Bright lights, Lion City
Photos by Darren Soh
Have you ever flown into Singapore at night and wished you could descend further to examine the sea of lights below?
These photographs by Darren Soh are the closest you’d get to fulfilling that wish, short of chartering your own helicopter ride. Photographed from multiple high-rises across the island, these long-exposure shots present a stunning bird’s eye view of Singapore at night.
These panoramic photographs also depict the remarkable changes to Singapore’s skyline and cityscape, which are constantly being redrawn by new buildings and roads.
About this series: Singapore’s photography scene is growing rapidly, with an increasing number of local photographers publishing their own books, holding exhibitions and making a name for themselves overseas. This new monthly series highlights the diverse range of work these Singapore photographers have produced in recent years.
About Darren Soh: A sociologist by training, Darren began working as a full-time photographer in 2001.
While he photographs new buildings for a living, he leads a “double life” documenting places and spaces that are in danger of disappearing. He has a particular obsession with local architecture that is deemed too banal or insignificant for conservation.
In 2009, he was named as one of PDN Magazine’s 30 Emerging Photographers to watch. His works are collected by public institutions such as the National Museum of Singapore, as well as by numerous private collectors.
You have been documenting the landscape of Singapore for a while now. How did you get started?
I often joke that I like photographing buildings and landscapes because they don’t talk back to me, but I’m really a very sociable person. I used to photograph anything and everything until 2002, when I started to realise that a lot of how we relate to a place has to do with how we understand and appreciate space and time. I started photographing ‘unfamiliar’ parts of Singapore by night and this became a project called While You Were Sleeping, which was published as my first monograph in 2004. I think it was then that I decided to use images of spaces as my main photographic language to convey the concerns I have.
What inspired this particular series on Singapore’s cityscape at night?
Singapore lends itself well to night-photography, with the strong artificial lighting from buildings and streets giving the city a hyper-real, futuristic look. Like it or not, this is the city we have made and found ourselves in — a visual cacophony of skyscrapers and LED lights.
These images are not an attempt on my part to pass judgement. Rather, it is an attempt to capture the futuristic otherworldliness we have found ourselves in.
You have dedicated one of your books to your son, Christian, and mentioned that the buildings you photographed might not be around when he grows up and becomes aware of architecture. Why is it important for him to know about these old structures?
I think the old adage that “in order to know where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve been” cannot be more true in a country like Singapore. We live in a period in Singapore when our physical landscape is changing at such a drastic rate that not a week goes by without an old building being demolished or a new one completed. I’m all for progress, but at the rate we’re going, most young Singaporeans will have lost the neighbourhoods they grew up with or hold fond memories of by the time they are adults. Photography is one way of ensuring that a collective memory of these spaces remains when the actual physical spaces are long gone. With my project, I hope to be able to educate Christian in time to come of all these pieces of architecture that used to exist in Singapore.
What do you find so intriguing about old buildings, granted that some contemporary structures also deserve documentation?
They really don’t build buildings like they used to, and I find a lot of the old brick-built buildings very charming. I am personally also a fan of mid-century modernist architecture that was so functional yet beautiful in its own minimalist way. I also document contemporary structures; I am no stranger to the fact that in time to come, contemporary structures will become historical and potentially endangered as well.
Among all the buildings in Singapore now (old and new), which is your favourite and why?
My favourite buildings that still stand today are Blocks 63 to 66, Yung Kuang Road. The sheer scale of this group of buildings really needs to be appreciated from within. It should be used as a living example of Foucault’s concept of the Panopticon.
What do you feel is lacking in new buildings in Singapore that is found in older ones?
Wow, this is a really scary question, because whatever I say, there will be those who disagree. I personally feel that there is too much glass used in modern buildings in Singapore — which is a really valid concern because of the climate we’re in, where the greenhouse effect is most felt. As a result, most modern buildings have to rely on air-conditioning to keep the interior cool and this, as we all know, contributes to higher energy consumption and indirectly to global warming.
Obviously we can’t conserve every building. Do you have a compromise or a creative solution to this dilemma?
Of course what I feel is important may be of no significance to others. At the end of the day, I am acutely aware that we cannot conserve every single building, but I am confident that enough people feel strongly for many iconic public buildings, that some sort of consultative approach or public referendum should be put in place before those are slated for demolition. Currently, we see attempts at this but whether it is a good sign of things to come or merely perfunctory on the part of the powers that be, only time will tell. When all else fails, there are, of course, the photographs.
What is the message that you wish to convey to readers through your images?
That Singapore is changing far too quickly for its people to develop any strong sense of anchorage to the built environment. If we cannot preserve all the buildings that people want to, we should at least properly document most, if not all of them for future generations.
Any advice for photographers out there who wish to venture into landscape photography in Singapore?
There is no substitute for exploration. If you wait to be inspired by another photographer’s work of a space in order to go photograph that space, you are already too late.
This interview first appeared in the book For My Son published in August 2013 by Platform, a local photography collective. Platform has published 22 books since June 2013 to help mark Singapore’s Golden Jubilee.
For more of Darren’s work, go to his website at: www.darrensoh.com.