Singaporeans and Creativity

I just finished classes in Singapore and India, two countries that could not appear to be more different. In Singapore I taught evening seminars, while in India, I taught a class over four days on “light, shadow, twilight and night.” Regardless of length, all the classes were journeys of sorts, physical and/or intellectual. On all of these “trips,” I was accompanied by different groups of Singaporean photographers. Working in such divergent countries, just a few days apart, got me thinking.

In Singapore, I jaywalked, which is of course, famously against the law. (As it is in many other places by the way, including New York City.) The stereotype of Singapore as something of a police state made me hesitate, but jaywalk I did. I should say that the street traffic in Singapore is generally so well organized that I often did not need to jaywalk, but after a few days, I was comfortable jaywalking at will and never had a problem with cars or cops!

I mentioned my so-called “crimes” to some Singaporeans. They chuckled and told me how they have just learned to smile politely when they encounter jokes about the authoritarian nature of their government. No one denied that Singapore has a tightly controlled “system.” But most Singaporeans seem to appreciate the upside to their rules. For example, in Singapore, a sign for a one-way street means one way. Over the years of working in India, I have learned to always look both directions when crossing a street. It can say the road is one way, but in India, you just never know and you certainly do not want to bet your life on it.

I encountered another instance of this in the hotel I was staying at in Singapore. When I went to do laundry, I found that the soap is automatically added to the wash from a soap supply that is part of the laundry room set-up. In India, when I went to use similar hotel laundry machines, the hardest parts was actually getting my hands on some laundry soap.

In the various classes I taught, shorter and longer, I had a mix of Westerners and Singaporeans, so in many ways it was a good way to take a cross-cultural look at the creative process. In those classes, the Singaporeans struggled as hard as any other students with the challenges of creativity. The Singaporeans certainly had the work ethic and quickly grasped the technical skills. But my question was how would they handle the more open-ended and less clearly defined challenges of expanding their creativity.

The learning process that I put the students through is much the same in most classes, regardless of the class name. The real issue is how to expand the photographer’s vision while also fine-tuning the required skills. Initially some people in the class had a bit of trouble grasping the idea that we were collectively undertaking a process rather then simply completing a task. In some ways hat goal-oriented thinking is common to Singaporeans.

The stereotype of Singapore is of a culture that would seemingly not encourage creativity. Yet, I found that the Singaporeans like the Westerners in the classes, thrived on the challenge. Some students started looking for hard and fast rules, seeking simple answers to complex questions, but that happens in ALL of my classes. The ones who were likely to be most successful as photographers were the ones who grasped the dichotomy between creativity and craftsmanship. They strived to refine their skills with the intention of making the mechanics of photography intuitive in order to concentrate on the art of their photography.

Does Singaporean culture make for “better photographers?” I would never say that directly. I would point out that they came better prepared for being in India, bringing Indian rupees and electrical power strips with them. Since I believe that preparation is half of success, this put them ahead of the curve in my eyes. In general, I would say that their culture does create people who quickly grasp the technical and then, ideally work hard on the creativity issue with a clear focus on the goal. I have more classes to teach with Singaporean students in January, which may clarify, or contradict my recent experience.

Teaching creativity is hard or even impossible. The best a teacher can do is to facilitate the process of creative growth. The students need to understand that AND embrace the reality that THEY are doing the hard work wherein the teacher is just the facilitator.

I appreciated this more clearly during my evening seminar on the mechanics of running a stock talk photography business. By the time the class was over, I had scared some people away from trying stock photography by emphasizing the need for organization, discipline and a high volume of work. If I ever encountered a uniquely Singaporean cultural perspective on photography it was at the end of that talk on stock photography. I asked, as I always do, “How many people have decided NOT to pursue stock photography because of the intense workload required?”

The percentage of people in the room raising their hands was more than any other place I teach. Not that Singaporeans are lazy, because I do not think they are. Rather, I think they are more ruthless and analytical in their decision-making. Too many Americans would probably base the decision to pursue stock photography on some idealized notion of the “seemingly perfect” life of a stock photographer. Singaporeans, when confronted with the cold, hard realities of a situation probably are more disciplined and analytical decision-makers. That kind of clear thought, in terms of decisiveness, in photography or anything else, is potentially a good thing.

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