Charmaine Poh, 29, Artist

Take a look at Charmaine’s body of work and you’ll see that she’s quite the storyteller. She not only writes about, but also documents via photographs, various social issues from single motherhood to loneliness and ageing. This artistic impulse was sparked when she was in university.

“I was halfway through my degree in international relations at Tufts University in Boston when I did a course called Narrative and Documentary Practice,” she says. “Because I was studying war and peace, I was introduced to war photography, so I picked up the camera and started trying to tell stories about people’s lives and societies. My work slowly morphed as the years went by.”

The pursuit of passion

It wasn’t long after she graduated and moved back to Singapore that she decided to leave the country again to pursue personal projects.

“I moved to Bangladesh and lived there for a few months to work at a photo agency. Then I moved to India and co-founded a photography camp called Clicking Together,” she explains. “We wanted to build a community through photography, so we paired up local youths, gave them a camera, and told them to take pictures of each other and tell each other’s stories.”

Charmaine then went to Myanmar to film a documentary called A Good Woman, which explored what it means to be a woman in the ever-changing landscape of Myanmar. A couple of months later, her photography series Learning to Leave was awarded the Noise Singapore Prize 2014. It came with $5,000 to make new work.

“The project I ended up making with the money from the reward was called Room. It’s about the transition from girlhood to womanhood and consisted of photographs and letters the women I photographed wrote to their younger selves.”

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Si Hui. #wip #room

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“When I worked on the project, I had no idea where it’d go, but it was not only featured in The New York Times and Photoville, but also made me a selected participant of New York Portfolio Review.”

The international recognition gave her added confidence in her work, and she has gone on to embark on lots of other interesting projects since. Over the past year, she has held several showcases, including All in Her Day’s Work for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, which consisted of photos of women getting ready for work; Pretty Butch for the Taipei Arts Festival, which documented Taiwanese women with masculine identities; and How She Loves, which featured queer women in Singapore.

The pursuit of growth

But that isn’t all she’s been busy with. On top of her writing and photography, she has also been pursuing a master’s degree in visual and media anthropology at the Free University of Berlin—a feat she modestly brushes off.

“Studying is not an excuse to not work, so I’m just trying to balance everything,” she says. “I still need an income. Sometimes, I give talks, and sometimes, I teach. I’ve been lucky enough to have been asked by local schools to talk about my work or assist in teaching.”

Needless to say, Charmaine shuttles between Singapore and Germany a lot. But she spends more time here as she’s in a low-residency programme, so her university schedule is quite flexible.

And while she can’t say for sure what she’ll be doing after she graduates, she knows for certain it’ll be in the creative industry.

“I’ll definitely be creating. I would like my practice to expand, so I hope to acquire certain skill sets to create more complex narratives or more complex presentations of narratives.”

Charmaine Poh CLEO Change Maker
Leather motorcycle jacket, Pinko. T-shirt, Charmaine’s own. Denim jeans, Sandro. Leather boots, Givenchy.

The pursuit of a story

Given the sensitive nature of the social issues she usually covers, it’s no surprise that Charmaine has a way with people. After all, she often manages to convince them to share their most intimate sides with her. But the last thing she wants to do is assume that everyone would be comfortable with doing that.

“I always try to keep in mind that I’m not entitled to anyone’s answers. They don’t have to answer me and they don’t have to be a part of my work,” she explains. “I try to be as genuine as I can when building relationships with them.”

“The hardest thing for me is when I cannot connect emotionally with my subjects, so if I actually find that I really disagree with their value system, I need to make a decision about whether I can continue working with them because I do not want to misrepresent them. I try as much as possible to be non-judgemental, but things could get tricky down the road, so I try to be careful with the lines I draw.”

And while she never thought she’d become an artist, she’s sure she’s now exactly where she needs to be.

“I didn’t plan on becoming an artist. It was something that happened quite gradually. I wasn’t really sure who I was going to become, but I was interested in acquiring certain skills that were interesting to me.”

“I think you just change as time passes on. And when you find that your role in society has become a little different, it will evolve from there.”

CLEO Change Makers 2019

Read more about the CLEO Change Makers here. For more career advice, money tips, and general guides to adulting, check out our Change Makers digital issue.


Photography: Brendan Zhang
Styling: Cheryl Chan
Hair: Ash Loi 
Keith Bryant Lee

Styling Assistant: Melissa Lee