One-on-one with a Singaporean photographer making worlds with her camera

The first time I worked with 30-year old Charmaine Poh was back in 2019 in service of an extremely personal article, ‘A love letter to Old Airport Road’. She was charged with capturing the essence of my writing through a photographer’s lens, taking shots of the various stalls I mentioned in the piece in a series of still images.

In the time we spent together, Charmaine, I observed, moves confidently, paired with a certain surety and grace that reveals but glimpses of her thought process. It all culminates in melancholic photographs, human, at times despondent, always personal, and always telling of the subject matter on hand.

Charmaine Poh 2

My article was, assuredly, in good hands. Charmaine’s work has, after all, been featured in such storied publications as The New York Times, CNN, The International Center of Photography, Tate Modern, and Adobe MAX. She was also named as one of Forbes Asia’s 30 under 30 in The Arts in 2019.

Her latest endeavour, Almost June is a communications studio that melds her keen eye for people-centred photography, with brands and corporations looking to connect with audiences through photography and video graph. In this interview, Charmaine shares her thoughts on being a photographer in a world laden with the burdens of social media.

Charmaine Poh 3

Zat: Humour me a tad. Describe what you do for a living in exactly five words and elaborate on your thought process behind this choice.

Charmaine Poh: Listen, observe, and make worlds.

A lot of what I do stems from observing the world around me, listening to what it has to say, and then making responses to that, whether it’s in the form of a photograph, film, or performance.

Zat: What was your childhood like growing up, and how has this affected the decisions you’ve made now in both your personal and professional life?

Charmaine Poh: I was always introverted. I read, watched TV, and played pretend. I was often left to my own devices, and that also meant that I discovered a lot of content that a child might not have been shown because it wouldn’t have been curated this way. I watched a lot of independent cinema as a young person, for instance, Ghost World and Whale Rider. Like a lot of these characters, I tended to feel out of place and questioned the herd, and I think that’s an important quality for anyone making independent, creative work.

Zat: A lot of your work centres around aspects of marginalisation, disenfranchisement, and gender identity. Is your interest in these topics a reflection of what is happening in society today, or is it something you’re personally invested in?

Charmaine Poh: It’s both.

Charmaine Poh 4

Zat: How has the landscape of photography changed with the advent of social media, and how has this influenced the work that you do?

Charmaine Poh: How a photograph is immortalised on social media is much less to do with technique and more about what it says: who is in it, what the unique circumstances in which it was made are, and what it reveals about our world that people will take to this particular image amidst the sea of images. It’s just made me more careful about what I post. There is a set of markers that drives social media engagement, and that can be important for my work to even be seen, but I try not to get too caught up in that because it’s a race to the bottom.

Zat: What is the anatomy of a perfect photograph?

Charmaine Poh: There is none! There’s only meaning, which is constantly made and un-made.

Zat: Who or what inspires you the most, and what can we learn from your source of inspiration that would help us live a more fulfilled life?

Charmaine Poh: Go on a lot of walks, spend time with nature, and challenge your body. When I say challenge your body, I mean make it learn a different way of moving. It could be a movement class, sport, cooking, ceramics, anything that shifts the way our urban bodies tend to operate at the desk. If there’s anything I learned over the last year, it’s that the mind-body connection is very real.

Zat: What are your current top three favourite cultural phenomena that you’re obsessed with, and why?

Charmaine Poh:

  • Society finally coming around to caring about climate change
  • Wider acceptance of gender fluidity
  • When technology enables us to build relationships with one another despite physical distance