It’s impossible to contain the longing sigh from escaping my mouth. In my hand, clasped so reverently as if it were a precious tome is a modest-sized, pristine white coffee table book, the words Aspiring New Zealand: Photography by Jeffry Lim in the centre offering any indication of what lies beyond its elegant hard cover.
And seated opposite me in this bustling cafe in Bangsar, KL is Lim, the person whose breathtaking works are showcased in the pages of this book. The internationally-recognised photographer recently held his Aspiring New Zealand photo exhibition at the classy Bangsar Shopping Centre, an exhibition supported by the New Zealand High Commission in KL as part of its celebration of 60 years of friendship between New Zealand and Malaysia.
The launch of the book, which comprises 40 photographs captured from the air during the winter season and showcasing the beauty of New Zealand’s majestic mountains, fascinating geographical terrains, stunning aerial views and colour of topographies that are unique, pristine and seldom seen by people, followed soon after.
“Oh my God, isn’t this Kaikoura,” I exclaim excitedly, eyes devouring the photograph of a school of dolphins frolicking in the deep, deep blue waters of what I soon discover to be Kaikoura Canyon, a submarine canyon located southwest of the Kaikoura Peninsula off the north-eastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
“You know Kaikoura?” Lim shoots back, his face breaking into a wide grin. Of course, I retort happily, before offering him a brief backgrounder of my love affair with the land of the long white cloud. It’s as if I’d discovered a kindred spirit and before long, we find ourselves animatedly discussing our motorhome travels around this beautiful country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, known to the Maori people as Aotearoa.
The photographs that make up this special aerial project weren’t initially planned for an exhibition or a book. It so happened that Lim, who’d been to New Zealand once before on a work trip to Queenstown many years before, decided to take his wife and young son for a vacation there upon discovering that the air miles he’d accumulated with MAS were soon to expire. “I had just enough points to exchange for three tickets but I could only utilise them during the winter,” recalls the bespectacled Lim, who has enjoyed an illustrious 22-year career as a photographer.
He also intended to use the trip to develop his aerial photography skills further. Elaborates Lim: “In Malaysia it’s too complicated if you want to do this sort of thing. There’s all the logistics to tend to. In New Zealand, however, you can fly any time as long as there’s a plane to take you. And it’s safe.”
Already well versed in shooting from a helicopter due to his job as an industrial photographer (specialising in oil and gas), Lim was keen to explore the plane. “I’d never done it before. I wanted to take photos from a Cessna plane, with the door open and hanging over more than 4,500m in the air. I knew that it being winter would make it even more challenging and that due to the requirements that I had, the plane would need to fly in a certain way.”
Adding, he says: “The techniques and skills required for shooting from a plane are also totally different, say, from the helicopter. With the latter, you can hover, but you can’t do that with a plane. So you really have to plan your shots very carefully.”
Despite all these considerations, Lim remained undeterred. “I was determined to try something different because with a plane, you can go higher — about 6,000m to 9,100m. With a helicopter, you can only go about 3,000m. The higher you go, the better your view and believe me, everything looks very different.”
Funnily enough, it wasn’t too long ago when this country that he’s so taken with today hadn’t even featured on Lim’s list of countries to visit. Sheepishly, he confides: “I used to think that New Zealand was an expensive country to visit and that it lacked ‘photo places’.”
Photo places? He guffaws before explaining: “I mean like iconic landmarks that tourists can take pictures of. You know like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Big Ben in London and so on. As a photographer, I wanted only to go to places where I’d be able to take wonderful photos. I was so wrong!”
Like most people around the world, his interest in the country was aroused after catching Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy film, The Lord of the Rings. “I mean, didn’t everyone want to go to New Zealand after they saw that movie,” poses Lim, chuckling. His knowledge of the country, he adds, also came from his stint as a butcher in a local mall where he was selling meat from, yes, you guessed it, New Zealand. “We ‘meat’ people know that the best meat comes from New Zealand, so I already had some intro on the country from there!”
His adventure in South Island was experienced together with his equally spunky wife and camera-toting 6-year-old son. They were there with him in the tight confines of the Cessna as it disappeared into the clouds and dipped and dived. They were also there during some challenging moments. Shares Lim: “Like when the weather was particularly bad and we didn’t know whether we could make it or not. The fact that I was determined to get my shots meant that regardless the challenges, we gritted our teeth and continued. My wife was adamant to stay the course and I remember her saying to me, ‘If we’re going ‘to go’, we ‘go’ together!’”
