arts

What it's like to be young and in love in Southeast Asia

Updated 31st January 2018
7465 by June Watsamon Tri-yasakda, Thailand
Credit: June Watsamon Tri-yasakda
What it's like to be young and in love in Southeast Asia
Written by Stella Ko, CNN
A new photography exhibition is casting light on youth culture across Southeast Asia. More than 150 images, tackling subjects such as online dating and mental health, capture the experiences of young people in a region undergoing unprecedented levels of change.
But while the photographs featured the group show at the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film in Singapore offer many different takes on the subject of youth, the commonalities shine through, according to the exhibition's curator, Tobias Kruse.
"Youth is a universal and lifetime topic," he said in a phone interview. "Everyone wants to stay young and remember themselves being young. It's a stage of life that everyone goes through."

Addressing social issues

The traveling exhibition and accompanying book, both entitled "We Will Have Been Young," brings together the work of 12 young Southeast Asian photographers. Kruse and his colleague, Jörg Brüggemann -- both of whom work for the German photo agency Ostkreuz Agentur -- mentored the budding artists over the course of a year, helping each to produce a brand new series for the exhibition.
Among those featured is 27-year-old Lee Chang Ming, whose project "Until Then" portrays what it's like to be young and queer in Singapore. As well as asking friends to take part, the photographer turned to an online dating app to find models for the series.
Composed of portraits, city shots and symbolic imagery, Lee's images address the challenges facing Singapore's queer community. He hopes to portray love in a society that still harbors conservative attitudes towards same-sex couples.
Each photographer chose a different aspect of youth culture to explore through their photos. Lee Chang Ming opted to document the queer experience in his native Singapore.
Each photographer chose a different aspect of youth culture to explore through their photos. Lee Chang Ming opted to document the queer experience in his native Singapore. Credit: Lee Chang Ming
"Most people will still frown upon same-sex couple holding hands in public," he said.
Naming one of Lee's portraits among the exhibition's most striking photos, Kruse commended the young photographer for his bravery.
"LGBT is still a taboo topic in Singapore, and photographing this subject was like coming out for (him)," he said. "This was actually his first time publicly speaking about something so personal."

A different perspective

Thai photographer Watsamon Tri-yasakda also used the exhibition to address issues of sexuality and identity. Her series "7465" explores her generation's frustration with conformity through its relationship with school uniforms.
After posting a notice on Facebook, Tri-yasakda was able to recruit a group of 12th-grade students who felt uncomfortable in their uniforms. Claiming that young people in Thailand struggle to express their individuality, the photographer gave the models freedom to pose however they wanted.
Thai photographer Watsamon Tri-yasakda used school uniforms to express young people's frustration with conformity.
Thai photographer Watsamon Tri-yasakda used school uniforms to express young people's frustration with conformity.
The resulting photos -- a combination of group shots and individual portraits -- show the young men seemingly at ease with one another and themselves.
"On one hand, society is telling them to be themselves," she said in a phone interview. "But on the other hand, they are trying to make unity, not diversity."
By offering a humanized picture of LGBT life, Tri-yasakda hopes to present an alternative to the images of drag queens often associated with her home country.
"In Thailand, we live in a bubble thinking that we are so open to (the LGBT community), when in fact Thailand still has 'don't ask, don't tell' culture," Tri-yasakda said. "A lot of people are afraid of coming out to the public and just being themselves."
But while a number of the photographers chose to explore LGBT issues, the exhibition covers a variety of topics including nightlife in Hanoi and fake intimacy. Inspired by his experience with the dating app Tinder, Malaysian photographer Alvin Lau used a pig's heart to express his frustration with modern love.
Frustrated by shallowness of online dating apps, Malaysian photographer Alvin Lau used a pig's heart to address how disposable modern love can be.
Frustrated by shallowness of online dating apps, Malaysian photographer Alvin Lau used a pig's heart to address how disposable modern love can be. Credit: Alvin Lau
The 24-year-old's metaphorical series "Is This What Love Is," also considers the meaning of trust and commitment. Lau said that, in Malaysia, it is challenging being young and in love.
"Human relationships don't become organic unless you put in certain amount of effort," he said in a phone interview. "In a way, (Tinder) makes things easier, but at the same time it makes love so disposable."

A new generation

The project offers young photographers a rare chance to have their work shown in established galleries, with the exhibition touring a number of Southeast Asian countries before traveling to Berlin. The photographers are largely positive about the opportunities facing their generation, identifying social media as an important platform for exposure.
Photographer Muhammad Fadli photographed a series on the Indonesian subculture around Vespa scooters, capturing a group of young people building their own vehicles.
Photographer Muhammad Fadli photographed a series on the Indonesian subculture around Vespa scooters, capturing a group of young people building their own vehicles. Credit: Muhammad Fadli
"We're living in an era where it's relatively easy to be discovered, even as a young photographer -- the internet has made photography more accessible," said Lau. "Social media opens a door for many, but that door has been so saturated lately."
For this reason, Kruse encouraged his protégés to develop a personal language that can help differentiate their work in a market where anyone can call themselves a photographer. Competition is fierce, and Lee -- who started his photography career on social media -- sees social media's accessibility as a double-edged sword.
"With many young photographers operating in a digital space, everyone can now create and publish work," he said. "But it does get overwhelming sometimes. How do you decide what is good and bad?"
"We Will Have Been Young," is on at Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film in Singapore until Feb. 3.
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