The Singaporean photographer on her project "(Un)bound"

Singaporean photographer Grace Baey is the inaugural recipient of the Objectifs Documentary Award 2018 (Emerging Category). Ahead of her solo exhibition (Un)bound‘s opening at Objectifs’ Lower Gallery on Tues 12 Mar, we caught up with her to learn more about her project and her experience being mentored by photographer Sim Chi Yin.

Many of your personal projects so far have focused on the transgender community. Could you tell us why you have an interest in this specific group of people? How is (Un)bound different from your previous projects?

Perhaps it stems from my background in research, but I feel the deeper you delve into a particular topic or issue, the more you realise that there’s so much to learn, explore and communicate. I always feel I haven’t learned enough, and probably never will, which gives me the impetus to keep going. Over the years, I’ve also made close friends from the community, which makes me feel more invested in telling these stories with a ground-up approach.

(Un)bound is the first project where I actively involved individuals I worked with not just in the image-making process but also in putting together the story edit and narrative. The initial phase of the project was supported by Exactly Foundation’s residency programme, which provided valuable time and space for me to experiment with different participatory approaches to storytelling, particularly using text.

After completing the series, I still felt that something was missing, which led me to explore scrapbooking as a more flexible way to incorporate and weave together different elements such as portraiture, personal art, journal entries, and past family pictures, in order to tell a fuller story. The informality and versatility of the medium also made it readily accessible to the people I worked with, allowing space for diversity of expression.

What was the scrapbooking experience like for the people you worked with, and for you?

I left each person to design and compile their own stories using pictures we’ve made together, including those from their personal archive. It was a humbling experience to see them choose, edit, and cut up my pictures as they saw fit, whilst piecing together their stories. Some pictures I loved were rejected in favour of those that seemed less perfect, but nonetheless told a story they wanted to tell. The eventual output was nothing I could envision on my own, and I am grateful. It was a tremendous learning experience for me to understand how individuals from the trans community would like to be represented, as well as issues they felt were important to articulate and communicate, both within and beyond the community.

Scrapbooking requires significant time and effort, and I knew that I was asking a lot from the individuals I worked with. I tried to make the process as painless as possible, by offering to assist with menial tasks such as cutting up pictures (the horror!) and applying glue, whilst they worked on the creative aspects of designing and laying out the scrapbooks. There were precious moments when we’d pause to reminisce over past experiences we’ve shared, or I’d hear stories about their childhood when an image jolted a particular memory. As expected, we weren’t always the most productive, but those are times I cherish greatly. Finishing the scrapbook was often accompanied by a sigh of relief, as well as a sense of accomplishment, especially with being able to take a step back to flip through and reflect on one’s journey.

Portrait of Jose, from “(Un)bound” by Grace Baey

How was your experience working with mentor Sim Chi Yin, as a recipient of the inaugural Objectifs Documentary Award (Emerging Category)? 

It was a great privilege working with Chi Yin whom I deeply respect for the work she does, especially her commitment to social issues and the tremendous rigour she brings to every project. I appreciated her input and insights, which were always thoughtful and pointed, and how she was unafraid of challenging my intentions behind the decisions I made. The priority is never just about the final product, but the processes and motivation behind why we do what we do.

A useful piece of advice she gave at the start of the project was asking me to think of the audience as peeling off layers of an onion — who are the different people you wish to reach through the work? Who is your core audience? What’s the next layer? – and to be deliberate about formulating specific visual strategies to communicate with these different layers of audiences. It sounds straightforward, but a lot of times, we can often get very consumed with producing the work, and not thinking enough about how we actually communicate it.

Has this opportunity influenced your vision for the future of this series, or for other projects you’re pursuing / your photography practice? 

Interestingly, my experience working on (Un)bound has helped me gain more clarity in my role as a photographer, both in terms of its potential and weaknesses. For collaborations to work, each person involved has to understand their specific role and what they can offer, and I’ve learned to discern what my limits are, as well as what I can possibly contribute and bring to the table. It’s been valuable because I’ve thought a long time about my position as a photographer, and how problematic it can be, especially when working with marginalised communities. I will certainly take these insights into future projects I work on, and learn to be as self-reflexive as possible.

What do you hope audience members will take away from this exhibition?

I hope that people will spend time taking in the work, and flip through the personal scrapbooks that Sonia, Jose, Sham and Cassandra have compiled. We hope that these stories will help break down stereotypes that people might have about transgender identity and dysphoria, whilst offering insight into the emotional journeys that trans individuals go through. In a conservative society like Singapore’s, it feels like the issue is often unspoken-ness and a lack of understanding.

It has taken a lot of courage for these individuals to almost bare their souls in the process of sharing their life journeys, and they do so because they wish to communicate and help kickstart conversations that are currently lacking. I really respect that. For me, the deliberate choice of presenting these stories through scrapbooks is also to make it more conducive for viewers to pause and look deeper. I hope that people will come with an open mind and suspend any prejudice or judgment before they experience the work.

(Un)bound by Grace Baey opens next Tues 12 Mar at Objectifs’ Lower Gallery:
Please note this exhibition is rated Restricted 18 (Transgender Theme and Some Nudity). Age-checks may be required prior to entering the gallery.

Opening Reception: Tues 12 Mar, 7pm
Artist Talk: Sat 30 Mar, 2pm. Register for the talk here.

Also read our interview with Mai Nguyen Anh, recipient of the Objectifs Documentary Award (Open Category), whose show 63 Years will open the same night in our Lower Gallery.