Jean Loo & Zakaria Zainal (photographers, GE11: We Were There)

As Sin­ga­pore takes to the polls again tomor­row, we take a moment to reflect on the (almost?) water­shed Gen­er­al Elections’11. It has been an excit­ing year for us as a coun­try, and for us as a gen­er­a­tion.

Today, we speak to Zakaria Zainal (or Zak, as he com­mon­ly goes by) and Jean Loo. Both Zak and Jean are alum­ni of the Wee Kim Wee School of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion & Infor­ma­tion (where the Redis­cov­er­SG crew are fin­ish­ing their final year of under­grad­u­ate stud­ies), and con­trib­u­tors to GE11: We Were There, a 60-page mag­a­zine fea­tur­ing pho­tos of the Gen­er­al Elec­tions 2011 done in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Plat­form, a vol­un­teer pho­tog­ra­ph­er group.

We talk to them about the GE11 project, their expe­ri­ences as young inde­pen­dent cre­atives, and suss out some advice for young, aspir­ing Sin­ga­pore­ans who may be con­sid­er­ing the free­lance route upon grad­u­a­tion.

Zakaria Zainal and Jean Loo, at the launch of ‘GE11: We Were There’ at Book­s­Ac­tu­al­ly in May.

Jean cur­rent­ly works as an inde­pen­dent pho­tog­ra­ph­er, pro­duc­er and writer, and the last we heard, Zak has just returned to Sin­ga­pore from his sec­ond trip to Nepal to con­tin­ue a sto­ry on the Gurkhas of Sin­ga­pore that he start­ed while on intern­ship there in 2009.

Tell us a bit about your­self and what you’re doing now.

Zak: I am cur­rent­ly work­ing on an anthol­o­gy of por­traits and anec­dotes from the retired Sin­ga­pore Gurkhas as they rem­i­nisce about life in the Lion City — from the 1950s till mod­ern day Sin­ga­pore. The top­ic of the retired Sin­ga­pore Gurkhas and their fam­i­lies is some­thing I have been work­ing on for a cou­ple of years.

Jean: Most of my time’s spent cook­ing up projects which are of a pret­ty diverse nature and makes work very inter­est­ing. I’ve just fin­ished up a short film on love in Sin­ga­pore for IDEO, a mul­ti­me­dia piece on dog abuse and aban­don­ment for an ani­mal wel­fare group, and co-pro­duced a rov­ing exhi­bi­tion on The Sin­ga­pore Spir­it and Nation­al Day Parade. I’m cur­rent­ly “switch­ing chan­nels” to a few oth­er projects like a doc­u­men­tary mul­ti­me­dia clip on Lien Aid (a Sin­ga­pore-based NGO deal­ing with water and san­i­ta­tion in devel­op­ing coun­tries) which took me to Yun­nan, Chi­na and anoth­er piece on ex-offend­ers in Sin­ga­pore look­ing for a sec­ond chance in life.

It was the dawn of a new hi-tech era. In 1972, polit­i­cal par­ties were giv­en air­time to talk to vot­ers in their own liv­ing rooms via tele­vi­sion. The tra­di­tion of the par­ty polit­i­cal broad­cast was still with us in 2011. But with all the hype sur­round­ing the inter­net and social media, watch­ing the broad­casts on tele­vi­sion — even on a flatscreen high-def­i­n­i­tion set — had an odd­ly nos­tal­gic feel. (Zakaria Zainal/2011)

How did you get involved in the GE’11 We Were There project?

Zak: Tay Kay Chin, my pho­to­jour­nal­ism lec­tur­er in WKWSCI, had approached sev­er­al pho­tog­ra­phers includ­ing myself and asked if we want­ed to be part of the GE11 mag­a­zine, a com­mem­o­ra­tive pub­li­ca­tion for the his­toric elec­tions. Kay Chin was also the pic­ture edi­tor and design­er of the mag­a­zine and I knew that this col­lab­o­ra­tion of high­ly tal­ent­ed indi­vid­u­als would lead to some­thing spe­cial. I feel real­ly blessed to be part of this mag­a­zine.

