A passionate humanist and documentary photographer, Luciano Checco was born in Aosta, Italy in 1954, moved to Singapore in 1992, and is now Vice President of a German company that supplies equipment to the oil and gas industry. This is the story of how he created a portfolio that exposes the exploitation and human misery that underlies the polished image of a country widely regarded as one of the most prosperous, well-ordered, and successful nations on earth.
Q: We last interviewed you in August 2013. What have you been up to photographically since then?
A: As you know photography is just my hobby and my job takes up much of my time. Nevertheless, during my business trips or over the weekend I am able to carry my cameras and capture some images.
Q: The images in this portfolio are entitled “The Other Singapore.” What is the meaning behind this name?
A: The whole world has, over the last few decades, seen Singapore as the Switzerland of Southeast Asia. It has the reputation of being clean, modern, efficient, safe, with one of the best airlines in the world, and perhaps the most efficient port and airport of the world. It’s the site of the Formula One Grand Prix where the cameras keep showing its beautiful modern skyline and gleaming buildings. Not many people know about the reality that is shown in my photos. Singapore has been built using and exploiting cheap manpower from countries like India, China, and Bangladesh. Six to eight workers very often share a single room, paying $200 USD each per month so you can easily calculate what the owner can recoup out of an apartment of three-four rooms that would normally be good only as storage space or a house for rats. Those workers are rewarded with discrimination, racism and are totally isolated from the posh reality of the country that is projected to the world.
Q: When and where in Singapore were these images taken?
A: The project has been developed over the last three years and most of the images were captured in the Geylang area in Singapore, considered a red district, where prostitution and illegal gambling are everywhere.
Q: What, if anything, do you hope the viewer takes away after seeing these images?
A: This part of Singapore will be transformed in the next few years as the result of urbanization plans now being implemented in the country and the photos will remain as a document of this reality. I believe that every viewer will be able to see not only the social and humanitarian issues behind the sex trade, but also the buildings, the environment, the spirit of this part of Singapore.
Q: What is the purpose of this portfolio? In other words, what are you trying to accomplish?
A: Money is the main driving force in Singapore, and the wealth of the country attracts people from the region willing to make sacrifices in order to make the money that they couldn’t make at home. This is the hidden reality behind that social dynamic.
Q: What camera and equipment did you use to take these pictures?
A: I used the Leica M9 at the beginning and later switched to the Leica Monochrom. In the last few weeks, I took some night shots with the Sony a7S. The lenses I used were mainly the 21 mm f/1.4 and 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux, and also the 24 mm f/2.8 Elmarit and 28 mm f/2.0 Summicron.
Q: How did you manage to capture such an intimate view of the Geylang red light district, including its open prostitution and gambling, without getting beaten up, or worse? Did you ever feel physically threatened or are these activities so much taken for granted that you were able to walk about freely and take pictures?
A: All the photos are taken with the camera hanging on my shoulders and just clicking away, often guessing or estimating what I would be able to capture. I generally pre-focus at 2.5-3 meters and set the aperture at f/4-5.6.
One night I was a little too brave in using my M9 with the 21 mm Summilux, which entailed getting too close to the subjects. Unfortunately, they heard the noise of the shutter and even more unluckily they were three transvestites in an unfriendly mood, and one of them started beating me up. That night I went back home with broken spectacles and my head bleeding in a few places.
Q: You observe that Singapore was built using cheap manpower from countries like India, China, and Bangladesh, and that such workers are often packed six-eight into rooms that suitable only as storage space or houses for rats. While your images of Geylang vividly express the results, there is only one image that suggests the actual miserable living conditions of the workers themselves, of young man sitting below an empty bed with clothing hanging above it. His expression of despair and resignation is perfectly delineated by the directional lighting. Can you tell us the story behind this shot, what it means to you, and provide the tech data?
A: It was taken one Sunday afternoon while walking on the streets of an area known as Little India. I decided to climb the narrow stair of one two-story house and inside there were few people that welcomed me. There were four rooms with six to eight beds in each where these Indians were living. Each of them was paying $200 USD per month (amazing to think that the owner can make $5,000 USD a month renting such a place!) I shot the picture with a Leica M9 and 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux lens.
