Monday, June 27, 2011

Once Upon A TIME...

In honor of my father, Mohamad Shukri Ahmad's, 53rd birthday today on June 27th, I want to share this essay I wrote two years ago that I think reflects the unique inspiration he had on me as a photographer, and more importantly as a person. Thank you for everything, and may you have a blessed day, year, and life ahead of you. I love you, Papa.


Six years old. “Use both hands to hold the camera!” Click!

Eight years old. “You need to hold your breath when you’re pressing the shutter button; you don’t want the picture to turn out blurred, do you?” Click!

Twelve years old. “Look at this picture here you took during our vacation. Why cut me off at the knees? And this one here. Why isn’t your brother at the center?” Click!

Photography has always been a part of my life. Always. My dad, an ardent fan of anything artsy, was the main reason for it. He is a photographer, a painter, a musician, and an architect. As a father of two, he encourages his only pair of kids to pursue the same path…well, not exactly. Neither my brother nor I am an architect. But we are both taught to appreciate arts since a very young age. My brother chooses drawing and animation, I choose photography and music. Art is beautiful. Art is the best way to put one’s self out there into the world. Photography, a form of realist art, is the best way to capture one’s self.

Unlike Roland Barthes, I do see myself as an amateur photographer. He does not for he is “…too impatient for that: [he] must see right away what [he has] produced” (Camera Lucida, pg. 9). Since he is not a photographer, Barthes recognizes the need for one in order for him to even begin scrutinizing a photograph. Thus, for a photograph to be produced, two important entities are required: the Operator and the Spectator. The experience of both the photographer (the former) and the one glancing at the photograph (the latter) is too different to be talked about together. Barthes, a Spectator, is more interested in explaining the feeling one experiences when looking at a photograph whereas I, an Operator, definitely lean more towards “…the emotion [that] had some relation to the “little hole” through which [I] look, limit, frame, and perspectivize when [I] want to ‘take’” (Camera Lucida, pg. 10). For acknowledging this distinct feature of photography in his effort to dissect its true meaning in relation to one’s self, Camera Lucida certainly fits its own title as a book on the ‘Reflections on Photography’.

Photography is an amazing way for one to capture an emotion and also for one to materialize a feeling that has been building up. In simpler terms, photography is a perfect means for people to express the identity without having to put it into words. But then again, photography is not the only way to do so. After music, painting is the next best thing to be considered a universal language. And of all the paintings I have encountered in my life, this is one of my least favorite:

Tarian ©

This painting is basically of three unknown figures dancing happily together. It is a painting called Tarian (dance) by an unknown artist to most. Even though it is not a photograph, I do see it somewhat in a way that most view photography. For starters, there are distinguished objects in the painting which include the three dancers in red, the tall grass, and the clear, cloudless sky. To think about it, one could even consider those as the studium* of the painting. A studium to me is whatever one can see in an artwork that represents the setting, whereas a punctum** is the something that stirs up an emotional response from a viewer. The punctum of this painting is obviously there, but I won’t point it out, yet. Although painting and photography, together with sculpture and cinematic art, are the same in that all of them are visual arts, a painting differs from a photograph where the studium and punctum are there on purpose. The background and the details are all created by the artist. Even if a photographer intentionally chooses his subject, the subject in itself is real. In contrast, whatever is in a painting has to be thought of first before it could be produced on a canvas.

The main thing, however, that needed to be stressed about Tarian are the three figures in a dancing pose that viewers are instantly drawn to. In the chapter He Who Is Photographed in Camera Lucida, Barthes talked about this unique process of posing. In a sense, for him, it is quite hopeless for one to try to appear natural in a photograph for that is a definite unattainable feature of photography. This is because, in Barthes own words, “…I derive my existence from the photographer… I experience it with the anguish of an uncertain filiation: an image – my image – will be generated” (Camera Lucida, pg. 11). In other words, people unconsciously pose because they are conscious of a photograph that will be developed which will contain his or her image, thus their identity too.

