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ACTIVATE! SERIES - Visualizing Unseen Realities: Photography for Social Purpose


ACTIVATE! SERIES - Visualizing Unseen Realities: Photography for Social Purpose

Date:14 Nov 2018

Time:16:00 - 17:30

Venue:AS8 Level 4, Seminar Room 04-04 
10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260 
National University of Singapore @ KRC

Jointly organized by the Asian Urbanisms Cluster of Asia Research Institute, and Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore.


Assoc Prof Brent Luvaas, Drexel University, USA


The emergence of new forms of socially engaged photography is premised on two discrete but interdependent trajectories - the growing emphasis on aesthetics both in new media ecology and in civil activism. These integrated socio-cultural developments have transformed the models of production, evaluation and dissemination of photographs by bringing forward new discursive platforms that display and encode photographs in affective modes. From photojournalism to art photography, the critical discourse is shifting from photography as a sovereign act of inclusion and exclusion into understanding it as a discursive process of mediation between varied forms of agency. Yet, the different modes of circulation address distinct publics and bring forward varying possibilities and forms of socio-political action. Drawing from their long-term engagement with photography in its multiple practices and their personal experience through collaborations in Asia, the participants of this panel seek to elaborate how and to what extent photography can enable social change today? Instead of bearing witness to social injustices what other kinds of modes of action socially engaged photography can enforce and even more importantly, what kind of local, regional and significance it has today?

For Further Reading

- Strauss, D. L. (2003[1992]) The Documentary Debate: Aesthetic or Anaesthetic. In D. L. Strauss, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. New York: Aperture, pp. 2-11.
- Palmer, D. (2013) A Collaborative Turn in Contemporary Photography? Photographies, 6:1, 117-125, DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2013.788843.
- Bratchford, G., Giotaki, G. & Wewiora, L. (2018) Socially Engaged Photography and Wellbeing: Reflections on a Case Study in the Northwest of England, London Journal of Primary Care, 10:4, 82-88, DOI: 10.1080/17571472.2018.1477439.
- ArtsWok Collaborative (2018) On Death and Dying: Vital Signs for a Healthy Civic Dialogue. A case study.
- Meiselas, S. (2008) Susan Meiselas: In History. Ed. by K. Lubben. New York: International Center of Photography; Göttingen, Germany: Steidl.
- Sekula, A. (1978) Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation)The Massachusetts Review 19:4, Photography, pp. 859-883.


Working primarily with photography, video and participatory workshops, Alecia Neo develops long-term projects involving a variety of individuals and collaborators, overlooked communities and their spaces. Her debut site-specific project, “Villa Alicia” (2011) investigated the fragility of memory, through the transformation of the 4000 sq ft private home of the late Singaporean feminist Dr Nalla Tan, into a public gallery, which was demolished shortly after the six day exhibition. The project was later extended into her installation “Goddess of Mercy” commissioned by the M1 Fringe Festival in 2012, Art & Faith. Ms Neo has been commissioned by the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore International Foundation, the National Library Board (Singapore) and the National Arts Council (Singapore) and the National Museum of Singapore for art projects. Her art works have been exhibited in various international festivals and galleries, such as Singapore Art Museum, Valentine Willie Fine Art (Singapore), Singapore International Photography Festival, the International Orange Festival (China), University of Bangkok (Thailand), Cittadellarte (Italy) and Noordelicht International Photo Festival (Netherlands). In 2012, she spent four months in artist residency with Cittadelarte-Fondazione Pistoletto’s UNIDEE programme (Biella, Italy). She has developed projects in Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore centering on communities living with blindness since 2012, exploring how meaning and narratives are translated in the absence of sight. Ms Neo is also currently working on a 3-year long collaborative project with elderly communities in Singapore, "Both Sides, Now" and she is an artist lead with Brack, a trans-border arts platform for socially engaged artists. In 2016, Ms Neo was awarded with the Young Artist Award.

Tom White teaches Documentary & Photojournalism at Yale-NUS College. Originally from Bradford, West Yorkshire in the north of England, Mr White is currently based in Singapore where he works as a freelance photographer. His photography has been published and exhibited internationally. He is a graduate of Goldsmith’s College in London and The International Centre of Photography in New York. Since 2007, Mr White has been involved in photography education alongside his freelance career. He has taught at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and at the International Center of Photography in New York City. In addition to his appointment at Yale-NUS College, he is involved with photography workshops at the Objectifs Centre in Singapore. Mr White had also worked on a variety of programmes with the International Center of Photography’s Community Programs department. He intends to continue to do photography-based social engagement projects as a counterpoint to his documentary, editorial and fine art practice.

Brent Luvaas is a visual and cultural anthropologist interested in the production and global circulation of fashion, music, and photography. He is the author of Street Style: An Ethnography of Fashion Blogging (Bloomsbury 2016) and DIY Style: Fashion, Music, and Global Digital Cultures (Berg 2012). He has received several prominent fellowships, including the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Grant and the University of California Pacific Rim Research Program Grant, and has published in numerous journals including Cultural Anthropology, Ethnography, Fashion Studies, Fashion Theory, and Visual Anthropology Review. He is also the photographer and blogger behind Urban Fieldnotes (urbanfieldnotes.com). He posts his street photographic work on Instagram at @streetanthropology.


Admission is free. We would greatly appreciate if you click on the "Register" button above to RSVP.


In recent years, the multifaceted forms of civic practices—ranging from participatory urbanism, to artistic interventions, and to street protests launched by activists—have become more prominent in Asian cities, attracting scholarly attention across different disciplines. The transformations in civil society have raised the following questions: What are the emerging challenges and contingencies the varied interest groups are facing? What kind of conflicts can arise during and after instances of civil activism, and how can these tensions be ameliorated? How can social engagement, practice and research be bridged together by, and for, different individuals and agencies? When does social engagement become perceived as civil activism?

This seminar series, jointly organized by Asian Urbanisms cluster (ARI) and the Department of Architecture, critically presents and examines the novel forms of civic practices that have manifested in the Asian urban context through a transdisciplinary framework. Bringing together academics, practitioners, students, and the general public interested in urban spatial strategies in relation to negotiate the formation and role of civil societies, the seminars seek to initiate discourse on the following themes: First, to explore how the varied stakeholders involved in civil society groups, including academics and educators, activists, artists, NGOs, NPOs, informal interest groups and community associations, political parties, and governmental organizations currently de/reconstruct the contextual and physical understanding of shared urban space in Asia. It is of interest to review the main goals of the novel civic practices, and the extent in which these aspirations are realised. Secondly, these seminars seek to articulate how stakeholders engage in the process of collaborative knowledge production through these practices. More importantly, the aim of the series is to conceptualise civic practices as a product of the distinctive trajectories of socio-economic development, spatial/cultural policies, and the structures of political governance in the Asian region. To reiterate, these seminars provide an overview on the distinctive challenges and opportunities that contemporary Asian cities pose for civil societies, and the kind of local and global characteristics that are emerging in these locales.


Asia Research Institute | Minna Valjakka & Sonia Lam
Department of Architecture | Cho Im Sik & Lee Kah Wee


Minghua TAY