Ion Art Photography Series recently returned for its fourth installation. Titled Celebration of Photography, the exhibition is a partnership with Leica Galerie Singapore and featured various works done by eight different Singapore-based photographers.
Out of the many photographers, we were able to speak to Justin Ong. Known for venturing out to rural areas to photograph the most isolated of places and people, this local talent aims to tell true, honest stories through his works. Here, he speaks with us about his latest adventure to Konyak and other life-changing experiences he has had.
On his most recent endeavor
Justin Ong (JO): “I like being in very uncomfortable positions so when my friend presented me this opportunity to go document a tribe that is very hard to get to about a year ago, I immediately agreed. I like photographing very intense situations (I used to cover riots in the past) and the entire trip fit the bill. I don’t normally do portraits like the ones of the tribesmen but these headhunters had a very intense aura. They were seated behind guns and knives so naturally, it did scare me a little but I loved it so much.”
On his first encounter with the tribesmen
JO: “Scary. I seriously thought he was going to kill me. My friend and I were walking around and I had this brilliant idea to just look for them (the tribesmen) randomly. And sure enough, we encountered one in the forest in the middle of nowhere and he was carrying a humongous spear. I approached him and said “hi” and he just looked at me and it was really frightening. He started shouting at me and I had no idea what was going on. We kept apologising and slowly backed away.”
On how he communicates with the locals
JO: “Tricky. Usually, I just hire a translator to where I am so I just try to find someone willing to cover the story with me. It’s impossible to actually talk to the people directly because they don’t speak English, they don’t even speak Hindi. They speak their own dialect so it’s impossible to understand. And also, it’s not very easy to access people that are not used to foreigners, especially in such an isolated area.”
The most life-changing experiences
JO: “Some would call it bad luck but I would call it good fortune. A lot of the times when I’m sent to a site, things tend to go wrong. I told my editor I was going to Nepal for a road trip but since I was there, I decided to cover a story as well. When I was there, I realised there were a lot of landslides that blocked a lot of roads, a lot of houses got cleared and a lot of villagers died, so I imediately thought of covering that. I did my story and on my way back down, we got hit by the Nepal earthquake. So I ended up being a missing person for five days and I even came out in the news! I lost my phone, there was no connection, power and food. I spent my days travelling back to Kathmandu on roads that were destroyed with people bleeding all over the place. Towns and houses were all gone too. I also slept on the streets with other strangers and I didn’t eat anything for five days. There was some water in the bathroom that I found but not much. Thankfully, it was winter time so it wasn’t so hot. I finally reached the airport and there were thousands of people waiting and finally, some planes came, so that’s how I got home.”
On what he wishes to achieve with every photograph
JO: “When I’m photographing, I take my time. I spend a lot of my time doing nothing actually because I try to wait for an honest moment. I don’t want to get too artsy and having them show a facade, I want my photographs to be very honest.”
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