An image of a person is not only about the face and the body, but also of the way his or her personality is expressed. When someone chooses to smile, it is because he wants to be associated with happiness. That is why fashion models are asked to have different expressions for different catwalks; not all fashion shows are about feelings of contentment. Even when a person is supposedly not posing for a picture, that is the identity he wishes to portray – one of impatience. Similarly, when an artist paints, especially that of human beings, he is indirectly putting them in poses since no such thing as a natural form exists in the first place to painted figures. In Tarian, although one cannot make out the facial expressions, the fact that these figures are in a dancing posture helps viewers form a mental image of the self that is being portrayed. Every artwork in this world has a purpose, and the purpose of this painting is for the artist to express his feeling of ecstasy to the world hence the dancing postures.

According to Barthes, the pose which one puts up when in front of a camera is not to be mistaken for one’s true “self”. A person’s self is too complicated and too dispersed to be caught in a moment. Instead, the character that is developed on paper is “…heavy, motionless, [and] stubborn…” (Camera Lucida, pg. 12) since it could not progress with time the way that the self does in real life. As in the case of Tarian, the artist painted those figures in that particular manner because he wants those characters to vibrate the joy and merriment of being in one another’s presence; it has nothing to do with the painter’s self except that of what he felt during that specific moment. A single moment of delight in his life could never do justice to the artist as a person since there are more angles to his personality than just what is obvious in a painting.

Likewise, in the real world, it is impossible for a person to put his entire self out in the open when confronted by unfamiliar faces in an unknown environment. Nobody can depict an entire self to those he had just met except, of course, if he decides to scream his likes and dislikes for others to take note of. Because of that, one needs to pose differently for different occasions. Therefore, it should be understood that this idea of posing is not exclusive to artworks as every person on earth is known to have posed, especially when in the presence of the mass public. Some call it a facade. Nevertheless, the concept is still the same. As how Barthes wants his picture “…to ‘come out’ on paper…endowed with a noble expression…” (Camera Lucida, pg. 11), so does a person wishing to make a solid good first impression with his fellow human beings. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Posing, or wearing a mask, does not imply an absence of identity but simply portrays the side of a person that he wants to be associated with. For that reason, the Spectator should not take for granted and conclude a person’s identity based on a single pose, but at the same time it is important to recognize a pose as part of a person’s wider identity.

Yet, as a photographer myself, I hate it when people start to strike a pose whenever they see me holding a camera. True, I understand their concern of wanting the photograph to look ‘good’ but honestly, an ‘ugly’ picture could even turn out more beautiful if they just give it a chance. As mentioned, what excites the Operator is the vision framed by the keyhole. Therefore, a thought-of pose could never be exciting to the photographer. I am not interested in the product so much as what is in front of my eyes. If a friend is twirling in happiness, that will be my target object regardless of how her hair would look like in the picture or how distorted her body would appear. In Photography as Adventure, Barthes talks about how a photograph is only considered a photograph if it stirs a feeling of adventure in him. My sense of adventure, however, comes not from looking at a photograph but from the real life experiences that I try to capture on camera – objects in motion. For me, that is beauty. That is truth.

But since I have no control over a painting that is not done by me, I cannot talk about Tarian the same way I would a photograph I personally took. Yet, Tarian is a painting that has always caught my attention. I do not like it, but honestly, I have always found it interesting. Although the motion is not one of extreme movements (the kind that I usually love to capture on camera), it is in the simplicity that I found the adventure. Borrowing Barthes’ term, that painting advenes. It attracts my attention. How so? Although Tarian is one of my least favorite paintings, I find it fascinating not because of its punctum, but of the fact that three faceless figures could exert such strong emotions to its viewers. As individuals living in a society, we have always been taught by our culture that the face – especially the eyes – is the window to human emotions. Facial expression is important as part of our everyday non-verbal communication. But as we see here, that is not the case. Colors and lines constituted the human figures that are interpreted as dancing, hence joy. No eyes or mouth, just lines. And just like Barthes, I do not believe in lifelike photographs but if “…it animates me [then] this is what creates every adventure” (Camera Lucida, pg. 20). This best explains why this simple and lifeless painting brings about such a strong reaction from me for it brings out a consciousness within.

