GEORGE TOWN, Aug 10 — OBSCURA Festival, Malaysia’s premier photography festival, returns to Penang this year with more exciting activities than before. A highlight of the festival, which runs from August 11 to 31, is a series of masterclass workshops that help participants explore the creative process and enable them to present and verbalise their visual ideas.
A returning workshop instructor is Malaysia-born British photographer Ian Teh. His work delves deeply into social, environmental and political issues. His series, The Vanishing: Altered Landscapes and Displaced Lives, chronicles the devastating impact of the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River.
Having been featured in Time and The New Yorker, Teh helps emerging photographers discover the visual narrative of their stories in his workshop.
One of the participants of Teh’s 2013 workshop was kG Krishnan, a commercial photographer and art director who is exhibiting his series Continuum at the OBSCURA Festival 2014. Attending the workshop turned out to be a blessing for kG who was trying to move to the next stage as a photographer. He says,
“The workshop was exactly what I was looking for creatively at that time which was to develop my own photographic voice. I had been shooting for some years but I found it challenging to cultivate a personality as an artist and photographer.”
The young photographer admitted the benefits from the workshop didn’t sink in straightaway. “It took me months to understand what I was actually learning in that class. We were going out and shooting all day, then returning to edit the whole time. The lessons only manifested later and formed how I see things today.”
Teh is currently based in Kuala Lumpur which meant his workshop participants can follow up with him for face-to-face sessions. He says, “The workshop is so intense so you don’t have a lot of time to process everything that you go through. I’m a great believer in the creative process and one of the things I talk about is that it doesn’t matter where you start. What’s important is having a process that you can actually call your own, and that process is largely similar across the board when you talk about the greatest photographers or artists.”
The workshop participants are asked to invest in going through the process, a leap of faith Teh insists is essential. “If you produce the work, come back, reflect on what you have done, be critical, and decide what options you have then you don’t spend all your time in angst. Honestly, you don’t really know if this is working until the end when you see the final product. I’m still reflecting on all the different projects I’ve done in the past and all that builds up as layers from my work and experience.”
What many new photographers struggle with is resisting the urge to edit as they work. “It’s just like how a lot of writers write in editing mode and it never really works that way. You have to write and then edit. The same thing is true for shooting photos. A lot of photographers shoot as though they have to get the final product right away,” says kG.
Teh cautions photographers against tinkering as they work as this will disrupt their creative flow. “Why most creative people do it is due to the perfectionist in them. The truth is, in photography, even if you were a totally bad photographer, you will have some good images if you shoot enough pictures. But creating one good picture is not the same as being consistently good and that’s when you realise the process of producing also allows you to explore new ideas.”
Photographers, like any artists, are limited by their own knowledge and inexperience. “However, if you go through the process, what you get is something that is outside of yourself. Part of yourself goes into your work but there’s another part that you have no control over and that’s what I call being good at finding the luck. In one sense, these are happy accidents as you explore one idea and what you actually get is another idea,” says Teh.
In other words, the limitations we are presented with can instead become a source of inspiration.
Another area young photographers struggle with is advancing beyond working in single images. “The entire idea of working on a longer-term project or story is very alien to many of us. I think it’s because of how we were schooled or self-taught,” says kG.
His mentor agrees, adding, “You can always break up a series into a hundred separate single images that can stand on their own but you can’t necessarily bring a hundred single images together cohesively. The exercise in doing that is what is crucial — you realise that the process can start at any point, with any single image. There are no hard rules in photography. It’s more fluid.”
This, perhaps more than anything else, is one of photography’s greatest strengths — the opportunity for photographers to conceptualise an idea before introducing it to a viewer. Teh says, “It’s a visual game. They see 10 images together and hopefully they see that it connects in some way. Now, if you put 10 random images that don’t connect together, viewers may not have the words to describe it but they know it feels jarring.”
Ultimately, a good photography workshop should be about enabling participants to explore a much broader palette and recognise the tools to express what they want to communicate to the public. “Ian taught me how to see what is there, and that there is a visual language to this craft,” says kG.
Continuum, kG’s portrait project documenting the transgender community in Kuala Lumpur, demonstrates how far he has come, post-workshop. The series, which won the Golden Peacock Excellent Photography Work Award at the Xishuangbanna International 2014, is a potent call for a more humane understanding of gender identity.
“The transgender community faces the risk of persecution and are often singled out based on their appearance. They are taunted on trains, yelled at in public places and even physically assaulted. I started shooting them during my work with LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender) people.
Beauty and body portraits are two things I know how to do very well. Being a fashion photographer shouldn’t limit me from speaking about other subjects; it should provide me with a different perspective,” says kG.
The result is a very stylised look that captures the strong, proud, powerful and beautiful aspects of the transgender community instead of the typical stories that paint them in a negative light.
Teh believes reaching out to the public this way is crucial to raising awareness. He says, “You have a dialogue that is going on. The viewers contribute by recognising these images and their messages.
If they can see things differently, then you have succeeded in starting a conversation with a community of people who are actively engaging with it; not only other artists, photographers and writers, but also the average man on the street.”
Workshop: “The Photo Narrative: The journey to finding your own photographic voice” with Ian Teh
August 11-15, 2014
Venue: China House, 153 Lebuh Pantai, George Town, Penang
Exhibition: “Continuum” by kG Krishnan
August 11-31, 2014; exhibition launch on August 18, 4pm
Venue: The Whiteaways Arcade, Lebuh Pantai, George Town, Penang
For more information and to register for the workshop, visit www.obscurafestival.com or email [email protected]