciously spoke to me more, eschewing motherese, contributing to my relative eloquence. She herself was educated in international schools and so has a vaguely Caucasian twang, which I consequently picked up. This manner of speaking has followed me all my life. English and the way I speak it became a hallmark of mine, especially in the context of my peers who often slipped into Singlish or their own Mother Tongue. I wore my linguistic ability in English like a badge of honour, and often felt at a distinct disadvantage when I had to rely on anything else.
Every student is required to read a second language, typically their own mother tongue. Mine, Malayalam, was not available as an option. Many Indians in my shoes would have opted for Tamil instead, but my parents felt it would be beneficial for a Muslim in Singapore to speak Malay. This meant, though, that I acquired Malay later in my childhood, speaking it almost purely for academic purposes. While I managed to score well consistently in oral examinations and written tests, I was, however, bullied for the specific way that I spoke. It often felt like an odd paradox – I was representing my school for debate competitions in Malay, but my peers would pick on me for sounding overly formal. I tried to speak Malay colloquially, but the way I spoke would always give me away. And when these same peers heard me speak English, their impression would grow even stronger – there was no way, they thought, that I could speak English the way that I did and still be even remotely similar to them.
One of my favourite pieces in the coin collection I inherited from my grandfather is the classic local ten-dollar coin – I know it may be hard to believe that this exists, but it does. I’ve got three or four, each one emblazoned with an intricately carved inscription and a depiction of the zodiac animal of the year the coin was circulated. I was born in the year of the Pig – and I live in a society which somehow has conditioned me to know that – and Grandpa took great pains to source for the Pig coin. I sometimes think about that coin when I think about my place in this world, and specifically my place in this country. The coin is legal tender, even today, but occupies a peculiar space. If I were to offer it to a cashier, chances are they would turn it down. If I were to show it to a stranger, chances are they would peer at it with half-baked interest for a moment before moving swiftly on. There’s value to it, but there’s a weight to it. There’s a beauty to it, but a loneliness to it, too.
Between the lines, then, in the blank space, is where I learned to feel most at home. I suppose behind the lens feels somewhat similar. Which is a huge part of why this section, this business of introducing myself and letting my voice be heard grates with me far more than it resonates. I prefer to be behind the lens. I prefer to be asking the questions. I prefer to be framing the scene. The lens being trained on me feels vaguely unsettling. And talking about myself the way I have for the last several hundred words feels more unsettling still.
I do love my craft, though. And the truth is that in the process of learning to call myself a photographer rather than simply a guy with a camera, the more I have learned about the values that I hold dear, the more I have come to recognize the truths that I hold fast to, and the easier it has become to understand how each lesson, each twist and each turn in my photographic journey, charts my own greater personal adventures. It is through this lens that I frame these reflections.
Kevin Carter took this in Sudan, in 1993. He had flown out there to photograph the reality of famine. Carter had never shied away from the need to represent truth, or from the communicative potential of his photographs. Recognizing, as he did, the potential to channel the truth, this trip to Sudan was not Carter’s first.
Carter happened upon this scene as he trekked close to a village he had spent the day photographing. He spotted the child, emaciated, moaning, and saw a vulture lying in wait for his inevitable death.
When the photograph was published, though, society spotted two vultures. One waiting for the child to die, and another lurking behind a camera, choosing, ostensibly, to document the scene rather than to intervene, to capture the truth rather than to change it.
Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph in 1994. He took his own life shortly after.
I am deeply sorry, Kevin, for how things turned out for you. You inspire me. Your work cast a shadow on your own life but part of me feels like it lights the way for mine. Which takes nothing away from the magnitude of your pain or the injustice that you encountered, documented and experienced. Why should you have taken the blame for the nature of the truth? You were simply the messenger. And there is no denying that the image is exceedingly powerful, that it sends a message, that it shines a light on things that are happening in this world regardless of whether or not we want to admit it. Poverty is real. Starvation is real. Suffering on an existential, global scale is real. Even if you had found a way to rescue that one child, you would have done far less for the cause than you have now, by taking that photograph, by putting it out there into the world. And let’s not forget that the child in that photograph survived. He outlived you by thirteen years.