Q: This image juxtaposes a tacky collection of sharply delineated sex toys on the left with what looks like an array of religious icons and statues that are somewhat out of focus in the background. The ironic message I take from this is that the commercial sex trade has subsumed the values of a traditional culture. Am I reading too much into this, and what do you think this image says to the viewer? Also which camera, lens and aperture did you use to take the photo?
A: You read it perfectly, I found the mix of sacred and profane in the same place quite amazing. I shot it with my M9 and 21 mm Summilux lens wide open at f/1.4.
Q: The image of a remarkable middle-aged or elderly woman standing next to an old-fashioned pay phone and looking directly into the camera is masterfully composed and beautifully lit. There is, despite the shabby surroundings, a certain dignity and even saucy defiance, in here expression. Who is she, and what do you think this image says about Singaporean society? Also, which camera lens, and aperture did you use to capture this amazing image?
A: Again this was in the Geyland district. I was walking in the afternoon and I noticed this lady. She stood out because she was a dwarf, but what really captured my attention was the way she was walking and by the smile on her face. I followed her and tried to talk to her but unfortunately she was able to speak only in Chinese. However, since Italians like me are famous for being able to speak using their hands I asked her in gestures if she wanted to drink something, but she let me know in similar fashion that she wanted some food. I followed her to the food court, she picked out some rice dish, and I bought her the meal. When we left the place she held my hand for a while, and I asked her if I could take some photos and she agreed … a wonderful person! The camera I used with the Leica Monochrom and 35 mm f/2.0 7-element Summicron.
Q: This image has that indefinable moment in eternity quality that makes it unforgettable. Do you agree, and do you personally think this image is special?
A: I also like this photo very much and it does have a kind of classic or eternal quality. This woman has been working there for at least three years since I first noticed her and every time she is checking her makeup.
Q: All the images in this portfolio are presented in black-and-white. What is it that draws you to the black-and-white medium, and what characteristics does it possess that accord with the way you see the world and express your creative vision?
A: I grew up taking black-and-white photos. I had been living in a small city in the middle of the Alps and nobody was processing color photos. If I did, my film would have had to been sent by courier to Turin and I would have had to wait one week to get back my photos.
After 40 years many color photos have faded and lost their vibrancy although they may retain have some value just for the memories that they still carry. Black-and-white transmits the eternity of the moments and isolates the subject from the time the photo was taken. The focus is on the subject, the composition, and the emotions that the photo is able to convey.
Q: You seem to favor wide-angle lenses. Which of your four lenses did you use most often in creating this portfolio, and what are some of the characteristics of wide-angle lenses that you find especially useful for your kind of work?
A: Usually I go out with one lens only and this forces me to think of the composition based on the lens I am using, my position with respect to the subjects, the proportions in relation to background, and the in-focus and out-of- focus areas of the image. This is extremely challenging when using the 21 mm, and much easier with 35 mm, which is the lens I use most often. I also like the 24 mm because it give me the chance to get very close to the subject while still capturing background details, and it’s not as demanding as the 21 mm in terms of perspective control.
Q: Do you plan to continue shooting your documentary of the seamy side of Singapore, and to cover other aspects of social contradictions of that society? Have you considered publishing a print or online book of your Singapore images or exhibiting them in galleries in Singapore or elsewhere? By the way, since the government of Singapore is famously authoritarian would you have any problem exhibiting these images there?
A: Honestly I do not know what direction to move in with this work. My two daughters will probably settle in Singapore and I am sure that, in some way or another, if I were to publish or publicly exhibit these photos in Singapore there would be some direct or indirect consequences. At the moment I have printed almost 200 of these images on Ilford Warmtone paper and at the moment they are nicely stored in boxes.
I am considering embarking on another aspect based on life in Singapore related to communication between individuals because this society has developed quite unique ways of living and interrelating among human beings.
Q: What do you think you accomplished with this portfolio, aside from documenting a place, a time, and a way of life that is likely to be transformed? Do you think that this work can possibly lead to the improvement of any of the social ills you have presented here with such power and authenticity?
A: I don’t think the situation will change very much, except perhaps the specific locations. Prostitution is legal in Singapore and it’s a huge business and licensed brothels pay taxes to the government. A brothel can easily generate $500,000- $600,000 USD per year with rooms like this one.
Thank you for your time, Luciano!
– Leica Internet Team