When eight photographers were selected to be part of a workshop late last year, they were left with a challenge — to seek out an unfamiliar Malaysian story, and convey that story via photographs. Raina Ng writes
THE brief was simple: go after stories that they have a genuine interest in, to take time to “earn the space and intimacy with subjects” and to have patience in capturing “moments.”
This was what Justin Mott, who ran a photography workshop and co-curated the Stories Without Words exhibition with Pang Khee Teik, told his students in December last year. The exhibition is on at the Annexe Gallery in Central Market, KL.
The most important aspect of storytelling, says Mott, “is weaving together moments and having a narrative. Each image should lead you to the next image and be thoughtfully crafted, similar to a good movie.”
Looking beyond snapping pretty pictures, these photographers were inspired to seek out and capture moments, in an intimate and emotive fashion, weaving moments into a narrative, and as a result, document a side of Malaysia we seldom see.
Participating photographer Azwan Mahzan said that if a photograph captures a powerful picture, it can convey and emote a message more viscerally and quickly. “If you need someone to want to know what’s going on with any particular subject as quickly as possible, use a really powerful photo.”
His exhibit, Living for the City, captures the working class who struggle to survive the challenges of the urban environment.
“Walking around downtown Kuala Lumpur is an old habit of mine and I tend to see things on the street level that do not get included in those tourism brochures. The grittier side of KL, and its grittier people. They are just as fascinating as anything else in the city and though some may want to downplay this fact, KL’s charm and character is shaped by regular people, and the regular things they do,” says Azwan.
Capturing other city sights is photojournalist and documentary photographer Mahen Bala, who focuses on disappearing professions and forgotten history. Mahen spent many days walking the streets of Kuala Lumpur, from dawn to dusk, photographing images of people asleep in public places. What he portrays is the fact that a lot of Malaysians are still unaware of the fact that we are a very tired people in what he deems a very tired city.
“For the longest time I have been trying to find a way to better understand the lackadaisical attitude of many Malaysians with regards to issues of national interest. It was only after spending so much time walking and photographing the streets did I realise the underlying cause.
“Malaysians,” he says, “are exhausted. We are so exhausted in dealing with our daily struggles that it is hard to find the strength to deal with issues, other than those that affect us directly.”
ROOM TO REFLECT
Danny Lim, writer and photojournalist, believes that through pictures, viewers are given room to reflect. Pictures offer a larger space for interpretation, in a way, as viewers usually reflect their own concerns in these pictures, taking in the bits that affect them most. Being both a writer, and a photojournalist, he sees the “symbiotic relationship between the two (words and photographs), pictures furnishing the visceral, atmospheric, ambient and emotional qualities to the story.”
His exhibit, In Our Element, aims to express our relationship with the rivers that have been taken for granted. While shooting, Lim spent many hours walking along the river banks in the city and exploring the different streams and estuaries, chatting with the locals who live alongside the river. He also spent several days upstream at Hulu Langat, talking to the people, the drug addicts, and the homeless who have slept by it, the anglers and the scavengers.
“I am familiar with the other-worldliness of the urban riverside, having walked many times along the concrete banks of the Klang river below street level in the city centre. There were plenty of stories to tell there, but I was interested to see how the life of the river changes as it flows from its source down to the city. I am not making a point about pollution but rather am showing how our relationship with the river mutually transforms it and us.”
Video journalist and freelance photographer Azreen Madzlan chose to highlight the story of an Orang Asli Temuan family in Damansara Perdana. Shooting photos over a period of three days, she spent most of the first day introducing herself and the project and the rest of the time documenting their daily living and their work day collecting durians to sell, and tapping rubber.
“I’ve always been interested in indigenous community issues in Malaysia. There’s a small settlement of 500 Temuan people near where I live, in Damansara Perdana. They were the early and original inhabitants of Petaling Jaya who are now forced to live amidst the massive developments that have shot up in the area. Most that live or work in the area are not even aware of their existence!
“The house is overcrowded. And some are still eking a living out in the jungle in the nearby hills. Meanwhile, the younger generation are affected by the developments around them, turning to vice to seek satisfaction. They are starting to leave their own customs and traditions behind. To me, this is sad and worrying.”
Also touched by families is photographer Izaat Yahaya, who captured a family fostering over 20 orphans. The picture of the sleeping children exudes a warmth, and the fact that amongst us are caring families providing love, shelter and guidance to children in need.
“When we think of children, we think of them enjoying their carefree life, looking forward to their parents coming home in the evening with arms full of goodies and big hugs. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all children. Keluarga Besar,” he says, “is a photo-essay of a few orphans who have all been adopted and are now living under one roof, not bound by differences in ethnicity, gender, or age, but as one big family.”
A DOG’S STORY
Steven Goh was a radio presenter before he became a photographer and believes that a photo can express and evoke many emotions for both the photographer and the viewer. His love for dogs brought forth this photo-story that attempts to capture what it’s like to be a stray dog.
Goh approached a friend, Sabrina, who cares for stray dogs at a shelter in Klang. He observed the dogs in the farm. He desired to take the shots as if he were one of the dogs on the farm. The scenes captured, he would like to think, are from the dogs’ perspective .
“I grew up in a family of animal lovers and as a small boy my family kept many dogs. I initially thought of doing a drug-user’s story but read a negative article about strays and decided to do something for them as they cannot talk and defend themselves. The story is basically about what I, as the dog sees, how my life is, and how I interact with Sabrina. I took the shots from the eye level of the dogs and chose to print them in black and white because dogs do not see in colour.”
Others whose works are also on display include photo journalist Mazlan Samion, and Puah, who runs a fair trade social enterprise and a photography blog for women.
Stories Without Words will end on July 22.