Charmaine Poh’s photographs, capturing the lives of marginalised communities in Asia, have earned her a spot on this year’s Forbes 30 under 30 list. She tells Hive Life her story.
For photographer Charmaine Poh, the depiction of people’s struggle against social inequalities stems from a personal vocation to help them be truly seen and heard. “I once received a message from a family friend whose brother had struggled a lot with his sexuality before passing away. She said she had been following my work on the queer community, and that through them, she felt like she could see her brother’s face a little clearer – that it represented a visibility he was denied when he was alive. I remember waking up and reading that message, and bursting into tears.” It’s this deep human connection that has resonated with those who have seen her images, be they the likes of The New York Times or art festivals like the Taipei Arts Festival and the Singapore International Photography Festival. The 29-year-old creative talks Hive Life through a career forged out of passion.
Having been drawn to understanding and portraying the human experience, Charmaine’s start in the arts was as an actress. “I was interested in living out as many different lives as I could, stepping into the shoes of different people, trying to understand the complexity of human beings,” she recounts. As her career evolved, however, she turned to photography to study the lives of people facing huge complexity in simply existing every day, inspired by someone very close to home. “I was back home from college in the United States for winter break at the end of 2012 and my atheist father had converted to Buddhism. He was going through a lot at the time, and I instinctively picked up my camera to document him as a means to understand him better, and to sit in that emotional place with him. That was the day photography suddenly felt real to me, something I needed to do.”
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As a storyteller, Charmaine has a mixed media approach that incorporates writing and images to tell tales about everything from loneliness to ageing with huge impact, which is why she’s been featured in 2019’s Forbes 30 under 30 list, and was a judge at the Kuala Lumpur International Photo Awards earlier this year. “I use the camera as a primary tool, but other mediums are really important to me as well. I am particular about the way my exhibitions are designed.” Having studied Visual and Media Anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin, she approaches her projects from an ethnographic standpoint. “I write to accompany my images when they are published. I’m more interested in using the right tools to realise an idea.” Some of her most recognised works have been her pictures of LGBTQI+ communities in Cambodia and low-income families along Myanmar’s Yangon River. Recently, she did a project with single mothers in Singapore, seeing first hand the impact images can have, thanks to the immediate reaction of people who saw hers. “Many people have written in, wanting to help in any way. It has been so heartening, and makes me continue to have belief in this work.”
Charmaine speaks of one particular encounter in Yangon that helped mould her into the photographer she is today. “The boatman, his wife, and his children represent the classes of people who are often the last to see real economic progress in their lives. Even with so much new wealth pouring into Yangon, there is a danger they are left behind. They had invited me into their home and I spent a few days with them. His wife was sick, and the medicine dispensed from the town clinic didn’t seem to help, but in order to get more medicine, he was slowly selling bits of his garden to his neighbours, all while trying to support his five children through school. It was a precarious situation.”
Since she discovered her passion, the young photographer’s journey hasn’t been without its challenges. “Building your own vision is really important, but it can feel immensely difficult at the start, because you’re changing along with the industry, and with life in general.” Still, she’s convinced of the value of images to help open our eyes to the reality of others around us – now, more than ever. “In our current climate, even if the genre or the process changes, we need images more than ever.”
Charmaine Poh is one of 13 international artists whose work will be featured in Open Studios at GlogauAIR Berlin this weekend on December 13 and 14.