Alongside advene, Barthes is interested in Photography for sentimental reasons. He puts it best when he said, “I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think” (Camera Lucida, pg. 21). Since I have evaded announcing the punctum to Tarian for a while now, I feel it is time for me to do so. Back when I was a young Spectator, years ago, the punctum to the painting had been, and in fact still is, the signature at the bottom right corner. That is the signature of my dear father. Yes, Tarian is painted by my father. For being the daughter to the artist, I have a firsthand knowledge about the story behind the painting: the figure on the left is him, my dad; the one on the right is my mother; the smaller figure in the middle is my brother. Me? I am not in the painting. This artwork was done way back before I was born. Actually, it was started even before my brother was born. But right after he came into the world, he was quickly added as the third figure. The question now is, why wasn’t the same done for me? When asked, this was his answer: “After you were born, your mum asked me to stop painting so that I could focus more on the family.” Noble indeed, but what about my sense of belonging? I do not like Tarian for the sake that I was not included in it. Narcissistic, maybe, but hey, I am part of the family, aren’t I? This is the sentimental reason behind Tarian being my least favorite painting by him. This punctum of his signature is the “…something [that] has triggered me, has provoked a tiny shock, a satori, the passage of a void” (Camera Lucida, pg. 49). This painting reminds me that there was actually a time when I was not yet born but the History of the world does not stop to exist in my knowledge.

Barthes wrote about History being the time when his mother was alive before him in History as Separation: “Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History, its division” (Camera Lucida, pg. 65). This division in History is noted in the photograph of his mother wearing clothes no longer worn in his period. Obviously Barthes was not talking about History in the sense of human being’s gradual transformation from past to present – History is seen in this context as a personal transformation. As History is seen to be divided between two existences, the moment one passes a second, that last second becomes History as it ceases to exist. This is described further by Barthes when he points out that the living soul is the only thing contrary to History. And so, in relation to time, a person’s identity is not easily defined as it could already be ‘History’ when it is talked about. A person may have a certain interest when he was in his 20s but what about twenty years later? Or thirty years later? Who is going to say that the person will not evolve? This, however, is the beauty of one’s identity. Nobody can pinpoint it. Nobody can really say, “I am this, you are that.” People change and a photograph is just a document that holds evidence to a person’s self at a particular point in his life.

Pekan ©

Given my opinion on the painting Tarian, it is understandable for one to assume that my favorite painting by my father would be one done after 1989, the year I was born. However, Pekan (town) is actually one of those paintings which I used to stare at a lot when I was younger. For some reason, my father is not too proud of this one. In our old house, this canvas was nailed at a corner where no one except family members would usually passed by. In other words, this painting is almost invincible, even to me after a while. But once in a blue moon, I would sit upside down on the couch where this painting was hung above, and stared at my father’s recollection of his past. Those small figures are supposed to be him and his friends (including his then-girlfriend, my mother) and the scene, or studium, is of them having cendol – a Malaysian dessert – under a tree where the hawker has his stall. But unlike the first painting, the punctum of Pekan is not my father’s signature at the bottom left corner. Even though this painting was finished in 1986, I love it anyway because the overall scene of those young architecture students reminds me that my parents were once young too, and I am certainly not the first person in the family to have such strong patriotic feelings over my fellow countrymen.

The punctum to me in this painting is the name of the store furthest left: Syarikat Chan (Chan Company). Chan is a Chinese surname, and in this painting, it is the only legible element of it. My father has no problem acknowledging in this artwork that Chinese are advancing much better in business at a time when Malays were fighting for economic equality. This is the kind of History that I am proud of. Even if I am not part of the painting, these college students in the 80s are proofs that regardless of skin color, everyone can live side by side without beliefs, cultures, or personalities getting in the way. A person’s self may change given time, but the course it chooses to take depends on its History. In the same way, although the Malaysia of now is different from the Malaysia back then, History could be the remedy all of us have been waiting for. As mentioned, a person’s old behavior that is captured in a photograph – or painting – may not dictate him any longer, nonetheless it is still considered part of his self. History may be why I hate Tarian, but History is also why I love Pekan.

Photography, in definition, is the art of creating still pictures. It is an art – a way for the artist to appeal to the senses and emotions. Nothing more. Spectators do have the opportunity to make their own interpretations of a photograph but the real photograph lies in the view of the Operator, the photographer. The identity which the photographer chooses to capture is no more than a tiny fraction of a person’s self at a certain period in his own History. By studying a photograph one may be able to form a rough idea of that person, perhaps, but Identity, with a capital I, will never ever be successfully captured by both the amateur and professional photographers even if they try, for it is not there to be caught on camera in the first place.

*According to Barthes, studium is an application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment…without special acuity (Camera Lucida, pg. 26).

