Meet Nguan: The Banksy-esque photographer documenting the reality of city life
If you're on Instagram, chances are you have already come across the striking visual imagery of Nguan. A photographer based out of Singapore, Nguan, graduated as a film major, but chose to pursue photography instead.
“I was a film major in college. My classmates were all huge film buffs; they could watch movies over and over again and quote every line of dialogue in them. I was different: knowing the plot of a film usually ruined it for me,” Nguan tells Catch as he explains his preference for the still image.
“I’m drawn to photographs because of their inherent mystery. I love that the befores and afters of still pictures are left entirely to a viewer’s imagination,” he says. This love has led to his unique brand of photography, which often edifies the mundanity of everyday life, elevating it to the status of art.
The pastel photographer
Soft pinks, dusty greens, pale blues and lemon yellows, Nguan’s pastel colour palette makes the cities he photographs seem almost dreamlike.
“Colour is an integral part of my work,” he confesses. “I think of colour as a form of grammar – it gives my images structure, and I sometimes toy with the syntax for emphasis or effect,” he says.
But, there is more to his work than just the aesthetic. “I’m interested in the unspectacular details of city life – the barely perceptible interactions that nevertheless reveal so much about how we live and who we are,” he says. Accordingly, his photos explore themes related to life in a big city, including the poignant loneliness of the everyday.
There is a certain romanticism to Nguan’s work, one that begs to draw comparison to other photographers such as Alec Soth, Rinko Kawauchi and Sally Mann, amongst others. Interestingly though, Nguan never formally studied photography and, rather, chose to find his artistic voice in an unconventional way.
“The only photography class I ever took was a two-day workshop in 2006 with Bruce Davidson. I firmly believe in finding your own path, and I don't know if formal education is a help or hindrance in that regard,” Nguan says.
In 2017, Nguan released his latest book titled Singapore , a work that captures the everyday realities of the country he calls home. At the same time, his 95,000-strong following on Instagram makes sure that he regularly updates his social media account, where he shares work from a number of ongoing projects.
“Social media is so important if you want your work to be seen. I imagine that there are kids on Tumblr who have more viewers each day than many museums or magazines get in a year. The upshot is that you don’t have to wait for gatekeepers to let you into their premises anymore. Build your own castle.”
A feel for film
Interestingly, Nguan is perhaps one of the few photographers worldwide who still choose to use film, rather than go digital. Perhaps that is why his work comes across as ethereal, something you can almost touch and feel.
“When you photograph on film, you’re capturing heat in the form of light onto the emulsion. So when you hold a negative or slide made in the presence of a person, you have in your hands something that has been irrevocably transformed by his or her warmth. That piece of film is tangible evidence of an existence,” he says.
Nonetheless, even as Nguan is emerging as a strong voice in the world of photography, with a distinct visual language all his own, it will be a challenge to reach a wider audience outside of his immediate environment of Singapore.
“Let’s be honest: the wider world isn’t typically interested in our corner of the planet,” Nguan says rather fatalistically.
“In relative backwaters it can seem like you have to be twice as good in order to stand out globally. There’s nothing wrong with a challenge though. We have to try and translate our experience of the local so that it feels universal,” he says, reassuring us that he only intends to get bigger and better.