Pastel Loneliness: Nguan

Navigate cityscapes in candy-hued isolation.

Text Tin Dabbay

Nguan‘s photos sedate the viewer into a sugarcoated suburbia. Whereas street photography often relies on movement and grittiness, Nguan shifts its axis to dazed workers, female gazes, and kids waiting for the next stop. Through his touch, Singapore has become a stranger riddling passers-by on what tension it hides under its heavily guarded repute. The mystery trails along housing projects and cold beaches, blurring distances between man and woman, skin and concrete, and that midway truce between an eye and an eye.

Hi Nguan, what makes you feel connected?
I live for the moment when an underground train switches to a shallow or elevated track and you can suddenly get data on your phone again.

We know little about you except that you’re Singaporean who has spent some time in the US.  What’s your story?
I was born in Singapore and stayed until I was almost 21. At various points, I thought of being a filmmaker, illustrator, writer, or footballer, but I chose photography, not necessarily because I was best at it, but because I find every step of making photographs to be pain-free. Nearly everything you need to know about me is in my work.

You liken Singapore to an angsty teenager oscillating recklessly between awkwardness and grace. What excites you the most about it?
My Singapore series is a response to the common perception of the country as being somewhat prim, plain, and uptight. I wanted to portray Singapore in an alternate light. Sometimes her posture isn’t perfect, her hair is in a tangle, her legs are all asunder, and she is beautiful beyond belief.

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As an artist, do you think you have to be lonely to be able to create something that’s capable of eliciting that same emotion for others? You probably have to be acquainted with an emotion in order to speak about it convincingly, though the best works about joy could be by those who have never truly known it.

“You probably have to be acquainted with an emotion in order to speak about it convincingly, though the best works about joy could be by those who have never truly known it.”

Tell us about your process. Are you a wallflower who creeps subtly like a voyeur to get a stolen shot? Or are you more of an aggressive trigger-happy fellow?
Neither. I don’t hide behind shrubbery but I prefer not to shove my camera onto a person’s face either. Someone looks up and there I am, or I turn around and there they are.

How did your collaboration with Petra Collins happen?
I first met Petra and her friends Carlotta, Julia and Mayan through Instagram. It was a very contemporary situation. Our pictures were made at Coney Island on an extremely chilly October’s day. They’re remarkable girls and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Describe the joy of self-publishing.
When my last book “How Loneliness Goes” was printed, I had all 220 copies delivered to my apartment. The only space I had for them was on a window ledge in the hallway, so the books were piled high there, completely obscuring the window and all daylight. As word about the book spread and orders for it came in, the stacks began to shorten and slivers of light poured into the hallway. When I sold my last copies, I could finally see outside again. I wouldn’t describe any of this as being pleasurable. It’s more like a series of tiny victories.

Pastel and soft light are signature elements of your photos. What drew you to this aesthetic?
Candid photographs made on the street are traditionally gritty and macho in look and style. By altering the tone of the genre, I hoped to create something that feels new. I think there is an interesting tension between the alleged artifice of my colors and my apparently documentary methods.

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What’s your definition of lightness and darkness and their relationship with each other?
I think lightness sometimes fucks darkness from behind and at other times darkness gets on top and gives it to lightness really hard and they just need each other a whole lot.

What’s your next move?
I’m going to publish my Singapore book. It was originally due to come out six months after How Loneliness Goes in 2013, but I decided that I needed some distance from the work before putting it all together.

Have you been to Manila? Would you consider a collaboration?
It depends on what kind of medicine you’d be offering. No, I’ve never been to Manila and would love to come.