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Championing diversity and inclusivity: Charmaine Poh - Esse

Championing diversity and inclusivity: Charmaine Poh

Photography by Charmaine Poh, assisted by Kee Ya Ting. Hair and make-up by Suzana Salleh.

International Women’s Day is all about celebrating the role of women but also about campaigning for change and making that change happen. That’s why we’re taking this month to reflect on how we can make a positive impact as a brand. From extending this sentiment to our makers and empowering them through good working conditions and fair pay, to empowering customers through making strides towards more inclusive and representative imagery, we want to put our words into action.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Each for Equal, and is all about challenging stereotypes and broadening perceptions for a more inclusive and representative society. That’s why, we’ve decided to sit down with Charmaine to chat about her work and her thoughts on inclusivity and representation, particularly along the lines of femininity. 

Charmaine is an internationally featured photographer and her work has been featured in the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, the Singapore International Photography Festival, Objectifs Centre for Photography and Filmmaking, The Taipei Arts Festival, The International Center of Photography, Photoville, WeTransfer, Channel News Asia, and The New York Times. In 2019, she was also recognised as one of Forbes Asia 30 under 30 - The Arts.

Graduating from Tufts University with a B.A. in International Relations, and the Freie Universität Berlin with an M.A. in Visual and Media Anthropology, Charmaine’s image-making practice employs ethnographic methods, focusing on issues of memory, gender, youth, and solitude in the Asian context. Often working with portraiture, she considers the performance of self and the layers of identity we build.

As an ardent follower, there have been a couple of Charmaine’s works like How She Loves  and All In Her Day’s Work, that has struck a chord with us. One of the things we touched on in our initial conversation was our approach to our work, and the intention to engage with the world in a thoughtful and more sustainable way. This conversation has inspired us to delve deeper into the imagery we’re creating and the stories we’re telling, and consider a more inclusive narrative.
 But for now, we share Charmaine’s story and musings. Read on. 


Alicia: Most of your work centres around identity and femininity. Tell us why these topics are important to you.
Charmaine: I felt like I grew up governed by these ways of being, and as I grew older I began to incessantly question why it was this way. My parents had certain traditional ideas about what a girl was supposed to be like, and I was in an all-girls school for ten years. These experiences stick with you for a long time.

 (Charmaine wears the Spaghetti Top with Elastic Waistband.)

Alicia: How has your work challenged social norms?

Charmaine: I like showing, not telling, by presenting work that normalises, as opposed to shocks. I focus more on revealing what I am drawn to, rather than becoming overly self-aware about how niche my opinions are. I want to celebrate my sense of normalcy.


Ele and Lee, from the project, How She Loves, which uses matrimonial tropes as a tool to look at how queer love is performed. 2018.

Alicia: You started out as a writer, pursued a degree in International Relations and graduated from Freie Universität Berlin with an M.A. in Visual and Media Anthropology. What encouraged you to make the pivot towards narrative portraiture, and how have your pursuits helped in the work you create?

Charmaine: I actually stumbled upon a class in documentary studies while studying for my international relations degree, that was my introduction into a world where I could combine photography and my curiosity about the world. Slowly, I realised that portraiture was becoming an important part of the work that I was making. As I began to dig deeper, I realised I needed some kind of framework to ground my involvement in communities, so I took up the masters’ degree. Everything in my life has informed one another. 


Alicia: Most of your works merge written work and imagery. Which of these mediums are you more comfortable with and which do you prefer working with? 

Charmaine: I’d feel so torn up if I really had to choose. They fulfil me in different ways. Words have been a part of my life since I was little. I started scribbling in a diary when I was seven. I spent so much of my childhood buried in a book. When I found photography, it helped me express so much that I had no words for.


 Widaya stands by her window. From the project, To Make A House Like A Castle, which looks at how single mothers and their children navigate the issue of space in Singapore. 2019.

Alicia: Talk us through your artistic process - how do you convey the feelings and stories of your subjects in an authentic way?

 Charmaine: I think it just starts with creating space for people to feel safe, and to listen and withhold judgment. And curiosity. Because without that there wouldn’t be anything to say.

Alicia: What were some of your projects that have been the hardest to conceive or issues that have been challenging to communicate through photography?

Charmaine: Not all ideas are best conveyed through photography, which is why I recently made a short film. It’s about intergenerational trauma. I worked with a movement artist to look at how trauma stays in the body.

Si Hui in her bedroom, with fabric flowers she has gotten as gifts in secondary school, sitting on a bedsheet with a period stain on it. From the series Room, which looks at the transition from girlhood to adulthood. 2016.


Alicia: Your first few projects started out with exploring self-identity (Learning to Leave) and the female identity (Room), subsequently exploring other projects around marginalised communities (Pretty Butch and How She Loves). Would you say that your work and views around identity have evolved over time and do you foresee it continuing to evolve?

Charmaine: I’m growing as a person and continually see myself and the world around me differently. Some questions that I had at the beginning of my career have changed. I know some answers, and ask different questions now. I think it’s also important to respond to the world as it shifts. We are in it, not apart from it.


Alicia: Tell us more about your views around the representation of the female body in popular culture/ fashion.

Charmaine: So much has happened in the last couple of years and I would say it’s a major move in inclusiveness. I’m happy to be where I am, seeing this turn. There’s also just much more representation in general, because of how people desire to and are able to represent themselves. I guess a question I have would be, can the female ever have the agency to not appear?

(Charmaine wears the Linen Open Back Top and Organic Cotton Double Layered Pants.)

Alicia: What’s next for you?

Charmaine: I’m excited about a more collaborative, multidisciplinary future. Everything I do is part of the same world I’m trying to build. Right now, I’m editing a film, starting to consolidate my projects into art books, and working with brands to create new imagery. I’m lucky and grateful.

Alicia: How can fashion brands be more inclusive in the way they portray the female identity?

Charmaine: I think the key is to portray someone with agency, dignity, and power. Everything else flows from that.


Check out Charmaine’s work here and follow her on Instagram at @psxcharmaine for more musings.



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