Tay Kay Chin

Tay Kay Chin

“Always Eat Lunch”

Tay Kay Chin
Age: 49
Personal Website: http://www.eastpix.com/

I met Kay Chin at National Museum, a few hours before the first pitch for +50 (http://twentyfifteen.sg/plus50), an initiative by PLATFORM. Kay Chin was really affable, which was testament to his admission that he really loves talking to others. Perhaps it is this approachability that made his photos resonate with so many, allowing him to tell so many stories through his photos.

Kay Chin, who likes to tell people he is as old as independent Singapore, has a large collection of works. Of which, Panoramic Singapore won him the title as one of the 12 Hasselblad Masters of the World in 2003.

Together with Darren Soh, Ernest Goh and Leonard Goh, Kay Chin co-founded PLATFORM, a gathering of Singaporean Photographers who are interested using stills, videos and multimedia to tell stories. They aim to foster social documentary through photography and to bring these stories to the Singaporean audience.

Most recently, PLATFORM started twentyfifteen.sg, in commemoration of Singapore’s golden jubilee. Twentyfifteen.sg will feature 21 photographers in 20 books, and each book will each feature 15 photos. One book will be published every month, until August 2015. As of July 2014, they have released eight books.

How did you start PLATFORM?

[PLATFORM] started in NTU about four to five years ago, where I teach photojournalism. I would invite my friends and people from outside the school to come to my classes to see what my students have done. At any one time, there will usually be 3-5 guests who will come.

Then, one of my ex-students was egging me to make this bigger. One semester, I decided to open it to public where we used the lecture theatre in NTU, and close to 100 people turned up that night. After the session, I received positive feedback and was asked if I could make it a monthly affair. I was agreeable, provided my friends help lah. We went ahead with the plan and started with 10 volunteers. Now we have scaled down to only four active volunteers. Basically, PLATFORM is an extension of what I do at NTU.

Can you share more about twentyfifteen.sg and how the whole idea came about?

I’m as old as Singapore, so every time Singapore reaches a milestone, I get very excited. When I was 25, I got excited. By 40 I was even more excited. At 40, I started a project about 40 people who are born on National Day(9th August) and at that time I wanted my friends to also each do a different project. Most of them were young and starting out their careers while I was a little more matured, so I ended up being the only person who completed a project.

But we have always talked about the idea of doing projects together. A few years ago, we started talking about things to do for our Singapore’s 50th anniversary. A few of us got together and I wrote a proposal to the museum proposing an exhibition. We did not get a reply for a while because they were in the midst of a management change. When things became clearer, we thought they would be too busy to deal with our proposal and that we were better off not waiting. We had to think of something else and came up with the idea of publishing a series of books, instead of waiting for an exhibition. We felt that the by publishing a book a month, the financial burden will not be that heavy. I then modified the proposal into a book publishing project instead of a photo exhibition.

How did you manage to get the 20 people?

Four of us who co-founded PLATFORM came up with names of people we respect and admire, people whom we want to work with. We had several discussions among us and narrowed down the long list to the final 20. Some people were unhappy about this because they were thinking, “who were we to decide the 20 people”. But the money came from us; it was not a public funded project so we did not have to worry as much about that. After all, no matter what we decide, there are going to be unhappy people.

So by extension came +50?

+50 was something we had in mind. In the initial list, we had more than 20 names so we had to disappoint some of the photographers. There have always been queries from the public about joining the twentyfifteen.sg project but we had to turn them down because we already have all the photographers lined up.

But at the back of our heads, we keep thinking if we can expand, how should we expand, where do we get the money from, etc etc. It took us a while – only when we published about 4-5 books did we have a little more confidence. We were also not very sure that twentyfifteen.sg could last and at some point in time, we even thought of giving up. But after a while, we realized it could be done and we know how to do it and expand it.

We see a lot of interest in photography in Singapore today. How did you get started in Photography?

When I was preparing for A levels, I saw a book – Hearts of Darkness by Don McCullin. I got very moved by the photographs and decided not to study, not to go to university. I just wanted to be a war photographer like McCullin. I was very obsessed about it during NS and started learning photograhy on my own and kept finding ways to be the official photographer so that I can practice my skills. I was very clear after I completed NS that I wanted to be a photographer in a newspaper. Shortly after I started that, I realized I should further my studies and get a degree because I didn’t know very much about anything. So that is how I got started – a book inspired me.

So Don McCullin is someone that inspires you and whom you want to mentor you?

