'Walk Of Life' photographer takes us through the streets of Kuala Lumpur

Cheâ¿TM Mat Azhar's signature photo a street dentist, armed with a wooden chair and box of tools, ready to perform simple on-the-spot dentistry.

Photographer Che’ Mat’s streetscapes mirror the rhythm of the life and people around him.

Che’ Ahmad Azhar spent years roaming Kuala Lumpur’s streets with his camera before his work was brought to the public’s attention and to great acclaim. With his ongoing Walk Of Life photo series, he creates a stunning visual narrative of the city and her people through street photography.

Last year, National Geographic photographer Maggie Steber wrote about him on the New York Times Lens blog, calling him, “a maestro, conducting a symphony of noise, action, light and shadow in the best tradition of street photography.” Singapore-based Invisible Photographer Asia named him as one of the most influential 30 Asian photographers of 2014, a list which includes Daido Moriyama, Rinko Kawauchi and Pablo Bartholomew.

These are high accolades but ask Che’ Mat, as he is known, about it and he’ll answer modestly, “I’m just a weekend photographer.”

It is an understatement.

Che’ Mat’s significant body of work was produced over the course of every Saturday in the last eight years, barring special occasions and travels. From dawn to dusk, he’s kept up an obsessive walking route that covers an area from Petaling Street, Lebuh Ampang, Bukit Bintang, Chow Kit and Pudu, always with camera in tow.

Che’ Mat captures humourous, sublime and often reflective moments that are poetic odes to Kuala Lumpur and its downtown denizens.

It is a routine that would trip up most photographers, but what had started as a hobby became a passion and a revelation. In his eloquent Walk Of Life series of black and white photographs, Che’ Mat captures quiet, sublime and often humourous moments that are poetic odes to the city and its downtown denizens.

When I join him early morning at the pasar karat one Saturday, the alley in between Jalan Petaling and Jalan Sultan was already alive with traders, buyers and morning larks.

Che’ Mat is dressed in a plain black T-shirt and jeans with sensible walking shoes and his trademark cap and groomed moustache. A quiet and observant man, he walks slowly and deliberately, his camera slung casually around his neck.

“Most times I just walk around and stop to look at things. Mostly I’ll buy something,” he says.

He shows me the morning’s acquisition, a yellow, plastic film camera, a souvenir from a local bank, which he got for RM2. He’s excited to try it out.

“I wonder if it will give me the same quality like the new and expensive Lomo toy cameras,” he says with a glint in his eye.

We walk past traders with their eclectic ware spread out on sheets on the ground. Secondhand clothes, scruffy shoes, antique watches, bags, lucky charms, old electronics and books are all up for sale. “This is where I made the dentist picture,” Che’ Mat points out a street dentist, armed with a wooden chair and box of tools, ready to perform simple on-the-spot dentistry. 

The picture in question is his Nighthawks (Edward Hopper) or Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci), his most memorable and oft featured photograph to date. A woman bent over an open mouth as a man strikes a pose in the background and another scowls from the corner. It is a masterwork, a vibrant tension of contrasting actions, lines and forms captured in a single frame.

We’ve been walking for 15 minutes, and Che’ Mat has not taken a single picture, absorbed instead with the activity around him. Suddenly, the camera, a digital rangefinder with a 35mm lens, appears in his hand. Che’ Mat takes a picture of a group of giggling ladies crossing the street, bathed in the morning’s sun-kissed glow.

“If I get a photo, it’s a bonus for me. For me, it’s about walking around and seeing things. I stop to see anything that catches my eye,” he says.

“I used to put a lot of pressure on myself, that I had to get a good photo. Then I realised, why am I stressing myself out like that? So now I just let myself just walk and look. It’s more enjoyable when I keep it open and let things unfold before me.”

After years spent pounding the pavements, Che’ Mat, who turned 50 in May, is a familiar sight on the street. He has befriended shopkeepers, stall owners, mamak operators and securty guards, all of whom have a friendly greeting for him as he walks past. A few, he discovered, are fellow photography enthusiasts.