And let’s not forget either that you did intervene. You scared the bird away, having taken your shot. You watched as the child continued on his way to the UN food centre nearby. Maybe you’d have done even more – but you were told not to directly engage.
And as I think about you I think back to my grandfather. I think back to that failing CPU. I think about his last days, his time in hospital. I think about the photographs we lost. And I think about the truth.
Would I have taken more photographs? Would I have tried to immortalize what I could, to capture moments, memories? I don’t know. Or I didn’t.
Part of me believes that taking photographs is an exercise in encapsulating and preserving the truth. A picture is worth a thousand words, goes the cliché. I always thought of this as a function of an image’s ability to far more accurately present descriptions, appealing, as it does, directly to one’s visual faculties rather than relying on mental constructions and gymnastics to imagine and replicate the imprecise ramblings of a secondhand description.
I was missing the simple truth of the matter, the simple fact that images have communicative value, that their power goes far beyond reaching out through our optical nerves and resonating in the relevant corner of the brain. Photographs, taken right, have the potential to tell stories. Photographs, taken right, need not be functions and projections of preconceived, painstakingly programmed and perfected pixels. Photographs, taken right, can simply tell the truths of experience, immortalizing them in frame.
And just as we think of the written word as an avenue for comfort and solace, photographs, too, have that potential. It takes a degree of courage to be epistemically transparent, to invite people to have a look behind our lens and into the eyes that capture every still better than any camera can.
As with all art, the photographer may find himself or herself with more than a talent, more than equipment – the photographer may find himself or herself with a duty to tell stories. Stories of their own. Stories of their communities. Stories of the people who need a little help to make themselves heard.
So, it follows, then, that the photographer must find it within himself or herself to step away from the practices, crutches, confines and shortcuts that all but rubberstamp their self-worth with the promise of likes on Instagram. What value is there to having a few hundred people engage with our photographs and think to themselves “oh, that’s pretty” before scrolling swiftly on? Surely there is infinitely more value if we can create for even one person the deeper stirrings in the soul that lead them to feel at peace. Surely there is infinitely more value if we can create for even one person the deeper stirrings in the soul that make them uncomfortable, confronted with the truth.
Aesthetic value is, no doubt, important – but it should be secondary to communicative value. The photographer must recognize his or her duty to capture life as it is, in all its perfect imperfection, in all its asymmetrical, dusty, gritty glory, and communicate these fundamental truths to a world that may not be ready to listen. And that extends to telling the truths that he himself is loathe to process.
I got the chance to revisit those questions and ask them again just a few months ago. My grandmother was rushed to the hospital at midnight. This was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so hospitals tracked our entry and exit religiously – each guest was given a tag with the number fourteen scrawled on it in black marker, marking the date the 14th of January. She complained of chest pain. It was a bit of an odyssey to get her to a place where she could get care. We had a flat tyre on the way out, for one thing. For another, Ng Teng Fong General Hospital apparently does not have the requisite staff or equipment to provide cardiac care after hours.
After a fair few delays, we did finally find our way to NUH – and it was there that we got to know. She had had a heart attack. And she was at risk of another. Her complex medical history did nothing to simplify matters – instead it meant that even options like surgeries, medication, and the like were delicate at best and dangerous at worst.
It did happen. In fact it happened twice more. And the doctors, recognizing that the poor woman had gone through three heart attacks in one night, were increasingly emboldened to make difficult decisions. Surgery seemed to be the only option.
There’s nothing quite like an empty hospital in the middle of the night. NUH exists around a central courtyard, a courtyard equipped with a handful of benches. Normally there are cafes, shops, lounges open to visitors. Not at midnight. So that’s where we ended up holding our silent vigil.
I had come straight from… y’know what, I forget where. I rushed to the hospital as fast as I could, with my things still with me. I had in my bag my books, my notes from the day, my iPad, my powerbank… and also my camera. Not my normal camera, not the one I use for shoots, for events, for gigs. Not even my B-cam, the one that I use to document daily life. I had with me instead an old Fujifilm X-A1. Tiny. Pathetic, on the specs front. And the only lens I had on hand was a 25mm f1.8, an unusual focal length, initially designed for CCTV systems but repurposed by way of adapters to adjust for focal ranges such that it fit on that little Fuji. Not sharp. Not clear. Not my typical tools of choice.
