9 questions with Singaporean photographer Nguan who took over New Yorker Photo Instagram

Two girls slumped on a bench after a game of badminton.
Two girls slumped on a bench after a game of badminton.PHOTO: NGUAN
The corridor of a Housing & Development Board block.
The corridor of a Housing & Development Board block.PHOTO: NGUAN
A man reading a newspaper on an overhead bridge.
A man reading a newspaper on an overhead bridge.PHOTO: NGUAN

Housing Board flats, overhead bridges, two girls slumped on a bench after playing badminton, plastic bags of water laid out on a stone table.

The enigmatic Singaporean photographer who only wants to be known Nguan (pronounced 'nu-aung') imbues these everyday scenes with delicate hues and a wistful patina.

While Nguan grew up in Singapore, he studied film in Northwestern University in Illinois. His published books span cities all over the world, including Tokyo, Los Angeles, Beijing, Hong Kong, and of course, Singapore.

During National Day week, Nguan took over the New Yorker Photo Instagram account, filling its feed with images familiar to every Singaporean.

Plastic chairs stacked outside a restaurant, the national flag hanging from a railing, an old man taking a break from collecting cardboard.


Stacks of plastic chairs outside a restaurant. PHOTO: NGUAN

His images are spare, yet you can read as much as you want into them. And he snaps them the old-fashioned way - on film.

But he has recently conquered social media, amassing more than 46,000 followers on Instagram, where he posted his first image in February this year.

He answers nine questions from The Straits Times:

You've lived in cities throughout the world. Is Singapore still home?


A cat rests under the Singapore flag. PHOTO: NGUAN


I feel Singaporean in many ways. I like how casual our speech and everyday interactions are; I know by heart how certain roads bend. I eat chicken rice without chilli and ginger though.

How did you capture the photos in your 'Singapore' series?

The work is an attempt to create a fantastical version of the country using mainly documentary methods. I wanted the portrayal to be honest yet mythical and dreamlike but true.

What camera do you use?

For ten years I've used a Fuji mechanical rangefinder. It's fairly unwieldy by today's standards, but I've grown totally comfortable with it; by now it feels like an extension of my hand.

Can you tell us why you prefer a pastel palette, and do you alter the photographs to achieve this?

For my "Singapore" series, I aimed for a tone that recalled illustrated children's books or painted theatrical sets. I thought this would jar in an interesting way with darker themes in the work.

I do make some adjustments, but mostly the pictures look the way they do because of the distinct qualities of film and its colour casts.

Why do you continue to use film when digital cameras are ubiquitous?

Film responds to light in a unique and irreplicable way. It's my medium of choice. A painter makes a comparable commitment when he or she chooses oils or watercolours instead of Corel Painter.

Instagram gives anyone with a smartphone a platform for their photos. Is this a boon or bane for professional photographers?

There are countless soccer games going on in parks and school fields around the world, but that doesn't mean players in professional leagues should feel threatened.

Anything which sparks wider interest in photography and encourages visual sophistication is very welcome.

What do you think of preset filters?

They're fine if you like them. I'm not a presets kind of guy though. I don't use the presets on my microwave either.

What is your favourite place in Singapore?

My room, where I'm surrounded by my disturbingly obsessive collection of music and books.

Can you choose three of your photographs that you personally love, or are memorable for you, and tell us why?

This is a photograph from 2011 of Queenstown cinema, which was demolished in 2013. I only discovered the picture recently while looking through my negatives. It feels like a gift, because I have absolutely no memory of making the picture. This must be what it's like to receive a letter from a dead lover.

This is an image I made a week ago, of a man reading his newspaper and a younger man squinting into his tiny cellphone. I've found it challenging to work in MRT stations - photography is apparently prohibited, and I'm usually asked by security staff to leave.

Yearning is the dominant theme that runs through all of my work. Singaporeans are restless by nature - we have wandering hearts. This picture describes the longing to be in a different place or time.