Time Out Singapore: John Clang

Despite living abroad, John Clang attempts to connect to his family through his photography and Skype. Gwen Pew asks the photographer more about ‘Being Together’.

John Clang.

John Clang.

4 Feb 2013: John Clang, whose real name is Ang Choon Leng, first earned his moniker from the badge on his National Service uniform, which read ‘C L Ang’. After a short stint at Lasalle studying fine arts, Ang left school to become an assistant to Cultural Medallion-winning photographer Chua Soo Bin. To give himself a leg up and increase his chances of being noticed, he adopted the European-sounding pseudonym, and it stuck. He’s certainly made a name for himself since, becoming the first photographer to be awarded the prestigious President’s Design Award in 2010. Clang also had his works displayed in museums and galleries all over the world – including New York, Paris, London and Hong Kong – as well as local venues such as 2902 Gallery, The Esplanade and the Singapore Art Museum (which has a selection of his works in their permanent collection).

These days, the youthful-looking 40-year-old is based abroad in New York, though his works continue to look back towards his home and family in Singapore. ‘Being Together’, a new show currently on display at the National Museum of Singapore, collects five of his recent photo series, some of which depict family members with blurred faces, as well as several family portraits showing groups from three different angles at the same moment or bringing together family members in different countries through Skype. Here, he tells us about his works and his sense of ‘home’.

What’s the main inspiration for your photography?
My photographs tend to be inspired by the slices of life, the minute experiences I encounter. To live a life is key to my work. The people featured in my work tend to be my family members, friends and total strangers. They sound like a whole range, but they are the same to me. It’s an intimate encounter when they enter my life in my pictures.

What do the faded faces and figures in some of your series symbolise?
I left my family fourteen years ago to pursue an artistic career away from home. The blurring of the faces in the photographs signifies the difficulty I have picturing their faces accurately in my mind, and the fear that, one day, I might not be able to remember their faces anymore.

Given the name of this show, what is it about ‘Being Together’ that you are most fascinated by?
Togetherness in a portrait session is a momentarily bonding at a specific time. I’m fascinated by the moment where all frictions or differences, if any, were being cast aside during that brief session. It shows the possibility that we can all actually tolerate one another, should we choose to.

Explain the setup you used with Skype to take some of the family portraits – how were they taken?

A webcam was brought to the family in Singapore, while me and my wife Elin were stationed in another country with their other family member. Then we used Skype to contact the family in Singapore, and projected them onto the wall of the family member stationed abroad. Through this coordination, we arranged for them to stand precisely together while I photographed their portrait. The whole process is live, and it’s important to see the interaction.

With more people living abroad, do you feel like people are becoming increasingly out of touch with each other, or have we found ways to bridge the geographical gaps?
Like any developed country, Singaporeans are turning to be very sociable via social networking. Personas in the cyber world tend to exude more warmth than the actual self. Have we bridged the gap in geographical distance? I’m not sure. I sometimes talk to my wife using internet chat even when we’re at home.

Being away from Singapore, do you feel like your own sense of rootedness has been warped, or does travelling give you a more solid sense of what ‘home’ is?

My sense of ‘rootedness’ comes from my Singaporean wife, my accent and my childhood and youth memories. They stay with me in my apartment and give me a sense of ‘home’. Through them, I understand what home means to me – it’s the memories and moments I bring along with me wherever I travel. Any plans to return to Singapore? I’ve been asked many times if I’ll ever return, and the answer is always the same – I can’t.

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