SINGAPORE: What do a ballet dancer, a beauty trainer, an air stewardess, and a sex worker have in common? Their jobs all greatly hinge on how they look and present themselves.
And now, an upcoming exhibition wants us to rethink the way we perceive women in these lines of work.
As part of this month’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, photographer Charmaine Poh is presenting All In Her Day’s Work, a show comprising intimate, behind-the-scenes portraits of seven to eight women getting ready for work. The show opens on Jan 17 at ION Art Gallery.
Poh’s subjects mostly come from what she describes as “gendered jobs”, but to mix things up, she also included a working single mother and a female boxer.
“I chose them because many happen to work in industries that were obviously marked by physical appearance. It focuses on how these women view themselves and how society views them,” said the 27-year-old artist.
SHOOTING BEHIND A TWO-WAY MIRROR
For the project, Poh visited her subjects at their homes and photographed them from behind a two-way mirror.
“I wanted them to really look at themselves in the mirror (and not at the camera), and observe their own faces and bodies. Some of them hadn’t really looked at themselves (that closely) in a while, while others were more used to observing themselves,” she said.
The amount of time the women spent preparing themselves intrigued her.
“Each one had her own ritual or method of putting on makeup, and I was surprised by how efficient they were in putting these on – it’s almost like part of their job because it’s require of them, she said, citing how air stewardesses would have prescribed makeup colours to use, for instance.
"They really transformed to present their public selves."
Poh also took her cue from an iconic piece of feminist performance art in Singapore, Amanda Heng’s Let’s Walk, which serves as the theme of this year’s fringe festival.
First performed in 1999, Let’s Walk had featured the Cultural Medallion recipient and invited participants putting a high-heeled shoe in their mouths and, with the help of a mirror, walking backwards. It was a response to the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, which had affected a lot of women in the workforce.
“It talked about how, during the Crisis, a lot of women spent more on their appearance in order to keep their jobs and how the beauty industry actually saw an increase. Twenty years later, have things really changed? There are still jobs that require women to look a certain way and dress up a certain way,” said Poh.
TACKLING WOMEN'S IDENTITIES
All In Her Day’s Work is Poh’s latest project that tackles women’s identities. A previous series, called Room, featured portraits of women in Singapore dressed up in their school uniforms as well as letters they had written to their younger selves.
“It was questioning what it meant to be a woman, an adult woman, and I wanted to include different worlds and experiences,” she said.
Incidentally, both projects included subjects who are trans women, which was Poh's way of complicating the issue of identity.
“It’s been important for me to include narratives of people who don’t follow the conventional norms of being woman because I think a lot of these communities are asking to be heard,” said Poh, who shared being a photographer came almost by accident.
While taking up a degree in International Relations at Boston’s Tufts University a few years ago, she discovered a programme on narrative and documentary practice, which included documentary photography.
“It was a way to merge the worlds I was interested in – I was interested in other people’s worlds but I also wanted to create something,” she said.
FROM BOSTON’S NEPALESE WORKERS TO SINGAPORE’S MA JIE
Poh has also been looking at even broader – and also often overlooked – communities both in Singapore and beyond.
She has previously documented the lives of Nepalese restaurant workers in Boston, the people who lived along Myanmar’s Yangon River, the upper class in Bangladesh, and the LGBTQ community in Cambodia.
And while she has done more personal projects in Singapore – including one that had her old childhood photographs superimposed on the site where her home once stood – Poh has also worked on different communities here, including a series on Filipino domestic helpers during Christmas, where she documented the nighttime church masses they attended.
She also looked at Singapore’s forgotten Ma Jie, migrants from China who came to work as domestic servants from the 1930s to the 1970s.
“The ma jie fascinated me for many reasons – they dedicated their lives to their work and I think it’s unconventional that they had a vow to be celibate. We don’t recognise their lives anymore so I wanted to draw attention to these women who were almost living nun-like lives while serving a lot of Singapore families,” she said.
Elsewhere, she has also been involved in documentary projects on people who lived in Queenstown and Dakota Crescent.
“The feeling that you get when you enter different lives is a lot like in the theatre, where you get to explore all these different lives at the same time,” she said. “It’s the same feeling when I go into people’s homes and start hanging out with different communities.”
BRIDGING COMMUNITIES THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHY
And bridging these communities, too. In 2013, she and a couple of her friends started a photography NGO in India called Clicking Together, which sought to bring together people from different socioeconomic classes through photography projects. While the project has only been done in India, she's keen on hopefully doing something similar here in the future.
But for now, she’s got her hands full with other projects she’s planning to work on. These include one on Singapore’s LGBTQ community “and the experience of women here”; one on the role of nannies as mother figures; and another on Chinese identity in Singapore.
“I think society is an important place to make stories from,” said Poh. “I am interested in people who are in complex situations, and sometimes, it’s just about uncovering another layer.”