The very first portrait Mr Nicky Loh photographed was of his grandmother, as part of his final-year photojournalism project in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. She had dementia and he wanted to remember the way she looked before she faded away.
"My motto has always been about documenting things that will go away. I enjoy telling stories through visuals," said the 38-year-old.
The commercial photographer and film director began his career as a photojournalist at Reuters, which shaped how he takes photographs with emotional intimacy.
Covering the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 for 11/2 months was tiring, but memorable, he said.
If not for the coronavirus pandemic, he would continue with his advertising work and film projects.
Mr Loh has photographed American actress Gwyneth Paltrow at the rooftop of Marina Bay Sands for British Airways and shot a Nike campaign in Thailand. His first magazine cover was of local actor Lim Kay Tong holding a durian and chopper for Esquire magazine.
When the circuit breaker started on April 7, and people were strongly advised to stay at home and avoid going out unnecessarily, Mr Loh was inspired to start The Family Portrait Project. He wanted to give people a family photograph as a special memory during the circuit breaker, to make them happy.
“Despite being under the same roof, most of us don’t think of taking a photo together. So I thought that the circumstances are the perfect situation for family photos, because we’re all stuck (at home).”
He reached out to friends and mutual contacts, and arranged to shoot their portraits through video calls on chat apps Zoom and Whats- App. Since April 28, he has photographed over 100 families.
One of them is Mr Khairizal Azman, 38, an operations supervisor for carparks and facilities, and his mother, Madam Rosmini Sulong, 58, a support services assistant at Jamiyah Home for the Aged.
Mr Khairizal’s father died on May 19, just five days before Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
Mr Khairizal, whose photo shoot was on Hari Raya, said: “It has been quite a trying experience with Covid-19. It makes us step back and pause, while we evaluate everything in our lives and how we are going to move forward post-circuit breaker.
CONNECTED, BUT FRAGMENTED
Choosing to use my camera to shoot the video chat screen on my phone to amplify the pixels was an important medium for this project. The pixels remind us that we are still fragmented, even though we are connected. We should rise above our daily rush, slow things down and see clearly that in the end - family, kindness and love is more important than anything else.
MR NICKY LOH, on the amplified pixels being an important medium in his project.
“My mother lost her wonderful husband and we lost a wonderful dad before Raya, and it was the main catalyst for us to be part of the photo project.
“The photo is a reminder that despite the roller coaster of emotions that we are all feeling, we – as a family – have got each other’s back.”
For Mr Loh, who is married and has a two-year-old son, the amount of time spent with family is a silver lining during the circuit breaker.
He was diagnosed with stage 2 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last October. Busy with work, he did not recognise the early signs – itchy skin, swollen lymph nodes, night sweats and weight loss.
Half of his face was swollen, caused by the obstruction of blood to the brain. The doctor said he would most likely have died in 30 days if he had not sought immediate treatment to reduce the tumour.
Mr Loh underwent six sessions of chemotherapy before he got an all-clear from his doctor on March 24. He said: “Despite the very gloomy situation right now, I think now is a very good time to relax and recharge, and think about your priorities in life.
“Think about what you love doing. Treasure the people around you right now – because now is the best time.”
NICKY LOH (NL): "This sweet couple had texted me beforehand that they were preparing something special for me and when I called, I was pleasantly surprised to see them decked out in a In The Mood For Love theme. I told them about Maggie Cheung lying down on Tony Leung's lap and they said, 'Let's do it'."
NL: "Khairizal had texted me before the shoot to say that this would be a special Hari Raya family portrait because this would be the first time they would be spending the occasion without his father who had passed away five days before the photo shoot.
It's heartfelt stories like this that make the project more meaningful."
NL: "This mother-and-daughter pair have been stuck in Phuket, Thailand, since the beginning of the circuit breaker, and I thought it would be funny to pose them similarly - looking bored and hapless."
NL: "This family was in the middle of a mahjong session when I video called them, and it was particularly funny because I had told them to carry on with their game."
NL: "Mimi the cat took me by surprise when she appeared out of nowhere on the screen because she thought that there was food. The moment was both hilarious and terrifying."
