By Jayne Chan (14S03D), Lim Ci Hui (14A03B) and Vo Van Quoc Toan (14S05A)
We speak to two prominent Rafflesian photographers Esna Ong and Aidan Mock about their different approaches to photography, their influences and photographic opportunities in Singapore.
‘I have a very bad memory, so initially I took photographs to remember things.’
‘I think the joy of photography lies in helping people notate their memories. It matters a lot to them and it makes them happy.’
With the rise of social media sites such as Instagram which allow just about anyone to easily edit and upload pictures, one might be inclined to forget that photography is so much more than just pressing a few buttons on one’s smartphone. Raffles is privileged to have two talented individuals, for whom photography is about more than capturing the moment. Instead, through their photos they hope to tell stories, preserve memories and create meaning.
Photographers Esna Ong (13S05A) and Aidan Mock (13A01B) had similar reasons for taking up photography. ‘I have a very bad memory, so initially I took photographs to remember things,’ said Aidan, ‘but it progressed to being able to tell stories about other people, portraying their lives, and sharing it with a wider audience.’ Esna, similarly, believes that her passion for photography stems from capturing life and its moments. ‘I think the joy in photography lies in helping people notate their memories. It matters a lot to them and it makes them happy’.
For many, the ultimate goal of a photographer is to take ‘good’ photos—which they often take to mean ‘good-looking’ photos. While Esna and Aidan acknowledge that a photo’s aesthetic qualities is a factor in judging if it is any good, they both concur that it is not the most significant one. ‘It is the purpose that matters’, they both agreed, when asked to distinguish an excellent piece of photography from an amateurish one.
In fact, with the prevalence of digital cameras and editing software today, it has become much easier to use technical aids to improve photos, something Aidan is quick to acknowledge: ‘A lot of photos nowadays are edited. So if you want to be able to stand on the same ground with fellow photographers, I guess the cheap way would be to edit your photos to make them look good.’ For Esna, editing is a part of photographic process itself. ‘You can hardly get a perfect shot in a natural environment,’ she admits, ‘there will always be problems with lighting, balance and other issues. So I think taking photos and editing them go together.’
Another trend in photography has seen the proliferation of mobile phone photography and phone applications such as Instagram. Both of them see the benefits in this trend. Esna is a proud user of Instagram herself and both of them see Instagram’s usefulness as a great sharing tool and as an effective means to record moments in life. However, Aidan chooses a rather apt metaphor to characterise it, calling it ‘a visual Twitter’, pointing to how individuals are increasingly posting photos without any consideration of their meaningfulness.
In many ways Instagram has become a fad and an infatuation which has fed into commercial culture and professional photography. This is something Aidan is rather critical of. ‘Last year during the Fukushima tsunami, Time sent out photographers who covered the disaster using their iPhones and Instagram. They’re using it purely for the sake of using it, not because it helps them improve their articles. It’s become a fad which kind of defeats its purpose.’
Moving on to the common claim from budding photographers that there is a dearth of photographic opportunities in Singapore, both Esna and Aidan were quick to disagree. An intensive photography mentorship programme, in which he chose the now-defunct Tanjong Pajar Railway Station as his photography subject, changed Aidan’s views on this issue. ‘It’s not true that there’s nothing to shoot in Singapore. I found out along the way that (the station) is one of many places that had a lot of character. It’s all about finding these places. For example, Bukit Brown has tons of shooting potential. It just depends on the level of commitment you have to going out and finding them, and the amount of work you put in.’ Esna, too, believes that there are a lot of photographic opportunities in Singapore. For her it is matter of putting in the effort to finding messages that you want to convey through photographs: ‘There are a lot of social issues in Singapore, such as poverty, that we can portray through photography. You shouldn’t focus on our island being so small; if you look deeper there are a lot of photographic opportunities out there.’
While Esna’s and Aidan’s motivations for photography were initially similar, their philosophies have differed over the course of their photographic journey, something that is clearly evident with their photographic inspirations. Esna’s is French photographer Henri Cartier- Bresson: ‘His philosophies resonate with me a lot. He is very into capturing the moment, and he would say things like in the moment a lot of elements would be aligned and the photographer’s job is to capture them. I love his work because it is aesthetically perfect…he is able to time his stuff, what happens in the photo, and that’s what I like doing too.’
Aidan, on the other hand, is inspired by the work of war photographers such as Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, both of whom were killed on the frontlines three years ago while covering the Libyan crisis. ‘I really like the work of war photographers, it’s something that is often overlooked…a lot of people see 20, 30 photos a week and sadly grow immune to them, but it’s still important as they document different phases of humanity’s progression and the sort of things humanity is capable of. When somebody looks at the Vietnam war photos, there are lots of terrible photos of things that people have done, about Agent Orange, about the sort of abuse the American GIs did to the Vietnamese peasants, Vietnamese troops…a lot of these are sensitive, but they also remind us of things that have happened, and they are a reminder that we should not backslide into doing those sort of things again. In the Boston Marathon, three people died, but in the months preceding that, there was a US bomb that exploded in an Afghanistan wedding and 30 people died… there’s such a large contrast between what we see, what we hear, what we care about.’
Indeed, Aidan has strong views about censorship, particularly the recent controversy about the alteration of the Boston Marathon photographs to omit gory details because there were not considered appropriate for public consumption. His stand on the issue is clear and he thinks such images might be a catalyst to jolt people into action: ‘I think it should be shown—to kids, adults, everyone. If you ask the average person on the street, they probably won’t be able to tell you about the daily life of someone halfway across the world, and they will ask you why they should care. If we are the so-called defenders of global liberty and justice, why are we overlooking the bloodiest, greatest conflicts that are happening, even to this day? There are not enough people who are aware and willing to do something about it, and photography has the potential to address both of these issues to a great degree. Indeed, many people are caught up in their own lives, not very aware of such things, and not by any fault of their own. I think these images need to be shared.’
Given such strong sentiments it probably comes as no surprise that Aidan wants to become a photojournalist and war photographer himself. While he is realistic about the dangers of his chosen profession, he clearly feels the importance in documenting other people’s lives. ‘It’s my dream to be a professional photographer,’ he acknowledges, ‘there are many aspects of professional photography, and the ones I would be happy ending up in are photojournalism and war photography. It is something I would like to study, and I’m pretty sure about that, hopefully I can pursue my dream… passions might evolve as you progress, or take on different aspects, but for now I am pretty set on photojournalism and I hope to study it in the US.’
If Aidan regards photography as a form of social commentary, Esna has however a different take of her own. As a student photographer and filmmaker, Esna shoots photos to capture life’s moments. To her, it is the spontaneity of experience that appeals. ‘Photography is more of an art to me. Aesthetic composition is important…I find personal enjoyment in constructing photographs, putting all the elements into one solid photo, to best capture what is going on in that moment.’ When asked about her extensive coverage of school events and whether she strives for artistic value even in photographs serving a largely informative function, she replied, ‘Covering school events is both an interest and responsibility for me; for every photo you take should consciously try to construct all the elements so it is aesthetically pleasing.’
As for whether her dream lies in photography as well, Esna said, ‘I would not discount that, because I only have a few passions, mainly, film and photography, but I’m still keeping my options open. For me, photojournalism is interesting as well. I also wouldn’t mind wedding photography, because you need a lot of aesthetic creativity, and you get to take a lot of emotions between the bride and the groom, the parents, and the friends.’
Whether as a means of social commentary, preserving memories, telling stories, or creating a piece of art, both Aidan and Esna have shown that photography at its heart should be about a larger purpose and meaning, not just the narcissism of one’s own experiences.