Don’t tell the people from my boarding school and my younger self, but I prefer living in the city than the countryside. I still deeply appreciate coastal shores and tall trees and blue skies that seem to go on forever, but the city with its bustle and people and bright lights win me over. I’ve called places like Kepong and Gombak home so you can see that two-storey houses and mamak spots by the corner is my idea of home.
I do wonder why I’m so attached to Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps it is how diverse it is. Indeed I am talking about the demographics of the city, but I also mean the stories that come with it. Accounts and anecdotes given by people about what happens in the city that tourism ads and billboards fail to show are always fascinating. Short stories and poetry allowed us to indulge in our imaginations, focusing it through the perspectives of subjects and characters in the city. Film portrayals of life in KL are interesting but too many seem to revolve around the same themes; the memoirs of mat rempits and gang members, with undertones serving cautionary tales rather than as discussions or criticisms on these issues.
And then there’s photography. This fun hobby and pastime has definitely become a passion for many, especially in the 21st century. Photo-sharing sites and apps have made it easier for photos to be viewed by more people and smartphones together with editing apps make shooting and editing a breeze.
Capturing KL in photos and sharing it on his tumblr was what Azwan Mahzan, the curator of #thisisKualaLumpur, did years before the hashtag became an exhibition for this year’s Urbanscapes. He explains that the hashtag was already an existing one on Instagram when he named his blog after it. “Photography was a hobby and I wanted to show the side of KL that government ads and other outlets won’t show,” he clarifies. It was clear that the decision to have an exhibition featuring four very talented photographers; namely Prakash Daniel, Al Ibrahim, ilifm and Zam Nayan, was to compare and highlight what these people from KL see in their own perspective.
The exhibition was housed on the third level of the 2 Hang Kasturi, sometimes just known as Urbanscapes House. It ran for about two weeks since the local art festival began and along with the exhibition, each photographer gets a slot to talk about their photos. Sitting through Prakash Daniel explaining his inspirations and the photos he has chosen to showcase, my mind wandered to the room that was full of people and photos that must have had so many different things they would see in Kuala Lumpur.
ilifm for example, chose to put on display the photos she took at live local music acts at music venues that currently don’t exist anymore. Her lane was so captivating as there were pictures of musicians, drenched in sweat, some accentuated by bright colourful lights doing what they clearly love. Mind you these photos were taken circa 2008 and earlier so in her words ‘these were gigs in recent history’. She explained that they were chosen because she wanted to showcase how the music scene was like in KL before the social media boom happened and people began to upload their own photos. “Before everything, a lot of the local music scene is documented on blogs and Myspace. The problem with Myspace is that it has a poor tagging system that a lot of the documentation of the music scene before this is just lost,” the photographer said.
This is refreshing when compared to tourism ads that desperately market KL as a melting pot of culture while completely ignoring migrant workers and foreigners who help colour this city’s cultural and social landscape.
Perhaps this is maybe why having a gallery such as this is important. With social media where people are seemingly competing on who has better feeds and photos streams, it reminds us that photography at its very core is still a form of documentation. And these photographers showcased very different sides of KL that they have taken with the lens. Prakash Daniel for example, runs a page on Instagram called beardsofmalaysia where he takes photographs of bearded men and allow them to tell their stories. He selected a few of the portraits of these men for the exhibition. His choice of subjects ranging hairy men coming from all walks of life as well as common things a cat at a tom yam shop and a brown man selling bananas at a stall makes his work attractive as it showcases diversity happening in daily occurrences. This is refreshing when compared to tourism ads that desperately market KL as a melting pot of culture while completely ignoring migrant workers and foreigners who help colour this city’s cultural and social landscape.
These exhibition showcased together with a talk given by each of the photographer over two weekends also hosted a photowalk. Each of them brought the #thisisKualaLumpur crew and crowd on a walk around KL to take photos. Prakash brought us through Bukit Nanas, stopping by St John’s Cathedral and passing by the school all the way to a street that was filled with Nepalese businesses and people.The crowd that came used their DSLRs or just their smartphones to capture the bustling city. Over some tea and chapati, ilifm told us that on her walk, she brought them to Campbell Complex in Dang Wangi as that place played a significant role in defining her relationship with music. The walk definitely made me experience and see my city in such a different light. And seeing these people snapping photos of 100 year old architecture or a man carrying a chihuahua makes me appreciate the creative artistry as well as importance of photography.
“Again, the idea is to showcase different perspectives of KL,” says the curator. For example, Al Ibrahim is a Nigerian based in KL for 11 years and Azwan states that shots from him shows what it’s like to be a foreign man in a city like KL. I suppose his monochrome shots do invoke a sense of longing tinged slightly with melancholy here and there, it makes you wonder if this city I call home can make people feel lonely? The talks and photowalks also makes the photographer interact with people who have seen their photos. Especially in the case of Zam Nayan, who took all the photos showcased at the space with his iPhone. He explains that this exhibition allowed him to bring his work to a bigger audience as his Instagram is kept private. It may also be important that people see his work and be inspired to take and document things in photos even if the equipment you have is just a smartphone camera.
The curator shares the hope that when people go through the gallery, they can not only recognise these places, but also see that they’ve been in a situation similar to the one the camera captured. This exhibition definitely left me feeling that with several of the photos displayed. I saw myself in the photos of people rocking out to their favourite band, in a woman trying to ride a bike and even in the arriving train.
If the exhibition would have its run longer, more people can see this city through different lenses. More people would get the chance to see themselves and experience the city differently. But for now, I’m glad that I got to share this city I call home with some very talented photographers that tell stories with their shots.