Google the term ‘street photography’ and you will find dozens of varying, and sometimes conflicting, definitions. It is a fluid term, whose meaning and parameters have evolved over the past few decades. But while it may be hard to pinpoint what street photography is, it is clear what it is not. It is not photojournalism – which reports on a story or an issue – a difference that needs to be made clear.
On the second floor of an inconspicuous, old-terraced building on South Bridge Road hides a small new gallery where over 50 photographs hang – some solo, others in groups of three – on brightly lit walls. Individually, each shows unique character, and together they look like assorted candies in a box, all essentially the same thing but with different shapes, colours and centres.
The photos comprise a random array of scenes – some shot in black and white, others in colour – of people, places and moods across the streets of Asia. ‘The Colt Attacks’ by Indian photographer Karan Vaid shows a man pulling a young horse by a rope while a blurry figure looms in the foreground; Japan’s revered cult snapper Junku Nishimura’s simply titled ‘Photograph 1’ is a cleverly composed shot of a person hugging a bolster with a face which masks the subject’s own.
Another ‘face-centred’ photo, ‘Curious Dealer’ by Singaporean Kevin WY Lee, shows a middle-aged Chinese gentleman looking through an antique glass door, with a flash of yellow light obscuring his eyes.
Welcome to the Invisible Photographer Asia, a new gallery that specialises in street photography in Asia.
The gallery is the culmination of online platform Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA), started last year by the aforementioned Lee, which has grown from strength to strength. A major happening on the IPA website was an Asia-wide street photography competition, held a few months back. The top 20 entries form the core of the gallery’s inaugural exhibition.
For IPA’s Lee, street photography is defined as ‘observation photography’. ‘A street photographer wakes up in the morning, puts on his shoes, picks up his camera – usually with a single, focal lens – and walks out into the street to observe daily life,’ Lee says. His passion for this genre and fascination with Asia inspired him to start a website that collated other street photographers’ work and also displayed his own pieces. ‘Slowly, we started seeing our fanbase grow and our traffic increasing, and I thought: Wow, there’s something here. People actually like what we do.’
IPA’s competition attracted more than 3,400 entries from across the continent. ‘While we got a mix of established and new photographers entering the competition, a lot of the winners are emerging photographers.’
Lee, along with accomplished Chinese street photographer Ying Tang, Malaysian/Hong Kong street photographer Paul Swee and Singaporean photojournalist Edwin Koo, judged the myriad entries and, in the end, picked ‘The Colt Attacks’ as the winning piece (pictured above).
‘The photo is taken on the spur of the moment,’ says Lee of their choice. ‘It’s a decisive moment, the guy is caught mid-action, and it’s very suggestive of a story. You don’t quite know what the story is – who is this guy, is he a bandit running away? There is a sense of mystery about the photo.’
Reactions online were strong, varying from wholehearted agreement with the judges’ choice of winner to borderline outrage. ‘This image is not necessarily the sharpest,’ explains Kevin, ‘but I think street photography is not about an image being technically perfect. A photo that has a story to it, or conjures up notions, is better than a picture that is perfectly shot, but empty. And the majority of us judges picked this picture as the winner. I’m very happy about that, because it was my favourite.’
So what does IPA hope to achieve with its niche website and the new gallery? ‘In Asia, or at least in Singapore, the focus is on commercial photographers. They get the limelight, but other photographers who do fringe work don’t get as much attention. We don’t work on big glossy campaigns or with supermodels. At IPA we will show the work of these street photographers who don’t get much mainstream recognition, but are doing very good work.’
Judging by lively activity on the IPA website and the response to its new gallery, Lee and the team are well on their way to making that a reality.
Street Photography Asia’s exhibition is on display until 8 Oct at IPA Gallery, admission is free. Address and details of Invisible Photography Asia here.