I remember vividly experiencing a slight vertigo looking down the first flight of steps from the top floor of a point block when we started our door-to-door photo-collection in Toa Payoh. Knocking on a door seemed simple enough, but overcoming the fear of meeting strangers face-to-face for the first time and explaining what our intention was for disrupting their domestic routines was pretty overwhelming.
Top photo: Volunteers Quince (left) & Xuan Jin (right) visiting the residents at Redhill. Photo: SG Snaps
Before our team decided on the idea of knocking on the doors of residents from three neighbourhoods for three months, we had considered the many ways which can make our collection a lot simpler. The first instinctual idea was to
start an open call on social media, and then to receive photo-contributions from our direct networks of friends. If any contributor brought 1,000 photographs, which would be the average quantity taken by a snappy-happy household, all we needed were 15 contributors to be able to hit our target of 15,000. But what would that all mean – featuring those photographs from such a tight demographic and treating it as a survey of the family photographs taken in Singapore? Nothing much, we thought. What is, after all, a social art project without being “out there”, meeting new people and to be headed on by chance, discovery and adventure? Though passé enough, going door-to-door would be the best approach which we could pay tribute to the spirit of civic participation.
After gathering all of that rationalisation and plucking up the barest bit of courage, my volunteer partner, Stacy and I pressed on our first doorbell. Nobody responded. I went on to the next apartment, and then to the next, until somebody opened the door. There were a lot of nervous stutters and eyeballing each other at first when we tried to introduce and explain the project.
Putting aside our rough take-off, it was what seemed like a snowball of adrenaline that had shuttled us from one door to the other. Until the final day of our collection drive, we achieved and reached way beyond our target of receiving, scanning and returning over 15,000 old photographs.
It would be very tempting to celebrate the numbers but it is the journey that mattered
. Looking at the collection process on hindsight, we realise how humbling it has been for our team. We really have to salute the team of young volunteers from the secondary schools who had accompanied us on this expedition. The sweltering heat, along with our aching heels in our vertical marathons through the HDB flats were enough to slow us down. Yet, truth be told, it was the feeling of rejection that made each step heavy; the countless times when ignored our presence and pretended not to be at home, or when we were met with hostile “No’s” before we could even speak a word. Curious residents opened their doors, but only to a gap small enough for their eyes to peek through, and for them to quickly shut it as soon as they find out that what we had to offer was not up their alley.
It is simply uncommon for local residents to be greeted by a group of individuals doing an art project in the heartlands. So, naturally, this caused a handful of wary and skeptical residents with whom we spent more effort in sharing the value of preserving old printed photographs, and recognising the intangible values of art in a modern society like Singapore. By having a digital duplicate of a physical print, we can ensure that personal memories are not subjected to physical conditions of the print, like discolouration and paper disintegration. By connecting common themes through different contributors, we seek unity and hopefully see the ‘spirit of the times’ through strings of photographs in the animations.
Interestingly, a small group of residents expressed an aversion towards programs associated with the government. Even after we had explained that our project was initiated by independent artists and supported by the National Library Board, there was a sense of disassociation by some people who felt it was too good to be true. On polarised ends to members of the public who were excited and supportive of the project, there were also people who expressed disgruntled feelings to a project that conveyed the impression of nationalism. “I am a Singaporean but I do not want to have anything to do with Singapore” was a retort from one resident that left us bewildered.
All these experiences had taught us to be grateful every time
someone supported the project. Their mutual respect and encouragements are immediate oasis to our parched motivation. When residents opened their doors to invite us into their homes, never did the granite floors of the HDB apartments felt so cooling, and the chilled packet drinks that they had offered tasted so sweet. The moments that rejuvenated us the most was when we experienced the warmth and openness in the contributors in sharing with us their photographs and the personal stories that they narrated so fondly alongside them. It is those stories which had made this journey through the corridors of our heartlands and the private-historical passageways of our country’s psyche, entirely worthwhile.
Written by Samantha Tio
Edited by Tan Wei Keong