Edwin Koo is no stranger to documenting the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Earlier this year, we interviewed him on his two-year sabbatical in Nepal, where he rediscovered himself, and a new direction in his photography.
That fresh sense of discovery has continued to manifest in his series of new works in the past month — from ‘Thank You, Mr Lee’, a collaborative photo book project in tribute to Lee Kuan Yew with other Singaporean photographers, to ‘Transit’, an introspective series on the commuting experience which has struck a chord with many from Singapore to London.
Vulcan Post spoke to Edwin about looking in on the other side on the door and his somewhat controversial photo project, ‘Transit’, which has since been shared more than 3,000 times all over the world. Interestingly, ‘Transit’ is also part of a self-funded project by independent photographers called TWENTYFIFTEEN, with proceeds from the sales of this book rolling over to the next one. We must say, we like the idea!
1. What was your experience like capturing the emotive state of commuters over the four-month period?
It was actually very intense, because I was doing something that contravenes the social norms. Firstly, it was “wrong” to stare at the people at the train doors. Secondly, I “broke the rule” again by recording that stare. It’s like going into an elevator and trying to strike up a conversation with all the strangers.
2. How many photos did you capture during the entire period?
In these four months, it was rather intense, as I took around 2,000 images. Over the entire four years since I started the project, it is would be slightly more than 3,000.
3. Other than death stares, what was the best or worst reaction you have received from your photography subjects?
I think the project has taken on another life of its own when I decided to go public on social media. The reactions were rather extreme. The worst reaction was when one commuter called me and asked for his photo to be removed. He told me that the post was “detrimental” to his professional image. I immediately apologised and issued a public notice to ask netizens to stop making negative comments and that he was really having a flu and headache hence the snarly expression. That post received many nice comments which encouraged the aggrieved subject. But in the end, I had to delete it because the subject was adamant. It was probably the photo with the most likes and most shares.
The best reaction is when a commuter in photo #35 came to my book launch. Her name is Teresa. In the photo, she looks really menacing but in real life, she is an extremely cool mom who openly encouraged me to carry on with the project. There is nothing better than validation from the people in the photographs — that they understand the significance of this project and become willing participants in documenting the history of our commuters is a high for me.
4. What draws you to pick a certain commuter to be the subject of your photo?
Honestly, I began with people who stood out from the crowd. For instance, extremely tall people, well-dressed people, weird-looking people, etc. But in the end, it boiled down to choosing a door at random and hoping that the scene at the train doors is a good moment. That’s why I took so many photographs — a decisive moment is a rare occurrence especially when there are so many variables you cannot control.
5. Since your Facebook post went viral, you have received feedback from netizens on two ends of the spectrum — some love it and some hate it. What are your thoughts on this mix of reactions?
I think any work that evokes reaction is a good start. You can’t please everyone. Take for example my first work called “Notes from a Singapore Son”, about the General Elections in 2011. Many people loved it and shared it, and there were those who labelled me “opposition photographer”. This is an unfair accusation, but half the meaning of the photos are in people’s minds, which I cannot control.
Then when I photographed the week of mourning for Lee Kuan Yew, I realised there is a portion of netizens who didn’t support this work because of their political views. So in Transit, I am not surprised with the mix of reactions — you cannot please everyone. And good work is not meant to please everybody — but it should evoke reactions, both emotional and intellectual.
6. Which image would you consider to be your favorite, and why?
The title image #15. It is the one image which summarises the lonely experience of transit in our present day. The average Joe on the train with his best companion — the smartphone and its earphones.
7. There are some really creative captions posted on your photos. If you have to pick one, which one stands out for you?
I am not a fan of captions. The captions posted are by the viewers, who are entitled to their own views. To me, a caption simply ties down a picture to a fixed meaning. This counters the beauty of photography. Photography as an art form should be open to interpretation. The fact that these are specific people who are real and alive should not constrain the imagination of the viewer. In the end, this specific person may represent anyone.
8. How do these images juxtapose against your own experiences as a commuter?
I see myself in many of the images. Sometimes after photographing, I board the train just to feel what it is like to have the door three inches from my nose. And I imagine what would I look like if there was a photographer shooting at me from the other side.
9. How did you come up with the idea of getting in touch with your subjects?
It was a wild idea that just popped up one day. But I had to gather enough courage and when the book was going to be published, it gave me enough reason and impulse to just try it out. But I guess it is also a way to reconcile with my persona as a documentary photographer. In my processes, there is usually consent, either explicit or implicit. I seldom take photos against the subjects’ wishes. In this case, I would never know unless I tried to get in touch. I guess at the end, it is a way for me to close the loop, and give myself a chance to give back what I have taken — the photograph.
10. How many commuters have you tracked down so far through your online efforts? Any interesting stories so far?
About 18 commuters came forward. Some accepted my offer for signed prints, others asked me to remove their photos.
11. What’s next for you?
More documentary photo projects? There are always more stories to tell.