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Panpa Bulletin : February 2010
FOR a young photographer, Samuel He has powered through some tough and confronting work. The 26-year-old has won an envi- able reputation for his professional- ism and journalistic commitment following a stunning photo essay on the plight and tough living conditions of foreign workers in a city that is a jewel of Asia. Samuel spent four weeks in squalid and cramped conditions with workers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Philip- pines, Thailand and India, who came to Asia's Lion City in their thousands to build soaring skyscrapers, a new casino or work as domestics for wealthy Singaporeans and an expa- triate community of executives and their families. Although a common sight on construction sites and city streets, foreign workers' lives were once cloaked behind the cement walls of over-crowded dormitories. That was before Samuel exposed the inequity of their conditions in a stunning se- ries of photographs published in the nation's most influential newspaper, the Straits Times. Samuel recalls: "It was difficult get- ting access to any of the dormitories around Singapore because the own- ers did not want the world to see how bad the conditions were. It took a long time to get a spot in a dorm." Once inside, the dormitory was so bad it took Samuel along time to get used to the conditions. "It was horrible," he says. "There were about 50 of us living is a space about the size of a badminton court. "Everything was done in this one space. People would hang damp clothing to dry; they would eat and cook there even though they weren't supposed to. Cockroaches were eve- rywhere and the place smelled pretty strong." Samuel's photos shocked a pre- dominantly middle-class, aspiring Asian society. Images of foreign workers cutting meat on the dirty floor (pictured above) gained a lot of attention. Singapore was not sup- posed to be like that. "The relationship between Sin- gaporeans and foreign workers is a touchy issue," Samuel continues. "They (the foreign workers) come from different backgrounds, have different habits and are on much lower wages; so tension exists." Aware some Singaporeans have a critical view of foreign workers, and a few have been victims of violence and theft, Samuel says when he be- gan the essay he did not intend to change attitudes. He says he merely wanted to docu- ment the workers' lives as truthfully as possible by living with them. "Photography is the best medium for telling this kind of story," he says. "I really like the observational medium. "The best way to capture people and form relationships with my subjects is to live with them. I think it comes out in the photos. I hope in the future to do more projects like this." The relationship between the sub- ject and the photographer is more important to Samuel than focusing on the technical aspects of photography. "I am not a highly technical pho- tographer," he confesses. "I think I take good photos the more I know my subjects. When I do that, I enjoy my photographs." This has never been truer than Samuel's work for a project called The 7:59 Series. Straits Times editors ask photog- raphers to be on the city streets as workers make their way to offices, capturing the cultural richness of the city in morning light and between the shadows of many of Singapore's high- rise apartment blocks and offices. "The only brief we had was, the photos had to be beautiful. It was an opportunity to show off the skills of the photographers," Samuel says. Pictures Editor Mike Sargent, who came up with the 7:59 project as part of the redesign of the Straits Times in 2008, adds: "The pictures run in the prime section of the Monday newspa- per (a slow news day), with the hope of lifting the spirits of readers heading back to work after a restful weekend. I wanted people to stop and reflect about life in Singapore." The 7:59 Series garnered a lot of interest from readers and raised S$15,000 for an Singapore Press Holdings charity which raises money for school children who can't afford lunch. The next series will be called 6:39, which will "reflect the golden time of the day when the sun is set- ting and Singaporeans head home from work", says Sargent. On a day-to-day basis, Samuel He spends much of his time covering events, openings and art exhibitions. "In Singapore, we don't have much breaking news," Samuel continues. "Thank goodness we don't have to cover explosion or riots and public protests." It was from studying in Sydney that he realised Singaporeans behave in a particular way in front of the camera; certainly differently to Australians and many other Westerners. Referring to his photo of a man in tears (left), Samuel says: "It's rare to get pictures like this one in Singa- pore. "From having lived in Sydney, people react differently to cameras in Singapore. Generally, Singaporeans are very protective. It's not common for people to be forthcoming in front of a camera. So that's one of the chal- lenges, and why the picture of a man crying is rare." Samuel says he has a long way to go as he has worked professionally at the Straits Times for only 18 months. "Come back to me in five years," he jokes, "I will be much better by then." S lH PHOTOGRAPHER PROFILE Young man on a mission See more of Samuel He's photos and listen to the stories behind them on your mobile device by reading the QR code above, or head to: http://bit.ly/1Jm14d Singaporeans are rarely emotional in front of a camera, says Samuel He Rare insight into a den of foreign workers in Singapore I think I take good photos the more I know my subjects. When I do that, I enjoy my photographs" " www.panpa.org.au Foreign workers in Singapore cut meat on the dirty floor of their dormitories . . . this photography by Samuel He shocked a nation Samuel chooses to use a Nikon D3 ebecca Leaver NPA Photographer wins praise for essay on secret lives of foreign workers SamuelHe. . . 'Comebacktomeinfive years, I will be much better by then' 16 | The PANPA Bulletin | MARCH 2010