The Home Nursing Foundation started the Portraits of Love project with a simple goal—to liven up the bare homes of patients by giving them photos of themselves. What it achieved, however, went far beyond that, uncovering life lessons and offering a glimpse at a side of Singapore that many don’t think about. Kelvin Lim is the photographer behind these portraits. We spoke to him before the Portraits of Love exhibition opens to the public later this month.
Tell us how you got involved with Portraits of Love.
A very kind woman named Agnes Ho had been following my work with the elderly. When she joined the Home Nursing Foundation as manager of communications and development, she personally visited the patients and realized many of their homes were cold and bare, filled with empty walls. She thought, why not bring them some warmth, by adding a beautiful portrait to their walls? So she rang me up. I joined her without hesitation.
What do you feel is the most important purpose of the project?
To feel for people who live in very different conditions in a country that looks so glossy from the outside.
What went through your mind when you were taking these pictures? How did you find beauty and joy in what some might consider bleak places?
When the folks opened up and shared their feelings, they brought me into their world—their friends, enemies, triumphs, regrets, love and loss. It’s not always joy, but happiness always has a part to play as much as sadness, and in every case this has nothing to do with how bleak their place looks. I see them smile, with all the wrinkles, warts and scars of life, and I find this infinitely more beautiful than pretty models with heavy makeup and perfect skin.
How did you avoid creating images that might be seen as exploitative or patronizing?
Honestly this didn’t cross my mind. Them opening up to me, and allowing me to photograph them, is a sign of trust, and I deeply respect that. I don’t feel the need to paint them any differently from the beauty I see right in front of me.
Your reflections on the Portraits of Love website are particularly moving. Tell us about some other significant moments you haven't previously shared.
The very first patient never smiled the entire hour we spent with her. It was depressing. The next patient wanted to bring a friend for the photo shoot, but the friend jumped down from the building just a week before. So it started like this, and the following three months were just as emotional and unpredictable. I have been writing non-stop ever since, some stories will be shared during the exhibition, but I think it’s an entire cocktail of life experiences, rather than a few significant moments.
What are some of the things you've learned from the patients and caregivers you've photographed?
First thing: I learned that many patients wanted their photos not for their memories or to warm their homes, but to put in front of their “lorry” during their funeral processions!
Before the project started, I thought my photos would make them happy, just like how I brought so many smiles to many others I’ve photographed. But as I’ve written, it really wasn’t about what I wanted. Two of the patients have already passed on, so what kind of happiness am I talking about? We may have helped them in some way, just like the caregivers helped them in others—we all play small roles in their lives, but I feel that they are the ones helping me instead of the other way round.
I see them almost like different paths and endings to my own life. I’m fit and healthy now, but will I end up on a wheelchair, be forsaken by my children or even die tomorrow? I see the feeble and the weak struggling to even walk a few steps, but they still manage to cope with life somehow. They give me courage to face what’s ahead, even if life doesn’t turn out perfect.
What was the toughest moment or biggest challenge you faced while working on this project?
Getting out of the individual worlds of these folks and back into my own world. During the same period, I dug myself into the world of breast cancer survivors too. It was emotionally draining. And then, I had to express the experience—the beauty I see in all these worlds— in a way that “outsiders” can digest.
How can other photographers get involved in giving back to society?
I think we have an opportunity to give back to society every time we photograph someone—anyone. The camera isn’t just a tool to capture the obvious. If we take the time and heart to listen and empathize, we will discover a beauty beneath how they look or what they wear. This can be incredibly empowering and uplifting. It’s a wonderful blessing for us, as photographers, to have this ability to touch people’s lives.
The Portraits of Love exhibition takes place from Apr 22 to 24 at the Raffles City Level 3 Atrium. Admission is free.