Traveling Light

A gloomy Saturday morning and no major deadlines beckoning brought me to studying Alex Webb’s photographs from his monumental book “The Suffering of Light’. I personally feel most strongly-acutely- about Webb’s work upon reading both his comment on the collection of works and Geoff Dyer’s afterword. In fact, it is after reading their words on the photographs at the end of the book, that I found my journey with Webb’s photographs have just begun. Dyer had used Ryszard Kapuncinski’s words from his book The Shadow of The Sun- my favorite journalistic work spanning 40 years- to contextualize Webb’s work. He said: “The universal motif of life in the developing world was the number of people just sitting and staring and staring into space, at whatever came by. People are sitting idly, without motion, and are looking at who knows what? Prop this passage up alongside Jane Jacobs’ famous admonition- there must be eyes upon the street- and you will see the answer to that question about Webb’s representation staring at you in the face all along.” Webb has indicated that he often embarks on stories without knowing how and when and where it would end. But, the cohesiveness of his photographs tell me that his visual language is thematic, centred around post-violence: the eery calmness and awkwardness of the situation after the fanfare on the news has ended and the world at large has moved on, except for the people Webb photographed. Sometimes, they are moving on, but other times, they are just in stillness- staring at God-knows-what. Webb tells me, from his photographs, most starkly; about what not to do- to become a neutral, silent observer. He did not attempt to disguise himself from the world he photographs. Neither should any of us be aiming to be invisible and disengaged from the society that we are documenting, observing, or in Sontag’s words “looting and both preserving” when we photograph or write. When one- whether a writer or a photographer- embarks on a story, he is not saying “Look at the beauty of my prose, or the wonders of my composition” but that he is pointing his viewfinder and giving that angle to his audience and say: “Look, this is what is important when you frame it up like this.” George Orwell once said: “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” A piece of work that demands credibility- whether tainted by artistic expressions or journalistic observations or is a cross between both worlds; should be in its most basic, stripped off of all fancy elements; tell a story, form a critique and articulates an opinion and commentary. Even if one who begins to say it, like Webb; does not know when and how the story would end.

Jan 14
On Alex Webb & commentaries
Like a plastic toy truck. Devastation of Mount Merapi- one year later. (Yogyakarta, December, 2011)
Jan 5

Like a plastic toy truck. Devastation of Mount Merapi- one year later. (Yogyakarta, December, 2011)

"Escalate. Get people to think about photography. Don’t settle for postcard photos. Stop getting inspiration from the first world. Don’t look at photos taken 20=30 years ago. Understand how pictures work. Shoot less. Look more. Don’t let the camera do everything for you."

- Philip Blenkinsop

Dec 23

Six months after the 81st issue of B&W magazine was available in newstands, I got myself a copy of it in a second-had bookstore; apparently attracted by a feature on W. Eugene Smith’s Jazz Loft Project.

Just before the feature story was an interview on Roger Ballen, an American photographer who spent a major part of his life in South Africa. In the interview, Roger explained about his work for the past thirty decades, of which he hadn’t sold a single print until after 1999.

Roger is not a photographer-photographer. He is a scientist, a trained geologist and a mining entrepreneur of which the latter took him to South Africa. He was not formally trained in photography but was likely to have absorbed quite a few things from his mother, Adrienne Ballen, a picture editor at Magnum, whose friends and colleagues included Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Elliot Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

What I find so rare about Roger’s quasi-documentary work is that he has deciphered a code, a visual language out of photography. Far beyond a technician, Roger has evolved beyond knowing and understanding his camera to understanding the message he is sending. 

And rather than a wireless network, the messages from Roger’s photographs seem to be in the form of Morse codes, sent through the thousands of cables above and below us. He showed us where his decisive moment was- in a picture of Sgt. De Bruin from the book Platteland, a wire seemed to be hanging the sergeant’s head- through his left and right ear, and a little fragment jolted out on the left side of the frame, disrupting the straight line that the wire supposedly was.

