UnRepresented KL: Week 4

It’s already a month of us riding on this writing programme, led by Adriana and Veronica, to every nook and cranny that hits us in the gut. Every session makes me feel guilty. It’s either because this programme made me realise how privileged I am or how ignorant I’ve been about my own backyard. So far, however, we’ve only heard the experiences of Malaysians. Unrepresented locals. People that are behind the curtain. But they are, even how alien they may seem to the general populace, our fellow countrymen.

But how about those who are not? Those who inhabit our space but, in our minds, do not belong here?

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In this week of UnRepresented KL, we had two photographers presenting on the concept of visual storytellers. When I walked in FINDARS that Sunday, the room was dark and a stand was propped at a corner with all the pipe-chairs facing it. The speakers were, by far, the liveliest speakers we’ve ever had on this programme. They were cracking jokes and presenting their work as though they’re talking to a friend, rather than a bunch of strangers. There is KG Krishnan, a lanky and friendly man who speaks as quick as a machine gun. Then, there is the bubbly lady named Beatrice Leong who punctuates her points with laughter. I have to admit, whenever I think of experienced photographers, my mind goes to Sean Penn’s character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. You know, intense loner types with a third eye for the beauty and suffering of the world. 

But their friendly casual demeanour betrays the fact that these photographers have no problems waving their cameras into dangerous and grave situations. KG told us his experience in capturing the life of transgender sex workers in Klang. Not only these sex workers’ schedules are nocturnal but KG also had to work his way around pimps, gangsters and reluctant clients. Beatrice, on the other hand, had travelled to rural Sabah to document the politically-driven relationship between the indigenous people and the availability of water. Each had proven that they are not shy to go beyond their comfort zones to tell these unseen narratives.

Their photo presentation was equally grim. KG and Beatrice presented their photoseries titled “Project Home”, a visual narrative on the migrant workers in Malaysia. I knew at some point, throughout this programme, that we will be dealing with migrant workers. The general public’s relationship with migrant groups has always been on eggshells. They have been a constant presence in our lives, made horribly stark thanks to the previous election where some Opposition members accused Bangladeshi migrant workers partaking as “ghost voters”. However, this photoseries does not relate to the earlier political skirmish but it does question the development of KL.

When they first arrived in a squatter area inside of a construction site, their photography group hit gold when a chatty migrant worker named Syaiful Islam took an interest in their project. Beatrice explained that, initially, the objective of the project had been to showcase the “plight of migrant workers”. Syaiful became the fixer, the middle man, the tour guide, their friend. He showed them around the area and even into the homes of his fellow workers. Their homes are made of modified shipping containers. Yes, shipping containers. The “fancier” ones were built from scrap materials from their construction site. It was practically a small town within that squatter area; with the varying nationalities of the labour workers, KG called it a “tiny UN”. There is a grocery store, a restaurant, communal toilets but all in conditions that are no way ethical. The photographers’ choice of using black and white tones made these horrible living spaces even more pronounced.

There is a sense of irony with the title “Project Home”: that these migrant workers left their homes to build ours. In this case, massive shopping complexes. KG announced that there will be seven new shopping complexes in Klang Valley this year alone. By building our “homes”, these migrant workers also had no choice but to treat our “home” as theirs, whether we like it or not. Hence, they’re stuck in this limbo of displacement: attached to a place but not belonging. Developing a place but not openly participating.

Syaiful’s story seems incredible to me. According to the photographers, he can speak fluent English and has a college degree in mechanical engineering from Bangladesh. And here he is, living as a squatter. I don’t understand how that is possible for somebody who probably has an equal education to a local that’s living more comfortably. Where does the injustice start for Syaiful? I don’t know.

The photos in KG and Beatrice’s photoseries were compelling and we the audience sat in sober silence. Unfortunately for you readers, I can’t post any of the pictures here. Ironic, since this week is focused on photography and there is only one photo to accompany this post. However, KG and Beatrice did lay down some amazing advice for those who are interested in delving into visual narratives, especially for situations that require guts and determination. I am aware that there are differences in the creative process between a photographer and a writer. But I think there are some that would be absolutely helpful if you’re dipping your toes into issues that you are not familiar with:

  1. Always be frank when capturing stories. When interviewing a person or witnessing a situation that is intimate, make sure that the subject is comfortable with you documenting this. This one is especially to photographers; gauge the comfort level of your subject before forcing a camera into their faces. As a writer, it is best to be open about your intentions to avoid being intrusive when they are not ready or to avoid making them feel exploited.
  2. Research.
  3. Make sure you are seeing what you should be seeing. Just because a scene may seem familiar, doesn’t mean there is not a hidden narrative. Question the scenario. What is happening right in front of you that you are not aware of? This could bring up many invisible social issues.
  4. Timing is important. In this case, KG reminds us that certain photos may need to be shelved in order to have the perfect moment to expose them to the public to have the most impact… I don’t know whether I’ll be following this advice. As somebody who writes, I can’t imagine keeping a completed work for years and years due to artistic timing. This advice may resonate to some of you, however.
  5. Who are you telling this story to? Why should YOU be the one telling this story? This comes into play when you’re planning a certain work, whether you are the best person to relay the message. And if you are, find the objective statement of your work. It is easier to “guide” the audience in understanding the essence of your work when you understand it too.
  6. Collaborations help looking at perspectives. Beatrice admitted that she prefers looking into the emotional narrative of the situation and also, choosing a specific angle to focus on. KG, instead, prefers looking at various angles in order to get a wider understanding. He also likes to understand economic and political issues behind the situation. Collaborations allowed them to consider and reconsider their project’s development.
  7. Feeling sorry for a subject and knowing things are unfair are two different things.

The final advice is basically the core idea of UnRepresented KL. When presented with the experience of a person or a group that has been marginalised, our natural instinct is pity. But pity is meaningless for the other. Pity allows us to be self-centred and also position ourselves in a superior standing. Beatrice pointed out that, for us, these migrant workers’ lives may be pitiable but they do not walk about feeling sorry for themselves. They laugh, they smile, they go to work, they make tough decisions. Beatrice then said that they had changed the objective of the project: from the “plight” of the migrant workers to the “life” of migrant workers.

Feeling sorry for someone allows you to wallow in the expense of their situation. Knowing things are unfair is educating yourself regarding their situation, listening to their voice and humanising them altogether.


Endnote:

  • As part of the “Moonsoon Masterclass” exhibition, KG and Beatrice’s photoseries “Project Home” is being exhibited in Publika until 2 April 2014.
  • I can’t seem to find Beatrice Leong’s website. Her water documentary is titled “Tap That! Of Land, Water & Us”.
  • If you’re interested to read KG’s take on the pictures from this photoseries, and see some of the photos as well, head down to this webpage.

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