NL: "This was my first time meeting and photographing the two, but I had spent some time chatting with them to get them comfortable and into this lovely moment that I thought showed the love between them so well."
NL: "I recently reconnected with Sophina, a polytechnic mate of mine, during this circuit breaker. She's the owner of local butchery, The Meatery, and I wanted to get some good cuts of meat to cook. When I approached her for this project, she immediately said yes and it was nice reconnecting with her again."
NL: "Sarah and her family are expats who are stuck in Singapore due to the circuit breaker. I loved their energy coming into the shoot. From their interaction and expressions, you could really tell that they were enjoying time together so hopefully this photograph helps them remember that moment."
NL: "This couple have been living in their partially renovated flat in Tampines since the start of the circuit breaker. The renovations could not be completed because home renovations have to be suspended during this period."
NL: "Hari Raya Aidilfitri was particularly special this year because of the no-visiting rule during the circuit breaker. This family later told me they were very excited to be given this photo opportunity and that it made their day special."
NL: "Jasmine and Alvin are two of my dearest friends who always say their house is like a petting zoo. So we decided to feature some of their pets in the photo."
NL: "These two are brilliant, dedicated craftsmen who work from their home workshop. Louis a woodworker and Adelene is a bookbinder. Their love for cats is undeniable - see if you can spot their four adopted cats."
NL: "I wanted to photograph Tamimi and his family to highlight his brittle bone disease, and to raise awareness of his plight and the family's fund-raising efforts. Tamimi has had more than 70 fractures since birth. To prevent his condition from getting worse with more fractures, he has to be ferried to and from school by a London cab since 2018, which is costly."
NL: "I never used to call my mum and stepdad often until the circuit breaker happened - that was the silver lining that brought us closer. I know she misses me a lot so I try my best to call her and she can see her grandson. This photo is so important to me."
NL: "Yann and Rei are a lovely couple who had their baby in the early part of the Covid-19 outbreak, which I'm sure made them very worried since this is their first baby. With the circuit breaker, Yann has had more time to assist Rei in looking after the baby, which to me is another silver lining of the circuit breaker - being to be able to be there for our loved ones more."
NL: "Yinzhou is the charismatic head of volunteer group Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition. I had volunteered with the group and despite working with Yinzhou, I never knew much about his personal life until this photo shoot happened and I got to meet his family. As he says, 'This circuit breaker has made us realise how empty the home can be without family'."
NL: "Monica is a friend of mine and she's always been active about posting photos of her lovely family. The photo arrangement seemed pretty standard so I asked if Tawa was game to just lie down like a plank across the whole family since he was the smallest."
NL: "Calvin answered the call in his bathrobe saying there’s nothing underneath. Of course I knew he was kidding. The whole family photo speaks so much of their individual creative personalities. Mom and dad were once super high ranking advertising creatives now pursuing their own passions. The son Dylan, 17, is trying to get a Kickstarter going for lego blocks Hydrohphonics technology so we can be sustainable and grow our own vegetables. The daughter Ava 13, is the director and designer of the jewellery brand DOTR, inspired by the designs of the Peranakan love letter press."
NL: "Laurent and Karen are the loveliest couple I know and I remember them particular well because I'm Hainanese like Karen and Laurent is a work buddy. Their kids had trouble smiling for the camera but when Emma stood in front and blocked her dad, I knew that was the moment I got my tongue-in-cheek photo."
NL: "Melissa is a polytechnic mate whom I haven't met since we left school 18 years ago. In a way, this project helped me reconnect with a lot of old friends. I arranged them according to height because it made an interesting symmetry."
NL: "I love how Zim Goh the cat looks unnaturally long in this photo and almost as tall as John’s children."
NL: "I had met Elyn once during a magazine editorial shoot for Singapore's Women's Weekly as she was the designer for the local brand Stolen. When I called her and saw that she had dressed up exquisitely, I told her I wanted this photo to look like it could appear on the centrefold of a magazine."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2020, with the headline 'Celebrating love and life through pixels'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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