New Gen #6: Photographer Benita Leong's desaturated lens epitomises the lightness of young adulthood
When did you fall in love with photography?
It was relatively recent in 2014. I was 16 at the time and my brother wasn't using his DSLR, which was mainly reserved for family photos and trips. I was procrastinating during my O-Level year, and was longing for an artistic outlet. I had only painted before that. I had given it up when I was 13 after years of art classes because I felt frustrated that I could not evoke the images or feelings I wanted from the medium. I was always taken by the sentiment and feelings I could get from looking at family pictures that didn't even have to be experiences or people I knew. Photographs felt so present and tangible and at that point, I hadn't felt that way about anything else before. My early work is really bad, but it didn't matter to me. It was mostly a feeling that I was, and I guess, still am chasing.
Who/what/where do you draw your influences from?
I draw them mostly from everyday life, as boring and cliché as that may sound. My exhibited work have been thematic and personal, dealing with my mental health issues. I don't think its something that can be separated from who I am or the work I produce in its inherent pervasiveness. I love taking long bus or train rides because geography — whether directly in new scenery and people or indirectly in clearing my head — has allowed new ideas to form in my head. My Notes app is filled with thoughts from those trips. In more tangible examples, what I'm studying now in my History and Politics course has forced me to read a lot of material that cross artistic disciplines. Recent reads of Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others and other books on memory as well as museums have been a huge influence on the way I think about what I'm capturing, and the ethics and politics contained in photographs.
Do you have any close collaborators you work with?
Singaporean docufilm Shirkers summarises this pretty well in the scene where she narrates that her grandmother played her grandmother, and her baby cousin played her baby cousin. My collaborators are my family and friends, and anyone I can rope in! Friends such as Xenia and Caryn have been part of my work since the start with starring roles in front of the camera while more recent friends such as Nicholas, Cameron, Ayden, Milan and Ross in Canada have been gracious enough to let me into their lives and photograph them. Behind the scenes, I've been lucky enough to meet people such as Christopher Sim and Wanjie Li, Raphael Ong, Hazel Sim and Dave Wong — they helped me during my NOISE Art Mentorship exhibition work and saved a rented strobe from being destroyed, so I probably owe them my life. Of course, my Mum who drives me to every shoot location.
What do you hope to show/achieve through your photography?
I hope to make people feel loved.
Do you have any tips for other aspiring photographers?
It's alright to feel scared or undecided about what you want your work to present or how you are going to get there. It's an ongoing process, and I don't think anyone truly knows who they are or their place in the world. We shouldn't expect our work to meet unrealistic standards that we ourselves are incapable of reaching. Bring your camera everywhere but don't fret when you've wasted rolls of film. It's a scary world and we should all be kinder to ourselves, especially when it increasingly feels like our worth is tied to economic markers of success.
What would be your most memorable photograph?
It's a polaroid of my ex in New York on the subway where the light just hits him perfectly. It was a beautiful moment.
Name the young and local artists/designers/creatives that you admire.
The entire roster and people behind-the-scenes in record label Middle Class Cigars, Hanae and Megan of Math Class Club, Swing Mag, photographers Arabelle Zhuang, Bart Seng, kidmeddling and Lucas Jong, and artists Lai Wei Min and Cally Tan to name a few!
One subject/location/object that you wish to photograph.
Charlie Kaufman — his films have probably shaped me in ways I am not aware of.
One change you wish to see in Singapore.
Repeal 377A. Repeal 377A. Repeal 377A. Repeal 377A. Repeal 377A. Repeal 377A. Repeal 377A. Repeal 377A. Repeal 377A. Repeal 377A. Privileging having "both sides" of the argument stops when one side does not have the privilege of seeing words just as words, but as rhetoric that is tangible, hurtful, and has discriminatory consequences for their basic existence is be called into question or disallowed. Repeal 377A.
How do you see your photographic work developing in the future?
My mother told me about how the photographs from my first birthday that was celebrated on my maternal side were destroyed in development and that she cried about it. I developed a fear of losing memories when I was 10 and realised I could not remember most of my childhood before the age of six. The thought of losing moments like that was so viscerally scary to me. Photography has been my attempt to prevent that fear from materialising. It has also become unhealthy at times. I had a panic attack on my first anniversary in an ex-relationship at some random steps near Plaza Singapura because of it. It was my first and only relationship, and because we hardly had any photos together due to his general aversion to them, I just mentally broke at that moment. I'm still struggling to find a healthy middle ground between documenting and living, and that's what my work will reflect in future.