What the payphone taught me

surreal

A public telephone in Kuching, Sarawak

Today, not for the first time, my phone died on me – not surprising, considering that I’m using an iPhone 4…I know. Probably an antique by today’s standards – where were we, iPhone 8S or something?

Technology and I are not the best of friends, and I definitely consider myself more of an old school person who would rather live in the 80s or relive the 90s of my childhood. Definitely not the typical millennial you can think of.

Tonight, I was supposed to meet my boyfriend after work and after his night class, and we hadn’t arranged a meeting point or time. So when my phone died on me, I resorted to…the good old payphone. And guess what I hadn’t even realised (and probably very few people know) that every MRT station in Singapore has a payphone (I think)!

So I was at the MRT station near my workplace, clumsily trying to put a 20 cent coin through the coin slot, all while attracting curious (mortifying) stares from the security guard and the staff at the control station. My boyfriend, who was still in class, did not pick up the call.

You see, unlike the mobile phone, the person who received a missed call from you can’t just call you back. There’s also no caller ID. You can’t text the person to tell them you called either.

So I took the train in the direction of home, hoping that he won’t end up blindly waiting for me somewhere, only to receive a text from me when I got home and managed to revive my phone with the charger.

When I arrived at my stop around 40 minutes later, I located another payphone and called again. This time, my call got through. I was so happy and relieved. Suddenly, it seemed like he was so far away. Someone whom I’d held close every day, reached easily and effortlessly with a text or a sticker on Telegram, was suddenly so unreachable.

Tonight I learned for the first time (or maybe remembered what I’d forgotten from my childhood), that every 10 cents gave you 2 minutes of call time. Because I had 20 cents, I could speak with him for 4 minutes.

Suddenly, those four minutes, usually so easily passed and idled away with a few mindless scrolls on Facebook, watching Insta-stories, and refreshing my Inbox, became so precious and so genuinely felt. I literally saw the passing of time on the payphone timer, and hours and minutes, taken for granted as part of each day, became reduced to the split second. Suddenly, I recognised time again, like an old friend I’d long forgotten.

In this digital age where technology and smartphones reduce everything to mindless routines and effortless endeavours, we take time for granted. Everything is sped up, passing by, convenient and half-hearted at the same time – you could be talking to someone while dealing with a few other screens, or checking your social media feed.

We’ve managed to speed life up, do more things with less time. But are we really making the most out of the time we have now?

Napoli: Beauty in the chaos

Out of all the cities I explored during my trip to Italy last year, Naples (or Napoli in Italian) left the deepest impression – for many reasons.

naples b&w

The first thing that hit me upon stepping into Napoli was chaos. Being the gateway to Southern Italy, which differs greatly from the more affluent and internationalised North, it was the most flavourful, colourful and boisterous and crazy place I visited in Italy, or maybe even Europe thus far.

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On street photography

Discovered Robert Frank’s photography today – would really love to learn more about different photographers and their work. Robert Frank’s collection of photographs The Americans revealed a side, or perhaps the reality, of an America that was not living the American Dream, at a time when it was most glorified.

Words that come to my mind when I look at his pictures – emotive, raw, honest, grit, invisible, poignant. 

As a photographer, I can identify deeply with his photographs because of the way they are shot – he chose to remain invisible, capturing the moments he saw quickly and then moving on.

I know there are ethical and philosophical debates about street photography and the role of the photographer. Some choose to make a story from their pictures by interacting with and seeking to understand their subjects, dispelling certain assumptions that we would make of an image or moment at first glance.

Others, however, choose to remain a fly on the wall, simply observing and sieving out the beauty and humanity in honest, everyday moments.

I belong to the latter camp, mainly because I am an introvert and the act of taking in and connecting with my environment takes me into the zone and sometimes even overwhelms me. When I walk around with my camera I feel it becoming an extension of my existence.

While I understand the social impact that interacting with photography subjects and telling their stories can make, I also have this strong inkling that the mystery and poignancy of certain photographers’ work would dissipate if they tried to break that barrier of unspoken connection between them and the moment.

Robert Frank is one of them.

Haven’t been struck by photography in this way for such a long time. Leaving this post with my favourite photos from him, and a quote that inspired me from an NPR interview:

“Like a boxer trains for a fight,” Frank says, a photographer needs to practice by getting out and taking pictures every day. “It doesn’t matter how many he takes or if he takes any at all. It gets you prepared to know what you should take pictures of or what is the right thing to do and when.”

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While perhaps less purposeful than photojournalism and documentary photography, street photography also plays a part for social justice in its own way. By capturing the humanity and emotions found in ordinary moments that we share with millions of strangers across the globe, it makes us realise that we aren’t that distant or vastly different after all.