Interview with Marvin Tang

By Leonard Goh (freelance writer/Singapore)

The winner of the Capa Asia Best Portfolio at SIPF gives us an in-depth look into his photography

Marvin Tang’s works are striking at the first instance you look at them. Sights which should look familiar suddenly take on another look which begs the viewers to read them and find signs of familiarity for assurance. With Stateland, Marvin won the CAPA Asia Best Portfolio prize at the SIPF portfolio review sessions. We spoke to the full-time photographer to learn more about the thought processes that he has while photographing, and his intentions.

Q: Your works are dominated by landscape. Do you deliberately avoid portraits? (If so, why?)
A: When I started making images in 2009, they were mostly street images of people and portraits. However, over the years there was an unconscious shift to make images removed of the physical human presence. I would say that it was very much informed by the context of what I was doing. In most of my images after 2012, the presence of humans in the images was implied. I feel in those photographed spaces, humans have already left their mark and there was no need for me to include people in them.

Q: In your profile, you mentioned that you use photography as a tool for investigation. How would you say that this is different from the exploration of the world around us?
A: I use photography very much like how a researcher might. Not with the intension to explore but to document the subject matter as part of my ongoing research of Singapore’s history and policies that made us what we are today.

Q: The location where you took the photos for your works are usually quite isolated. How did you find these places?
A: A ton of research and jungle bashing. Works like Reminisce (above) was still pretty easy as the locations were quite easy to access. In later works, I found that I had to spend a lot of time just exploring different forested areas based on hints available to what I am looking for. For example in Stateland (below), I found the first garden after being told by a friend describing a strange space in the middle of the forested region while on a bus ride home. Later on, I realised that each of these gardeners knew the existence of other plantation spaces which helped in the search for these gardens.

Q: The images in Stateland have an ethereal, almost spooky feel to it. Do you have any interesting experiences to share while working on this series?
A: Many stories of palm size spiders and other large insects but nothing too spooky.

Q: I noticed that you use both colour and black-and-white for different series of your works. How do you decide which to use?
A: There are times where it’s just a very conscious decision from the beginning. Would the colour affect the work? Would it better help me explain the work? I think those are questions I had to figure out first before starting the shoots. I feel that for some works, colours are very important to convey what I needed. For example, the vibrancy and life that factories had in Reminisce. However, there were some works which I felt colour might end up being a distraction from the content.

Q: In Reminisce, you captured buildings and structures after dark. Did you get into any trouble with the security of these places?
A: I once had a police vehicle pull up to my camera in the middle of an exposure. All I could think of was how their lights was affecting my film exposure and requested they moved their vehicle. Fortunately they were kind enough to do so and left after I explained what I was attempting to do. For some miraculous reason, I have yet to have trouble with security over the years.

Q: How do you think photography has shaped your life so far?
A: Over the years, my perception of the medium has changed. Beyond it’s documentary and recording purposes, I see this medium as a point of expression and a tool to carry my beliefs and ideas. It made me more critical of the world we live in. At the same time, I think I have gotten the chance to meet many incredible personalities over the years in the process of making my work.

Q:Which photographer(s)’ works inspires you the most?
A: Hans Op De Beeck, Taryn Simon, Erik Kessels and Ang Song Nian. The way each of them use photography transformed the way I thought of the medium and its potential.

Q:What gear do you use?
A: I used to use a Mamiya 7ii when it was available for me in school. Today, I mainly use a Canon 5D Mark III with a 24 -70 Mark II to make my works.

Q:Last but not least, a huge congrats for clinching the CAPA Asia Best Portfolio at the SIPF portfolio review. So, how are you going to spend the prize money?
A: Thank you! It’s going straight to my savings to pursue a Masters in Fine Art Photography.

You may view more of Marvin’s works at his website,

Leonard Goh

Leonard is an advocate of photography in Singapore and also an educator in this field. He has served as senior writer for the now-defunct CNET Asia, before moving on to working for various camera companies in the business development and marketing capacities. He is also a co-founder of Platform, a not-for-profit photography initiative in Singapore which also published Twentyfifteen, a collection of 20 books to commemorate Singapore’s Golden Jubilee (SG50).

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