Saturday, December 3

Talking about issues through photographs


A group photo after the sneak peek of the Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival 2018 for the media and guests.

THE open discussion of death is a taboo in many Eastern cultures. Even if we do talk about it, it is usually done in hushed tones behind closed doors. When Victor Chin broached collaborating on a joint photo exhibition about the death of our mothers, I had doubts about its reception and acceptance.

Would people be interested in a morbid subject like this? Moreover, my wife Wuan and I, being amateur photographers, felt overwhelmed to be invited to hold a joint exhibition with a renowned multimedia artist. Not to be deterred by our inexperience, Victor took us under his wings and guided us all the way.

The self-funded exhibition took one year of planning and many meetings in between. Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) graciously hosted our exhibition for one month. Victor’s photos were shot over a period of 44 days when his mother was in a coma in a hospital up to her death and thereafter. Wuan and mine were mostly shots of my mother’s funeral together with her old photos and personal effects.

We carefully curated the photos to share the grief we went through and initiate a dialogue about the many facets of life and death, and explored the relation between the two. It was also a celebration of the lives of our mothers, who had nurtured and brought us up unconditionally, and an important record about this transitional phase of our own lives.

We held walkabouts with visitors where we shared the stories behind each image. In that process, we discovered many aspects of our mothers we never realised. It was as much an emotional and enlightening journey for us as it was for the visitors.

Many of them left messages in the guest book relating how the photos evoked memories of their loved one’s passing. Some even had tears in their eyes as they recalled the last moments they spent with a parent or grandparent. In a way, we felt we had broken some taboos associated with death by allowing visitors to talk more openly about it.

After a break of nine years, Victor, Wuan and I are once again working together on another photo exhibition. KLPac group general manager Ian Chow had invited us to be the anchor exhibitors at the Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival 2018 (YSDAF 2018) to be held at the sprawling grounds of KLPac in Sentul.

The third edition of Malaysia’s biggest biennial free-for-all arts festival will be on Aug 18-19. The theme ‘You, Me + The Arts’ is about how arts and people are interrelated. Issues affecting various communities will be showcased and given a voice to be heard. There will be about 350 activities by various organisations for visitors to participate, interact, learn and enjoy throughout both days.

This invitation is an honour we could not refuse. KLPac has been very kind to us, especially co-founders Datuk Dr Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham, and we would like to reciprocate in any way we could to support the organisation. In turn, Yayasan Sime Darby have been extremely generous with its support for social causes and arts, and especially in funding for KLPac.

We are again given a platform to highlight unconventional issues to a wider audience. The theme of Wuan and my photos is about barriers faced by disabled people. Victor will show another aspect of disability – how blind people earn a living through busking – a subject that is seldom given attention and support it deserves.

Presenting issues through a photo exhibition is an effective way of advocacy because a picture can paint a thousand words. A single image properly juxtaposed can do what an entire article like this sometimes cannot explain clearly.

We want to show the stark realities of disabilities from our perspectives, and hopefully bring a better understanding of the difficulties disabled people have to go through every day. Opportunities like this do not come often. As activists of social issues, we are grateful for the recognition and confidence given by KLPac to us.

My activist friends and I are also slated to conduct short workshops on Disability Equality Training, sign language and guiding blind persons on both days as part of the activities during the festival. I am excited and nervous at the same time. I have never done anything like this to such a large audience before. This is going to be another steep learning curve for Wuan and me with a lot of guidance from Victor again on curating suitable photos to drive our message across.

The festival will probably be my last participation in a major event for a while. I am winding down all my activities beginning next month, including training and workshops, in preparation for surgery and then step into a new world of peritoneal dialysis. In many ways, working on this project is keeping me busy and a welcome distraction from the trepidations.

Do join us at the festival if you are in Kuala Lumpur on those dates. The last two festivals attracted more than 30,000 visitors. Come learn about the issues faced by various communities within us represented through arts and in fun ways.