Asia

Singapore photographer captures life on the MRT

Edwin Koo/Transit Image copyright EDWIN KOO/TRANSIT

If a picture's worth a thousand words, photographer Edwin Koo's latest project has a lot to say about Singapore.

Transit, the 37-year-old photographer's latest project, aims to "capture the daily theatre" of Singapore's multi-racial passengers on board its Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) trains.

"If you commute on the MRT and we are forced two inches in front of the doors, we'd all have the same reactions and share the same expressions and vulnerability," he told the BBC.

"The MRT is special to me perhaps because I grew up beside a train station. I would watch the old trains pass by my window everyday," he said.

He was inspired in 2011 when he returned to Singapore after a stint in Nepal, feeling like it was "a different country".

"I found that the trains in Singapore had become so crowded that it was difficult to board them during peak hours.

Out of frustration, I started to photograph what I saw at the doors."

Image copyright EDWIN KOO/TRANSIT
Image caption Singapore's public transport system is seeing more commuters as its population grows
Image copyright EDWIN KOO/TRANSIT
Image caption Slice of life - Mr Koo says he looks out for emotions and expressions on board the trains

The power (and peril) of social media

As a photographer, Mr Koo said he tries to "make it a point" to spend time with his subjects and environment.

But the nature of this project drove him to adopt a different approach.

"It's practically impossible for me to speak to the commuters during the photography process," he said.

So he took things a step further, and turned to social media.

Mr Koo's Facebook page, which currently has more than 5,000 likes, also sees users actively commenting on his photos and sharing them.

He has managed to identify 15 people so far, from his photographs.

"With social media, I realised that it's actually feasible to connect with the commuters I photographed," he said.

Among them, Singaporean housewife Teresa Lee, whose daughter Astrid got in touch after a friend spotted her mother's photo on Facebook.

Image copyright EDWIN KOO/TRANSIT
Image caption Mr Koo managed to identify Teresa Lee (centre) after her daughter Astrid spotted her photo on Facebook
Image copyright Christopher Wong
Image caption Madam Lee was also invited to the book launch of Mr Koo's Transit project
Image copyright EDWIN KOO/TRANSIT
Image caption Another commuter Mridula Kolachina (centre) also left a comment on this photo

Mr Koo also said that his Transit project has seen its fair share of negativity online.

He told the BBC that he had seen some passengers in his photographs being "victimised by online trolls and insensitive netizens", and highlighted an incident involving a commuter whose photo was "unnecessarily" attacked online.

He then took down the post

His photographs were also recently featured on an internet forum "without his permission", he says, and prompted more "unkind" remarks.

"I want to leverage social media for its reach. But I also want to avoid the damage it is capable of," he said.

"If it comes down to that, I'll offer to remove the photos, delete the posts and even put up public notices to give voice to [my subjects'] concerns."

Image copyright EDWIN KOO/TRANSIT
Image caption This photograph prompted Singaporeans to question the lack of courtesy onboard its trains
Image copyright Facebook
Image copyright EDWIN KOO/TRANSIT
Image caption Jeremy, another commuter identified by social media users on Transit's popular Facebook page
Image copyright Facebook
Image copyright EDWIN KOO/TRANSIT
Image caption This couple was photographed on Valentine's Day

Dealing with online trolls was not the only challenge that Edwin Koo faced in the project.

Explaining his intentions to Singapore's transport station wardens security proved "especially tricky" too.

"Because they only see me taking photos of random commuters, it can be easily read as a security threat," Mr Koo explained.

"The MRT staff are there to do a job, so my stance is always non-confrontational. I try not to argue and always offer a way to allow them to fulfil their duties."

Image copyright EDWIN KOO/TRANSIT
Image caption Colour and quirks - All part of life onboard Singapore's trains

'Beyond the closing doors'

Looking forward, Mr Koo plans to continue his Transit project and said it would be "good" to see its progress.

"Wouldn't it be interesting to look back in 2030 and see how Singaporeans used to travel in 2015?" he said.

He also hinted at a follow-up project: possibly photographing inside the trains.

He said: "Ultimately, if I am to continue to pursue this project, I will seek other ways of expression, beyond the photos of closing train doors."

Image copyright EDWIN KOO/TRANSIT
Image caption "Wouldn't it be interesting to look back in 2030 and see how Singaporeans used to travel in 2015?"

Related Topics