**Punctum, however, disturbs the studium as it stings, specks, and cuts (Camera Lucida, pg. 27).

Syaza Farhana Mohamad Shukri
Fall 2009

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Assumption of a rejection

In this prime state of ours as fully dependent beings, the 21st century does not make life easier even with the vast amount of information at our fingertips. Reality is no longer the brick-and-mortar it used to be as we move pass the death of indifference. As we are ruled by what is merely perceived of the current world, inevitably, it is going to have a detrimental effect on the maintenance of a salubrious consciousness.

However, perception is, most of the time, a simple guess or assumption that one holds - an idea that shall carve the way for a mass of followers to end up falling short of, eventually. Yet, the masses are willing to be blinded by a bucket of tears for a loss that never was in the first place. How can we mourn over what never came to be?

A simple example is witnessed by society’s obsession to fulfill a destiny that is written for those other than themselves. Although commendable, there is no certainty a hoary formula that works for one is going to guarantee similar success for all. So, is it fair to clump together adversaries with the wicked when all they did was making use of opportunities? In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho wrote about learning to listen to a universal language; I call it the ability to accept one’s fate and not be an ingrate about the path uniquely laid out for us.

With the massive influence of social networking, there is a high increase of diffidence in not only our youths, but also in the adults who are feeling the heat of not appearing presentable enough on their online profile. But as the pressure mounts for the neighbor’s son to claim success a la Justin Bieber, there is this lack of effort among us to warn him of the possibility of becoming an unlikely sensation following that of Rebecca Black.

Is it thus worth comparing acceptance by the number of views received when the rejection perceived is no more than a soft nudge by the universe toward a direction more analogous to the individuality of a person?

To assume that a better life lies in parallel to current reality is akin to questioning the worthiness of taking another breath. The grass will always be greener on whichever side the sun is shining upon as long as there is effort and care, without any sentiment of regret or longing for a perceived idealism that hangs in limbo. Shortcuts are the shortcomings of a failure. Nothing is as exceptionally beautiful as witnessing triumph at the end of a long winding road.

Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because of supposed ‘lack of imagination’; Albert Einstein was expelled from school; Vincent Van Gogh was only able to sell one painting during his lifetime; Steven Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California three times; J. K. Rowling was living on welfare before her talent was acknowledged, etc.

Never mourn a dream assumed to be the key.

If the future seems out of reach, try facing where the wind is whistling in your heart.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Proverb gone right

On the first day before leaving the United States some time a couple of weeks ago, my mum sent me a message saying, “Jauh perjalanan, luas pemandangan,” (roughly translated to “Travel far, wider view.”) I smiled thinking how cute my mum is but gave no further thought on the topic. Over the years, I never had a solid record on Bahasa Malaysia – I seldom got an A for BM; SPM was a total surprise. So, I did not truly understand what kind of “pemandangan” (view) that I’m supposed to have a better understanding of with travels. View of buildings, mountains, or cats? It turned out that my recent travel helps broaden my view on human nature.

It was our fourth day in Turkey. We hadn’t had a shower for two nights. No proper sleep too. And so when we arrived in beautiful Cappadocia, all I wanted to do was to take a shower, rest, and then figure out what to do for the rest of the day. By the time we had decided to rent a bicycle, Zaim was already on a tour bus heading to his first destination. At noon, with our rented bikes, we decided to take it easy and follow the guide of a “walking path” map. If it is walk-able, it sure has to be cycle-able, I thought. Two hours later we were lost. With no compass, I had no idea where exactly we were heading. Then, of all place and time, we saw a car parked between the “Fairy Chimneys” and we were relieved! A man appeared, smiling, calling us over. I was instantly scared and nervous. Why does this man look eager to see us? But we were lost, and we had no other choices. We went over and figured that we will ask for directions and immediately leave. But this man insisted that we parked our bicycles and joined him for the traditional Turkish tea we’ve come to love. He couldn’t speak much English, but he tried. And we tried. With a smile he told us he owns the area. With our map, he showed us how to reach the nearest asphalt road. I was relieved. He is a nice man. After talking about his family, his farm, and Turkish (and European) politics, we thought it was time to go. But we thought wrong. He pulled us over to show us his cute little winery and peanut farm. He showed us, and taught us, about the volcanic remains creating the “chimneys”. By then I have a suspicion he is going to ask for money later. Why else would he do such nice things for free? After about 20 minutes, he stopped at a table full with souvenir necklaces and chose two, one for each of us. He said, “Gift from me. I love Malaysian people. People always ask for a tour of my farm but I always say no. Except for brothers and sisters from Malaysia.” I was touched. Mr. Bekir was a true example of why we should always try our best to have faith in people – sometimes even with strangers.

