The cavernous gallery is as still as a tomb. With my footsteps echoing through the dimly-lit hall, the images rise before me, stark and compelling. From the birth of a child, the triumphs and failures of a nation, to tragedies, victories, vignettes of daily life as well as reactive news and feature works, the evocative and striking selection of photographs scratch only the surface of the breathtaking body of work compiled by the New Straits Times photography desk over the past few decades. A Tribute To Life photo exhibition comprises part of the country’s oldest and pre-eminent newspaper’s huge archives of photographs taken over years of faithful reporting.
“Some of these are exclusive and have never been shown to the public before. These images, a compilation of published and unpublished photographs by our award-winning photojournalists, have been carefully selected to give visitors a glimpse into the value and quality of life,” reveals Azlynn Aziz, Galeri Prima’s manager and exhibition curator.
Photography is an evolving visual language. In reportage, it delivers comedy and satire as well as tragedy. Why are some photographs of quiet scenes of everyday life so memorable? Life is rich and unique because of the human story. And to feel the human story and all its intensity, you must engage wholeheartedly with the world. In doing so, places, people, and worldly emotions become much more tangible, intriguing and thought-provoking. Moroccan artist Bruno Barbey states this concept in the simplest of ways: “Photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world.”
The affectionate look of a woman holding her cat, young boy fixing a tanglung (Chinese lantern) amidst a sea of brilliant red lanterns to usher in the Chinese New Year, a toddler embracing the coffin of his mother who perished in the MH17 tragedy, a fisherman throwing his net out to the sea at the break of dawn. They hold my attention in all their simplicity. Yet the message is powerful.
No other medium comes as close to the most real interpretation of time and location than photography. It’s a visual art form that captures events in real time and encloses history in frames that can spread across generations, forms of media and social spheres. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. And in an editorial world dominated by words, pictures do matter.
PAST AND PRESENT
Photojournalism can be best described as the illustration of an aspect of contemporary life by a series of pictures, usually in combination with a written story. Often, it reflects a strong social concern and sometimes it’s highly polemical.
History is well stocked with examples of photographers making a difference. In the 20th century, social housing, child labour, iniquitous working conditions, the custodial injustices of the asylum, apartheid, war and famine were all issues that photographers successfully confronted. Photography may be a small voice, W Eugene Smith — one of America’s pioneering photojournalist — once wrote, but it’s an important one.
It’s not a craft that can be taught comprehensively. Yet generations of the best in the field of photojournalism at the New Straits Times volunteer, usually at some personal expense and at great complication to their personal work schedules, to give away their secrets of the trade to the younger generation of photographers. Photographer Yazit Razali can attest to that. “The seniors taught me all I know. They were tough... garang (fierce)! If they weren’t satisfied with the photographs, I’d be sent back to take another shot!” he recalls, smiling. “We made a lot of mistakes and they were hard on us. But that’s how we learnt.”
His image captures the adrenaline-pumped triumph written on the face of Khairul Hafiz Jantan who made a memorable debut by becoming the youngest Malaysian sprinter to win the gold in the men’s 100m final in the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games back in 2017. “I knew he was one to watch out for and so I trained my camera at him,” explains Yazit simply.
In a touching nod to the past masters of the photography desk, a similar triumphant run of legendary Malaysian sprinter M. Jegathesan winning the 100m final at the same SEA Games 52 years ago hangs next to Yazit’s piece. The same race more than half a century apart with different runners — but the visceral joy shared by both men is startlingly similar.
BEHIND THE LENS
Photojournalists often face both physical and emotional obstacles but still need to keep a cool head and continue capturing the images. While their photos will tell the story of the event, photographers have their own personal stories to tell too. The pensive portrait of a pilot in a failed search-and-rescue mission for missing aircraft MH370 over the Malacca Straits has Yazit telling me a story of his harrowing experience on board the search-and-rescue aircraft.
“The aircraft swooped from side to side over the sea and I was violently airsick. Despite the long hours searching for some signs of the missing plane, there was nothing to be found. It was then that I decided to focus on the pilot instead,” he shares. His voice grows quieter as he adds: “It was an emotional moment. The despair and disappointment were written all over his (the pilot’s) face. But we do what we have to do to get the job done, and get the message across.”
Colleague Fariz Iswadi concurs: “We have to be detached when we take our pictures. That’s how we’re able to cover unspeakable tragedies and hard news without breaking down. Once our eyes are behind the viewfinder of the camera, it’s easier to put our personal feelings aside. When you got your camera in front of you, you focus on the work.”
A despondent widow, a weeping comrade and the tear-filled eyes of a child at his father’s tribute make up some of the heart-wrenching images that are guaranteed to evoke an emotional response. Life in all its complexities offer a myriad of experiences both joyful and sad, and this has been successfully encapsulated in a series of images that make you want to cheer, cry and laugh.
The exhibition showcases significant works by homegrown talents comprising Datu Ruslan Sulai, Effendy Rashid, Fariz Iswadi, Farizul Hafiz Awang, Fathil Asri, Ghazali Kori, Abdul Rahim Rahmat, Adi Safri, Aizuddin Saad, Amran Hamid, Aswadi Alias, Asyraf Hamzah, Rosdan Wahid, Sairien Nafis, Salhani Ibrahim, Shahrizal Md Nor, Shahrul Mohd Zain, Supian Ahmad, Syarafiq Abd Samad, Yazit Razali, Zulfadli Zulkifli, Zulkepli Osman and Zunnur Al Shafiq Suadam.
SEEING THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY
The challenges that come with the job description is all in a day’s work for both Yazit and Fariz. “We brave the elements of the weather, reactions of people, the inconveniences and challenges. We have to constantly think on our feet and use our wiles to do our jobs. But if our photos can elicit some response and make viewers reflect and debate, it’s worth it,” says Fariz.
“I’ve been threatened with a knife, challenged to a fight, stood under the heat of the blazing sun and been drenched by the rain. I’ve often had to lug my heavy equipment everywhere. But it’s all part and parcel of doing what I love,” chips in Yazit, shrugging his lanky shoulders.
Photojournalism, they agree, has made them view life differently. “Life has been quite an adventure. I’ve met so many people and travelled to places I only dreamt of going to in the past. The opportunities and experiences expand you in ways you can’t imagine,” says Yazit. A brief pause before he adds: “Photojournalism has a way of making you view the world in a different light. It has certainly changed me.”
Grinning, Fariz then confides that his beautiful composed photograph picture of flying termites circling a light source was taken during a shopping trip. “I caught sight of the insects and thought it’d make a great picture.” He goes on to narrate that he ran back to his car and took out his camera, adding with a laugh: “I lay on the floor out there and took pictures. People were wondering what I was up to!”
Continuing, he says earnestly: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
For Yazit, Fariz and the motley band of NST photojournalists, their overarching assignment remains to turn the occurrences of our world into objective yet thought-provoking, emotional stories that can change lives and move generations, all the while keeping in mind the importance of their location, time and cultural surroundings.
The ability of still images to put across indirect, complex and new ideas remains a potent communication tool. Their vivid authority through the eyes of our intrepid photojournalists has the potential to change minds and sometimes, even, to change our world for the better.
In the meantime, I’ll take a moment to savour the pictures showcasing the triumphs and tragedies of humanity in the hope that perhaps this might motivate me to finally blow the dust off my own Nikon and look at life differently through the viewfinder.
A TRIBUTE TO LIFE
Where Galeri Prima, Balai Berita, 31 Jalan Riong, KL
When Until Mar 9
10am to 6pm daily. Weekends by appointment.
Call 03-2724 8300/ +6013-449 0344