By Terence Heng
Terence Heng is this month’s Instagrammer-in-Residence. Below, he introduces the work we’ll be sharing throughout the month of April over on our Instagram. If you are interested in being ‘in residence’ with us, see our guidelines here.
It was with some trepidation that I accepted TSR’s invitation to be their first Visual Sociologist-in-Residence on Instagram this month. Not only because I said yes without thinking about what photographs I would present (come on Terence!), but also because it was about a research topic I had put aside for quite some time.
Before I decided to become a sociologist I had carved a small niche in the wedding photography industry in Singapore – creating images from angles rarely used by other photographers at that time. It was fly-on-the-wall, hide-behind-corners, sometimes-a-little-creepy style of photography. That style allowed me to do two things once I transformed my role from insider to (overt) participant-observer – one, I was placed in a prime position to observe the many actions, artefacts and actors that permeated weding rituals and two, I could create some pretty interesting images to go along with my observations.
I did not quite know it then, but those images proved to be vital for my understanding of how an event that, on the surface is primarily about love, is also punctuated by many other sociological textures. Weddings proved to be moments of intense social interaction and entanglements, bringing together individuals with different social identities and values into an atmosphere charged with performative gestures and last-minute decisions and negotiations.
My fieldwork took place amongst the Chinese community in Singapore, a nation-state where a diasporic Chinese migrant group now make up the majority host society (Cohen 2008). In the background of identity-making was also individuals’ contention with state policy on homogenising ethnic identities (Kong and Yeoh 2003, Wong and Tan 2017), as well as Singapore’s position in the globalised flow of media and cultural forms (Ho 2006). The result is that Singaporean Chineseness is affected significantly by history, politics, migratory pasts and consumptive desires. The wedding is a microcosm of these processes, evidenced in the way individuals make decisions about rituals, objects and other actions, both by themselves as well as in concert with family, friends and other influencing factions (especially internet forums).
Because Singaporean Chinese weddings can be anything from one to three day events, my photographs were able to form a visual narrative of the bridal couple as they developed and performed not just their love for each other, but their preferences and disinclinations for different kinds of wedding outfits, styles of pre-wedding photography, certain kinds of rituals at certain points in the day and much more.
These likes and dislikes, evidenced and enlivened by photographs, served as the foundation for developing a framework of ethnicity as journeys of social trajectories, shaped and directed by expressions of taste that come from acts of consumption. These acts of consumption are mundane and everyday, but are accentuated in the performativity of love and affection.
What’s Love Got to do with it?
‘Love’ has much to do with it. Numerous studies (Bloch, Rao and Desai 2004, Boden 2001, Carter and Duncan 2017, Otnes and Pleck 2003) and writings (Mead 2007) have shown how love has been commodified into a product for consumption and purchase. Wedding professionals (and I am guilty of this too) both individual and institutional work to creating scripts and templates that ‘work’, and then sell these scripts and templates to couples in the form of wedding albums, packages, decorations, gifts, holidays and more. In other work, I have theorised how this has led to a “wedding gaze” – or a particular way of presenting oneself (though photography) to the world (Heng 2013).
These products that purport to perform love also perform ethnicity, as materialised and tangible cultural forms carried over physical distances (Gilroy 1991), working as aesthetic markers (Knowles 2003). Such cultural forms are not simply those from a point of departure, but also reflect the (post)colonised and globalised patterns of production and consumption in Singapore. As wedding professionals continue to reproduce particular ways of ‘doing’ Singaporean Chinese weddings (and the performance of love), so too do they reproduce particular ways of ‘doing’ Singaporean Chineseness.
Turning Photographic Practice into Visual Research
I was privileged to be able to transform my professional practice into research. My informants (many of whom became friends) understood what I was trying to do and very willingly allowed me to observe and interview them. The move to social research also impacted upon my photographic style, forcing me to re-define my relationship with photography and photographs. Instead of just impactful illustrations, my photographs (and captions) had to do more. They had to do Sociology, and be Sociological (while at the same time accepting that all images are Sociological in some way). Drawing from Barthes (1981), I realised that my photographs had to possess their own kind of grammar (Heng 2016) – a way of speaking to the reader in meaningful ways – informing, surprising and signifying. The photographs in the accompanying Instagram posts to this blog will thus seek to explore the multi-layered performances of ethnicity and diaspora through consumption rituals, but not via straightforward depictions. I invite the reader to critically dwell upon the images in order to understand the interplay of area, action, actor and artefact.
Terence Heng is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool. His research interests include Visual Methods, Sacred Spaces, Diasporic Ethnicities and Deathscapes. He is the author of Visual Methods in the Field: Photography for the Social Sciences (Routledge 2016) and his work has been featured in The Sociological Review, Social and Cultural Geography and Area. His upcoming book is Of Gods, Gifts and Ghosts – a visual monograph of spirit mediums and sacred flowscapes.