Jean: I learnt about the project through Kay Chin on Face­book and things just hap­pened from there. It is very grat­i­fy­ing to be part of such a project with my fel­low pho­tog­ra­ph­er peers.

As his wife Lina Chi­am address­es sup­port­ers after the Sin­ga­pore People’s Par­ty los­es Potong Pasir for the first time since 1984, Mr Chi­am See Tong sits qui­et­ly in the front of a lor­ry as res­i­dents come up to thank and com­fort him. (Jean Loo, 2011)

Tell us a bit about what it meant to you per­son­al­ly to cov­er the GE’11 hap­pen­ings, why you want­ed to doc­u­ment it, your sen­ti­ments as a first-time vot­er, was there a sto­ry you want­ed to tell?

Zak: The elec­tions is an event of great impor­tance to all Sin­ga­pore­ans, includ­ing myself. Pho­tog­ra­phy is a method of commemoration—to have peo­ple, places and objects from doc­u­ment to mem­o­ry. And that was what I sought out to do, to have my own pho­tographs and inter­pre­ta­tion of the elec­tions.

As I had spent a large chunk of my time pho­tograph­ing events and peo­ple in coun­tries like Nepal, Pak­istan and Bangladesh, I have been try­ing to make a greater effort in doc­u­ment­ing events and peo­ple at home. Per­son­al­ly, these are the things which mat­ter the most to me. The elec­tions was a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to do so as well as to make mean­ing of this place we all call home.

Sin­gaplur­al is a tilt-shift per­spec­tive on the recent Sin­ga­pore Gen­er­al Elec­tions. Sin­ga­pore­ans from all walks of life — regard­less of race, lan­guage and reli­gion — come togeth­er to attend and lis­ten to var­i­ous polit­i­cal ral­ly hotspots all over Singapore—in what is a con­test of the hearts and minds of cit­i­zens. (Zakaria Zainal, 2011)

Jean: I remem­ber attend­ing a Work­ers Par­ty ral­ly in 2006 at Seran­goon sta­di­um and was com­plete­ly over­whelmed by the ener­gy in the air. Back then, I hadn’t dis­cov­ered pho­tog­ra­phy and only had one pic­ture snapped on my old Nokia hand­phone of myself in the crowd. This time round, I was excit­ed to be able to use my pho­tos to show my friends over­seas the excite­ment going on at home because I wished that they were here to expe­ri­ence it with me.

Par­tic­u­lar­ly, I am a very emo­tion­al per­son and was drawn to the inten­si­ty of pas­sion in the air. I want­ed my pho­tographs to con­vey the feel­ings I felt — whether it was the anx­i­ety in the air at Hougang Sta­di­um on Polling Day or the heart-tug­ging moments cen­tered around Mr Chi­am See Tong. I made it a point to attend ral­lies to lis­ten to speak­ers whom I felt for — I find that invis­i­ble bond between speak­er and lis­ten­er extreme­ly pow­er­ful.

Sup­port­ers of the Sin­ga­pore People’s Par­ty lis­ten to Mr Chi­am See Tong speak. (Jean Loo, 2011)

As both of you are cur­rent­ly freelancing/independent cre­atives, could you share with us how and why you chose to do your own thing after grad­u­at­ing, what are the pros and cons of hav­ing cho­sen this life, and what are some of the most impor­tant lessons you’ve learnt so far from choos­ing this path?

Zak: The inde­pen­dent cre­ative option is prob­a­bly sim­i­lar to run­ning your own busi­ness. Besides the cre­ative work, there is also a sub­stan­tial part of quo­ta­tions, invoic­es and accounts to man­age. It is an avenue worth explor­ing as you get a bit more free­dom to do the work you are real­ly excit­ed about and also get to explore your per­son­al cre­ative vision. It will be good to build up net­works and rel­e­vant skills sets before grad­u­at­ing and embark­ing on this jour­ney.

