25 July 2017: Remembering the yesteryears, Yale-NUS student publishes photobook of forgotten places in Singapore

By Daryl Yang | Images provided by Sean Cham

Sean Cham (third from left) together with friends at his photobook launch

During the Singapore Art Book Fair 2017 held in April 2017, Sean Cham (Class of 2019) successfully launched his first photobook, titled Yesteryears. Featuring 50 photographs of places in Singapore that were culturally and historically significant, the book was published by local publishing house, BooksActually.

The photobook was the result of Sean’s artistic journey between 2014 and 2015, during which he visited iconic and historically significant places such as the old theatre Yangtze Cineplex, the old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Toa Payoh Dragon Playground.

According to Sean, the idea first came up in 2014 when his grandparents were preparing to move out of their flat in Bukit Merah View, which was slated to be demolished to make way for new developments.

“The shift was definitely great for my elderly grandparents who no longer had to climb five flights of stairs daily to get home in Bukit Merah View. However, the flat held many significant memories for my family and me. I grew up there as a kid and we would visit my grandparents every month. My cousins and I would often play games along the corridors,” he shared.

“With the impending demolition of the flat, the memories and stories etched in the buildings will slowly fade and disappear as well. I was interested in capturing the stories and memories of all the abandoned and forgotten buildings that once held significance to Singaporeans, but are now reduced to mere brick and mortar. In a sense, they painted an alternate narrative to the Singapore story.”

Over the course of the next few months, he embarked on a solo journey to visit other places that were forgotten, abandoned or disappearing. At each location, he would construct a unique photograph using himself as a model to capture what he considered their stories.

“The photographs are all self-portraits, so they were all shot by me using my body as a subject. The hardest shoots would have to be the ones where I appear more than once in the photograph. I had to pay special attention to the positioning of my ‘clones’ and make sure that it looked realistic,” he explained.

An example was a photograph (pictured above) was taken at St John’s Island, where Sean had to edit it to feature 16 images of himself.

According to an interview with local blog Culturepush, Sean shared that he decided to publish the photographs into a photobook as a form of closure. “I told myself the series needed a closure. Leaving the photographs in the deep recesses of the World Wide Web will only lead to its ruin, just like the buildings that the series depict,” he said.

He approached the owner of BooksActually, Mr Kenny Leck, who was immediately on board with the project.

“I am very grateful for my publisher Kenny and his team at BooksActually and Math Paper Press. I could not have imagined that I would get my work published, as I saw myself as a complete greenhorn in the arts and publishing industry,” Sean shared.

“I started the entire project with a crazy and ambitious dream, and I’m very thankful for everyone who has been very supportive and helped me along this journey.”

As an Urban Studies major with an Arts & Humanities minor, Sean’s experiences at Yale-NUS have also helped him in the conceptualisation and publication of his book. For instance, the essay published in his book was written as part of an independent research module with Director of the Social Sciences Division and Professor of Social Sciences (Urban Studies) Jane Jacobs.

“In the first semester of my sophomore year, I took on an Independent Reading and Research module with Professor Jacobs. I was very honest with her at the start of the course that  by the end of the module, I had hoped to produce an essay for my book. With her guidance, I did my research on modern ruins in Singapore on why they were significant and important in our urban landscape,” Sean shared.

Sean was also awarded the Yale-NUS Summer Arts Scholarship to study photography in London in the summer of his freshman year. “This was the first time I was formally educated in photography and I had the opportunity to try darkroom photography. Being exposed to the arts scene in London and also learning from experts and practitioners in the field was an invaluable experience. Their valuable feedback and comments were very helpful when I was curating and designing my book,” he reflected.

When asked about the most memorable shoot location, Sean said that it was at the very place that had sparked off the idea for Yesteryears.

“When I went back in 2015 to conduct the shoot, my grandparents had already moved to their new flat and so had most of the neighbours. It was a day before we had to surrender the keys to the flat, and going back just brought back many memories of the place. It reminded me of why I had started the entire series,” he said.

Apart from Yesteryears, Sean has also worked on other artistic projects such as Singapore Dream, which features the stories and dreams of migrant workers working in Singapore.

On his upcoming exciting plans, Sean shared that he is currently finalising his ideas for a new project examining another aspect of the urban landscape.

Yesteryears was an exploration of urban history and conservation, and I am now interested in exploring urban loneliness and alienation in Singapore. I am in the process of finalising my ideas and plans, but do stay tuned to my website, Facebook and Instagram for more details!”


Check out Sean’s works at his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram at @ablankframe.