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Documenting the grittiness of urban poverty

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Local documentary photographer Bernice Wong tells compelling stories through quiet moments.

It is difficult to tell that Bernice Wong is a documentary photographer when you first meet her. Her work studio in North-East Singapore is neat, uncluttered, with plain walls and void of any of her works. The only indication of an award winning photographer are the few cameras on her bookshelf. 

But unlike her simple home studio, the stories that Bernice, 29, tell through photography are complex and unorthodox. 

Having worked on projects highlighting the similarities between Bangladeshi migrant workers and Singaporeans, and shed light on the child-birthing process in Cambodia, I wonder what Bernice would feature next. 

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"
You need to gain trust from your subjects before they give you exclusive or special access," said Bernice, who emphasises building rapport with her subjects.  
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/GRACE NEO

In her latest and ongoing project however, she is taking a step back to explore the perennial yet overlooked issue of urban poverty in her home country, Singapore. 

Titled the School of Hard Knocks, the down-to-earth photographer has spent the past four years photographing former gang member and single mum, Mel, and her seven kids. 

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Mel, 36, in her rented flat at Ang Mo Kio. 
PHOTO CREDIT: BERNICE WONG 

Inspired by documentary photographer Darcy Padilla's book titled Family Love, which she pulled off her shelf, Bernice shared how she was moved by the images documenting the ups and downs of Julie Baird's complex life. 

The rawness present in Padilla's images is unsurprisingly found in School of Hard Knocks as well. 

The sociology graduate from the National University of Singapore explained how this project is more than just portraying the plight of an underprivileged family living in a rented flat. 

"This story is to show that the family is very resilient – that they also have happy moments," the self-taught photographer said. 

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Nesa and Shanthani, two of Mel
's seven children, having a little fun on an escalator. 
PHOTO CREDIT: BERNICE WONG 

Bernice believes that photography can drive social change through telling stories that move people, so she tries to tell stories usually shielded from the public's eye. 

She recalled how her encounters with migrant workers, while volunteering at a soup kitchen, first sparked an interest in them. After graduating from university, she worked on her first photo essay project, titled In Limbo, under an umbrella project Beyond the Border, Behind the Man, exploring the lives of migrant workers in Singapore. 

To capture the nitty gritty details of her subjects' lives, Bernice travelled to Bangladesh several times and visited family members of the migrant workers. 

Bernice depicted how each worker was someone's father, son or brother. Her efforts resulted in stories of migrant workers that Singaporeans could relate to. 

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Bernice (left, holding laptop) showing a clip of Saiful, a migrant worker, to his family in Bangladesh. 
PHOTO CREDIT: BERNICE WONG 

Bernice, who comes from a middle class family, explained her almost obsession with understanding lives of the underprivileged. Studying sociology in university provided her with a different lens to see the world, she said. 

Hoping to shed light on urban poverty in Singapore, she saw the need to give her subjects a voice in the School of Hard Knocks series. One way she does this is by including Mel and her family's handwritten notes as part of the series. 

"Things like the way they write, the way they structure their sentences, the grammatical or spelling errors, the drawings they include inside…they tell you something different from if I were to only include my images," said Bernice.

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The floor beats the dining table when it comes to meals at Mel
's. 
PHOTO CREDIT: BERNICE WONG 

Bernice revealed that she was initially intimidated of Mel. 

"Mel is fully tattooed and she is really loud, so I was really scared when I went to her place for the first time," she said. 

But not only did they click right off the bat, they have gotten so close that Bernice has keys to Mel's home, and is even a guardian of Mel's youngest child.

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Capturing the growth of Mel
's seven kids has now become one of Bernice's motivation to continue the project.
PHOTO CREDIT: BERNICE WONG

While acknowledging that having such close ties with her subjects may have led her to cross the line as a documentary photographer, Bernice asserted that being human has made this inevitable.

"These are real relationships that I have with the people", she added.

Unsurprisingly, Bernice revealed that she feels most attached to this project.

When I probed further and asked when the project will end, Bernice replied almost nonchalantly that this is her lifelong project.

Bernice will be showcasing her School of Hard Knocks series in Objectifs from Oct 12 - 19, 2017.