I have never met him, but when I look at his work I am like “Wow, I want to take photos like that”. He is what I call my ‘absentee mentor’. I look at his work, read about his life and became fascinated by this profession of being a photographer.

You are one of the more highly acclaimed photographers in Singapore, so what would you say differentiates your projects/photography style from others?

Actually I am not that famous, neither have I won that many awards. In fact, I only won one award. My style?  I think I am crazy and have a lot of ideas. I don’t like sitting around complaining about things, and usually try to come up with solutions. I dream a lot and I read so I am always coming up with crazy ideas that people do not think about or have no time to think about.

I do not think I am very different apart from the fact that I am very stubborn. When I decide that something is worth doing, I will just do it. I don’t engage in self-pity and lament about how I cannot get money, etc etc. I just have to get on with it. Honestly, I do not know if I am that different, but perhaps I am not that concerned about money, and I don’t believe in working just for money so I know when to say stop and do my own projects instead of commercial work. I think a lot of photographers don’t believe in setting aside time to do their personal work but for me it is everything in my life.

So you use your personal work to send a message?

I do address certain things I am worried about through my work. I am very opinionated – when I like or dislike something I tend to use photography as a medium to express these feelings. It can be positive or negative.

Is this why Singapore has always been the main theme of your photography work?

I am intrigued by the place I grew up in and I cannot say that I know a lot about Singapore. Everyday I find out new things. I care about Singapore more than any other place in the world. I can probably live anywhere in the world but it will never be my home because I don’t have a sense of belonging anywhere else. To me, Singapore is where my roots are and is what I care about. Maybe to a certain extent, photographing Singapore is a way of finding answers to my questions about Singapore.

Singapore is the reason you left for US and also the reason you came back?

I wanted to get out because I was tired of the way I was living my life in Singapore. I felt, for my career, I would be better off living in the US. I just wanted a different environment and I think I would adapt very well in US because I am rather outspoken. I don’t mince my words. I lived there for a while but did not like the place very much, so I came back. When I came back, I probably told myself that I had no choice and try to make Singapore work for me. So through my projects, I try to see different things about Singapore.

You talk about being outspoken, so you don’t feel like you fit into Singapore?

I like an atmosphere where people are more open to crazy ideas. I think when I first came back, I felt a little bit bored. There were not that many photographers like me. Most people work in the newspaper. To them, it’s a job. There are not many crazy people like today. So in the earlier stages when I came back, I felt very sian (bored). Like you want to do something, but there was no one to talk to. I do not think I could have started PLATFORM 20 years ago. Firstly, there may not be that many people interested. Secondly, I was not that confident. Everything happens for a reason.

Singapore is more conservative.

Not really. I think you can make things happen for yourself. It may be a little bit difficult. But the joy of achieving something in a difficult environment is great. But, I do not want to just be a whiner. Or always be asking why things can’t be done for me. We should shut up and just do it. That’s the motto I have: just shut up and do it. Don’t make excuses.

Talking about stories, what makes a good photo story to you?

I think it should be one that has an open ending. I don’t like to be preachy, at least not with photography. But I do not need people to follow certain formula of looking at things. I find it interesting that people get inspired or get tickled, upset. And then they come and confront me. Then we can have a conversation. I think it should arouse one of those emotions.

So far, almost every work that I put out attracted certain groups. And also made certain groups of people unhappy with me. So I guess I am successful that way. I do not expect to be loved by everyone. I suppose there are people who think my work are nonsensical.

What differentiates you is that your photos all have a story behind them.

It has got to do with my education. I always wanted to be a storyteller. I enjoy talking to people; I think I am a good listener. I think I can talk to anybody ‑ I would get on the bus and before you know it, the person is telling me his life story. Perhaps I have a trustworthy face. I enjoy collecting people’s stories. Doesn’t matter whose story is it-a cleaner or whosoever. Inevitably, a lot of people end up telling me stories. Sometimes people just want to talk. I am lucky that way.

These stories served as your inspiration? Or did you actively find these stories to show your message?

When I am on a project, I can actively go and find these subjects. Or else, I talk to anybody who talks to me. I do not need a purpose to talk to others. Through the conversations, I have crazy ideas – some end up as projects, others end up on my blog.

When I am a little bit less patient, I just write about it. To me photography has its limitations. Photography is not enough for some of the things I want to do. So, right now I do not care if its words or photos, so long as it allows me to say something that I want to say. It doesn’t have to be photography. I guess I have a lot of friends who are not photographers. And that is really helpful. I do not see a great need to hang out with photographers – you end up talking about the same things. I have friends who are architect, lawyers, doctors, gangsters, ex-convicts. To me, my interest is in the stories. When you talk to photographers, three out of ten times you end up talking about equipment, gear. I find that extremely boring. 