In the interview with B&W magazine, he said: “It is my opinion that the most political transformations are psychological, and that if my photographs transform the minds of the people who view them, then I have altered their political consciousness.”

I had the privilege of meeting Roger when he exhibited his works from Boarding House in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The photographs displayed were ingeniously bold, dark border-lining crazy. There was a man spreading his accordion out on top of a dead chicken whose wings mirror the shape of the musical instrument. Birds seem to come out of the right corners of his frames. So do cats. And dogs.

It is as though Willy Wonka has turned from his chocolate factory into the world of photography.

Roger gave a short talk during the Angkor Photo Festival, which I found the time given a gross injustice to the weight of the things he said. “A good picture has to last. It has to get into your stomach and sticks in there, even before you open your mouth. A lot of photography we see doesn’t stick anywhere, it just goes through your head or through the air, and it goes into vacious space.

"But good photographs gets inside, transforms your mind, your emotions, your identity, and your consciousness. That’s what art should be doing."

Starstruck as I was, I asked Roger how did he make the cats come into the frame just as where he wanted, and he said: “Believe it or not, I also happen to speak the language of cats, not just birds.”

Roger told me he had only worked with his medium-format Rolleiflex since Day 1, and black-and white. He only took photographs in South Africa. In the book Boarding House, all images were made in an apartment block. He didn’t even bring any cameras to Cambodia.

I told him it occurred to me that I had a copy of the B&W magazine that featured him, which he laughed off and said: ” I didn’t know they are still in print!”

More than just brilliance in photographing, Roger taught me the beauty of being far away from the epicenter and the importance of being grounded, humble and creative in digging deeper into issues local to us. There in Johannesburg- not in New York, Paris or London, he does his work, he feeds his family and he photographs.  

More than images, he photographs a language that transcends through societies and geographical barriers, and they are spoken as though a loudspeaker is sitting next to you. And that loudness doesn’t seem to go away. 

Dec 22
Roger Ballen

There is so much to learn, unlearn, examine, reflect even though I have already unlearnt much, learnt much, examined and reflected on the opportunities, losses, ideas, non-ideas that have crossed my path this year.

I am on a road less traveled by some, but every step I take is as though made by an infant trying to make his first journey toward the door that leads to the garden. It is slow, full of stumbles and sometimes painful on the hands and knees.

I have set out again, and again. Only to realize that the things I need most to hear is this- “That’s enough. You have done well in this project. Now, go out there and make a new set of pictures!”

Only to hear that finally, I can put my project at rest and let it end where it is, so that a beginning of something else may take place.

Dec 14
An end at last

An abandoned house. (Ipoh, Dec, 2011) I am currently pursuing a project on Hometowns and dying small towns in Malaysia. I fear that I will lose what I have grown up with, with time. As I am speaking, I realize that I have indeed lost much.
Dec 12

An abandoned house. (Ipoh, Dec, 2011) I am currently pursuing a project on Hometowns and dying small towns in Malaysia. I fear that I will lose what I have grown up with, with time. As I am speaking, I realize that I have indeed lost much.

"I still believe that photography changes the world, but not all the time. But what photographers should always do is strive to produce a critique or commentary on a specific issue using the photographs he or she takes. Ultimately, the one who is most changed out of that process is the photographer himself."

- Philip Blenkinsop

Dec 9
The disabled outside a mosque (Penang, Oct, 2011)
Nov 12

The disabled outside a mosque (Penang, Oct, 2011)

Life in a moving train (somewhere in Thailand, Nov, 2011)
Nov 12

Life in a moving train (somewhere in Thailand, Nov, 2011)

Sleeping dog on train (somewhere in Thailand, heading to Siem Reap, Nov, 2011)
Nov 11

Sleeping dog on train (somewhere in Thailand, heading to Siem Reap, Nov, 2011)