An encounter with Tim Page

25 08 2022

Tim Page, the legendary Vietnam War photographer, passed away following a battle with liver cancer at the age of 78 yesterday (24 August 2022). Page, lived a remarkable life covering conflict as a young photographer, but what is even more remarkable was the fact that he survived the brutal battle space that was the war in Indochina, despite having been badly injured on four occasions — the last of which left a hole the size of an orange in his brain.

Tim Page at the “Battlefield Lens: Photographers of Indochina Wars 1950 – 1975” exhibition in Singapore in March 2019.

I had the pleasure of meeting with and speaking to Page in March 2019, when he was in Singapore for the “Battlefield Lens: Photographers of Indochina Wars 1950 – 1975” exhibition. Page was one of many photographers whose visual accounts of a bloody conflict that was being fought not so far away, brought the war much closer to home. Even today, more than four decades after the war’s last shots were fired, the haunting images these photographers captured still speak to us, reminding us of war’s grim realities and also, now that we’ve moved on from that conflict, the sheer futility of it all. During my conversation with Page, I was as captivated by the some of the stories that he shared as much as by some of the stories behind the images that he had captured.

With Tim Page, March 2019.

The scars that covering the war left on Page, went beyond his injuries. The conflict exacted a huge toll on the media fraternity in Vietnam, and took the lives of many of Page’s photographer colleagues, who counted among some of his closest friends. One of Page’s colleagues’ was Sean Flynn, who we in Singapore are acquainted with from his role in the 1967 French-Italian production Cinq Gars pour Singapour / Cinque Marines per Singapore (English title: Five Ashore in Singapore). Flynn, the son of the better known actor Errol Flynn and his first wife, embarked on a career in photojournalism and covered the war as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict, pausing in 1966 to act in the movie. He disappeared in Cambodia close to its border in Vietnam in 1970 and was thought to have been captured by the Viet Cong. Flynn would never be seen again and was declared legally dead in 1984. Page who had developed a friendship with Flynn, has spent much of his life trying to find traces of Flynn and Dana Stone, a CBS cameraman who disappeared with Flynn.

A photograph of a young Tim Page taken by Sean Flynn.

I recall Page also speaking at length on a photograph taken by a North Vietnamese army photographer by the name of The Dinh, which quite masterfully captured a shadow of himself that was cast on an overrun South Vietnamese artillery position. Page related how The Dinh, who had been thought to have been killed during the war, literally came to life during the Requiem exhibition in Vietnam. The exhibition, which Page co-curated, featured the works of photographer killed in the conflict. The Dinh took the opportunity to identify himself at the exhibition’s opening, to enable him to put in a claim for his pension.

The photograph that was taken by The Dinh showing his shadow over an overrun South Vietnamese artillery position.

North Vietnamese army photographers, as it turned out, went by a nom-de-guerre. This made it difficult to establish their real identities. The Dinh was thought to have been killed as another photographer who had died during the conflict had also gone by the name. Page was able to track this The Dinh down after the exhibition, finding him in a dwelling located by a clogged canal in Hoi An where he was living out his life as a mural painter. A stash of several boxes of negatives that The Dinh had on him, which contained images he had taken during the war, left little doubt that the mural artist and the photographer in question was one and the same. Page was also able to establish that The Dinh had been a soldier with no knowledge of photography before taking on his army photographer role. A superior, on making the observation that The Dinh had artistic ability from the images of battle that he had captured on a sketchpad, thrust an East German made Praktica camera into The Dinh’s hands, turning the soldier and artist into an unlikely photographer.

Information on Tim Page works can be found at his website:

The words of Tim Page.

Singapore’s last traditional puppet stage maker?

3 08 2022

Puppet shows once made appearances around Taoist temples scattered all across Singapore. Like the Chinese street opera and the more modern getai performances, they were usually put up for the pleasure of visiting Taoist deities on their earthly sojourns, or for hungry ghosts who as belief would have it, roam the earth when the gates of the underworld are opened during the Chinese seventh month. Puppet shows also found great appeal with the common, especially amongst the young ones. These days however, the distractions of the modern world hold sway and the appeal of tradition seems to have waned. Just a handful of troupes still perform around today leaving supporting craftsmen such as Mr Leong Fong Wah, whose lifetime’s work has been in painting and putting together puppet stages, a dying breed.

A typical Chinese puppet stage is really an assembly of pieces of plywood on which colourful decorations and backdrops are painted on one side and reinforced on the other. All it takes is a few weeks to add the decorative work before a stage can be put together. This quick turnaround time, the lack of a customer base, and the fact that a stage can be used and reused for as long as ten years, does mean that there is little in terms work in the area for the business that Mr Leong runs, Leong Shin Wah Art Studio. Having been started in the 1940s by Mr Leong’s father, whose name the business is identified with, the workshop must have been involved in putting together a countless number of stages. With nothing in way of puppet show stage orders in sight beyond an order that Mr Leong is currently in the process of fulfilling, this last stage that he is building may be one of the last, if not the last, traditional puppet show stages being made not just at Mr Leong’s workshop, but also in Singapore.

