On The Record

Interview with Bryan van der Beek

Staying Positive: The Faces of a Pandemic

From SARS to COVID-19; carefree, single to responsible and loving husband and father of four; secure staff position to crazy freelance world; Bryan VAN DER BEEK has little time to think about inconvenient changes. He doesn’t admit readily but he remains idealistic and still believes that photography can make the world a better place, one frame at a time.

Workers from Anticimex disinfect a COVID-Maxi transport vehicle at the end of a day spent transporting migrant workers from Factory Converted Dormitories (FCDs) to designated COVID testing facilities. A fleet of 20 buses were specially converted to mass transfer COVID-19 patients and suspected carriers and are retrofitted with an airtight floor to ceiling partition that separates the passenger compartment and the driver section of the bus to prevent cross-compartment contamination. The two compartments are fitted with independent air-conditioning systems and the passenger cabin is also equipped with a negative pressure system and HEPA filter.

You’ve covered SARS and Covid-19 extensively, how are they different?

The differences are night and day!! When Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) hit Singapore 17 years ago in 2003, I was a young photographer, just a couple of years out of journalism school and ready to take on the world. A few like-minded individuals and I felt that all the photographic coverage at the time was by the mainstream media which consisted mostly of scenes outside hospitals where there were lines of people getting their temperatures taken and healthcare workers in PPE screening them. We felt that no one had any idea what was going on in the hospitals and we appealed, through the National Museum of Singapore (then known as the Singapore History Museum) to work on documenting the fight against SARS from the frontlines, specifically in the ICU ward of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Singapore’s designated SARS hospital. This culminated with a book and an exhibition at the museum.

Fast forward to 2020, and I am married with a family of 4 children, and have a lot more on the line. Having moved my practice away from photojournalism to focus more on commercial photography to feed the abovementioned brood, I have to say that my first instinct was to jump back into the fray to document how this new virus was affecting Singapore. However, a long and hard discussion with my better half made me realize that I was no longer in my 20s, and have a lot more responsibilities now. So for the first couple of weeks of lockdown, I focused on documenting my family coping during this period, as well as scenes of utter desolation in previously crowded places during bicycle rides for exercise.

After three weeks, the frustration of not being able to document anything meaningful was given an outlet when I was offered the chance to accompany the Crisis Relief Alliance, a local NGO consisting of medical professionals and volunteers, on their needs assessment rounds at Factory Converted Dormitories (FCDs) where a large number of Singapore’s migrant worker population are housed. Compared to  Purpose Built Dormitories, the FCDs are mostly scattered around industrial estates and don’t have the proper infrastructure.

To give the material from this coverage a proper outlet, three friends and I started What Are You Doing Singapore (www.whatareyoudoing.sg), with the mission to tell stories of people doing positive things, a stark contrast to the negative tone in most media outlets.

During the course of working on stories for WAYD.SG, I also had the opportunity to photograph frontline healthcare workers at the largest hot zones, as well as the gamut of COVID-19 related stories from all angles. While this was not as targeted as my SARS coverage, I feel that covering COVID-19 this way afforded me a much better understanding of the many different ways that people were dealing with and helping others during this difficult time.

Logistically speaking, covering COVID -19 could not be more different than covering SARS. There are a lot more sensitivities this time around, and there were a lot more restrictions when photographing medical procedures and facilities than I remember.

Migrant workers at the Factory Converted Dormitory are briefed by healthcare workers before being shown how to use portable battery operated oximeters to aid in detecting possible COVID infections within the dormitories.

I’m sure there are also similarities. Are there?

I think the sense of responsibility is the strongest commonality I experienced — the need to not only tell the stories of the pandemic, but also to do it responsibly and in a sensitive way that would allow us to continue our documentary work. The danger of the work is also always at the back of my mind. A big difference between SARS and COVID-19 is that while SARS had a high fatality rate, it was not as contagious as COVID-19, and while COVID-19 is far more virulent, the fatality rate is much lower. In a way, that makes me even more careful this time.

Migrant workers at dedicated quarantine facilities are swabbed to test for infection. If tested negative  after a 14 day quarantine, workers can then be moved to “cleared” dormitories.

What kind of precautions do you take when entering a space where there are likely to be positive COVID-19 cases?

As mentioned previously, SARS had a much higher fatality rate, but COVID-19 is far more contagious. This means that any dormitory that we covered that had even one known case of COVID-19 would be treated as a hot zone. We would be expected to don full PPE which generally consists of one medical gown, taped at the back, double gloved hands, an N95 mask (we were required to be mask fitted and certified for specific sizes and models) as well as goggle/safety glasses, face shields and hair nets.

When I covered SARS, we were in full PPE and PAP (Positive Air Pressure) ventilators, but as we were in the ICU, we were always working in air-conditioned environments. This time around, we were mostly covering stories on the ground in non-airconditioned environments, which, in this tropical weather, inevitably ends up with you being soaked in sweat for most of the time. Pouring sweat out of your rubber gloves becomes a common occurrence.

However, what we did behind the scenes on the home front was equally important. My wife and I set up a system where she would clear the kids out of the way when I was coming back from COVID-19 coverage. I would make a beeline for the bathroom where there would be a bucket and disinfectant which I would immediately soak any exposed clothing. I would also shower immediately after with anti-bacterial soap and launder the clothes in hot water and disinfectant.

Workers in Factory Converted Dorms are mostly confined to their rooms, but are allowed to go to common areas at specific times with others in the same room as long as they are masked up. Here, a migrant worker makes a hot beverage using the hot water dispenser in a common space.

