A Malaysian photographer based overseas, talks about his early start in the craft.
PHOTOGRAPHY is a way to reflect on the world around us and in the recently published book, Confluence, photographer Ian Teh uses pictures to tell a story about a multi-layered Malaysia.
Teh was invited to take part in the Monsoon Artist-in-Residence (AIR) programme earlier this year and during the three months, he shot photos of the Selangor coastline. “I’m Malaysian but I can’t say I know Malaysia very well,” he said during his recent book launch and exhibition.
“The opportunity of coming out to do a portrait of the coastline made me think, ‘If I’m going to shoot this, do I want it to be like a tourist brochure or do I actually want to say something?’”
In the end, he chose to “say something” and his photos display aspects of Malaysia that are not so commonly seen.
“It’s common enough to know that it’s Malaysia but at the same time, there are many layers,” he said, describing the process as bittersweet.
“Malaysia has a huge amount of resources. It has so many good things about it and I feel that sometimes, we need to take better care of it.”
He added that Malaysia, like many other countries in Asia, is going through “major transitions” and developing very quickly.
“There’s a lot less time to reflect at the pace at which we are developing,” he said, expressing the hope that through photography, people would be able to stop and notice the different issues that accompany development.
“What I have tried to do was show all the different nuances between culture, the economics and how they overlap with each other and at the same time, be as eloquent as possible with that,” he said.
The book also contains two essays — one by Tash Aw, the other by Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim and Eddin Khoo.
“It was very important for me to have the book backed up by two essays by writers who understand Malaysia just as well,” he said.
The Moonsoon AIR programme is a photography artist residency that works with prominent artists to develop high value photography projects in Malaysia. Its aim is to map out the journey and story of Malaysia through its historic, geographical, economic and social functions.
The 43-year-old is the first artist-in-residence for the programme and despite having his works widely exhibited and featured in international publications, he did not have formal education in photography.
“I was formally trained as a graphic designer but I became interested in the creative aspect of photography in my late teens,” he said.
“It was only when I was in college that I started really exploring and using the camera, but most of my learning was with the help of books.
“In my second year of graphic design, I submitted a photograph from a college trip to a travel photography competition,” said Teh.
He ended up winning photographer of the year and was given £600 (RM3,260) for a trip to China.
“Instead of taking the holiday then, I asked if I could defer the prize to after I graduated because I wanted to use it for something meaningful.
“After I graduated, I waited on tables and saved up money. When I left for China, it was with the intention of being there for two months,” he said.
The two-month trip became a six-month outing during which Teh travelled to other countries in Asia as well.
“I came back completely broke and had to take a job. I worked full time and could only develop photos on weekends,” he said.
“It took almost a year to come up with 30 photographs from that trip.”
He showed those photos to people who were in the professional industry in order to gauge the level of his skills and then continued travelling again.
“The easiest way to teach myself was to travel and keep shooting,” he said.
From 1995-1997, Teh kept going back to China each year for long spells.
“I built my skills that way,” he said, adding that by 1998 he had begun shooting in colour as well.
“At the beginning, it was like a dream. I was quite happy to be a waiter and just appreciate my own photos.
However, he later realised that he needed to “make ends meet” and started placing his images in places where he had a potential to sell them, and took on jobs that were connected to photography.
“It was at the end of those three years that I realised that I couldn’t sustain this as a hobby and that I really wanted to make a living out of this and that’s when the shift happened,” he said.
“When you start, what you have is the love for the medium and a huge amount of naivete about what it takes to make it.”
While the journey is difficult, it is not without its rewards, he said.
“As you develop there’s a sense of empowerment that comes along and you realise that you’ve become a better photographer and communicator.”
He added that the key to becoming successful in the business was not talent alone but sheer perseverance.