But still. I had a camera in my bag. And I had a decision to make.
I did. It felt odd at first, turning the camera on, checking the SD card, training it in all directions, focusing manually. The setting was odd, too – desolate and dark but bustling and bright all at once. How do you expose correctly in those conditions? This camera wouldn’t let me recover details in post – I just had to roll with it. My family was sitting in silence, each scrolling through their phones, whiling the time away until we got word from the doctors. Conversations ebbed and flowed. I was careful not to stray too far – they needed me – but I started to cast my eye around
more actively to see what I could fit in frame.
The silence was something else. The darkness of the courtyard and the bright lights of the corridors did nothing to help. Other people in the hospital each seemed to radiate the promise of stories, too – what else brings folk to a setting like that in the middle of the night? And every tapping of footsteps in the distance got the heart racing in fear and hope all at once because it might have been the doctor coming up to us with news.
There was something unsettling about documenting the moments that night. My mind was whirring all the while, and I asked questions of whether this was the right thing to do. I thought back to Kevin Carter. Was I simply documenting? Or was I a vulture myself?
Funny thing, though – puzzling over these things, working out my settings, adjusting for exposure and considering composition occupied me almost completely. Anxiety, sadness and fear seemed to fade into the shallowest depth of field, nothing but bokeh, out of focus and serving no purpose other than to draw my eye to capturing the matter at hand. Perhaps I was realizing that I too needed to find my way to cope with what was happening. And maybe I couldn’t fully detach myself from the moment and simply document things. Maybe existing in that moment with camera in hand meant simply to exist in that moment as the purest version of myself that I could have been just then. I may not have been the one experiencing a heart attack for myself – but it was my grandmother, and these were my own emotions that I needed to document, too. Maybe the silence and desolation and desperation that crept into my photographs were not so much the order of the night as they were a manifestation of what I myself was feeling.
Cartier-Bresson whispered in my ear in French – this was less The Decisive Moment and more Images à la Sauvette, images on the run. The former is the title of his iconic collection of street photographs, as they were sold to an English speaking audience. But the latter was the title he adopted in his native France. And not only was I adopting a run and gun approach, trying to be discreet, silent and unobtrusive, but I was also, if I’m being honest, on the run myself from the dark of the night and the anxieties of truth. What decisive moments are there to capture when every single one is exactly that?
And for the first time that night I thought back to my grandfather. He had taken care of Grandma for years – she’s famously difficult, but he was famously patient. And he would never have encouraged me to do anything other than engage with my emotions fully. I could not shed a tear that night, no matter how afraid or worried I was – but I could make photographs. I could record the reality of what it was like to be there that night. I could document the facts. And those facts were not limited to how Grandma was doing, were they? When we looked back on nights like that one, should we only recall the bad? There was more than that. We were together, we prayed, we talked, we waited. We engaged with emotions in a way that we rarely did as a family. My aunt and uncle who I hadn’t seen in months, my cousins, too, all made sure to be present.
So the facts of that night, the facts of how I documented it, would be bittersweet. Just like, if I’m honest with myself, the facts surrounding my grandfather’s passing. It was horribly painful to lose him – but I also know that he lived a long, full life, that he was a good man with nothing to fear from akhirah, and that he was surrounded by his loved ones when he finally went. I know that our family came together in a way that we rarely have, and the communities around us did, too. My grandfather was a pillar to so many people around him – and those people each made special effort to be there for us, and to be there for him, to attest in the eyes of God that he was indeed a good man, as we sent him on his way.
Though admittedly, I do still wish I had a photograph of him as I knew him.
Grandma is home now. She recovered almost fully. She made it through that night, and we did, too. And we will always have those photographs to remind us of what happened, how it felt, and to treasure every moment with the people we love. I will continue taking photographs, and be authentic about their content – no reason to sugarcoat things when life itself is not always all that sweet. So you will never convince me Kevin was a vulture. Neither was Cartier-Bresson. Neither was Eddie Adams. And neither am I.
I took this one the day she got home. This time, though, I reckon I’ll print it out. And just like those stamps, just like those banknotes, just like those coins, I’ll keep it in an album and guard it with my life.