Do you think the media in general have done a good job covering this pandemic?

I actually think the media, despite the restrictions, actually have better access this time round versus SARS. I have friends working at local newspapers who spent time in hotzones and COVID-19 wards, which was something that didn’t happen in 2003. I think it’s also the gumption of the younger photographers that made this possible, as I know a lot of them fought hard for access and were willing to go through the rigorous quarantine procedures in order to tell these important stories.

Factory Converted Dormitories are smaller than Purpose Built Dormitories and don’t have the centralised testing facilities onsite. FCDs are required to set up their own isolation areas where residents with any flu-like symptoms have to stay, away from the general population while awaiting swab testing.

As a freelancer, how do you get your works seen?

This is an interesting question, and a very unique solution, we created our own platform, the above-mentioned whatareyoudoing.sg so a lot of the work was published there. I also tied up with publications who had seen our stories online and republished them.

Healthcare workers and volunteers suit up in full PPE before entering a FCD to give new clothes, prayer mats and dates to Muslim workers in anticipation of the Hari Raya holiday.

You have also worked in the USA and many places all over Asia, any tips for photographers working in an ‘alien’ surrounding?

I think that any new situation that you find yourself in is an alien situation and I think the most important piece of advice that I can give is to not get so swept up in the excitement of the experience that you forget to attempt objective (or at least, responsible) reporting. Getting to know the people you are covering is also very important, as is knowing when to get out of the way, or when to stop talking. I think one of the most important traits of a journalist or documentarian, both visual and written, is empathy, and the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the people that you document will not only allow you to get closer to your subjects, but will also allow you have a genuine experience that you want to share.

Muruganandham Samiayya and Tan Kian Keong, workers at TRIGEN automotive, mount a negative air pressure blower into a custom opening on the side of a COMET Mini transport vehicle. Five Toyota Hiace High Roof vans are retrofitted to carry up to 9 COVID patients or suspected patients from quarantine facilities to testing sites or hospitals for treatment.

You are a parent of four, how do you talk to your children about the current situation?

One of the first things that I had to explain to them is why daddy needed to be out there exposed to the virus instead of being safe at home. I had to explain the importance of telling the stories of the people I meet, and how that allows other people who are safe at home to know that there are ways to safely contribute and help. I also had to explain why I cannot hug them as soon as I get home as I will need to decontaminate myself before coming into contact with them. Before lockdown, the schools had already done a pretty good job of explaining the big picture of Covid-19, so I just need to concentrate on the things that affect us directly.

Workers walk past a large collection of portable standing fans as they move between ares at a Purporse Built Dormitory. As migrant workers from purpose built dorms are moved to quarantine facilities after testing positive for COVID-19, their belongings are tagged and removed from their bunks for safe-keeping as their rooms are disinfected, cleaned and occupants are reshuffled to maintain virus free areas of the dormitory where recovered patients can move into.

Is there an Asian perspective in photojournalism and documentary photography?

I have noticed a bit more reflection in the work coming out of Asia. Having worked in both the US and Asia, it sometimes feels that the work in Asia can seem more cautious, but also more measured in the approach taken. I also like seeing the quiet small stories that are coming out of independent photographers here, especially those who care more about telling little stories that can slowly change attitudes instead of large sweeping works that are less personal.

After 9 months being confined to their dormitory, these migrant workers finally get a couple of hours out of their dormitories for an open top bus tour of the Christmas light-up along Orchard Road, Singapore’s main shopping strip. Organized by the Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition, an NGO  specifically to help Migrant workers in Singapore during Covid-19, this program saw about 240 workers going on 10 specially organised bus tours over the week leading up to Christmas 2020.

A lot of your jobs are for commercial clients, how do you navigate the two extremes?

My favourite sort or work is something that I coined “Documentary Commercial” work. I am fortunate enough to have clients who allow me to adopt a documentary approach to storytelling for their image libraries and visual collaterals. I get to work the way I used to as a photojournalist, with the only difference being that I don’t have a final say in how the images are used, but I get to make the selection that I give them. There are some purely commercial work that I need to do, and it almost seems like I flip a switch in my head when I do those. I have always felt that there are two types of photographers. Photojournalists, street and documentary photographers tend to fall into the “capturers” category, while advertising, fashion and conceptual photographers fall into the “creators” category. I’ve come to learn that while I am, at heart, a “capturer”, that I do a decent job at being a “creator” and put on that hat when I need to.

What more can photographers do about COVID-19?

Besides telling the stories of the pandemic through pictures, local photographers here in Singapore have also managed to raise money for migrant workers and other worthy causes during these difficult times though print sales and auctions, so that is also a very viable way of helping without having to head out to the front lines.

Another thing is the realization that everything that is captured during this period serves to flesh out the visual record of the pandemic. You don’t need to be shooting in high-risk situations to contribute to the documentary record, so I would encourage photographers to find the small meaningful stories to tell. In fact, those are the ones I look forward to the most.

Bryan van der Beek is an award-winning commercial and editorial photographer based in Singapore. His images span Asia, North America and Europe. A former Executive Photojournalist with The Straits Times in Singapore, Bryan has also worked with newspapers in the United States. His photographs have appeared in several international publications including: Time, Time Asia, Newsweek and The Washington Post. In addition, his photographs known for their artistic sensibility can be found in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Singapore. A graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism, he has lectured at the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University, Temasek Polytechnic and the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film.