There are many forms of travel. Some may travel for work, some to get away, some to learn more about the world. For some, it may very well be their livelihood or life. Yet travelling by its very definition connotes movement; a journey where we are transient visitors. In those short visits, how much can we really learn about a city? How much of the architecture, history, culture, customs and people can we be exposed to and discover?
I was in Barcelona for a little over a month to take a TESOL course which would certify me as a globally accredited English speaker and teacher. Indeed, a month is minute, and I was determined to not waste this time. I wanted to learn as much as I could about this city beyond its more famous aspects: Gaudi’s architecture, Picasso and Dali, sunny beaches, crazy partying, etc. The quieter everyday moments can say more about a city and its occupants as intricate details of their lives.
At the same time, it was a personal challenge to choose a very blatant approach to documentation – instead of being a mere observing photographer, I sought to take portraits of people and learn a little more about who I was photographing. This necessitated approaching complete strangers with a sheepish smile and a printed write-up and my “interview” questions, translated into Spanish. Sure, I got rejected, but more often than not (and to my surprise), they would reply with a smile/shrug and “sure, why not?”.
Thankfully, some of them could speak English though they still preferred to answer the questions in Spanish. It allowed me to speak with them and know more about themselves and their answers. Many of them told me the questions asked were not easy ones but all of them loved answering them. Each encounter was to me a magical moment, a precious window into the millions of rooms and home in Spain, and it was all I hoped for to do them justice in what I captured in film.
Two things struck me in those few days.
Firstly, many of them dare to, and didn’t even hesitate to express their desire to be happy. Growing up in an environment where achievements and hard work are emphasised, it seems unnatural and perhaps even wrong to outwardly show that I want to be happy. Instead, I should be “suffering” because it means I’m “working hard” – as much as I know working hard doesn’t, and shouldn’t, equate to suffering. But. Yet.
Secondly, no matter what these people dislike about Barcelona, they want to change it. They wish to participate in making things better. Simply, they love Barcelona. They love their city.
And I thought, what about my own nation? How will Singaporeans answer these questions? Will they dare to want to be happy? Do they want to make the bad things better instead of leaving?
And so, I’m going to roam the streets of Singapore and do the same as I did: with an open heart, sheepish smile and my trusty OM-10. If you happen to meet me, do say hi. And meanwhile, enjoy these Portraits of Barcelona and wait for those from Singapore.