Their home for 23 days was a trusty motorhome, without a doubt the best mode of transport to see the country. “It’s great because you can stop pretty much anywhere. The motorhome’s large windows were ideal for seeing the country. In New Zealand, every spot is a ‘scenery’ spot. You don’t need to pay to get ‘scenery’.”
The family travelled towards the southern Alps side, beginning in South Island’s largest city, Christchurch, before making their way inland to Lake Tekapo, onto Mount Cook, to the resort town of Wanaka, towards New Zealand’s adventure capital, Queenstown, and onto Oamaru, the largest town in North Otago before winding their way to the picturesque French town of Akaroa.
It was within months of their return to KL that the idea to do something with the photos that Lim had amassed during their trip surfaced. “My wife suggested that I approached the New Zealand embassy, perhaps to sponsor a book or an exhibition. So I did.”
Discussions took six months and finally the driven Leo was able to realise his project. “I guess the fact that they’re celebrating 60 years relations with Malaysia helped to sway their decision to proceed with it.”
Lim was also fortunate that he had friends who came forward to help him with sponsorships and loan of funds. And the rest, as we know, is history.
Lim, who has a marketing background, recalls his early days with much mirth. “I was 15 when I started taking photos. During my early days, I worked as a reporter with the Nanyang newspaper. But I found writing too tiring and also as a young man, I wanted to make some pocket money. So I decided to offer the paper my photography services too. The more photos I sent in, the more money I made. So I became a photojournalist.”
His first camera was a Ricoh, given to him by his father. “It was just an old camera,” recalls Lim, chuckling. Interestingly, his father distributed newspapers for a living. “So since young I was already exposed to that world. That’s why I wanted to work with a newspaper. I grew up in a small kampung in Jerantut, Pahang. In those days, we had to wait for a van to come and deliver our newspapers. The driver would throw the newspaper to our doorstep and I’d come running out to check. As a kid, I couldn’t read so it was the pictures that captured my attention. That’s how I fell in love with pictures from young.”
After some years with Nanyang, Lim decided to broaden his horizons and sought employment as a photographer with Club Med Resort in Cherating. Not long after, he decided to further his studies and subsequently made an interesting career change — he became a butcher.
Noting my look of incredulity, Lim chuckles and says: “I view everything as a learning curve. There’s nothing wrong with trying out different things. I was a butcher for a year before I decided to have my own photography business. These days I go on oil rigs and refineries to take pictures. Don’t you think I’ve had an interesting life!”
More about the book and initiative at www.aspiringnewzealand.com
“The higher you go, the further you can see. I’d never seen so many dolphins in one place. I was informed that there were at least 300 that day. We couldn’t fly any lower or else the dolphins would swim away. I titled this picture ‘FUN’ because the dolphins really look like they’re at play.”
NO FEAR @ JOLIE RIVER
“This place isn’t accessible to people. Even Google can’t locate it. That’s why I went by plane so I’d be able to see across a bigger area. The bigger the area you can see, the better the chances of discovering something new.”
FOREST CITY @ MOTUARIKI ISLAND
“In the middle of Lake Tekapo, there’s an island and not many people know about this. In the past, people used to come to this 10ha island for a spot of camping but one day there was a fire there and people were prohibited from going there anymore.”
MELODIOUS @ STONE HUT STREAM
“This is also in Tekapo. I originally wanted to shoot a river delta but somehow I noticed this feature beside the river delta. They call it Five Rocks sulphur. There are minerals of varying colours from different mountains converging to this area. It really looks like a painting.”
MAJESTIC ‘ABBA’ (THE FATHER) @ MOUNT ASPIRING
“This was the most challenging picture to obtain and one that means a lot to me. There were many times when I thought I had to abandon plan because we were constantly beset by bad weather. As a result, no plane wanted to go up. When we eventually did, we faced other challenges, namely caused by the bad weather. Oftentimes I found my view obscured by the clouds but I was determined to get my picture. We circled the area many times before the clouds parted momentarily, and light came streaming in. Within that second, I was able to capture that prized shot.”