When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?
Probably on September 11. I was living on Sullivan Street, less than a mile away from the Twin Towers. My response to the events that day was to roam around taking pictures of the empty streets downtown. I’d only bought my first camera a year earlier, so the pictures were rather inarticulate. But I was determined to get better. The shock of 9/11 still informs all of my work. The places and people that I photograph are photographed on the assumption that they will very soon cease to exist… which is a morbid way to think, but hopefully it gives the work a kind of urgency.
Many of your photos are candid, but then there are those where the person is posing, well-aware that you are taking their picture. How do you approach the people who you want to photograph? Were you always comfortable asking, or did it take a while to get confident to go up to strangers and ask to take their photo?
The tricky thing about asking permission to take a photograph is that once you do, the option of taking a picture candidly is forever lost. So I usually try to take a candid shot first, and if I feel that a better picture is possible then I’d run after the person to ask him or her to pose. Sometimes I’d even say, “Excuse me but I just took your picture and I don’t think it’s going to turn out very well, can you spare a couple of minutes so that I may take a proper picture?” If I’m in a country where I speak the language then I don’t find it so hard to ask. But a lot of my work is about the moment when you first make eye contact with a stranger – a special look you get that I’m calling “the decisive glance” – and it can’t be replicated in a posed portrait.
What is a normal day for you like, starting from when you wake up, to when you go to bed?
I start my day with a bottle of iced coffee, preferably “Blendy” brand from Japan. Then I go to the toilet. Well, it sounded like you were interested in every detail. After I’m done I often go back to bed where I roll around in my pyjamas, crying about the photographs that got away. Before I know it the late afternoon sun is streaming through the curtains. I become strengthened by the light and rise, like a potted plant. I look out the window and suddenly everything looks beautiful, so I remove five rolls of 220 medium format film from the fridge and venture onto the streets of whichever city I happen to be in. I usually work for three to four hours without a break. When I get home I carefully label my film, for the benefit of my future John Maloof, before chucking the rolls back into the fridge. After that I relax and search the internet for porn.
Who was the first photographer that inspired you?
Raoul Coutard. I grew up thinking I wanted to be a filmmaker and had a huge Godard poster above my bed. It was a poster from an exhibition at Agnes B.’s gallery… I think a lot of kids in college dorms have it. Anyway, the poster was a collage of stills from Godard’s films which I stared at every night. Coutard photographed those stills. He was the cinematographer for Godard’s best films and remains a big inspiration to me.
If you could go back 10 years and give yourself advice, what would it be?
“Suck it up!”
(Nguan is based in Singapore. See more of his work, here.)