New Gen #2: Herman Rahman's photographs are a personal reflection on migration during these troubling times
Home away from home
When did you fall in love with photography?
I remember it clearly. I laid my eyes on Henri Cartier-Bresson's 'jumping man' photo and I was completely taken aback; the shapes, shadows and the ever elusive decisive moment brought to life. I realised then that photography has multiple layers that need unpacking. My first experience with a camera came on a holiday with my family to Phuket. My mom had handed me the camera as the designated, camera-person. I still think she regrets that decision!
How would you describe the overarching theme in your work?
My work has evolved over the years. I flopped it pretty hard while pursuing my diploma at Temasek Polytechnic. At that time, I was concerned with photojournalism. I was trying to follow Magnum photographers and their male-centric heroism. I also didn't really agree with what was being taught. I felt photography could be freer with no rules and guidelines, essentially because ideas have neither rules nor guidelines, but the institution was comfortable with homogeneity in thinking and execution. It might be time to rethink the art school model in Singapore. Coming to London helped me expand my thinking about what photography was, is and could potentially be. Being in a city like London opens up avenues of thinking, working, and seeing.
Now, my concern with photography revolves around why we photograph and how images are being disseminated, used and abused. I use photography as a means to question power, its political structures and often ignored historical hierarchies. I also tend to use collages and existing images now as a means to engage with other narratives.
You're currently working at Broomberg & Chanarin, having previously interned there. What are some of the skills and lessons you've picked up and how has it affected your photographic practice?
Funny enough, I left the job three weeks ago! Working with Adam and Oliver has been a blessing I cannot even begin to put words to. In terms of expanding my photographic horizon and vision, the two of them made me comfortable in talking about photography and seeing photography as a spectrum that weighs heavily with meaning, fluidity and consequence. I learnt the severity of the medium, its links to knowledge with the capacity to influence elections, ideologies and our day-to-day functions. Many conversations come out of the 2-and-a-half years with them, but one quote that stands out from Adam is, "Never say no to an invitation."
What is the Photographer's Tavern: origins, model, programmes and future?
The Photographers Tavern was an idealistic group of individuals who were not happy with compromising our photographic vision for commercial success; in terms of having art directors or clients wanting us to conform to certain ideas that they have, instead of hiring us based on our style and practice. This was futile as nothing much came out of this collective. Our head and hearts were in the right place, however, the timing was not ideal as we already had enough on our plate with university. The learning point from this perhaps was that collectives function in a more complex way than just 3 or 4 people who enjoy photography, and like with any relationship, it takes work!
What do you hope to show or achieve through your photography?
I think a lot about this question. What is the point of all this: art, photography, images, fashion and paintings? I get disheartened and jaded very easily when thinking about the futility of the practice. I don't have an answer to this question, but for now, I am content with making work that has a weight of social responsibility during these troubling times. Language, paired with knowledge grounded in visual communication, can change the world — or should.
Do you have any tips for other aspiring photographers?
For young practitioners in Singapore, or for people considering starting a practice, it's important to acknowledge the freedoms — or lack thereof — attached to being in the country. I wholeheartedly believe that we are the first generation of youths who can afford to inspect and look closer at our creative culture and its standing on a worldwide platform. My tip would be: be aware, be present and shoot projects that you genuinely care about, want to challenge or bright light to.
What would be your most memorable photograph?
I would say the photograph of the binoculars on the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. A lot of that project was based around the idea of sight, visibility and invisibility; how sight and images influence a lot of what we know and what we don't. That photograph also highlights a level of visual fetishism when we speak about North Korea.
Who are the young and local artists, designers and creatives you admire?
Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee, Marvin Tang and Jonathan Liu — they are Singaporeans who have studied in London. I've been away for so long that I need to update my knowledge of Singaporean practitioners. Although they are not artists, I feel it's important we pay attenton to what NewNaratif has to say.
What is one subject, location or object that you wish to photograph?
Sir Stamford Raffles' shoes that he used when he stepped into Singapore for the first time.
What is one change you wish to see in Singapore?
How do you see your photographic work developing in the future?
Having spent the last three years in London, the next couple of projects will be focussed on Singapore or Southeast Asia. Living abroad gave me a very extrospective view, but at times, I felt like I lost myself a little. It's time to look within in order to move forward; still multidisciplinary, still curious and still hopeful.
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