SG Streetscapes: Photographing River Hongbao
Most of my Lunar New Years had been spent among relatives, so I wanted to immerse in the public festivities for a change. Taking photos was easy in the thick of camera-equipped crowds. The main issue was, how well can I represent the cultural realities in ever-moving crowds? The field required me to move around and respond to situations, meaning I had to be actively selective. Yet this could easily manifest as distortions of reality.
Berger and Luckmann (1967) argued that we project anonymous abstractions on strangers unless they are challenged by face-to-face interactions. With this in mind, I decided not to focus on any individuals. Instead, I directed my attentions towards particular objects and arrangements. From there I snapped photos with strangers appearing only as inadvertent actors.
What resulted was a handful of seemingly disparate elements, from kids playing in constructed mini-pools to adults gathered around a musical stage to families resting on decks of seats at the Floating Platform watching crowds go by. While these are useful snapshots, I felt they were too detached and left too much to imagination. Instead, I have chosen two photos featuring smaller crowds.
Despite the focus on inanimate elements, I found that the atmosphere I immersed in is best represented by animate entities. Both photos illustrate how festive consumption crosses ethnic boundaries, and leave for interpretation whether they demonstrate cultural diversity or dilution – an ambivalence which I felt at the River Hongbao.
In this process of selection, I realized that ethnography is a process of argumentation. Ethnographers seek to minimize distortion of the field of study, but eventually, the choices of representation are very personal indeed – personal in their understandings of local subjectivities.
This is particularly salient in the very selective medium of photos in this assignment. The first photo was actually taken at the nearby CityLink Mall. While my intended field was River Hongbao, I felt it constituted the same festive context and thus served as a suitable representation. Clearly, photos make for a more compelling argument than words, as they are (ideally) taken in situ and carefully selected, thus more stimulating.
I had doubts over whether I was capturing anything of ethnographic value. After all, these festivals occur yearly, and the observations may seem rather self-evident. Moreover, festivals are stages on which participants can perform roles far removed from their everyday lives. Yet on second thoughts, all realities are social constructions and one should not label certain fields as less worthy than others.
In this brief study, the visual lens forced me to adopt a stance of distance, and through the process of selection, allowed me to re-examine my cultural understanding of the field I was in. Building on this, I’d suggest that ethnography should not be limited to the exotic and unfamiliar, but also extend to multi-faceted urban contexts. The constant activity of urban fields demands different approaches, in which the visual will likely play a central role.
Field trip was conducted in Feb 2016.
Future Streetscope posts will be less reflexive – required in my module on visual ethnography – and more descriptive and reflective (=/= reflexive). I will situate myself as more of a passenger, in the hope that my (more) flawed snapshots of SG will become more than the sum of its parts.
Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1967). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.