Nick Ng’s spellbinding images, often captured in low light, have a quiet, almost cinematic quality. The pictures - from the forgotten faces of China to the shipyard workers of Dhaka - are rich in texture and atmosphere. Each could be a complete story or documentary in itself.
The emotional pull of Nick’s portfolio would make you think he has devoted his life to perfecting his art. The truth is more intriguing. Nick only bought a camera when he was in his thirties, and that was to take pictures of oral implants to aid his work in dentistry. Gradually photography became a hobby, but Nick didn’t have any formal training.
“I joined a photography club and didn’t understand what they were talking about. So I learnt from the internet,” he laughs.
Ten years on, Nick has won two category prizes in the Sony World Photography Awards and is Sony photography ambassador for Malaysia. But he still works full time as a dentist.
Photos from Nick’s 3 Square Metres collection were exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London recently. The pictures showed migrant workers living and working on a building site in Kuala Lumpur. The title, 3 Square Metres, referred to how much personal space each worker had in their makeshift dorms. The intimacy of the images was immediately arresting. So how did he achieve that?
Nick’s explanation is simple and humble: through friendship, patience and building trust.
The building site, a 15-storey tower block, was on Nick’s morning route to work. Nick stopped to talk to the workers, slowly getting to know them, exchanging cigarettes and chatting. They were from Bangladesh and, having lived in Malaysia for a while, could mostly speak the local language.
When the site manager wasn’t around, Nick started to spend evenings and Sundays with the workers, bringing food and hanging out. The pictures were taken over a period of six or seven months.
This explains in part why the photographs are so natural and intimate - a man sleeping with his hard hat beside him, a labourer cutting his friend’s hair, workers sharing food and talking. It’s as if the camera has been entirely forgotten.
Capturing these moments was often spontaneous. But some shots were also planned. Take the dizzying site of labourers, with no harness or netting, fixing scaffolding high above the city. “I saw this potential shot from a couple of lower levels, and then waited with my camera till the labourers got to the next floor,” Nick says.
Although he shoots in colour, he often converts the images to black and white.
“I love doing this because the colours don’t distract you. It’s just black and white and the soul of the people.”
Shooting in low light required little equipment. This enabled Nick to move around the site quickly. For these images he was only carrying one camera and an extra lens.
The photographs are a powerful social commentary on the lives of some of construction’s most exploited and neglected workers. But as well as depicting the unsafe and unsanitary conditions, they also show something else: resilience, loyalty and companionship.
“Many of the labourers knew each other in Bangladesh before coming here,” Nick says, “They have formed a close-knit community. When one project finishes, they move straight onto another site. It’s a hard life, but they look after each other.
By contrast to the black and white of 3 Square Metres, Nick’s Blue series is in vibrant colour. The pictures, shot in the slums of Old Delhi, show a community living around a maze of tiny alleys, gossiping, fetching water and bathing in the open air. In this case, the use of colour adds something extra: a poignant reminder of how our homes become tied up with identity and aspiration.
“In India, higher castes usually use to paint their homes Indigo blue. These people wanted to do the same,” Nick says.
Nick is currently working on a new project, photographing refugees from Myanmar who are living in Malaysia. What advice would he give to aspiring photographers?
“The most important thing is to be humble and put yourself among the people you’re photographing. It’s how you experience the culture and tradition,” he says. “You have to shoot from your heart, shooting for a competition is secondary.”
See more of Nick Ng’s work at www.nickng.zenfolio.com
The annual Art of Building photography prize, run by CIOB, opens for entries on 17 October 2016. The competition is open both to amateur and professional photographers. Go to www.artofbuilding.org for details and rules of entry.