Fascinated by unique architectural elements that serve as lookout points at the void decks of Housing Development Board (HDB) blocks, local photographer Elephnt discusses Ways of Seeing, his interesting photo-book that was published by Math Paper Press.

Photo courtesy of Elephnt

Elephnt is a very interesting moniker. How did you come up with it?

It was a nickname from a friend that I decided to use as a nom de guerre for my photography. It was strangely appropriate because when I started shooting seriously four years ago, I always felt a little awkward behind the camera (and I still do sometimes).

So when I’m not getting photos that I want or when I’m “wrestling” with my camera settings, I feel like an elephant fumbling around with a tiny camera. That image still amuses me and pops up in my head from time to time when I’m out taking photos.

Photo courtesy of Elephnt

When did you first develop an interest in photography?

My journey as a photographer started out quite unexpectedly. I used to be a serious long distance runner training five to six times a week. At some point, photography became part of my running routine because I started to notice interesting things along my running route.

I only took photography more seriously after graduating from university in 2013. It was then that I became really interested in urban and heritage issues. There was a lot of public debate about Bukit Brown and the future redevelopment plans for the area.

Photo courtesy of Elephnt

One of my favourite running places – the former Bidadari Cemetery – was slowly being hoarded up in stages for redevelopment too. By documenting these places, photography became a way for me to cope with the growing sense of loss.

What inspired “Ways of Seeing”?

Ways of Seeing is a photo-book that explores lookout points found in public housing estates across Singapore. It captures certain architectural elements like common corridors and void decks that facilitate looking and gazing, which is a natural part of HDB life.

Photo courtesy of Elephnt

In university, I read books about society and public housing and was introduced to the notion of informal surveillance and architecture. These ideas stuck with me, so picking up a camera was my way of exploring and understanding those ideas for myself.

I was also inspired by my own experiences with informal surveillance growing up. I remember running away whenever a neighbour saw my friends and I ramming footballs at the void deck pillars, or racing to my room window when I overheard a family quarrelling in the next block.

Photo courtesy of Elephnt

How many HDB blocks did you shoot for this project?

I’ve lost count, honestly, but I do know I’ve walked a lot for this project. I think the craziest photowalk I’ve done was from Jurong East to Pioneer MRT Station on a public holiday. It was physically demanding but very interesting.

Darren Soh (local landscape and architectural photographer) said he’s only photographed the façade of a fraction of the 10,000 HDB blocks in Singapore, and I think it’s pretty much the same for me.

Photo courtesy of Elephnt

There are even more blocks recently in places like Punggol and Sengkang, and redevelopment claims several estates every year too. And because HDB blocks get periodically repainted or upgraded, I do return once in awhile to blocks I’ve shot at before.

What made these blocks special to you?

From quite early on, I was struck by the variety of designs of these lookout points. If you were to spend a day walking around Choa Chu Kang or Simei, you would find lookout points that are diamond, circle or even four leaf clover-shaped at the void deck.

Photo courtesy of Elephnt

Many of these blocks with lookout points were built in the 80s and 90s, and I recall reading in Contours of Culture: Space and Social Difference in Singapore that there was a conscious effort to build blocks with different ornamentations and colours. It’s quite interesting to capture these on camera.

Your approach to this project is pretty voyeuristic. Any funny experiences you’d like to share?

The voyeurism works both ways actually. These lookout points enable me to take photos of people, but they also enable the subjects to look right back at me. I often get mistaken for a Town Council worker when I’m shooting.

Photo courtesy of Elephnt

People will just walk up and start talking to me about hairline cracks in their walls or complain about dirty void decks. I’ve also stopped soccer matches by accident and also deterred a few primary school boys from starting one.

How was it like collaborating with Math Paper Press on this photo-book?

It’s been great! I wasn’t alone in the curation process as (BooksActually Founder) Kenny and his team co-curated the images together with me. I was also blown away by the book design, especially the cover. It’s designed by Shing Yee from the Math Paper Press team.

Photo courtesy of Elephnt

Having zero background in design, my initial idea for the cover was just to use an image I’d shot. But when Shing Yee proposed a design that utilised the shape of a lookout point and featured actual void deck colours, I knew nothing could beat that – it looks so good!

What influenced your decision to have the book and images adopt a square, 1×1 format?

I wanted this book to be somewhat portable, something that people might pick up, look through and start wandering around Singapore in search of these unusual and sometimes overlooked lookout points and void decks.

Photo courtesy of Elephnt

What are your thoughts about the current state of our public housing through this project?

It’s sad that HDB has stopped building blocks with unique lookout points at the void deck. If you visit the new housing blocks in Punggol, you’ll realise that the ornamental motifs that distinguish one block from another are now only seen on rooftops, which is a shame.

I think these lookout points at the void deck add colour and character to what would otherwise be an empty space. Having them at ground level also has some kind of practical benefit for people navigating their way about housing estates in Singapore.

Photo courtesy of Elephnt

I’ve gotten lost quite a few times in Punggol because the void decks there all happen to be the same colour. While shooting Ways of Seeing, I’ve always had this sense that we might one day lose something that’s quite unique when these blocks fall victim to the cycle of redevelopment in Singapore.

Grab a copy of “Ways of Seeing” here.


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Arman Shah

A former travel writer with fond memories of solo adventures in Southeast Asia, Arman is now Founder of The Everyday People. He's also the co-host of Channel Empathy, a podcast about the marginalised in Singapore.