Objectifs centre for photography and film-making celebrates 15 years

Emmeline Yong (right), co-founder of Objectifs and her co-director, Wahyuni Hadi (left) at Objectifs. ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

SINGAPORE - In 2002, Singaporean investment bankers Emmeline Yong and Dawn Teo quit their high-flying jobs to start a school for film and photography.

What might have seemed like a gamble - they dug into their savings for a start-up capital of nearly $100,000 - has handsomely paid off.

Now in its 15th year, Objectifs is a hub for photography and film enthusiasts, with a programme packed with exhibitions, screenings, talks, workshops, and school visits. It has raised the profile of local creatives, and set photographer Sean Lee and film-maker Liao Jiekai on their journeys to become award-winning practitioners.

"We first started with a very simple premise - to have a space where the community could come together," says 41-year-old Yong, who is the company's co-founder and director. "We are very proud of the fact that we have been consistently promoting Singapore photographers and film-makers, even before that became trendy."

Objectifs (French for "lens") began in 2003 as a 1,600 sq ft visual arts centre, occupying two stories of an old shophouse in Liang Seah Street.

Six years later, it shifted to a 3,600 sq ft shophouse in Arab Street, before moving to its current home in 2015 - a canary-yellow chapel building in Middle Road. The 8,000 sq ft centre includes an office and administration building next door.

"When we started, our education programming was a lot stronger. Then we started developing our artistic vision... We want to create meaningful dialogue," says Yong.

Some of Objectifs' programmes include the Stories That Matter documentary programme that explores global issues such as climate change, the Women In Film And Photography showcase, and the Shooting Home mentorship programme for emerging photographers which launched the first day Objectifs opened.

Earlier this year (2018), the latter was reconfigured as the annual Objectifs Documentary Award, which will give two South-east Asian photographers financial and professional support over six months. The junior version of Shooting Home, for photographers aged 15 to 23, still exists.

At the beginning, Yong and Teo approached many people in the photography and film industry for advice. One of them was award-winning photographer Tay Kay Chin.

Tay, 53, says: "I asked Dawn and Emmeline in a very blunt way, 'How much money are you prepared to lose?'"

After the duo convinced him that they meant business, he tapped his own network of partners, sponsors and collaborators to encourage more people to work with the new centre.

"I helped them because I believe Singapore really needed a place where learning photography is less top-down, where students can feel assured that if they were to suggest something new, it would not be put down," adds Tay.

Yong and Teo started off doing everything themselves - from organising events to fixing toilets to painting walls. Members of the community would also lend a hand - film-maker Royston Tan packed catalogues, and photographer Bryan van der Beek assembled furniture.

"When we started, someone said we should not open... maybe because we were not from an arts background," says Yong, who adds that not being practitioners made them "very open to listening".

The two women did not draw a salary for two years. And during the Sars outbreak in 2003, fewer people wanted to attend workshops.

But Yong and board director Teo - who left in 2005 and now works in the hospitality sector - eventually recouped their losses, and the centre is now financially sustainable.

In 2014, Objectifs became officially non-profit, qualifying for the National Arts Council seed grant of $150,000 per year which it received two years later (2016). When the three-year seed grant ends next year (2019), they plan to apply for another NAC grant under the Major Company Scheme. The NAC also subsidises more than half the rent under the Arts Housing Scheme.

Yong says that about 20 per cent of revenue comes from NAC funding, while the rest comes from workshops, courses, and curatorial and consulting work.

To mark its 15th anniversary this year, Objectifs will launch a book containing the thoughts and reflections of 15 photographers and 15 film-makers.

Practitioners describe Objectifs as a place that allowed them to get to know others in the community, and learn about visual storyteling in an open, democratic environment.

"You could say I started my career as a photographer at Objectifs," says documentary photographer Ore Huiying, 36, who attended the centre's classes and Shooting Home workshop, and staged her first solo show there four years ago.

"They strike a balance between catering to the arts community and the amateurs who are still learning." She hopes to see more exhibitions featuring high-profile international photographers.

While the centre has not had any run-ins with censorship, Yong adds: "There is this fear that everyone is retreating into our tribal groups and beliefs... I hope there will be more openness in the way people approach art."

Future plans at Objectifs include introducing a photography programme that offers a more focused view of themes in Singapore, Yong says. She also hopes to start a programme where staff can share their expertise with emerging curators.

"It's actually young days for us."

To pre-order Objectifs 15 ($50), go to www.objectifs.com.sg/product/objectifs-15-book/ The books have to be collected from Objectifs' retail store at 155 Middle Road. All proceeds will go to the centre.

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