Jose Jeuland Captures the Stories of Our Elderly for “Aging Singapore”

Jose Jeuland, the founder and art director of Coco Creative Studio, stumbled upon his penchant for featuring seniors in his photography while in search of compelling narratives.
His latest exhibition AGING SINGAPORE is a tribute to the older generation of Singaporeans, who paved the way for our young city. In capturing the vitality of our elderly, Jeuland’s work reminds us that life doesn’t cease to be meaningful when our youth ends. 
Wildchild speaks to him to find out more about his creative process as well as how he made the month-long exhibition a reality.

Wildchild: In 2017, you embarked on Haenyeo, a photography project about elderly women divers from Jeju Island, South Korea. Later on, in 2019, you presented Longevity Okinawa, an exhibition that featured Japanese seniors between 89 to 109 years of age. Did your interest in documenting seniors grow after these projects and what made you decide to work on AGING SINGAPORE next? 

Jose Jeuland: To start off, a lot of people mistake me for preferring to take portraits of older people but it is just a coincidence. It is also a funny coincidence that Jeju, Okinawa, and Singapore are all islands. I photographed these subjects primarily because of how interesting their stories were, rather than their age. But when it became apparent that their seniority was a recurring common point across my exhibitions, I became intrigued. I realized that age is really just a number when you have determination and passion in life.

A Picture of Health
The co-founders of Team Strong Silvers, Victor Chan, Ng Bee Kia, and Ngai Hin Kwok (from left to right).

Despite having an aging population, I have observed a lot of ageism among younger adults in Singapore as well as elderly people who face discrimination in their lives. It made me sad, especially since I consider Singapore my home. I want to prove that the stigma that came with age was unnecessary and seek to defy preconceived notions about aging by demonstrating that many elderly people in Singapore are still very active and sociable. To do so, I decided to photograph elderly Singaporeans, which unearthed unique stories and lives.

Wildchild: Do you have plans to develop a series in which you feature seniors across different cities?

Jose Jeuland: I am open to the idea of this becoming a recurring series across my projects but probably within Singapore first. I feel that my current exhibition is still not enough to showcase the full diversity of the elderly in Singapore. Many of them have interesting stories that have yet to be shared and appreciated. I would love to keep the spotlight on Singaporean elders and transform my current exhibition into an ongoing series. In fact, there will be a guest book at the exhibition — feel free to leave the contacts of Singaporean seniors who are interested in being photographed.

… Keeps the Doctor Away
76-year-old Tan Guan Keng, volunteers his services as a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner
All the World’s a Stage
Sisters Chee Siew Fun (left) and Chee Kin Foon (right) have been performing Chinese Opera since childhood.

Wildchild: Why did you choose to include pictures of the seniors in action for AGING SINGAPORE when you previously opted to feature only portraits in Longevity Okinawa?

Jose Jeuland: I think it offers more variety in terms of shot composition, especially considering how a lot of their hobbies differ from one another. I believed that there were many different ways to best showcase their lives, and did not want to limit myself to only portraiture. 

In addition, I also wanted to capture their environment, such as where they live or where their activities take place. Photographing them in various environments is very similar to what I do for commercial work; I get to a place and have to make quick decisions in terms of lighting, set-up, composition, and more. I love discovering a spot and finding ways to complete a set-up within minutes.

Piece of Cake, Cup of Tea
83-year-old Rajalectiumee brews her signature chai.

Wildchild: AGING SINGAPORE features 12 individuals from the senior community. How did you select which seniors to photograph? Did you seek seniors with interesting stories or did the narratives emerge after you found seniors who were interested in being a part of your project? 

Jose Jeuland: I decided to photograph seniors and hold this exhibition with the sole intention of helping to share the stories of the elderly in Singapore, be it through charity work or by raising awareness. Some of the elderly are from my own contacts. Apart from that, I also contacted the social service agency Lions Befrienders as I felt the exhibition aligned with their missions and values, and they had the contacts since they work with a diverse range of elderly individuals. We were additionally happy to photograph and interview any willing participants, who were all very friendly and eager to share their stories.

In fact, I actually have many individuals with interesting hobbies or stories in mind for future projects. For this exhibition, I have also photographed people who may appear to be our regular elderly but are actually unique in their own way. This is representative of how diverse the interests of our Singaporean elderly can be, beyond the surface.

Wildchild: How did you conduct your interviews with them?

Jose Jeuland: My interviews followed a general structure — I would have them introduce themselves, before asking them about their thoughts on living in Singapore as an elderly person. Many of them spoke about their interests and hobbies passionately and expressed how grateful they are to live in present-day Singapore. Our conversations were organic and I let them lead. Sometimes there are many nuggets of wisdom that surface when they get carried away. In fact, you will be able to see that in our upcoming documentary.

The Best Seat in the House
95-year-old Teo Guak Wah at Lions Befrienders’ weekly Chair Zumba activity.

Wildchild: To create an immersive experience, each exhibit is accompanied by a QR code that leads to audio files that represent the environment the subject frequents or works in as well as a fragrance — by the perfumers at Symrise — that will transport the viewer to a day in the subject’s life. Were the photographs shot before or after you knew that aural and olfactory stimuli will be a part of the viewing experience?

Jose Jeuland: No, the elements were planned around each subject’s life story. I first found the subjects and learned more about their lives. The fragrances and audio came after that. Going with the flow and letting things run their course allowed me and my team to think out of the box and get creative with the audio files. As for the fragrances, the perfumers from our exhibition partner, Symrise, had free rein over the scents. We are really pleased with how they turned out! Each scent has a subtle and interesting profile that we are sure visitors will enjoy.

The Early Bird Gets Their Photo Taken
74-year-old Dunford Vernon Alexander has a burning passion for bird photography and nature preservation in Singapore. 

Wildchild: A quote by writer Leslie Jamison comes to mind: “Making art about other people always means seeing them as you see them, rather than mirroring the way they would elect to be seen.” Is this something that you grapple with as a photographer? Were there instances during which your subjects were dissatisfied with how they were being portrayed or wanted to be portrayed in what they perceived to be a more flattering light?

Jose Jeuland: It is true that my art is always more of how I perceive my subjects. I spent one to one and a half hours photographing each subject and I prepared various types of set-ups and looks for each individual. The pictures exhibited are selected in a way that goes very well together. I have other pictures that portray some of the elderly in a different way. My main goal was to make them look their best while still being portrayed in the exact situation that I met them in, which represents themselves best. I think that would be the most authentic and truest version of themselves that I can document.

All Part of Life’s Rich Tapestry
88-year-old Kamsiah bte Ibrahim passes her time sewing clothing and gifts for her family.

Wildchild: What is your most memorable takeaway from working on AGING SINGAPORE and what would you like the audience to keep in mind when they are viewing your exhibition?

Jose Jeuland: I want people to see the beauty in the personalities of all the featured individuals and to see the elderly in a more positive light — regardless of their job or the type of activity they engage in. I want people to know that our seniors are an important part of society and they are very active; they contribute a lot to society. As we all grow older, it is important for us to embrace the idea of growing old together in a beautiful way: by caring for each other.

From now till 14 December 2022

East Garden Gallery, The Fullerton Hotel

1 Fullerton Square, Singapore 049178

Opening Hours: 24 hours

Free Admission

Questions & cover collage by Sherryl Cheong

Sherryl Cheong

Sharer and carer of wildchild