A typical traditional puppet show stage set up:

A puppet stage set up at Telok Ayer Street.
The stage set up also hides puppeteers and musicians behind a backdrop and other decorated plywood panels.

Chinese Puppetry in Singapore:

A lifelong passion pulling strings (Henghwa string puppet troupe)

The last performance of the Sin Sai Poh Hong puppet troupe (Teochew Rod Puppet Troupe)

The Native American chief’s son who was buried at Bidadari

3 06 2020

Joseph Thunderface was the son of Native American Chief MJ Thunderface. The elder Thunderface, a native American actor and circus performer, had come over to the East to perform in a rodeo show. The show performed in Singapore in 1924, with Joe, then 10 years of age, also part of the act.

Joe took up boxing and had been previously unbeaten. Joe Thunderface fought two bouts in Singapore against local boxer Frank Weber at the Great World Arena in 1934. He won the first, a ten-round fight on 31 August, outscoring Weber on points.

The return bout, to have been fought over twelve rounds just weeks later on 21 September, had an entirely different outcome. Joe, was knocked down in the ninth round, taking a three-count before continuing. In the twelfth and final round, Joe was knocked down twice – getting up on both occasions. He would however collapse after getting up the second time, hitting his head and fracturing his skull in the process. He was rushed to the General Hospital, where he died early the next morning, aged 21. He was buried at Bidadari Christian Cemetery.


A glimpse of Seletar’s past – the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection

5 11 2018

The generous donation of more than 1,400 images on photographic slides from the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – of Singapore and Malaya (and maybe a few of Lima) taken in the late 1950s – made the news some months back (see : Rare glimpse into Singapore’s colourful past, The Straits Times, Mar 31, 2018). The photographs, many of which were put up by the donor, Dr. Clifford Saunders, on the Facebook group “On a Little Street in Singapore” currently and prior to the donation (the National Heritage Board, NHB, is the custodian), provides us with a peek into a world and a way of life we will never go back to.

Seletar Village, 1959 – from one of the more than 1,400 slides donated by Dr. Saunders.
(The Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – courtesy of Dr. Clifford Saunders / NHB).

Dr. Clifford Saunders at the Indian Heritage Centre.

Dr. Saunders. whose father was the genius behind the well taken and meticulously labelled slides, is currently in town as a guest of the NHB and was kind enough to meet with heritage enthusiasts and members of the Facebook group on Sunday to provide some insights into the images as well as his impressions of Singapore through the eyes of the young and inquisitive boy that he was when his father and family were based at RAF Seletar all those years ago.

Members of ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’ with Dr. Saunders.

The slides include a set of images involving an old lifeboat, the John Willie. Bought off a Dutchman coming out of Sumatra at the time of the Indonesian National Revolution for $200, the leaky lifeboat was repaired and provided the family with a means for offshore adventure – one of many activities that Dr. Saunders, now 69 described during his presentation. He also mentioned that his favourite island was Pulau Ubin, which I understand he will be trying to visit during his short stay here. Other experiences Dr. Saunders spoke of include fishing at fishing ponds, life at Poulden Court in Jalan Kayu, trips “up country” and his impressions of the causeway and river crossings (my own experiences: Crossing the river in days of old), and the rather alien smells and sounds of a then very foreign land.

James Seah seeing the funny side of Dr. Saunders’ story.

More on his wonderful experiences in Singapore – shared over the two hour session at the Indian Heritage Centre and which Clifford feels shaped his life and profession (he is now a neuroplastician) – can be found in these two recordings:


Steve McCurry : The Iconic Photographs

16 01 2016

The “world’s most famous photograph” the Afghan Girl, is just one in photographer Steve McCurry’s amazing portfolio of work, all of which have the quality of being immediately recognisable. Fifty-three of McCurry’s celebrated works, spanning an illustrious three decade long career, go on display in Singapore for just over a month from today. I got a peek at the exhibition,  Steve McCurry : The Iconic Photographs at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery at Gillman Barracks and hear from the man himself at a preview that was held yesterday.

Steve McCurry in Singapore with the Afghan Girl.

Steve McCurry with the Afghan Girl at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

McCurry and many of his works, bring life in areas of conflict, places well off the beaten track, to our living rooms. The images serve as an inspiration to many, myself included and what McCurry had to say about how he went about taking some of the most stunning photographs to be circulated, his experiences in creating them, and his general approach to photography was especially enlightening.  


