How do migrant workers see the spaces, people and activities around them? What is significant to them? A fascinating exhibition will let you in on the secret.

Migrant Encounters is the brainchild of Ye Junjia (“Jia”), and brought to fruition with the help of her friends Tai Shuxia and Jessie Koh. Supported by the Max Planck Institute and Healthserve, they loaned cameras to ten workers — from India and Bangladesh — and, as diversity was a key issue they were exploring, asked them to shoot pictures based on four themes: Private Space, Public Space, Social Networks and Familiar Strangers. Through the pictures they shot, one “examines [the] social interactions between migrants and locals in Jurong West,” explains Jia.

The exhibition of selected photographs from the two-month workshop will be held at the Pigeonhole, 52 and 53 Duxton Road, from 15 to 28 November 2012.

“We limited the participants to 30 photos each week to help push them to think before they take a photo,” said Jessie. “No photo was to be taken without a reason or story. That would make it about 2000 photos at the end of the workshop. We sat down with the men every week to discuss about their photos and they were the ones who selected the exhibits that best told their stories in Singapore.”

At the exhibition, the captions accompanying the photographs come from conversations with the men themselves.

Why did they initiate this project?

“We are motivated by different reasons,” said Jessie. “For myself, a very personal motivation is that I was once away from home and family to study overseas and there were hard times. I was fortunate to have friends, like Jia and Shuxia, to lend help. I would like to know that the migrant workers understand that they are not alone.”

From another angle, there’s a greater purpose to it. It is to plug a gap in the discourse about migrant workers. Jia points out that our discussions about migrant workers miss the nuanced ways in which they experience life here in a city-state, which is vastly different in many ways from their homes. “Participant-directed photographs address this gap by constructing a different version of this experience through their relevance to migrants’ personal geographies.”

She adds: “Although there is a lot of hardship, discrimination and exploitation in the lives of these migrant men who toil for Singapore’s growth,” and their lives are conditions by that, “they are not reducible to that.”

Rather than the researcher photographing the migrants’ experiences for them, the concept was to engage the workers directly in the creation of the photographs. That way, they weave together a narrative about their lives in Singapore.

“The photographs are striking in their depiction of the unspectacular, the banal in specific ways,” Jia says, helping us “understand and conceptualize places and people in a diverse context, where people of different backgrounds have to co-exist in either fleeting or more sustained ways.”

It wasn’t only about pictures. The team leaders found themselves enriched by the experience too. “Most of the time, we were pleasantly surprised by the sensitivity of these men,” recalls Jessie. “We had a few romantics in the group. They were all brilliant thinkers too.”

The opening of the exhibition will take place on Saturday, 17 November at 8 pm. The participants will  be there to talk about their experience. Link to Facebook event page.

There’s another write-up on by Biddy Low. And a video produced by Ten Foot Lalang for Publichouse:


Update 20 Nov 2012:

Here are two pictures from the opening of the exhibition held on Saturday, 17 Nov: