Explore the void decks of Singapore through a different perspective with street photographer Jonathan Tan’s Lepak Downstairs photo series.
HDB void decks are a ubiquitous sight in the heartlands. But no one really gives a second thought to the look of these communal areas. Moreover, iconic fixtures like tiled chairs and tables are slowly disappearing, with newer public housing blocks that don’t feature such nostalgic designs. In an attempt to breathe new life into these vanishing spaces, local street photographer Jonathan Tan went all around the island capturing them as symmetrically framed beauties.
Aptly named Lepak Downstairs (a colloquial term for hanging out at void decks), the photo series was shot with nothing but an iPhone XR and a three-metre selfie stick. The result? A collection of photos that evoke a charming sense of old Singapore. We chat with Jonathan about his passion for photography and the creative process behind Lepak Downstairs.
Meet street photographer Jonathan Tan
Hi Jonathan, tell us a little about yourself and how you got started in photography.
I’m in the advertising and creative industry, a senior brand manager at 72andSunny.
I started photography as a hobby when I was in university. I was on an exchange programme overseas and brought a DSLR along. While capturing memories of the trip, I got interested in street photography. Back in Singapore, I tried to continue and realised that the DSLR was too bulky to bring around. It was too “intrusive” for street photography, which is all about candid and natural moments. Since then, I’ve been continuing this street photography hobby with my iPhone.
I wouldn’t consider myself a proper “photographer”, more of a “photography hobbyist”. If I’m tasked with a proper shoot with proper lighting and equipment, I wouldn’t be able to do it.
What inspired you to start the Lepak Downstairs photo project?
I’ve always challenged myself to capture ordinary sights of Singapore in a unique and interesting way. I believe there are many sights that go unnoticed by Singaporeans, just because we’re so used to seeing them every day. I happened to walk past one of these void deck tables and stools one day, and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to see it from a bird’s eye view?” I finally had time to try it out during a break in December 2020. The result from the first shot was great, and I decided to turn it into a series.
Take us through the creative process behind the photo series…
After the inspiration to start the project, there were two things I had to solve. Where do I find these void deck tables and how do I capture the bird’s eye view shots?
I had to walk through different estates in Singapore and hope I was lucky enough to chance upon these tables. It was a tiring process as I had no clue where to find them. Sometimes when I got too tired, I took the feeder bus around the neighbourhood, trying to spot it from the bus window. And of course, there were times when I had no luck finding any.
On the second task, I thought of using a drone. But it was too expensive to either buy or rent a drone, and I tried thinking of creative ways to capture the shot I wanted. I was almost going to bring a short ladder around Singapore, but I had a eureka moment when I thought about selfie sticks. I found the longest one online, attached my iPhone to it, and went ahead from there.
The album had a great response from the public on Facebook. Why do you think people resonated with it?
I think it’s because of nostalgia. It’s something that Singaporeans grew up with, and it’s been given a new perspective. It’s great that people are starting to appreciate these everyday sights more. Interestingly, the album also got shared globally. I think it was the aesthetics that people overseas appreciated, which makes me feel happy and proud that an everyday Singaporean sight can get such recognition.
Which is your favourite shot?
My personal favourite is the one from Block 450G Tampines Street 42 (pictured above). I like it because the shape is very unique, and I wouldn’t have known about it if not for this project. I like how safe-distancing markers made the photo even more unique to the times we live in now.
Any challenges you faced while shooting from a top-down angle?
I managed to capture these shots using a 3m-long selfie stick and my iPhone. When my phone was up high, there was no way for me to review the shots until I brought it down. There was a lot of trial and error until I was happy with the shot.
Another project, Your House Downstairs, also features HDB flats. What is it about them that draws you in?
I think HDB blocks are something iconic from Singapore that should be given more of a spotlight. I grew up in an HDB, and I’ve been guilty of taking these sights for granted. It’s interesting to look at HDB designs, whether it’s the table or stools, the void deck holes or archways. There’s a certain charm and uniqueness about them, though it might be quite interesting to speak to the architects who designed them in the first place. I also find it really interesting (and challenging) to capture these everyday sights in a new perspective that gets Singaporeans to appreciate them more.
What’s your favourite memory at the void deck?
Surprisingly, I didn’t have the usual childhood of playing soccer at the void deck. My memories of it were either waiting for the school bus with my grandparents or buying 10 or 20 cent sweets from the mama shop.
What do you want people to take away from these photo series?
To really appreciate these everyday, ordinary sights more. With upgrades and modernisation happening at a fast pace, we may not be able to see some of these sights in the near future. And we need to give more credit to our uniquely Singaporean sights and sounds. We may have grown up with them and gotten used to them, but it’s sometimes nice to take a step back and appreciate them.
The other takeaway: you don’t need expensive equipment to capture photos in Singapore. Many people thought I used a drone, but I’ve just been using my phone and a very long and cheap selfie stick I bought online. What’s more important is finding the right subject to capture. The phone that everyone now has will do the job of capturing it.
Any tips for budding smartphone photographers?
Don’t think too much. Just shoot. The great thing about shooting with a smartphone is that it’s always with you. When you see something interesting, it’s so easy to whip it out and snap. Our smartphones come with ample memory space, so there’s no reason not to shoot away! You can always delete it if the shot isn’t nice.
Are there any future photo projects in the pipeline?
I do have some ideas, but I’ll need to find time from my hectic work schedule to work on them.
Love Jonathan’s work? Check out his Instagram for the entire Lepak Downstairs photo series.