InsideOut is a photography project that seeks to empower low-wage migrant workers with basic photography skills and provide them an avenue to express themselves. The project also presents a unique opportunity to engage Singaporeans and facilitate reflection and conversations on issues of identity, integration and social spaces. The project is co-presented by Migrant Voices and Objectifs and works are currently exhibited at Objectifs Gallery till Dec 23. 

Emmeline Yong from Objectifs chats with Shaun Teo, president of Migrant Voices, and Deanna Ng, Chia Yan Wei and Sam Chin, who are part of the volunteer group of photographer-instructors that conducts the photography workshops for migrant workers. 

EY: Tell us about InsideOut. Why did Migrant Voices choose to use photography as a means of ‘creating dialogue’ between migrant workers and Singaporeans?

Shaun: InsideOut started in 2005 by a group of photojournalists and was a one-off project for the 2006 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. The idea was simply to see Singapore through the eyes of Migrant Workers. The team that headed it decided to form a society that used various forms of art to explore the idea of migration and the lives of migrants. Since we started, we really wanted to make InsideOut one of our main projects and there were many attempts to start it, but none of us had the expertise to run a photography programme/exhibition. We are really fortunate that Objectifs approached us in 2009 to revive the project as part of the Month of Photography, and we’ve been exhibiting new sets of images every year since. 

Among all our different programmes, InsideOut has been the most well received, as well as one of our more popular activities. I think it is something that is easy to pick up, and a skill that is almost tangible. Many of the migrant worker participants really like taking pictures, but after the course, it allowed us to truly see what they see… for us to see Singapore through the eyes of the people that built the skyscrapers and take care of our families. The dialogue happens when the audience looks at the images and then thinks about what was going on in the photographer’s mind when he or she was taking it. 

EY: What goes on during the InsideOut project?

Residents at the H.O.M.E shelter

Deanna: For the classes at the H.O.M.E shelter, we try to follow a schedule for an 8-week course. We start with the basics of photography such as ISO, aperture, shutter speed and composition. However due to the nature of the shelter, there’s a constant change in the students as some of them leave the shelter in the duration of the course or new students might join us. We try to use more hands-on examples, as some of the girls don’t understand English fully.

Yan Wei: We show them some photobooks and videos of other photographers’ processes and I think this introduced them to other viewpoints. So it was not just about how they saw things around them as migrant workers but also about learning how everyone sees and experiences the world very differently. We had a student who told us that she will try to look for a photography-related job when she is back in Indonesia so that was very encouraging! 

EY: It’s often said that images are universal, but how we take them and interpret them are cultural. Seeing Singapore through the eyes of your migrant worker students, do you think that’s true?

Sam: I think they are interested in things that a local photographer might not even spend a second thought on. It could be because we are already too used to seeing all these things around us. So through this exhibition, I think it allows us to learn to see things from a different perspective, things that we wouldn’t care about.

Image by Cherry Galcon

Yan Wei: During our East Coast Park field trip with the participants, it started to storm halfway through. We spontaneously decided to take the participants to the airport for the rest of the session. I remember some of them were taking photos of themselves with the ‘Departure’ sign and that’s something that we do sometimes when sending friends off to study or for work overseas but seeing them do the same and joking with each other about flying home had an added significance. It made me think about how we feel about the airport in contrast to their thoughts and feelings when they were at the airport.

EY: What have you as a photographer and a Singaporean, learnt from the participants?

Deanna: I found that the students were more experimental in their phototaking and it always led to interesting compositions. For example, some of the students will climb trees to get a better angle. Something that I have never thought of doing!

Yan Wei: They were able to still have the curiosity to learn and find joy in learning in spite of the very tough circumstances that some of them were going through. Observing that made me realise that we could really complain a lot less and be much more thankful for what we have.

Image by Delwar

Sam: I feel ashamed that most of the participants are working for expatriate families, far too few Singaporean families are open to the idea of their domestic helper indulging in the arts or to simply pick up a skill. I hope we will progress as a nation through our actions.

EY: What are some of the stories that have left an impression with you?

Deanna: During our field trip, one of the girls started tearing up suddenly. The other students said that she missed her home. During class, most of them seemed happy and I didn’t feel like they were caught in a situation.  It struck me then that how much courage it must have taken for them to leave home to come work in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language.

Sam: One of our participant had issues with her employer who was posted to another country. Her employer ended her contract without informing her, forcing her to return to Indonesia. She came into class crying because she had just found out about it. That was also the day she bought donuts and snacks to treat everyone. I was very touched to see her spending her hard earned money to give us a treat, at the same time, impressed with her for turning up despite the problems she was facing. The level of determination we get from the participants really drives us to want to do more for them.

Image by Audrey

Yan Wei: We were walking past a row of houses when of our students told me about a large sum of money that was stolen from her home. It was meant for paying for the construction of her own house back home. She now has to save up money year by year to buy literally brick by brick and plank by plank to try to build the house again slowly. It was the matter of fact way that she recounted her experience to me that really struck me with how different life is for her and how much it means for her to have a livelihood to pay for these things.

During InsideOut III, there was another memorable afternoon. Another volunteer photogapher-instructor, Tan Ching Yee, and I were on our way home after class when we encountered an Indonesian worker who had just run out barefoot from her employer’s home right into us. She was quite delirious, asking us to help her. It was a miracle that we had been teaching with InsideOut at the H.O.M.E. Shelter so we knew exactly where we could bring her! Thankfully we managed to finally get into a cab safely and brought her to H.O.M.E. I still think about this quite often when I am walking home and I hope that things turned out alright for her.

EY: How have viewers reacted to the images and stories?

Deanna: Most people can’t believe that the pictures were taken with point and shoot cameras!

Shaun: It’s been very positive. It’s one space where the people we call ‘migrant workers’ are no longer ‘migrant workers’ but are artists/photographers/people that just want to show us a slice of their lives. InsideOut II and III were shown as part of the Month of Photography Asia, and some people thought that the exhibition was by professional photographers until they read the project description. It was quite cool.

Yan Wei: They look forward to more images and stories from the migrant workers. People do genuinely care to know more beyond their initial impression of migrant workers. Some people also commented that some of their pictures are not really different from what Singaporeans might photograph too. I think that is an important realisation too for viewers to see that the participants’ backgrounds may be very different from us but yet they are also simply just human beings too with their own views too. 

EY: What are your plans for InsideOut?

Shaun: We will continue the project, and find new ways for it to reach a larger audience. More volunteers would be great as well! We really love to have new ideas on how we can present and conduct the process. The project/process is as much an artistic process as are the images taken.

For more information about Migrant Voices:

Image by Lovelin

Image by Lienda

Image by Vijay D