leekuanyew

Memorial photo pose 'the most natural thing in the world'

IT HAD begun to drizzle and with the afternoon light fading fast, the outdoor shoot had to be scrapped, recalled Indonesian photographer Tara Sosrowardoyo of an assignment he had landed on Nov 23, 2004.

The photographer, who was given only 40 minutes for the session, had to find and light a location in the Istana where he could photograph Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

They ended up taking most of the photos in Mr Lee's office as well as along a corridor.

Mr Tara, 62, recalls that Mr Lee was a willing subject. "Nothing in his manner or body language showed otherwise. In fact, he seemed more amused than annoyed when asked to take up different poses," he said.

The shoot had been commissioned by the National Museum of Singapore for its collection, but one of the images from that day - of Mr Lee resting his cheek on his hands, looking relaxed - has become the memorial portrait, used for his obituary, to accompany his coffin, and also at various tribute sites.

"It may seem that it took some audacity on my part to ask him to rest his right cheek on his clasped hands, but I didn't even think twice about it," said Mr Tara, who is mainly based in Kuala Lumpur. "It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do."

Earlier in the day, Mr Lee had sat for an oil painting for the museum, which also wanted its own set of photo portraits for commemorative reasons.

Said Ms Lee Chor Lin, then the museum's director and now the chief executive of Arts House Limited: "As a historian and curator, I knew too well the importance of symbols and images in connection with great historical events and great individuals, such as Mr Lee.

"The most difficult part was getting an appointment with Mr Lee, explaining our intention and getting him to agree to it."

On the appointed day, Mr Tara and assistant Rechy Agus Rachim had early access to the Istana to stage and light the outdoor portrait.

But their plans had to be abandoned when the weather refused to cooperate.

Mr Tara knew that he had to get over the setback quickly.

"The primary strategy was to not fiddle with the technical stuff, but instead to... engage and gain Mr and Mrs Lee's trust just enough to establish the rapport needed," said Mr Tara, whose allotted 40 minutes ran to an hour in the end.

He said he has asked other subjects to strike the same pose of resting their cheek on their hands, including his father-in-law, Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, in 2010. Mr Tara is married to Dr Mahathir's eldest child, Marina, 57.

He said: "It just seems natural that everyone should rest their head on their hands from time to time, if anything, to relieve the weight of one's head on one's neck. It's just relaxing, no?

"In Mr Lee's case, it lent him a warm, avuncular air, which in turn, drew out that benign expression which I feel is how many Singaporeans will choose to remember him."

calyang@sph.com.sg