Internationally-acclaimed photographer Mr Darren Soh (Arts and Social Sciences ’00) has sought to tell his own ‘Singapore story’, as seen through his lens, and also uses his work to draw attention to social issues ranging from conservation to the plight of migrant workers.
WHO HE IS
One of Singapore’s foremost architectural photographers, Mr Darren Soh’s cityscapes have been exhibited around the world. The winner of several photography prizes, he has also published a number of books, the most recent being 2018’s Before It All Goes – Architecture from Singapore’s Early Independence (which has been shortlisted for the President's Design Award 2020, the results of which will be announced in July).
His photographic subjects utter not a word, yet they speak volumes to him. And while they stay completely still, he takes delight in discovering their different moods in various light. Welcome to the world of architectural photographer, Mr Darren Soh. Now 44, Mr Soh dabbled in photography as a teenager and shot for The Straits Times throughout his university days. When he found himself without a job upon graduation (“the world was in the throes of the Asian financial crisis,” he recalls), working as a freelance photographer “shooting everything and anything” became the means to earning a living.
Then, in 2006, Mr Soh experimented with large-format cameras typically used for landscape, architectural, and fine art photography, and started shooting buildings. “The meticulousness that it called for and the solitude that it accorded appealed to me,” says the Sociology graduate, who is the father of an eight-year-old boy. He fell in love with the process and found his niche in architectural photography. That same year, he was invited by Singapore’s then-Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) to contribute to Canvas, an anthology of photographic works that would be presented to delegates at Singapore 2006, the 61st Annual Meeting of the Boards of Governors of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group – the biggest global event Singapore had ever organised at that time. He went on to contribute pictures of what he called “Singapore scapes” such as the inside of Mustafa Centre and the façade of his old HDB block at Commonwealth.
Since then, Mr Soh has shot for international magazines such as Wallpaper and Monocle. His works have been acquired by the National Museum of Singapore and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as well as by corporate and private collectors from around the world. Building Blocks – a folio of his architectural work on public housing façades in Singapore – has been on display at the Kay Ngee Tan Architects Gallery since 2007. In 2017, his photographs of public housing in Singapore were showcased at the Singapore Pavilion of EXPO 2017 Astana (now Nur-Sultan) in Kazakhstan, as well as at the St+Art Urban Art Festival in Mumbai, India. His now-famous picture of the reflection of an HDB block also made him the only photographer from Asia among the 10 global winners of Apple’s inaugural #shotoniphone Challenge in 2019.
Though the images are still and their subjects are inanimate, Mr Soh’s photographs of the spaces Singaporeans work, live, and play in tell multi-layered stories of the country. His pictures also serve to document the rapid changes in our local landscape, brought about by urban growth and redevelopment.
You never know when a photograph will take on a life of its own — sometimes even beyond that of the photographer.
What would you consider milestones in your career?
Apart from finding my niche in architectural photography in 2006, the publishing of my first book, While You Were Sleeping, in 2004 was also a highlight. This collection of nocturnal landscapes from Singapore showed my transition from street, to landscape, to formal architecture photography.
The 2013 release of For My Son – a collection of images of threatened and demolished vernacular spaces in Singapore – was another milestone. When I was putting images together for the book, my son was only
a year old. I realised there were all these places getting demolished which he would never see; places of significance to me which I will only be able to show him through photographs. It was then that I started to question why we were not able to save more old buildings, and why ‘new’ is always perceived as better than ‘old’. It was also then that I realised that what I was doing could be used to further a cause. Prior to For My Son, I usually told people – only when asked – about how I documented old buildings because of our country’s rapid redevelopment. After 2013, I couldn’t just sit around and be an observer any more.
You have been active in educating the public on the merits of post-Independence Modernist structures in Singapore, and are also an advocate for their conservation. Why is conservation such an important topic to you?
Less than 15 buildings built after Singapore’s independence have been gazetted for conservation. After
For My Son, I started working with architects and historians and am very much involved in the modern conservation movement in Singapore now. Photography as a means of helping us remember things is still
a big and important part of my work, but now I also use photography to educate and raise awareness. I understand not all buildings can be saved, but what I want is to start a debate, and not for everything to just be determined by market forces. Currently, the market decides the fate of all commercially- and privately-owned buildings. If we don’t start debating about this, and accept the demolition of old buildings as the norm, we will lose many of them. The topic is important to me because, in the grander scheme of things,
it is hard for a country to find its identity if its landscape is forever new and changing – we will always be strangers in our own land.
You are working on a large-scale, self-initiated project documenting 60 years of public housing in Singapore. Why the particular focus on this?
Singapore has possibly the most successful public housing programme in the world, and over 80 per cent of Singaporeans happily live in public housing. This did not happen by accident; there were a lot of people and policies that made it what it is today. This is a story that needs to be told. In fact, I am happy that my picture of the reflection of an HDB block won Apple’s #shotoniphone Challenge, and has been circulated worldwide.
Amid Singapore’s COVID-19 outbreak in April, you spearheaded the Migrant Worker Beneficiary Print Sale, rallying seven other local photographers to sell prints of old works. This resulted in a total of $59,540 being donated to five non-governmental organisations that support migrant workers impacted by the pandemic. What prompted you to do so?
While reading Sociology at NUS, I photographed Bangladeshi workers for a module and got to know them. Since then, I have felt that migrant workers should be treated better — and this isn’t the first time I have raised money for them. When Singapore transitioned from a 2G to 3G network, I raised money to buy about a hundred cell phones and passed these to the workers through NGOs.
Why did we want to help the migrant workers through our work this time? Because we can. It is a way to use photography beyond just as a tool for documentation. One of the prints I sold is that of the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, which is one of the hotspots of the viral outbreak. When I took that picture more than five years ago, I had no intention of using it for this purpose. This is why photography is such a fascinating medium and why I continue to pursue it. You never know when a photograph will take on a life of its own — sometimes even beyond that of the photographer.
How else has a background in Sociology shaped your professional growth?
Sociology is the key to everything. It tells you why people do things in groups or as a society, and that has shaped my decision to keep taking photographs. It allows me to reason with myself as to why things are the way they are, and examine the role my images have played, and will play, in this ever-surprising world.
Text by Koh Yuen Lin. Photo of Darren Soh by CY Kong