Nguan’s work exist without a beginning or an end, an exercise of wonderment of how life would unfold. Nguan was born and raised in Singapore but eventually came to the U.S. where he attended Northwestern University and graduated with a degree in film production. His photographs examine life as it unfolds in big cities today. I had the opportunity to sit down with Nguan and observe his photography and talk a bit about his creative process. His work contemplates everyday moments and interactions in the world’s most congested streets and public spaces. Read below for the full Q&A…
What feelings did you have being surrounded by the chaos of 9/11 and using your camera to ignite a passion in you to start taking your work more seriously? Was it all the emotions and dramatic sense of realism?
Nguan: It wasn’t the chaos or drama, I could do without those! But yes I was living near the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the events of that day have indeed shaped my work in some ways. I was actually in New York recently and walked past the McDonald’s on Broadway and Waverly near NYU, where I had breakfast on September 12th, 2001. I recalled how good it felt that morning just to queue for a burger and to know that some certainties continued to exist, even though everyone in the city then had justifiable fears that we could be blown to pieces at any moment. I’ve sort of kept that feeling of awe at the overlooked mechanics of ordinary life, and become sharply sensitive to them. The eerily emptied out streets below Houston in the days following the attacks also remain in my thoughts; as a possible consequence, much of my work, such as my Tokyo series “Shibuya,” is simply about people making their way from one place to another on pavements teeming with the living. To me that’s a wondrous, miraculous sight.
You expressed that photography is a game of waiting. Do you feel an impatient person won’t produce as good of a result as a man who takes his time?
Nguan: If someone were locked in a room with only a camera and a rock, chances are he’ll eventually find ways to make good pictures of the rock. He’ll begin to observe how the appearance of the rock alters according to how the light hits it; its angles and undulations will start to resemble formal patterns. So yes, I believe we can make anything look beautiful if only we’re patient and we concentrate.
You produced a book of your photographs entitled “How Loneliness Goes”. What brought upon the decision to make a limited number of it?
Nguan: It’s a quiet work and I wanted it to be disseminated in a quiet way. Since the book is mostly available through myself via my website, I have some personal contact with nearly everyone who owns the book, and that’s sort of a lovely thing when you consider the theme of the work.
Could you tell us a bit about the creation process, theme, and idea behind the book?
Nguan: The book is about the isolation of big city life — how we are all a part of a crowd and yet apart from it. It’s also about how something beautiful can grow from broken things, and is the product of what has been a difficult year in my life. All of the pictures in the book were made in Singapore where I was born and raised.
How has your degree in film influenced your work, if it all?
Nguan: I really like the auteur theory in cinema – the idea that a director has a distinct vision that is easily identifiable across his entire oeuvre, even though hundreds of people work on each of his films. I love how you can instantly differentiate a film by Godard from a film by Truffaut. Many contemporary photographers prefer to go from one aesthetic to another, perhaps in response to the needs of the market, but I’ve consciously maintained — and even worked to achieve — a consistent style for my pictures. At this point, someone familiar with my previous photographs should have a fairly good chance of being able to pick new ones out from an anonymous line-up.
Speaking of which, what are some of your favorite Asian films?
Nguan: Since this is Japan Cinema I would like to profess my admiration for Yasujirō Ozu. I love the formality of his frames, the languid stare of his camera and its signature low height. Many of my own photographs are taken from a crouched position because I want the people who populate my pictures to appear more monumental than they are.
Do you have any secrets, other than patience, for capturing the perfect moment. Perhaps you wait for a person’s expression or wait for a scenario to unfold?
Nguan: I make lists of what I’m looking out for – for example, “beautiful woman struggling with shopping bags,” “schoolchild reading a book as he or she crosses the road” or “man in uniform tenderly tending to potted plants” — so that when I do stumble upon something I’m interested in, it becomes a case of déjà vu, and I’m fully prepared to do it justice. A lot of my successful photographs are actually second or third attempts at depicting situations that I’d previously made less successful pictures of.
I used to think that photography was about waiting for things to unfold, but more and more I feel it’s a process of recognition — a process of recognizing something of myself in the world.
I guess the best way to sum up a lot of your photos are reflections of everyday life. How have the experiences of living in the U.S. and Singapore shaped you as a photographer? What have you taken away from these places?
Nguan: Living in two heavily globalized countries has left me in little doubt that the planet is becoming one… for better or for worse. My work is about what makes people the same.
Raoul Coutard once said “Film is truth at 24 frames a second, and every cut is a lie.” What are your thoughts on that?
Nguan: Mr. Coutard is a huge hero of mine and if he said it then it must be true!
Lastly, any advice for any novice photographers?
Nguan: Now that everyone has a camera in their pocket, it’s no longer sufficient for a photographer to be a mere witness; our pictures should present a world that has been transformed by attentiveness.
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