Documenting Readers of Singapore

There is a photograph of me reading a picture book on a cherry-red potty as a two-year-old. As compromising as the photograph may be in my working life, I am proud of its existence (thanks, mom).

Long before I became a writer — and even before I was toilet-trained, it seems — I was already in love with the act of reading. I say “act” because, at two years old, reading was really an attempt to imitate my mother, an avid reader herself. And after faking it for a few years (fake it till you make it), I too started to read and, later, write.

Reading and writing are not mutually exclusive. Author Stephen King said it best when he wrote in his 2000 book, On Writing: “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

For writers, reading is the gasoline that keeps the writing going. Every writer I know loves to read, even if we may not enjoy the same books.

But that’s me, and writers are strange people — how about the rest of the population? Do they also share our enthusiasm for written words?

Readers of Singapore

That is the question I wanted answers to when I was heading home on a late-night train about a year ago. As an experiment, I walked from one end of the train to the other just to see how many people, aside from myself, had a book in hand.

Turned out, I was the only one, and something inside me died a little.

For writers, reading is the gasoline that keeps the writing going. Every writer I know loves to read, even if we may not enjoy the same books."

Over the next few days, I started photographing every single reader I came across just to prove a point. I even started a hash tag on social media, #readersofsingapore, just to keep track of this mini project of mine.

Then one reader led to another, and another, and another.

Intimate Moments

One year on, my motive to take pictures of fellow readers has changed in more ways than one.

Instead of using photography as a creative outlet or proving a point about Singaporeans’ reading habits, I became interested in capturing those intimate moments between the book and its reader in very public spaces. Entire worlds and characters are created out of nothing every single time a reader cracks open a book on buses and trains! Yet, the only hints of these fantastical and spontaneous creations are the subtle facial expressions you see on the readers’ faces — a smile here, a frown there, or even indifference and boredom. These little moments never cease to fascinate me.

And, based on the number of readers I have captured in the wild, I am happy to report that, as dire as it may seem, books — and, by extension, reading — will not be going the way of CDs and cassette tapes anytime soon.

Maybe some of these #readersofsingapore will turn into #writersofsingapore, like myself — who knows?