Uplifting migrant workers' lives, one photo at a time
Story by Koh Eng Beng
Photos by Lionel Lee & courtesy of CPL (Ret) Tan
This commando NSman started a social enterprise that provides free camera rental and training for migrant workers.
He's won awards at international photography competitions, exhibited his works and even published a photo book. Impressive achievements for a self-taught photographer.
But last year – a decade after he started his photography hobby – Corporal (CPL) (Ret) Tan Chin Hock started asking himself, is there a larger purpose?
"I wanted to do something larger, to use photography to benefit more people," said the 44-year-old.
With that in mind, CPL (Ret) Tan started a social enterprise in August last year. His company, Holdinghands Studio, loans cameras to migrant workers and trains them on photography for free. Together with a group of volunteer trainers, he has conducted five workshops for about 200 migrant workers to date.
"We want to use photography to uplift the less-resourced communities," explained CPL (Ret) Tan. "We lend you the cameras, give you the knowledge, and create opportunities for you to practise – that's how you crystallise your learning and improve."
Photography as a hobby promotes wellness, and it can potentially be a second career for some of these migrant workers, he said.
"We have heard of people who want to be a professional photographer when they go back home.
"A few even wanted to replicate our model in their home country – set up a studio and lend out free cameras. It's really great that they want to pay it forward."
Just one year into operation, his social enterprise has started seeing tangible results: One of his students – Mdm Agnes Tono, 46, a Filipino domestic worker – had her work exhibited at the Ngee Ann Photography Exhibition this year.
"We are really proud of her achievement; it's one of the largest annual photography exhibitions in Singapore," said CPL (Ret) Tan.
To encourage migrant workers to keep improving their skills and to showcase their work, the company holds a monthly photo contest and is planning for an exhibition in November this year.
It also retails coasters that feature their photos. Twenty per cent of the proceeds go to organisations that support the education, personal development, and safe rehousing of migrant workers.
The concept for Holdinghands Studio came when CPL (Ret) Tan recalled how his former domestic helper had improved her photography skills under his guidance. "So there was already a proven strategy. I wanted to scale it up to reach out to other migrant workers," he said.
But CPL (Ret) Tan, who works as a business development assistant manager in the health care sector, knew that he couldn't run Holdinghands Studio as a one-man show. The challenges, he said, were in sustaining the operations and reaching out to the migrant workers.
So he reached out to like-minded photographers who were interested to teach, as well as organisations like the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).
FAST and HOME provide Holdinghands Studio with access to migrant workers under their charge, as well as facilities to hold workshops.
CPL (Ret) Tan is currently funding the operations of Holdinghands Studio through proceeds from the sale of products like art prints and coasters as well as fee-paying workshops.
Working with a team
CPL (Ret) Tan said the importance of working with a team was a lesson that he had picked up during his Full-time National Service as a commando medic.
He recalled a grueling outfield training where his section was ordered to evacuate an "injured" section mate under simulated artillery fire.
"We were already dead-beat so we had to ‘change hands' several times, and took turns to carry him to the finishing line," he said.
"The lesson here is: if we want to go fast individually, we can – we had very fast teammates who could complete the Standard Obstacle Course in six or seven minutes. But during a mission it's not about yourself but your unit – you need teamwork in order to survive.
"That left a deep impact on me, even now. So if I go alone (to work on my social enterprise), I can do it, but it wouldn't be as effective as when I go with a team."
Reach out to more people
Going forward, CPL (Ret) Tan plans to expand the outreach efforts of Holdinghands Studio to include ex-convicts, underprivileged families staying in rental flats, as well as youths at risk. To do so, he would need more volunteer trainers, more cameras and more resources.
But CPL (Ret) Tan is not one easily deterred by challenges or obstacles. He is determined to keep moving forward, and take any failures along the way as feedback for improvement.
Recalling his NS days, he said: "During a "turn-out" in the middle of the night, the instructors wreaked havoc in our bunk, pulled down our cupboards, and sprayed water at us. We had to do countless push-ups, sit-ups, and other physical activities.
"They wanted to test us and break our spirit. But we encouraged each other to hang on, and do whatever that was thrown to us.
"We learnt to expect the unexpected – we didn't know when it would finish, but we were sure that we were one step closer to the finishing line even though we could not see it.
"So the lesson here is: keep moving forward; every step, every inch forward is a step close to your goals."