Perhaps we are the same person, without limits, flowing through and with one another endlessly, posits the caption of one of Alvin Ng’s cosmic photographs from his series Samsara. The image, taken in the grayish-blues of dusk, features figures who appear to hold the pinprick stars of the night sky within their bodies. The mysterious forms seem to be one with the universe, filled with light, extending into the horizon, captured at a moment of transference.

Perhaps we are the same person, without limits, flowing through and with one another endlessly © Alvin Ng

The term ‘samsara’ refers to the cycle of life and death, reincarnation from one form to another, found within Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. It is one of the concepts that the Singapore-based photographer weaves into the visual exploration of his own relationship with the natural world and its elements, inspired by his research into Buddhist doctrines and ancient texts.

The seeds of what would become Ng’s series were planted in 2018, but the real germination of the project would only unfold during the pandemic. In 2018, Ng was in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges where he made the acquaintance of an Aghori sadhu, a religious ascetic who performs post-mortem rituals. The Aghori spoke of samsara, sparking an interest that took hold in Ng. It wasn’t until later though, that he found himself able to fully return to this concept. “With the pandemic, I had to unlearn everything that I knew. And I noticed how my practice was becoming a version or an impression of how other people thought rather than my own authentic self.”

Of all things, of all kinds, what does it contain, what does it not contain? © Alvin Ng

Ng’s earlier work was rooted in a more traditional sense of social documentary photography—decisive moments and planned portraits. Samsara thus represents a departure, perhaps a reinvention. Following his research, he set about immersing himself in his own environment of Singapore and its surrounding areas, applying what he had read and learned to the wider world. Collecting field recordings of mangrove forests and sea waves, he would listen to them and see what resonated. He describes his process in the field as “trying to find myself mesmerized in the environment. You’ll see me spending more time walking around, laying in the sand, touching objects in the landscape, getting into the moment before I actually take a photograph.”

True Man. “The ‘True Man’ is a fully realized individual who has attained enlightenment and is beyond the need for ‘Power’ and personal immortality.” an excerpt from “Chinese Alchemy” by Jean Cooper © Alvin Ng

True Man is the image that the artist sees as having set the tone for the series. In it, sunlight appears, streaming through a canopy of trees, shimmering gold and luscious, as if the air is thick enough to cut with a knife to feel it flow through your fingers. Upon further viewing, one sees that it is a reflection in water, mirroring back the mutable world above. Light is a major aspect of the work, as Ng experiments with how to photograph the unphotographable—images of impermanence, transformation, and the realms of mystery. For Ng, “light itself embodies the concept of impermanence. We don’t know where it begins. We don’t know where it ends. It’s cyclical.”

Images of fruit left as offerings, pyres of flames, and carved bodhisattvas graced with light unfurl throughout the series. Only the softest suggestion of human forms are included, as if simply transiting through something much larger. All of these nuances can be traced back to Ng’s readings, stitching together diverse but interconnected teachings that he finds reverberating in the landscape.

We shaped the gods in our image. “Limited in his nature, infinite in his desires, Man is a fallen god who remembers the Heavens.” -Alphonse De Lamartine. © Alvin Ng

In describing the blend of research and intuition that led to the making of the photographs, Ng paints a vivid picture. “Imagine that you’re in a river that is flowing. The research is the boat you’ve built to take on the river. The intuition part is yourself, operating the boat. They work hand in hand to take you down the path. You just have to trust the process.”

Within Samsara, Ng has created a visual record of his own journey towards understanding his place within time and space. Alongside making new photographs, Ng went back into his archives, reinterpreting works, allowing the past to merge into the present both conceptually and materially. As the caption to his image of an eclipsed orb states, Every end a beginning, every beginning an end.

Editor’s note: We discovered Samsara through our LensCulture’s Critics’ Choice Awards 2022. For more exciting photography, be sure to check out the rest of the winners.