Facing East

October 06, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

During my secondment to Rolls-Royce aero engines in Singapore (2010-2011) I spent many of my non-working hours and weekends walking about and Andrew Wilkinson Photographer exploring new places. As a photographer my camera was my constant companion and together we saw and recorded thousands of moments, perspectives, emotions as images. 

As the time approached to return to Cambridge, UK I just wanted to have a go at one small project I'd set for myself - to capture the 'faces' of Singapore. I deliberated a while and decided to call it Facing East! The objective was simple enough - to photograph a representative cross-section of the faces of people in Singapore. How nice!

It didn't take long to realise that that was a mammoth task and, in any case, how would I know if the photographs would be truly representative? The truth is that unless I went into all the shops, offices, cafes, HDBs, private residences, highways and by-ways and so on and took enough photographs, it wouldn't be!

Scaling down the project objective was easy and instant! I didn't want to be overly-prescriptive, but I still needed a framework or some terms of reference within which to work, otherwise it would not really be a project! So, this was the very simple plan:

  • Go to a location somewhere about half-way along Orchard Road;
  • Stand there for about 4 hours and photograph as many individual people as possible within that time, and with their permission; 
  • Having taken the first photo then, as randomly and as quickly as possible, select the 'next' victim to come along, regardless of who they might be, their age, sex, 'look', and so on;
  • Repeat...

As for the 'objective'; within these terms it would be the product of the outcome of the photographs - a collection of portraits of people who 'agreed' taken on the street during the hottest and sunniest part of a very hot day! Saturday, 26th November 2011 - my eldest (of three) daughters' birthday. 

I had absolutely no idea how this would work in practice, but the inhabitants of Singapore seemed such lovely people. To bolster my confidence IJessica asked colleague and fellow photographer, Jessica (right) if she'd assist me by just being there. To my astonishment, she accepted! To give some credibility or authority, I even got us a couple of Nike neck straps with hook things on the end to which I attached a plastic holder containing one of my business cards. This could be thrust under the noses of people I approached. A bit pathetic when I look back! In the end we worked close-by each other, but independently taking our own photos.

To kick-off the process I shut my eyes and promised that when I opened them I would approach the first person I saw.....Be BOLD. Be CONFIDENT. I said:

"Hi, would you mind helping me with....err, a personal project I'm doing, called...umm, Facing East?"

"I'm making a record of the faces of randomly selected people in Singapore, and I would like to take a photo of you." :)

"Just do what you want to do - give me a smile, look serious, look thoughtful, snarl, smoke a cigarette....do whatever you want."


"Thank you. Have a pleasant day."

You know what?, try that on the High Street in somewhere like Grimsby and you'd probably get endless refusals, blank looks or a knuckle sandwich. Somehow, in the UK, I always get the impression that one is, to a stranger, first of all a weirdo or a pervert and only then, after a lengthy explanation of what you're up to (which totally kills the spirit of the exercise) you're deemed to be 'OK, but a little strange'. In Singapore, it was easy. In fact so easy that you felt the people wanted to help you! In fact one of my subjects took a photo of me (above, top) with my camera. Well, the sun was shining and, I'm sure, it helped!

It was a thoroughly enjoyable time. I wish I'd thought of doing it much earlier on during my stay and more extensively over time. Only a handful of people didn't want to participate. On average, I introduced myself, obtained permission, had a little chat, took a photograph, said thanks and goodbye every two minutes, non-stop. That's quite tiring, but no less effort than I'd put into photographing a wedding. We, Jessica and I, did stop for lunch at the Peranakan Place 'Outdoors' bar - a wonderful bar located at the bottom of Emerald Hill amongst a cluster of other wonderful bars, and only a 10 minute walk from my apartment. 

Here's a link to my photos (best viewed as slideshow)...I've not even seen Jessica's! 

The Techi Bits

It would be very remiss of me to completely ignore the photographic techi bits:

  • The camera type matters not one jot! I was using a bulky DSLR. Jessica was using an x100 (below) of which, OK I have to admit, I was a little envious.
  • Photographing portraits during the middle part of a sunny day is always a challenge and usually best avoided. Three main reasons come to mind: 1) watch out not to blow the highlight areas. Much better to compensate (-EV) for these in order to get them properly exposed. 2) potential for harsh shadows across your subject's face. Try to find dapple shade or have a light diffuser with you and someone to hold it for you. On this occasion I did not use one. 3) potential to require infill light. If your subject is generally facing away from the sun, then their face will be relatively dark. An infill flash or reflector will help to throw light back into the face for a more even lighting. On this occasion I used a little infill flash, but this can be tricky to get right. There is a 4th reason to avoid the middle of the day, and that is lunch! Because the project was on my terms this was easily overcome.
  • I wanted the same look and feel for each portrait, so I used a 50mm lens and set the camera to Aperture Priority, using f4. The only other requirement was for me to have each person generally occupy the same area in the frame.

I'd love to do this (sort of thing) again and I hope you've enjoyed sharing a little of the experience with me. If you have any photography requirements - weddings, corporate, headshots, portfolios, parties, gigs, blogshots, website pics, please contact me or give me a call and I'd be happy to have a no-obligation chat.

Best wishes



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