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‘Requiem’: For a dream and a legacy
This year’s Month of Photography "Requiem" exhibition pays tribute to Indochinese war photographers, including three noted Singaporean lensmen
“Each came for a reason and died taking a chance … some stayed on for the glory, the money, the thrill. Others returned, again and again, because it was the place to be … all lived for the next picture; it could be the best one of all. It is for their photographs, not their dying, that the world remembers them.”
These are the words of Tad Bartimus, award-winning American columnist and Vietnam War correspondent quoted in “Requiem.”
War photojournalists are a rare breed, and the war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos that raged through the 1960s and 1970s, brought a lot of them together in “the greatest assemblage of photojournalists in history.”
In the course of their work these, photographers all flirted with death and some inevitably fell into her arms.
Photographers such as Briton Larry Burrows; Americans Robert Capa, Dana Stone, Sean Flynn and one of the very few women war photographers at the time, Dickey Chapelle; Frenchmen Henri Huet and Gilles Caron; all died or disappeared in Indochina.
But not before leaving the world with moving, historic and brutally close-up images of the war that shaped our region and shook an entire generation.
Among these valiant men and women were three Singaporeans -- Terence Khoo, Sam Kai Faye and Charles Chellappah -- who have their own section in the exhibition.
“Singapore is always talking about how we need to go out there and do more,” says Month of Photography festival organizer, Shirlene Noordin, of Phish Communications. “Well, these guys did it. And they did it in 1965, just as Singapore was becoming independent. They were brave enough to take the risk. I found that very inspiring.”
Khoo and Kai Faye were both freelance photojournalists and best friends, who ended up being hired by ABC news to cover the war for TV. They were both killed by gunfire on July 21, 1972 in Quang Tri province, near Highway 1.
Chellappah was more of a solo operator, choosing to enter the most dangerous of war zone; he too ultimately met this end on the battlefield.
The very last photograph he took -- which he shot for Associated Press -- is on display, a close-up of a soldier lying in the mud. Chellappah took this photograph as he was trying to help the soldier, who had been severely wounded by a landmine. A second mine went off moments later, killing Chellappah on the spot.
“When researching Khoo and Kai Faye, we got a lot of material -- references in books, letters between family and friends after their death, and interviews,” says Noordin.
“Kai Faye has a nephew in Singapore, Sam Yoke Tatt, who went to Vietnam to identify Kai Faye’s body and bring it back to Singapore. The nephew was all of 20 years old when he had to do that. He sent me the TV camera his uncle used in Vietnam.”
“About Chellappah much less is known. We managed to find out from his family that Canagaratnam was his real last name, that Chellappah was actually his first name and Charles was just a nickname.”
“They also said that he left home when he was about 24 or 25 and started out as a sports journalist with the Singapore Free Press. And then for some reason he went off to Vietnam, the family doesn’t know why.”
Little was heard of Chellappah, until one day the BBC reported his death on the radio. This exhibition brings long overdue recognition to this brave and semi-anonymous man.
“On opening night,” says Noordin, “the entire Canagaratnam family was there. It was very touching.”
This year’s Month of Photography Asia is curated around the theme of “Memory.” In the first half of the festival, Indonesian photographer Agan Harahap superimposes pop culture icons on historical images to give a different perspective of the past in his exhibition “Superhistory.”
Photographers Alexandra Novosseloff and Frank Neisse showed their images of the various physical walls that divide people, like the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and the Peace Lines in Northern Ireland, in “Walls Between People.”
“We chose these three shows because they got us questioning the past and how we remember, what our memories are made of, how we form those memories and link it back to photography,” says Noordin. “We didn’t just want to romanticize the past or to be nostalgic, we also wanted to understand it through our contemporary prism.”
“Change is happening at a rapid pace globally. We all feel it. We try to grasp something and when finally it’s in our hands, it slips away. That feeling of things being so fleeting, just slipping through our fingers, is becoming more and more profound for me.”
And as “Requiem” shows us, life itself is fleeting.
Nayang Academy of Fine Arts, Galleries 1 & 2
80 Bencoolen St.
Daily 11 a.m.-7 p.m., till August 21
More information at www.mopasia.com.sg