In a recent dialogue session between the new Information and Arts
Minister of Singapore and local visual artists, the topic of building
a museum for photography came up.
I was told by different people that this had become a favorite topic
in some circles. Often, such talk is accompanied by names of prominent
individuals who are viewed as the people who could pull off the
mammoth feat and put this idea into action.
That it is probably still in the "dream'' stage is not a concern
to me at all. Let me say this for the record: I am as eager as anyone
who is concerned about photography to see this become reality. I
dare say that this dream of having such a centre is probably shared
by every Asian photographic community, and that there are many reasons
why the idea of building such a centre is hogging everyone’s
A simple reason is this: young nations have come of age and concerns
of heritage and national identity have moved to the centre-stage;
in other words, people want to have their unique voice and vision
heard and seen.
In pragmatic Singapore, one can argue that a reason to have such
a "luxury" will be that with the focus shifted to the
creative industry, such an investment has the potential to yield
substantial economic returns. Singapore already has a performing
arts centre in the form of the Esplanade; together with a visual
arts centre, there will certainly be more synergy towards that direction.
Since I will not be the one signing the cheque, I can only be indulgent
here and reveal other less tangible but equally important reasons
for a photography museum.
Most people, when asked about photography in Asia, will say that
it doesn't have a long history or a strong tradition. It is also
not far-fetched to say that in this part of our world, success is
often still measured by how well one does in the West, leaving little
concern in general for Asian photography.
Photography has had a vibrant history in Singapore and local photographers
have been using their lenses to reflect the times in which they
lived in. In making these photographs, they were writing history.
How can such an important task be not deserving of a proper place
where future generations can go and learn about how our ancestors
used to live?
Ask people in Singapore's smallish art circle to name one thing
they know about Chua Soo Bin, and most will probably tell you that
he owns a flourishing gallery in the same building of Singapore’s
Information and Arts Ministry.
But very few will know that Chua has had an illustrious photographic
career. Chua shot top-notch advertisements for Singapore Airlines,
helping to put Singapore and its national airline on the world map.
This was no small feat considering Singapore's unexplainable love
affair with foreign talent. Understanding as well the need for marketing,
his method of self-promotion was to place his portrait on a wanted
poster listing his "crimes" next to it. You can say Chua
was ahead of his time and of his peers.
Ask the new generation of Asian photographers if they know who is
Sam Kai Faye, Terrence Khoo or Kyoichi Sawada, and one is likely
to draw a blank. Like the legendary war photographer Robert Capa,
Sam, Khoo and Sawada all died covering the war in Indochina. The
difference is that Capa is honored all over the world, while the
other three remain obscure.
Capa deserved all the accolades, but a close examination of the
trio's achievements will tell you what I am concerned about: they
were hardly remembered or talked about at all.
Sawada, a Japanese, won a Pulitzer Prize, photojournalism's equivalent
of an Oscar, for his war coverage; Sam won the only known World
Press Photo award for Singapore; Khoo, another Singaporean, left
a hefty sum of insurance money which was used to set up a medical
These are no small achievements, however we choose to weigh them.
In 1965, the year I was born, the Photographic Society of Singapore
published an important book called “Pictorial Photography”.
Comprising work by the Society's giants such as Yip Cheong Fun,
Lee Lim, Wu Peng Seng and Kuou Shang Wei, it was considered a tour
de force at that time it was published.
I loaned the book to a friend two years ago but it was never returned
to me, so I tried to replace it by making a visit to the Society's
clubhouse. Much to my disappointment, the young man who worked there
did not even know the existence of the book. In the end, I had to
walk him to the club's library and point it out in their collection.
History is often just history, out of sight and forgotten. If people
don't even know it exists, how do they find it?
Lying all over Asia are negatives filed away in yellowing envelopes,
in rooms with no humidity or temperature control. Considering the
poor storage conditions, these negatives are the lucky survivors,
for many more are likely to have disappeared and are now seemingly
impossible to locate.
These precious historical documents, which I liken to “cultural
currencies”, are all at risk and need quick rescue. A national
centre is the ideal place for these priceless commodities.
The optimist in me believes that eventually, some national museums
of photography will surface in different Asian cities. But I doubt
much can be achieved by just waiting around and dreaming about them.
Individuals and corporations with the means and hearts can make
a difference. For that, it might be useful to see how one individual
did it in Norway.
Leif Preus is probably not a name that will ring a bell in Asia
but this Norwegian created the Norsk Museum for Fotografi (Norway's
National Museum of Photography). Opened in 2001, it is located in
Horten, one hour's drive from the Norwegian capital of Oslo.
The museum started with Preus's private collection, which the state
paid about US$7 million for.
Recently, when news that Preus's collection was up for sale, it
attracted attention from all over the world. South Korean conglomorate
Samsung was reportedly one of the interested parties prepared to
pay a handsome price. But Preus insisted that the collection remain
in his beloved homeland.
Preus is a perfect example of a man who gives back what he takes.
A humble man who built a very successful photography business, he
put his money back into photography through careful acquisitions.
I suspect many readers of this magazine are people in important
positions who can make such a difference.
I would like to just plant this thought in your head: You could
all be the next Leif Preus.
column first appeared in Grain Magazine.