The oldest SEA Games volunteer

by | August 13, 2015

At 87, Joseph Tan is still out and about, and couldn’t be happier to serve society.

BY: Eleanor Yap

Joseph K.S. Tan at the SEA Games.

Professional photographer Joseph K.S. Tan, 87, was the oldest volunteer for this year’s 28th South-east Asian (SEA) Games which was held in Singapore in early June and had an astounding 17,000 volunteers. He had missed the Games when it was here in 1993 as he was stationed in his Bangkok studio. This being his first Games, he couldn’t be more excited and he even spent about S$9,000 on a new camera and lens!

He currently runs a studio called Joseph Master Photography at Chai Chee and is a grandfather of 14 and great-grandfather of five. Ageless Online finds out more about his experience at the Games and why hopefully this won’t be his last Games:


What made you decide to volunteer at the SEA Games as a photographer?

A student of mine [in my photography studio] told me about it and I thought why not? I also recommended a few of my students, who were keen to volunteer as photographers, and two of them were over the age of 65.

We all found this opportunity a good one as together, we could serve the nation, and play our part as good citizens and give back our time to society. Though I take mostly portrait photographs, I have in the past, taken pictures of sports such as in long and high jump, swimming, sepak takraw, etc.


Were there any criteria to becoming a volunteer for the Games?

When I decided to take up this opportunity, the SEA Games’ organisers asked my friend who recommended me about my age. They were surprised [when they were told] and my friend asked them to meet me. They took my friend’s word that I was healthy so they took me on without seeing me.

I had asked them if I could have an assistant who could carry my equipment and the organisers were quick to agree. My assistant is also a photographer and one of my students.


What exactly did your role at the Games encompass? Were there briefings and trainings for volunteers?

Joseph with Minister Lawrence Wong.

Originally, I thought I was going to be taking indoor and outdoor sports shots but I ended up taking photos of dignitaries including the Minister of Youth and Sports of Malaysia Khairy Jamaluddin; Minister of Education, Youth and Sport Dr Hang Chuon Naron; Philippine Sports Commission chairman Ricardo Garcia; Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong; Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin; Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong; Dr Tan Eng Liang, vice-president, Singapore National Olympic Council; and more.

In total, there were around 19 volunteer photographers who were termed dignitary photographers, including myself, who captured the VIPs. It was a real honour. We also took some players in action shots.

We were asked to provide for each assignment 20 to 30 photos and we were required to put the name of the person shot, location, by whom, etc. We had at least three briefings. The last one on May 29 was very hectic as we had to familiarise ourselves with the different locations of where the ministers would be. We had to walk inside and outside of the National Stadium and Singapore Expo, and some of my assignments even covered the Padang.


How many hours each day were you at the SEA Games?

We spent an average of five hours each day, with one assignment each day from June 2 (three days prior to the Games) to June 15. We started as early as 8am or in the afternoon, at around 4pm. Others may start differently.

The organisers were concerned about me and I appreciated that my assignments were all indoors and mostly at the National Stadium. They really took care of me and were very kind to me! They even told me to take a day off and I ended up getting two days off.


Could you share some unforgettable moments relating to your volunteering?

I felt excited meeting the dignitaries from overseas. Some dignitaries even asked to take photos with me. There were no bodyguards blocking us. Also, I have never been into the boxing rink and got to see that. We had to capture the dignitaries there. I never took these kinds of shots before. I could move around freely, as long as I didn’t block any officials. I really enjoyed the experience.

From the photos that I took, they were then pre-selected and printed into an album that was presented to the overseas dignitaries before they left Singapore. Photographers’ name were also included. Each dignitary had a different album with their own pictures inside. We had to work with a deadline that was midnight for the morning shift and noon next day for the night shift volunteers. For me, even though I could edit at the location, I decided to come back to my office and spend another two to three hours to do editing. I would always do the editing that night even though I had a grace period of the next day but on a few occasions, I would continue the next day as I was exhausted.

To recognise the dignitaries, the organisers gave us the photos of them as well as their profiles, and the venue protocol manager helped to identify them. They also provided a phone for us and gave food and cab vouchers. I didn’t use the latter as it was easier for me to go to the Padang by MRT!

Also, organisers would give the assignments one day in advance, as they had to get the movement time of dignitaries from the countries for security reasons. One day, the details got texted to me at 2.15am for an assignment at 8am. I had to be there at 7am. I had hardly two hours of sleep. I was not angry but excited. That was the day, when I came back at 4pm and I went straight to bed for two hours!


Now that the SEA Games is over, how was the whole experience?

I feel great and honoured to serve our country and with my good health, age is no barrier as long as I can give back to society. I have no diabetes or high blood pressure, and go for my regular polyclinic checkups to ensure I am fit. My exercise is all my regular photography outings.


You are said to be the oldest volunteer at the Games. What do you say to that?

Joseph in action.

I was surprised that I was the oldest as I thought there were others who are older. I am still active as a professional photographer; some others may not be as active. If there is another Games around, I would recommend that those who love photography be a volunteer as it is fun and you enjoy yourself. In a lifetime, you will never get this kind of opportunity.


Do you think you are game for the next Games when it returns to the Republic?

When it comes back to Singapore, I will be past 90. I don’t know if I will still be mentally fit, however, if I am, why not?


How did you get into photography initially?

In 1963, a friend of mine went to Japan for holiday and bought a camera there. When he came back to Singapore, he changed his mind on taking up photography and asked me to take over the camera. To ensure that I would take it, he said I would pay him $10 a month for 10 months. I was at the time 35 years old and I didn’t know photography at all. The offer was so tempting and I wanted to take photos of my eight children at the time, so I took over the camera.

After a few months, a few Shell colleagues stayed on an island called Pulau Bukom and formed a club called the Pulau Bukom Camera Club in 1964. I was the first chairman of the club. In 1965, I brought a few friends to join the Photography Society of Singapore (PSS) to upgrade our skills. In 1965 to 1970, I won many gold awards for my photography. Initially I was self-taught, before taking classes later on the techniques of photography.

As I had great passion in photography, I decided at age 41 to leave my lucrative job at Shell after being there for 20 years. Six of my children were working already and were giving me money. They encouraged me to pursue my interests and I later started my own photography studio in 1992 in Singapore. Two years ago, I took a four-month National Institute of Education course so I could continue teaching in schools. You are never too old to learn.

Today, I am working on a series of books on photography. I have already published one book and have 10 more topics in mind. I hope to sell them online for US$5 (S$7.01).


Do you do any other volunteering?

Occasionally I offer my photography services free to community centres to take event pictures, etc, and I do free talks as I want to teach people to take good photography.


(** PHOTO CREDITS: Joseph K.S. Tan)



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