For photography to flourish, you need critiques, and audience. Is Singapore ready?

Compared to ten years ago, there are people who are very critical, in a mature way. People now talk about impact of photography in the society. Gone are the days when it is just being appreciated as a hobby. More and more people think of photography as a tool for communicating, expression. I would say it is a very different scene now. Certainly not like the international level yet, but we have progressed.

Would you attribute the change to the society? Or is it because of the prevalence of cameras and camera phones?

Everything plays a part. We have more people studying photography, and we have School of the Arts. If you have a degree and want to be a photographer these days, your parents would not be upset any more, compared to 20 years ago. In the past it has always been viewed as a lower class job – a technical job that you do because you could not study. You do not need to be an intellectual, do not need any brain. You just need to know how to take [a photo].

We have long gone past that stage. And I think thank goodness there are many Singaporeans who are successful on the international stage. The profession is no longer looked down upon. The society slowly realizes that like how we need artists, architects, we also need photographers. It is a legitimate way of making money.

What was you parents’ response when you first suggested to them that you wanted to be a photographer?

My parents are the coolest parents. They said, “Do anything you want”. My Dad told me, “Just try and be the best in the world.” To them, I think, the fact that I wanted to study was a big deal already. They would have been more worried if I did not want to study. I found my own opportunity and they never once stopped me. They are very encouraging.

Which project would you say left the most impact on you?

Panoramic Singapore. It changed my life. It made me semi-famous. And because I am semi-famous, I am able to do certain things for the community. I think I used my little fame to the maximum advantage – not just for myself, but also for the photography community. People become more wiling to listen to me.

Apart from that it is also the first time I really found a voice. I was working on something I care very much about: it is about me leaving Singapore and feeling upset. The project also inspired some copycats. They used that to promote their own projects too. I am quite flattered by that. If you knew me then, you would know that I was going through a difficult time and those images real. Now, I may not be able to take the same photos. The combination of fear, anxiety and all made me make those images. They are not technically perfect, but the images really expressed who I am. For that, it has the biggest significance in my life.

What is lacking in the Singaporean photography?

Honestly, I do not think it lacks anything. We are so much better than many societies.

How can we move on from here?

I hope more people get the itch to publish. I would like to see more people publishing their books. It is not something I can do alone. I can encourage but the rest is not up to me. I cannot decide what other people do. I am not in a position to say how photography should be done. As long as the photographers are happy. Perhaps I am better off minding my own business sometimes. Who am I to direct you? I do not know about your life, your sacrifices or what is your motivation.

But I think we are far better than many places. Singaporean photographers may not know how lucky they are. Maybe one day they will find out for themselves.

You shot in various formats. Which would you say is the one you like the most?

I enjoy working with my Leica the most now. I like to work unintrusively, and I am also getting older, so I do not like to carry too much equipment. I prefer a simple camera, with no zoom lens. If I need to zoom, I walk. I like it as simple as possible. If the iPhone had better quality and more controls, I would say the iPhone is a very good camera.

I can shoot with anything. Different format, different choice of weapon will result in different output. But I will not let the tools decide what I should do. I think I am also quite happy if I do not take picture for a while.

What would you have changed in your life?

I would have stayed in school a little bit longer, and studied a little bit harder. Perhaps get my masters, my PhD. I still think I am not very smart and learning should be forever. I do wish I had more years of education, and maybe I will be more sophisticated.

Having looked at many local photographers work, many of them talk about past and present. Nostalgia has become a running theme for many here.

It’s a sexy theme. It is not necessarily bad. I do think many are starting to take stock of life. Many start thinking about how things used to be, and how things changed. Then we question if the change is good, or bad.

It is one of the many ways to use photography. Using photography to remember, recollect and construct the past is definitely a way. But it is not the only way. There are also many works which are not about nostalgia.

Where do you see PLATFORM five years later?

We have achieved a lot of things we set out to achieve, and also achieved things we didn’t even imagine. So, some of us feel that we may close it down after all the books are published. Take a six months break. Perhaps find new blood and young people to take over. We will definitely take a break.

It is tiring to run something like that. If we are not able to interest the next generation to take over, then, I do not know what will happen. We are all getting old. It takes a lot of effort to plan the whole program.

What would you tell aspiring photographers out there?

Don’t complain too much. Just do. Complaining won’t get you anywhere.

– Profiled by Lim Zi Song, Illustration by Flee Circus