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Visual Arts

David Tay

One of the most influential figures in Singapore photography


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

Don’t be afraid to experiment and find new ground rather than produce run-of-the-mill photography. Practice makes perfect.

David Tay is one of the most influential figures in Singapore photography. A publishing consultant and former CEO of SPH Magazines, Tay has made significant contributions to Singapore photography over a photography career lasting more than five decades. The first Asian to be elected to the Directory Board of the International Federation of Photographic Art, Tay has served as the President of the Photographic Society of Singapore from 1990 to 2013. In 1982, he became the first recipient of the Cultural Medallion for photography.

Born in 1945 in Singapore, David Tay picked up photography somewhat by chance when his father bought him a Rolleiflex 2.8F twin-lens reflex camera instead of the scooter that he wanted. Making the best of his father’s gift, he enrolled in a basic course in pictorial photography at The Photographic Society of Singapore in 1962 to learn how to use his camera, unknowingly beginning his decades-long love affair with photography.

As a young photography student, Tay had a keen eye for detail and one of his first exhibition prints—a photograph taken at Mata Ikan where cockle shells were being burnt to a powder for use as whitewash paint—garnered a prize in a quarterly competition for The Photographic Society of Singapore members in 1963. In his early days of his photography, Tay focused mainly on landscape photography, taking pictures that offered interesting takes on the city.

In 1979, David started working for the newspapers. He first joined the Chinese newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau and followed the company as it merged with Sin Chew Jit Poh to form Singapore News & Publications Ltd (SNPL) which published Lianhe Zaobao and Lianhe Wanbao. Subsequently, SNPL merged with Times Organisation which published English and Malay newspapers in 1984, and Tay found himself an employee of the newly formed Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

With the newspapers, Tay started out as a personnel manager, then moved onto circulation, advertising sales, corporate relations, administration and finally to Times Periodicals—SPH’s magazines group. Tay became the CEO of the group, which he later renamed it SPH Magazines, and expanded its publishing business into the region to more than 70 titles from about 10.

While at SPH, Tay found the opportunity to integrate his passion for photography with his day-to-day work, interacting with the press photographers in the newsrooms. Later, he oversaw the photographic department as general manager of editorial services. Subsequently at SPH Magazines, his involvement with photography increased as many of the publisher’s magazines were lifestyle-oriented and required a great deal of commercial photography. This gave Tay the opportunity to bring in renowned photographers to mentor the company’s own photographers. Throughout all this, Tay continued to take photographs in his free time and be active on the Singapore photography scene.

Working with the newspapers made Tay aware of the impact and significance of good photojournalism. In 1982, when he received the Cultural Medallion for his artistic excellence and contributions to photography in Singapore—becoming the first photographic artist to receive the honour—he was spurred on to work towards opening up fresh avenues for new generations of photographers as well as to raise the profile of photojournalism.

With support from the Royal Dutch Embassy in Singapore and under the banner of The Photographic Society of Singapore, Tay brought the World Press Photography exhibition to Singapore, showcasing the works of world-renowned photojournalists. Then in 2003, he spearheaded a steering committee with representation from the National Arts Council, Economic Development Board and Singapore International Foundation to organise the Clickart: World Photojournalists Meet 2003. Both were high-profile events that he hoped would spark greater public interest in other fields of photography and promote a more vibrant photography scene in Singapore.

Along the way, Tay’s exposure to press photography sparked an interest in portraiture. He found his studio in the streets, taking photographs of people, capturing elusive moments in natural light. Tay then applied for the Cultural Medallion grant to embark on portrait photography project that he found meaningful. He took about two and half years visiting many countries in Asia in search of subjects.

In June 2011, Tay presented the results of his journeys, Coming of Age: Forgotten Faces of a Greying Asia, at the ION Art Gallery in Singapore. This was a collection of candid street portraits of the elderly in Asia, the "forgotten faces" whom people pass by daily, often without noticing. At once impactful and poignant, Coming of Age took audiences on an emotional journey, casting the spotlight on lives that were often impoverished yet full of grace and dignity. Tay’s photos for Coming of Age were also compiled into a 150-page publication whose sale proceeds went to the Silver Tribute Fund to help the disadvantaged aged.

Over the decades, Tay received many honours, besides the Cultural Medallion, including the Honorary Excellence Distinction of the International Federation of Photographic Art in 1981, a Fellowship from The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain for excellence in illustrative photography in 1987, and the Fenton Medal from The Royal Photographic Society in 1999 for his contributions in photography.

Tay retired from his role as CEO of SPH Magazines in 2006, and continues to contribute to Singapore photography. He brought Coming of Age: Forgotten Faces of a Greying Asia to Malaysia in 2012. After its launch in Kuala Lumpur, the exhibition went on a tour to the different states. Tay’s show had also been showcase at the China’s Pingyao International Photo Festival and the Jinan Biennial International Photography Festival in 2011 and 2012 respectively. In July 2013, Coming of Age was shown at The Royal Photographic Society’s Fenton Hall in London, and went on to be shown at the headquarters of the International Federation of Photographic Art in Paris.



Born in Singapore.

1952 to 1961

Attended St Joseph’s School.

1979 to 1982

Personnel Manager, Nanyang Siang Pau.


Received Honorary Excellence Distinction award, International Federation of Photographic Art.

1982 to 1983

Marketing Manager (Newspaper Sales) Nanyang Siang Pau.


Received Cultural Medallion for artistic excellence and contributions to photography in Singapore. Was the first Cultural Medallion recipient for photography.

1983 to 1989

Marketing Manager (Advertisement Sales), Singapore Monitor.

General Manager, Editorial Services, SPH Chinese Newspapers.


Received Fellowship for excellence in illustrative photography, The Royal Photographic Society.

1990 to 2013

President, Photographic Society of Singapore.


General Manager, SPH Corporate Relations.

1992 to 2000

Member, Arts Advisory Panel, National Arts Council, Singapore.


General Manager, Times Periodicals Pte Ltd.


Received Fenton Medal, Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, UK.


Chairman, Organising Committee, Clickart: World Photojournalists Meet 2003.

2005 to 2006

CEO, SPH Magazines.

CEO, Blu Inc.


Member, Directory Board, International Federation of Photographic Art. Was the first Asian to be elected to the board.


Solo exhibition Coming of Age: Forgotten Faces of a Greying Asia, ION Art Gallery, Singapore.

Pingyao International Photo Festival (Shaanxi, China).


Solo exhibition Coming of Age: Forgotten Faces of a Greying Asia, Wisma Kebudayaan Soka Gakkai, Malaysia.

Participated in Jinan Biennial International Photography Festival, Shandong, China.

Jul 2013

Solo exhibition Coming of Age: Forgotten Faces of a Greying Asia,, Fenton Hall, The Royal Photographic Society, London, UK.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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