A strong believer of the overlooked & unseen, Kae Yuan is a designer and documentary photographer based in Singapore. In 2017, Kae open mindedly booked a trip to Lucknow, the largest city in Northern city, Uttar Pradesh.
Discovering photography at the age of 16, Kae Yuan hasn’t stopped ever since. Armed with a curious mind and a zero-plan attitude, his journey soon took him from Lucknow to the historical cities in Rajasthan. His latest zine titled, Chalo Chale is a documentation of the the boys he met in Jaipur, Jodphur and Jaisalmer. His photographs of the everyday life in these cities is a silent observation of their lifestyles, daily routines and couch-surfing. With no questions asked, he entrusted them wholeheartedly while allowing them to amaze him. All things considered, they are local people, individuals with the insider intel, learning shared through their families and past encounters, of which he wouldn't be able to discover in the manuals.
Hey Kae! Tell us a little bit about yourself?
Formally, I’m a Biology graduate. Everything else I do is somewhat related to photography. Since learning about Humans of New York and attempting the same in my university, I’ve been trying to expand my personal and photographic boundaries, thinking of better ways to tell stories. Usually there’s a social message attached but I’m not interested in over-politicizing the people I meet. It’s subtle and if you notice it, good for you!
What do you do and what is your relationship with photography?
“What do you do” is one of the hardest questions anyone can ask me. A short answer is too reductive. A long answer too confusing. Also, I’m still figuring that out.
I picked up photography ten years ago, when I was 16. Coming from a Chinese school, I was sent to Beijing for a month of “cultural exchange”. Before the trip I borrowed a point-and-shoot camera from the art department. After the trip, my art teacher reviewed my photographs and said some encouraging words like “You’re not actually half-bad.” I haven’t stopped shooting since. These days my Nikon D7000 is slowly replacing various functions of my body. It’s pretty much fused to my right hand. It’s the eyes I use to see. It’s the brain I use to remember. It’s the mouth that initiates conversations.
(Oh, I just switched to Sony A7II.)
Can you share with us what your latest zine, “Chalo? Chale!” is all about?
The title of the zine is a common slang that the guys in North India like to use. “Cha-lo?” means “Shall we go?” while “Cha-le!” means “Let’s go!” It’s an invitation and a response, like a song. I love it.
You can hear boys shouting the phrase to one another, and fathers to their sons daughters. It’s a familiar expression that’s playful. The respondents don’t question where they’re going. They just agree and follow. I think it captures the devil-may-care attitude of the boys I met in India.
How did the trip come about? What was your preparation like?
I went to Tiger Airways’ website and looked up the list of flight destinations available. The cities in India sounded especially attractive and was more wallet-friendly for the budget traveller that I am. I picked “Lucknow” because it just seemed appropriate. It’s like using the Google Search Engine and clicking “I’m feeling lucky.” So I got flight tickets without knowing where in India it was or what’s there to be honest, I didn’t prepare much. I just posted on Facebook and crowdsourced some feedback. Then I pinned the locations on to Google Maps and created a vague route. My friends who were in India before strongly recommended Rajasthan, so that’s the direction I took. The plan changed along the way of course, based on the locals I met on the streets and the couch offers from the Indian Couchsurfing community. In the end I visited about five cities: three Rajasthani cities that were featured in the zine, and two other cities in Uttar Pradesh.
You mention before that you decided to travel to India because you were turning 25. And you felt that it was time to go on a solo adventure. Was this a reflection of being a full-fledged adult?
What’s an “adult” and what does constitutes a “full-fledged adult”? Maybe turning 25 was a quarter-life crisis of sorts. I’m not sure. I’ve always enjoyed challenging myself to do something that scared me: talking to strangers, public speaking, solo travelling, etc. For me excitement doesn’t come without a good dose of fear and uncertainty.Working with South Asian low-wage migrant workers in the past probably made me curious about their lives back home. Also the news coverage of India and Indian people is rarely positive in Singapore. I wanted to fact check that.
Does meeting these boys made you reflect on your boyhood?
Definitely. Boyhood in Singapore is very different depending on your social status and educational background. I come from a lower middle-class family and my family stays in public housing. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but the priorities of urban planning is different as compared to more affluent neighbourhoods. When public social spaces are less common, you don’t have proper gathering and play areas, and that means you don’t meet people as often as you probably could. Friendships are transient, you meet once, play a game of freeze-and-melt and never meet again.And then there’s also the need to do well in school, to climb the social ladder. That means my childhood was simply home (Point A), school (Point B), and back home (Point A). No room for detours or distractions so yea, I guess I missed out on this “boyhood”.Luckily, my youthful Asian good looks confuse people and make them think I’m 10 years younger than I actually am. It worked out in the end. I’m catching up on lost boyhood.
The boys in your zine seem so carefree and spontaneous, could you share with us a little about your experiences with the boys.
When I meet Couchsurfers or locals, my main objective is to learn about their lifestyles, their daily routines, their usual haunts, their family tree, their social networks, etc. I’m less concerned about the tourist attractions we will be visiting.I ask them, what do you like to do on a normal day, during your free time? Where do you like to go with your friends? Let’s do that. Take me there. They are as carefree and spontaneous as they appear in the zine. It’s normal for me to hop on the back of a motorcycle not knowing where we’re going, who we’re meeting. No questions asked. I place my complete trust in them. I let them surprise me. After all, they are the locals, people with the insider intel, knowledge shared through their families and past experiences. You can’t find these in the guide books.
Your zine is curated in a specific way of storytelling, what was your thought process? Could you share with us some of the challenges you faced?
I was thinking of a way to give the zine some structure and flow. It was an easy decision to use the cities for the chapter heads and colour-coding, although the focus was really on the people. So we have Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, in that sequence. After that, I decided to focus on one boy per city, the lead character of my experience in that place.Cutting content was really hard. Jaipur could have been a whole zine on its own. I spent two weeks there, on and off, and I had such a good relationship with the family. Ujjawal’s mother is such a personality and she cooked so many different Rajasthani dishes. I wish I could have included them all. However in the end, I decided to focus on the boys instead.
Does traveling inspire your photography? Or does photography inspire you to travel?
Travelling makes photography more natural and fresh because everything seems to be new. When you’re shooting in your own country, you don’t make the same distinctions because everything is already so familiar.
Are you still in contact with the boys you met?
Yep. We keep in touch mainly through Instagram and Whatsapp. From time to time, I’ll Skype with Ujjawal’s family too, to get some updates and to exchange some good vibes.
What do you feel is most important about being young (and carefree)?
There are certain things that the youths can get away with, and we must take full advantage of that. Breaking the rules without much consequence is one example.
Pre-conformity children are just so much more unique and interesting. Whether it’s the innocence or their perspectives. We need to find a way to retain these divergent thinkers, otherwise the world is just gonna be a homogeneous piece of mush. Utterly tasteless.
Are you working on any new projects?
Recently I started a photography project with the elderly to rethink how funeral portraits are presented in Singapore. At the moment I’m on the bus between Fes and Chefchaouen, two moroccan cities. After that, I hope to continue travelling for another couple of months in Europe and maybe make something out of it.
Describe your aesthetic in one sentence.
Subtle as fuck.
Kae Yuan's zine titled "Chalo Chale" is available on our webstore in a limited edition run of 30 copies. A5 / 44 Pages / Woodfree Paper / Individually Hand-Numbered / Stapled Bound
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