A Meditation on Transit


After seven weeks in New Zealand, Flemming and I returned to Singapore in early December, to the brand new Downtown Line on the MRT (metro) system. The best part? There’s a station right down the road from home. A five minute stroll from Mum’s front door, and I main-line it into the country’s urban heart, with a minimum of interruption and cross-over.

Driverless trains sweep into swanky new underground stations anchoring a vast web of tunnels. We’ve come a long way from the 30 year old lines that run overground on elevated tracks, giving passengers a lofty view of the city rushing by. We’re now cushioned from the world above, plugged into our pocket worlds and chilled until we’re ready to be poured into the rapid glitter of Singapore.

I’ve been making pictures of course, much like the ones in this post.

But I am not as prolific with the camera these days. Despite my best efforts, I’m unnerved by the uber surveillance that is slowly making its way all over the island. Little round CCTV globes are spread all over the ceilings of tunnels, train platforms, and entrances in close grids. Outside stations, they sprout in bouquets of steel.

If it hasn’t already been for a while, I’m sure my presence is now flagged in some national security register.

I’ve been questioned several times by MRT staff about what and why I’m doing. To their credit, they’ve been incredibly pleasant about it – it’s been nothing more than “why are you taking photos?” and “I’m a photographer, it’s what I do.” I even had the pleasure of watching one light up at the picture on the camera’s back. “It looks like a butterfly.”

I continue to make pictures in stations, and trains, attempting to remain undeterred for the particular beauty of transit. But it’s hard to shake the sense of being continuously watched, and that HAL will decide some day that continued photography is wrong.

Photography is contentious these days, when we’re so aware – consciously or otherwise – and disturbed by imagery’s power in our private lives. There is some irony in this, and perhaps a lesson for the photographer. Whatever else the surveillance does, it keeps me thinking. And it’s hard not to, knowing that each person sucked into the field of that artificial eye’s view, is only valid as a risk assessment – Terminator style, I imagine, with traveling rows of vital statistics – nothing more, nothing less. Humanity must be measured to be managed.


  1. Ish says:

    Some fantastic photos here Charlene! Please tell me you were actually on the train and not the tracks when you took the tunnel ones!!! The second of the two platform reflections and the two tunnel ones are my favourites out of a beautiful set. The colours in those are beautiful, as is the sense of movement in the last one. Hoping we are never prevented from turning our surroundings into photographic art.

    1. Charlene says:

      Thanks Ish! Heh, don’t worry, I was definitely in the train when taking those tunnel photos.

      I get that transit nodes are high risk areas, but I too hope we are never prevented from considering our surroundings artistically ever.

  2. Mark Kinsman says:

    Great set – hope this turns into a book at some point in the space time continuum.

    1. Charlene says:

      I keep meaning to make one at some point. I really need to get around to it one of these days….

  3. Brett Patching says:

    Great article and photos Charlene!

    1. Charlene says:

      Thank you Brett!

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