Using a per­spec­tive con­trol lens, it cre­at­ed a minia­turised and alter­na­tive per­spec­tive to the elec­tions. For Sin­gaplur­al, these com­mon, and some­times over­looked, spaces have com­bined a plu­ral­i­ty of peo­ple, per­spec­tives and ideas con­verg­ing into one loca­tion dur­ing this elec­tions. (Zakaria Zainal, 2011)

Jean: I’m quite a free-spir­it­ed per­son and realised dur­ing my trav­els ear­li­er on as a stu­dent that I want­ed to get the most out of life before I die. I realised that pho­tog­ra­phy could be a means of achiev­ing that so I decid­ed to give it my best shot and see where this path would take me. I’m cur­rent­ly in my 3rd year of work­ing inde­pen­dent­ly and there have been plen­ty of rough moments — To name a few: a lack of con­fi­dence, the ini­tial depres­sion of earn­ing way below my peers who took on a more sta­ble job in the media indus­try, try­ing to grap­ple the con­cept of bal­anc­ing pas­sion and sur­vival, how to run my skills as busi­ness assets… and the list goes on and on. But the beau­ti­ful thing about doing your own thing is that you real­ly under­stand about what it means to “own your life”. I’m con­stant­ly fueled on by excit­ing projects which open my eye to anoth­er aspect of life, encour­ag­ing friends and strangers from all walks of life who I meet through my work and most impor­tant­ly, under­stand­ing my place in this world to a deep­er extent.

A Wok­ers Par­ty sup­port­er lis­tens to Mr Low Thia Khi­ang speak at Hougang Sta­di­um on the first day of ral­lies on 28 April 2011. (Jean Loo, 2011)

Was there any soci­etal pres­sure for you to choose a more con­ven­tion­al path after grad­u­at­ing? Was it dif­fi­cult to make the choice to go inde­pen­dent?

Jean: Yes, of course there was. It was pret­ty cool to be doing your own thing, but def­i­nite­ly not cool when you can bare­ly earn enough to keep your dreams alive. I gave myself 3 years after I grad­u­at­ed to work towards a cer­tain stan­dard of achieve­ments that I men­tal­ly set for myself (whether in terms of dol­lars, trav­els and hap­pi­ness.) Glad to say, I’ve achieved what I set out to do 3 years ago and am very excit­ed to con­tin­ue grow­ing as a young pho­tog­ra­ph­er and see what comes along. 🙂

The choice to go inde­pen­dent was not easy as I had to give up a job, I had no idea how to make mon­ey from it but I knew I was crav­ing for an adven­ture and was will­ing to work extra hard for it. Thank­ful­ly my par­ents and friends were very sup­port­ive with my “three-year-plan”, so it was pret­ty much up to me to make it work.

What advice would you give to stu­dents and under­grad­u­ates who may be con­sid­er­ing the free­lanc­ing option, either while they are study­ing or imme­di­ate­ly after grad­u­a­tion?

Jean: If you do have a pas­sion you want to pur­sue — PLAN HARD. I’m a firm believ­er of plan­ning your pas­sion to make it work for you. Grant­ed that there are cer­tain things beyond our con­trol (I call it fate — angel­ic clients, peo­ple who help you along the way, oppor­tu­ni­ties, luck), there are MANY oth­er aspects we can con­trol to make sure that we are ready for oppor­tu­ni­ties that come knock­ing on our door. Make the most out of your time at uni­ver­si­ty by pick­ing up hard skills that extend beyond your scope of inter­est, meet peo­ple and talk to them, be pre­pared to work extra hard because you don’t have a large cor­po­ra­tion to fall back on. I don’t think it’s a mat­ter of work­ing first or doing your own thing first — but rather find out what suits your char­ac­ter and per­son­al­i­ty so that you get the most out of what­ev­er sit­u­a­tion you’re in.

The crowd rush­es for­ward to shake Mr Chi­am See Tong’s hand at the Sin­ga­pore People’s Party’s ral­ly at Bis­han Sta­di­um. (Jean Loo, 2011)

Click here to find out how to pur­chase a copy of GE11: We Were There, here to find out more about Jean, and here to find out more about Zak.

As an aside, Jean will also be a men­tor for this year’s Noise Singapore’s TAP (The Appren­tice­ship Pro­gramme), an excel­lent plat­form for young cre­atives to glean from the expe­ri­enced old birds in the indus­try.


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