About a week later, we found ourselves in Milan. We had no plan to stay the night, only 18 hours before our next scheduled train leave for Venice. It was a busy day in Milan because of some bicycle race in support of something in Pink. I couldn’t read Italian. We were walking, enjoying the beautiful summer day, until we arrived at a fountain in front of an old palace. We stopped to take some pictures. Moments later, a man approached us with a Salam. We replied. He told us that he is a Muslim and wanted to give us a string wristlet. We declined, fearing a total scam. He told us, “No problem.” Zaim repeated over and over and over that  we are not going to give him a single Euro for something a 5-year-old could make in nursery class. He said, “For Muslim, free.” We relented, thinking if Mr. Bekir could be so nice in the presence of no one, this man might just be an honest Muslim too at this spot of many tourists. While he tied those wristlets around our wrists, he talked about reciting the Quran. But once he was done, his persona turned 180 degrees and he asked us for money. I wasn’t too shocked, but I was frustrated. We gave him 3 Euros just to make him go. When we said, “No!” loud and clear, he used religion to win us over. When we were suspicious of him, he talked to us in friendly Arabic. How low can a person be to use the sanctity of religion for a few Euros? He saw I wore the headscarf and took advantage of that. Our prayer to him is for God to judge him fairly.

At the end of our trip, while Zaim was standing in line with us at the Venice bus stop, waiting to send us off, we came to the conclusion that people could not, and should not, be trusted. Especially a certain “type” of people. We were so angry at how our day in Milan was ruined by a crook. How unashamedly deceptive a person could be, even when we were no less persistent. Humans are cruel. Survival is more important than honesty. It came as no surprise that these people are still at the bottom end of the feeding chain because they lack integrity in their dealings. I, a person who prides herself for trying her best from uttering racist comments, am so disgusted that unconsciously I began to make general assumptions about people of a certain kind. This is the new wider view I am supposed to have, perhaps.

And then we landed in New York. After a four hour flight delay, and wasted cheap Megabus seats to Pittsburgh, we headed to Port Authority to find the next bus out of New York. While there, still fatigued by our more-than-30-hour journey from Venice, we decided to grab a bite. We came upon a relatively huge cafeteria and figured there must be at least something we could eat there that has no meat. While making payment, the man behind the counter gave me a look and then asked, “Are you Muslim?” I replied, “Yes.” He gave praise to God and smiled. Since we still have our bottled water from the flight earlier, I did not order any drink. With a surprise look, this man said to me, “You can have any of the soda, it’s on me.” After having experienced what I experienced, my head was telling me to not accept anything from him, even if he is a Muslim. But the man insisted, and knowing myself, my instant gut instinct to trust people, I smiled and accepted his offer. He did not ask us to pay extra.

After nearly 16 days, my journey did not end when I landed in JFK, but continued until I finally arrived home in Pittsburgh. God is teaching me a lesson: Do not come down so harshly on others. Each individual is different and unique in their behavior and back stories. Just because one (or two) person did something wrong, we should still try to refrain from making generalizations. I know this sounds straightforward, but honestly, how many of us make wide generalizations day in and day out? I was ashamed, embarrassed of my behavior in Milan. If I was prepared to have prejudices because of a silly wristlet, I should not be mad when half of the world population hates us Muslims. Nineteen Muslims caused 2000+ deaths 10 years ago, and we are still screaming for the public to acknowledge the presence of moderate Muslims.

Yes, my view on humanity is definitely broader now compared to when we left. I learned so much that it humbled me now whenever someone is nice to me. They should not be. My fellow Muslims are murderers. But if these kind-hearted neighbors are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, I should always, always, remember to hold myself from making judgments about others too. I may not have a good record on Bahasa Malaysia, but I know that I am ready to fight against the mentality of “Sebab nila setitik, rosak susu sebelanga” (Because of a drop of indigo, a pot of milk is ruined.)