What is apparent is that much on display at the exhibition, are of people and places in India. The country says McCurry is a favourite of his and to which he has made more than eighty trips. One of his favourite photographs is the especially striking one of brightly dressed women clustered together to shield themselves from a fast growing sand storming Rajasthan, stopping his taxi to capture the developing scene. In describing the photograph, McCurry also reflected how sad he felt that some of what made for such scenes, such as the way the women were dressed, would eventually disappear and that people in such places “would all end up like us”.

McCurry describing a photograph of what he feels is quintessentially Mumbai. It is a scene that isn't there anymore - a flyover now runs over the road.

McCurry describing a photograph of what he feels is quintessentially Mumbai. It is a scene that isn’t there anymore – a flyover now runs over the road.

The vivid colours McCurry captures in much of his work would also not go unnoticed. Colour, however is not what interests McCurry in creating the image, but the content – the story it tells and the emotion it captures. Images if converted to black and white, should, in McCurry’s opinion, still work.


McCurry readily admits to being an advocate of the digital age and besides shooting with digital cameras, he also admits to shooting with his cell phone. “Two or three” photographs that will feature in a book being published in September, he says, were taken with his iPhone6. Photography to McCurry seems all about story telling and the joy it brings – he goes out on the streets, immerses himself in what surrounds him, and lets what he observes develop the story and pays attention more to shutter speed rather than aperture or depth of field.

Steve McCurry : The Iconic Photographs runs until 21 February 2016. More information on the exhibition can be found at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery’s website .

Annie Leibovitz at the ArtScience Museum

19 04 2014

On now at the ArtScience Museum is Annie Leibovitz – A Photographer’s Life, 1990 – 2005, a retrospective showcase featuring some 200 works of celebrated photographer Annie Leibovitz. The exhibition, which made its debut in Brooklyn in 2006, offers visitors a glimpse not just at works that will instantly be recognisable, but also right into the personal side of Ms. Leibovitz’s life with many portraits of the people who she had been close to.

Annie Leibovitz, through the crowd of reporters and photographers at the ArtScience Museum.

Annie Leibovitz, through the crowd of reporters and photographers at the ArtScience Museum.

It is the people who are close to you – staying close to home, that Ms Leibovitz advises photographers to do. It was one of several insights provided by her as she brought guests on a preview of her exhibition earlier this week, during which she spoke not only about some of the famous images such as that of the pregnant Demi Moore, but also about what is found in some of her more personal work. It is from this personal side that we were to discover her favourite is from – a photograph she took of her mother, an unsmiling portrait of which her father was initially rather critical of.

Annie Leibovitz on her favourite photograph - an unsmiling portrait that she took of her mother.

Annie Leibovitz on her favourite photograph – an unsmiling portrait that she took of her mother.

A rather interesting story that Ms Leibovitz did share was of  infamous portraits that she took of Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 – a commission she got some 5 years after she had first written to the British monarch’s press secretary for an unrelated shoot. The press secretary had remembered the letter when on the look out for an American photographer to take portraits of the Queen in the lead up to an intended visit to the US – which Ms. Leibovitz does say can be a lesson in perseverance. The shoot during which the Queen wasn’t apparently in the best of moods, did in the eyes of Ms Leibovitz, show the sense of duty that the Queen did have.

Annie Leibovitz on her portrait of the Queen.

Annie Leibovitz on her portrait of the Queen.

Annie Leibovitz – A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005, which has toured the US, Europe, Sydney, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sydney and Seoul, will be on at the ArtScience Museum from 18 April until 19 October 2014. More information on the exhibition and on ticketing can be found at the ArtScience Museum’s site.

Many instantly recognisable works of Ms. Leibovitz are on display.

Many instantly recognisable works of Ms. Leibovitz are on display.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the ArtScience Museum will be running a series of Portraiture Photography courses starting in June 2014. The courses aim to offer enthusiasts with a keen interest in portraiture photography a better understanding of the techniques and approaches to capturing the portraits. The courses, over seven weekends from June to October 2014, will be conducted by Steven Yee, a trainer with Knowledge Bowl Training and Consultancy and are priced at S$200 per course, booking for which can be made from 23 April 2014 through all Marina Bay Sands ticketing channels:

  • Course 1: Portrait photography using available lighting and artificial lighting [14 and 15 June; 13 and 14 September]
  • Course 2: Candid and formal portrait photography [28 and 29 June; 27 and 28 September]
  • Course 3: On location styling (lighting, make-up, styling, posing) [16 and 17 August]
  • Course 4: Documentary portraiture (informal photography in settings) [12 and 13 July; 18 and 19 October]




Annie Leibovitz at the ArtScience Museum

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