The calmness of a female shrimp catcher standing in the middle of a mangrove swamp might seem unsettling at first; but taking a second look, it isn’t the shrimp catcher that is really the centre of attention. All humans in Oh Soon-Hwa’s photographs are one with their surroundings, but when looking beyond the image they become a mere product of their surroundings – surroundings that are vastly defining.
The latest exhibition of Oh Soon-Hwa's work in Singapore is descriptively titled Coastal Regions (Delta), suggesting an unmasked truth of what some politicians like to deny these days. Exploring the Mekong delta in Vietnam, Oh Soon-Hwa’s images don’t exaggerate or glorify anything. Nothing is staged. Her photography feels more like a portrait series of a region.
The stories behind the images are as vast as the landscapes they depict. Many of Oh-Soon Hwa’s photographs appear like post-apocalyptic nightmare visions of Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic landscapes, but unfortunately, these photographs are an immediate and daily reality. Not mine or yours, but that of the people who won’t get to read articles such as this.
When talking about her experiences in the Mekong delta, Oh Soon-Hwa retold a man’s story of where he explains why he changes his occupation every year. From rice farmer to shrimp fisher to something else. None of the occupations were particularly profitable, but as funding and subsidies from international agencies changes every year, he and many others detailed in the photographs are forced to adapt accordingly. It is a perfect example of what the motivation behind each of these works entails. Man’s continuous desire to control nature and guide human existence within it which leads more often than not to no benefit for anyone.
Dr. Oh Soon-Hwa is not only a photographer but also an associate professor and the coordinator of the Photography and Digital Imaging Programme at the School of Art, Design and Media in the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, which perhaps explains her disposition and technical eye. Her current exhibition Coastal Regions (Delta) at the Private Museum in Singapore is not the first project she has undertaken in rural Vietnam, and is unlikely to be her last, being a subject so ingrained in the rapid changing nature of Asia.
Words by Peter Schimke
Dr. Oh Soon-Hwa: Coastal Regions (Delta), Private Museum, Waterloo Street, No.02-06, Singapore, 187969. Open 17 March – 14 May 2017.