In this current digital and social media world that we are living in today, we are most probably flooded with digital still images, on your social media platforms, on your devices, on your computer. Posting and sharing your photographs might have become a daily routine in your life. The world of photography has evolved tremendously, transforming into one of the most accessible medium, thanks to the proliferation and rise of smartphone cameras and social media. How is modern digital photography today, compared to when photography first started? Through 150 years of visual stories: Living Pictures – Photography in Southeast Asia, an exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore, you can enjoy a visual journey/storytelling adventure to learn and know more about photography, its humble beginnings and revolutionary changes over the century. 

In a special two part series, I would first bring you on my visual storytelling journey through 150 Years of Visual Stories: Living Pictures – Photography in Southeast Asia. In my next article, I would be chatting with Agan Harahap, one of the four notable photographers from the Southeast Asia region, that is featured on National Gallery Singapore Instagram page, part of the Living Pictures – Photography in Southeast Asia exhibition showcase.

Living Pictures – Photography in Southeast Asia

This is an amazing photography exhibition, of its size, magnitude, and diversity of photography works on display, some 300 of them, ranging from colonial archival images, studio portraits, and documentary photography to photo albums, social media photos and modern photography in both offline and online formats.

What is the evolution of photography like over the past 150 years? What are some of the most iconic photographs that you have seen over the past few decades, especially in the Southeast Asia context? When you visit Living Pictures – Photography in Southeast Asia, you are assured of a visual learning feast and eye-opener journey. 

Some of those visual stories are heart wrenching, some are heart warming. Be prepared to experience those emotions as you view, read and connect with those living pictures. Let’s start off in a chronological order and sequence to view, read and experience 150 years of visual stories. 

Section 1: Colonial Archives (Gallery 3) 

First and foremost, let us kick start our visual storytelling journey by going back in time and history, to the Colonial period in Southeast Asia in Section 1: Colonial Archives.

When did photography technology first started and arrived in Southeast Asia? They were brought over by European colonists in the 19th century. What were the views and impressions like during that era upon looking at those photographs?


During the colonial period, what was imperialism like? How did photography play a role during that period? What was the relationship that photography played for the European colonists and those people living in Southeast Asia at that time? 

Section 2: Portraits and Performance (Gallery 3)

Photography in its early days were a form of wealth and prestige for the Southeast Asia ruling elites. Who can imagined that photography had the power to influence perception and communication during those early days? 

Portraiture became the choice, the style for those who can afford it, showcasing their role through modern imagination and their role in a new modern world that was coming to them during that era period. 

As you looked at the photographs on display inside this section, I would like to think about your extended family and relatives, do you recall seeing any similar portraitures of your grandparents or great-grandparents in similar styles, fashion, poses, props and backdrops? 

If you have them in your extended family, you will have your family hierarchy to explore and discover so much further and deeper.

Section 3: In Real Life (Gallery 2)

As the title for this section suggests, it’s real life that photography brings to you. They always had a close and contentious relationship with reality. A photograph never shows everything, it can create a new world, based on your interpretation. 

There is a series of Vietnam war collections, most notably an iconic photograph titled, “Napalm Girl (1972)” by Nick Ut, a former Associated Press photographer. Some of the most iconic and powerful documentary photographs from the war were on display, the other photograph was by Eddie Adams, with his photograph “Saigon Execution”. 

Some of those iconic documentary war photographs could have played their part to change/stop the war. The question I would like to ask the visitors if they know about the stories behind those photographs? Although the photographs tell us the realities that took place during that era, it never show us or tell us the whole story behind it or leading up to the moment being captured down in a visual moment/history. 

Section 4: New Subjectivity (Gallery 2) 

From the 1970s onwards, the world saw greater experimentation beyond and away from important events or people. Photography transformed into a place for reflection and experimentation, a space for us understand things. 

Were you part of that era of photography, exploring beyond events and portraiture, experimenting with arts and other forms of artistic visual displays?

Community Art Space

In our digital and social media world, most people view and feel of images are not tangible, they are in digital format, online on the internet and social media world. Have you thought of printing your photographs, bringing them to life, in a tangible format?

At this Community Art Space, in between Gallery 2 and 1, when you are walking from Section 4 to Section 5, you can get into the world of photo booths and zine-making areas whereby you have the creative freedom with your photographs, producing something more memorable that you can ever imagine.

Why not take a break from viewing 150 years of visual stories journey and do some hands on art work and craft with your photography?

Section 5: Contemporary Imaginations (Gallery 1)

The final section of Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia, this section is probably easier for many of us to connect and understand since it’s contemporary and closer to our current timeline. 

How can photography re-imagine the present and the future? How has photography changed and expanded during this contemporary era? How is contemporary and modern photography engaging you, right now, from the past and into the future?

In  this section, there is a particular exhibit that caught my attention, it’s titled “Crossing the Father Shore” by Dinh Q Le. This is an amazing collection of anonymous South Vietnamese families taken before the country’s reunification in 1975, stitched together like a mosquito net. More than just photos, the words and inscriptions at the back of those photos, you have to read them. 


I personally encountered old photos of similar nature that were available for sale at flea markets, there were times when I was thinking to myself if I should buy and keep them? That’s food for thought for me.

Before you finished visiting and exiting Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia exhibition, there is a retail shop with three display areas packed with many interesting photo postcards collections that you can bring home as a souvenir. Something memorable for you to bring home from your visit to National Gallery Singapore. 

Personal thoughts and views from a visual storyteller myself 

As a visual storyteller myself, visiting Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia, was like a pilgrimage itself for me. There hasn’t been a major photography exhibition of such scale and such diversity from its early history and beginnings to contemporary, documentary and modern digital/social media age.

My beginnings and foundations in my photography and visual storytelling that were started in my early years, were heavily inspired and influenced by National Geographic style of writing and photography. From a young age during my primary school days (close to 4 decades back), I was exposed to a rich and diverse world of exploration, documentary, nature, wildlife, culture, history etc through reading National Geographic magazines.

Yet I was never formally educated or trained in journalism or photography, I was self-taught, self-learned, learning from my many mistakes, gaining experiences, and also sometimes blessed by seniors who shared their photography wisdom, knowledge and skills with me. 

Personally, that is also why Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia exhibition currently held at the National Gallery Singapore, resonates a lot of deep thoughts and thinking inside my mind, heart and soul.

No matter what type of photographer that you are specialised or interested in, whether you are young photographer starting to learn and explore more about the world, or you are a young adult or mature adult that has seen a number of life events, plan a visit to Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia at the National Gallery of Singapore.

As the saying goes, “A picture speaks a thousand words”. There are so many stories packed inside Living Pictures exhibition, waiting to speak to you in various visual storytelling formats that will connect you to your eyes, brain, heart, mind and soul. 

Why not visit Living Pictures – Photography in Southeast Asia at National Gallery Singapore, and let your eyes and heart connect your brain, mind and soul with the diverse collection of 300 photography works over 150 years of visual stories on display?

Living Pictures – Photography in Southeast Asia at National Gallery Singapore

Date and Time 

  • 2nd December 2022 to 20th August 2023
  • 10am to 7pm daily


  • City Hall Wing, Level 3, Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery 

Admission Fees: (General Admission)

  • Free for Singaporeans and PRs


  • $20 
  • Non-Singaporeans/PRs aged 13 to 59


  • $15 
  • Non-Singaporeans/PRs seniors (aged 65 & above) and children (aged 7 to 12)
  • Overseas students and teachers

* Information courtesy of National Gallery Singapore and Ogilvy * 

** A TGH Photography x Canon EOS R6 Mark II Explorer Series Production **

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