When Singapore saw an increase in the community transmission of Covid-19, many people rushed to get their hands on masks, sanitisers and other household supplies. Shintaro Tay, on the other hand, was more concerned about grabbing his camera to document a doctor’s work at Pioneer Polyclinic.

The 24-year-old freelance photojournalist for The Straits Times shadowed Dr Lawrence Lam, 34, a family physician who works in the fever zone at the clinic for a day. 

During the shoot, he was alerted that he had come into close contact with two Covid-19 patients. 

“While I was thankful to be masked, I couldn’t help but feel worried that something would happen to me,” Shintaro recalls.

However, the doctors at the polyclinic had assured him that since they were all masked, he would be safe. If anything bad were to happen, they were prepared with measures in place to take care of his health.

Initially a school assignment, his news photography project titled On the Front Lines of a Pandemic was meant to draw attention to the sacrifice and struggles of Singapore’s valiant healthcare workers. After its completion, he pitched his story to The Straits Times and it was later published by them. 

Dr Lam using a blood pressure monitor to assess Mr Muhammad Arrafi Anuar, 23, a full-time national serviceman, in the fever zone.
Photo Credit: The Straits Times/Shintaro Tay

The idea came about after Shintaro noticed how people were reacting to healthcare workers “in a very strange way” earlier this year. There were multiple anecdotal accounts about how healthcare workers in uniform were asked to leave the train or the lift to avoid spreading the virus to others. That spurred Shintaro on: he wanted to do his part to correct such misperception. 

“Medical workers are often masked so you don’t know who they are. But they’re doing such an important role and I just wanted to take an opportunity to unmask who they are and what they do,” he says. 

When Shintaro’s story on Dr Lam was published, he received many positive responses. “I was very happy that people were responding well, and they had a lot of words of encouragement for the doctor.”

Encouraging comments for Dr Lam and healthcare workers as seen on The Straits Times Instagram.
Photo Credit: The Straits Times

Shintaro also recently won a Visual of the Month Merit Award in the Stories of a Pandemic contest, where he captured Muslim worshippers practising safe distancing while performing their Hari Raya Haji prayer at Masjid Maarof at Jurong West.

Worshippers practicing safe distancing while at the Hari Raya Haji morning prayer at Masjid Maarof at Jurong West on July 31, 2020. Most mosques held three sessions with no more than 50 worshippers who needed to book slots online.
Photo Credit: The Straits Times/Shintaro Tay

Covering General Elections Amid Covid-19

Shintaro adds that covering the general elections under Covid-19 restrictions this year posed a problem for photojournalists like himself.

For example, on the night of polling day, there were no fiery speakers, no rowdy supporters, no designated assembly centres, no emotionally-charged moments to capture. Shintaro says he simply sat with his colleague outside Potong Pasir “waiting for a car to drive by with the Member of Parliament (MP)”.

Nevertheless, he challenged himself to find the more unique moments: “If everybody takes the same pictures of [members of the public and MPs] just giving each other the first bump, it gets quite boring after a while.”

Dr Ang Yong Guan, the Progress Singapore Party’s candidate for Marymount SMC, helping Madam Chang Yoke Lin, 86, to wear a face mask while on a walkabout at Block 26 Sin Ming Road on July 8, 2020.
Photo Credit: The Straits Times/Shintaro Tay

Reflections as a Photojournalist

During this time of uncertainty, Shintaro explains that he feels a sense of responsibility to frame what he sees accurately because “to be behind the scenes is to understand the situation and decipher it for people through pictures”.

He uses panic buying as an example when talking about how pictures can reinforce and send strong messages into today’s social media. “If newspapers were to publish empty shelves and stuff like that, people will be even more worried.”

“Whatever pictures go online, it’s important to harness the medium the right way,” he explains. “If not, then people will just take things out of context.”

On April 3, the government announced that Singapore will close schools and most workplaces for a month as part of stricter measures to curb a recent jump in coronavirus infections. This triggered people and sent them to the supermarkets to stock up on staples. 
Photo Credit: The Straits Times/Shintaro Tay

Edited by: Rachel Sin Ka Lam
Proofread by: Quek Si Min