As he prepares for the launch of his book, 100 Singaporeans, photographer Wesley Kar-Wai Lo talks to Gwen Pew about capturing the Singaporean face.
2 Apr 2013: ‘I was looking for anyone with a pink IC – that was my only main criteria,’ says Wesley Kar-Wai Loh, 42, about his new book from local indie publisher Epigram Books entitled 100 Singaporeans, a collection of full-page portraits of local citizens. ‘I started off by asking my friends on Facebook if they’d like to be a part of the project, and then it was friends of friends, then friends of friends of friends and so on.’ The main objective of the project, says Loh, was to capture the ‘Singaporean face’, and he describes the end result as ‘a sea of faces’ – the book features page after page of close-up, full-page headshots captured in black and white, depicting subjects from hawker stall aunties to MPs and CEOs.
Born and bred in Singapore, Loh first became intrigued by the idea in 2009 when he returned here after spending a few years in Paris. ‘I came back and the city was completely different,’ he says, with a look of disbelief still evident in his face. ‘The buildings changed, the people changed. Everything changed, except the food, which is why we cherish it so much in this nation, I suppose – it’s the only thing that remains constant. So I realised that I wanted to capture faces before they changed, too.’
An accomplished black-and-white portrait photographer (he began shooting as a teen), Loh’s work also aims to examine who people are under their social masks. ‘I wanted to portray my subjects in their most natural forms, so I had to come up with a way to put them in a comfortable environment,’ he explains, adding that the shoots for the book would usually last no more than five or ten minutes. ‘I’d just get them to sit down, close their eyes and imagine themselves in a safe, relaxed place – whether it’s in their car driving home or in their mum’s kitchen. After one, two, three, I ask them to open their eyes and that’s the moment that I want to show in my pictures, because that’s when they look most at home. That’s who they really are.’