John Seaton Callahan can regularly be found exploring the world with camera in hand or surfing throughout Asia. With these passions, it’s easy to believe he grew up in Hawaii before moving to Singapore in 2001. We ask him about life here, plus where you can get your hands on his stunning photo prints, street photography and images of Singapore!
Tell us about your Hawaiian background; do you miss the place?
I lived in Hawaii from the age of seven, after four years in Okinawa, Japan. My wife Jane is ethnic Japanese and was born and raised in Hawaii. We miss a few things about Hawaii, particularly how beautiful the island state can be.
What brought you to Singapore, and where had you lived previously?
I lived in Hawaii for most of my adult life, other than five years in California where I graduated from UCLA, living in Venice Beach for a year afterwards. Hawaii was an expensive place and isolated in the vast expanse of the North Pacific Ocean. There is also constant racial animosity and some serious social problems. For example, extreme inequality between locals and wealthy new residents, and homelessness, drug use and crime. One of the main reasons we wanted to leave was to get away from guns after there was a mass killing close to our home. So we decided to move to Singapore.
Tell us a bit about your business or projects in Singapore.
I’ve been a Getty Images photographer since its inception in 1995. Until recently, creating images for them provided most of my income. Plus I do some extra work supplying images and carrying out photography assignments for publishers around the world.
With more than 26,000 images on the site, 4,500 Singapore pictures, I have the largest Getty Images portfolio of any photographer in Singapore. Last year, I sold an average of 200 digital photo prints per month on Getty.
I’m now moving into the home and office décor space with my Singapore Series – Heritage Shophouses of Singapore and Stereoscopic Singapore. I sell these on RedBubble, Society6, Displate and Fine Art America / Pixels. I also promote my nature, surfing and street photography on my Instagram account.
My area of speciality, where my work is regarded as world-class, is capturing surfing action and scenic ocean images. I have travelled to a long list of locations around the globe for this photography work. More recently, for photo print-on-demand sites under the surfEXPLORE branding.
How did your passion for photography grow?
I was drawn to producing images in my early childhood. I received a basic 35mm Yashica film camera for Christmas in high school and, unlike digital images, film and processing cost money. So there was an incentive to learn camera techniques before pressing any buttons. In film days you paid for your mistakes, literally!
Later, I started to use highly sensitive slide film and had a reputation during my magazine days as a highly aesthetic and efficient professional photographer. I would get a large number of usable images from each roll of processed film, which made me popular with publishers and editors.
Some of the best photo opportunities I have experienced have come when I least expected it and in places that have distinct cultural identities, like Japan, Singapore, Morocco, Sierra Leone and Nepal. I’ve embraced the theory of producing photos of places with less demand for images – for example, Algeria instead of selling pictures of popular scenes such as the Eiffel Tower.
That being said, my street photography and photo prints of Singapore require meticulous planning to get the particular shot that I want. I see a lot of photographers in Singapore and abroad who have a “smash and grab” approach, but that’s not my style at all.
In 2023, technical advances have made what it took a skilled professional with a $10k camera to produce ten years ago possible for millions of people with just their phones. For my Singapore images, I have captured some of the aesthetic qualities that make it truly unique. These range from street photography of historic shophouses and Peranakan tiles of the past century to the ultramodern architecture of Marina Bay. The result is compelling photos of Singapore that tell something of the Singapore Story and make for meaningful photo prints.
What does a typical working day look like for you as a photographer in Singapore?
I spend most of my day sitting in front of a screen, editing images or videos, interrupted by the pitiful meows of a spoiled housecat, crying for food. Not exactly heart-stopping adrenaline excitement for a photographer in Singapore, I know, but the imaging sector is highly competitive. Second-rate images and video clips just don’t sell.
I look forward to getting out of the office several times a week to visit a restaurant in town or have drinks with friends. I’m glad that Singapore is safe to go out at night anywhere!
What are a few things you like to do in Singapore when you’re not working?
While Singapore is not known for nature activities, there are some great hiking and walking tracks around – particularly in the Central Catchment area, MacRitchie Reservoir and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. We also like walking, cycling and running at East Coast Park.
According to Japanese theories, going for a walk in the woods or “forest bathing” offers health benefits. So I like to do that, as long as I don’t get caught by one of Singapore’s famous afternoon tropical downpours – you can be completely soaked by giant raindrops in a matter of seconds!
Quick questions about Singapore: what is your favourite…
Casual restaurant? Nando’s or Aston’s for a casual dinner, Original 328 Laksa or Maxwell for real Singapore food.
Date-night restaurant? Several places at Marina Bay Sands have the right combination of ambience and great food.
Bar? Meeting friends for a beer at Emerald Hill or the Circular Road area.
Local food? Laksa, nasi lemak, and you can’t go wrong with chicken rice from Five Star or Boon Tong Kee; and the Maxwell Food Centre – if you can’t find something you want to eat there you are simply not hungry!
Nature space? Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Gardens by the Bay.
Thing to do with visitors? Everyone is awed by Gardens by the Bay, the Skywalk and spectacular evening light show. People who have an appreciation for nature love the Botanic Gardens, which has many beautiful trees, plants and flowers that are all wellmaintained by an army of gardeners and a family of resident otters.
Nearby holiday destination? Phuket and Bali have it all for a holiday destination – Bali is our favourite for surfing
Wondering about where to find John’s photo prints and work? You can find his work on multiple online sites that feature stunning street photography and some of the best photos of Singapore. Here are a few places to look for images of Singapore and more:
Enjoyed reading about life as a street photographer in Singapore? Find more stories like this in our Living Here page.