“People are always asking me if I’m bored of these walks. But no, there’s always something interesting happening. There’s so much detail, I’ll never finish photographing everything,” he says.

The challenge though is finding the interesting in the familiar. Che’ Mat acknowledges that it is increasingly difficult for him to find that special moment.

“I am getting choosy with my photos. I’m looking for that special moment.” In his last few walks, he’s only made one shot that he likes. In a year, he says he’d be lucky to get five that he thinks make the grade. He thinks a change is due and is contemplating shifting to colour. “It’ll be a new set of challenges,” he says.

It is not accidental that he admires veteran American photographer William Eggleston’s work. The reluctant artist Eggleston had said rather dismissively of his photographs, “There is no particular reason to search for meaning.” He shoots compulsively in and around his hometown, Memphis, Tennessee.“He sees the interesting in the boring,” says Che’ Mat.

“A good photographer, as in an artist, will see or observe something ordinary and turn it into the extraordinary,” he adds.

Born in Alor Setar, Kedah, Che’ Mat’s first career was as an art director for an advertising company in Kuala Lumpur. His background in graphic design shows up in the structure and composition of his photographs, which often follow invisible grids. For the last 16 years, he’s been teaching visual communications and photography at the Multimedia University in Selangor.

His first photography project were landscape shots – he calls them pretty photos – influenced by the postcard landscapes of his hometown. But he could not afford the time to constantly hunt down the perfect setting. So he tried his hand at other photo subjects, such as architecture and macro, but they held little interest.

It was on one of his attempts at architectural photography in KL that he realised the rhythm of the life and people around him. It was his Eureka moment. His adopted city is the perfect backdrop for his burgeoning photographic passion. It was accessible, and it was full of life. Che’ Mat started photographing the streets.

“I did not know then that what I was doing is called street photography or its tradition,” he recalls as we stop for a teh limau ais in a mamak off Jalan Alor. He started researching and encountered Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt and Garry Winogrand. He was gifted books from his Canadian dean of that time, further exposing him to the visual philosophies of Susan Sontag and Clive Scott.

“I learnt it’s not only about shooting, it’s about telling the truth of the present and current situation of a place,” he says. “And you can learn a lot about the current situation of the country just by walking the streets. It struck me that I am doing something serious. It is visual documentation.”

For years Che’ Mat kept up his weekly sojourns, taking pictures for himself, sharing them only with close friends and his wife, whom he calls his biggest support and trusted editor. In 2012, after a series of fortuitous introductions, and a workshop with Magnum photographer, Alex Webb, Che’ Mat started showing his photographs to the world at large. The response has been enthusiastic. An Invisible Photographer Asia’s post of his photo series registered one of the highest hits of the year.

Che’ Mat has since been invited to hold exhibitions, give talks and workshops, and serve as jury on local and international photography exhibitions. Acclaimed photographer Maggie Steber met Che’ Mat at his exhibition at the inaugural Obscura Festival in George Town, Penang, last year. Her New York Times Lens blog story was quickly followed by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s congratulatory tweet, which made him a household name.

Having set the bar higher for street photography in Malaysia, Che’ Mat is inspiring a generation of young street photographers.

“It happened so quickly,” he says. “My work is supposed to be for me. It’s personal. It’s for me, not to impress anyone. But once you start showing your work, it’s like being naked. People keep asking me what’s next, so there is pressure to produce new work. I don’t want to put pressure on myself and to just continue with what I was doing.”

One solution is for him is to close this chapter, wrap up the project and move on. He is in the midst of working on a photography book and he is also contemplating a new project. “New work will take time and I don’t know yet what it is going to be,” he ruminates.

“My friend, the artist Jalani Abu Hassan, gave some good advice, ‘Ideas have to be invited. You just have to start at something and it will eventually form shape.’ So I just have to shoot and shoot and maybe a pattern will form.”

So for now, Che’ Mat continues on his walks. It is late evening, and we are on our way back from Bukit Bintang to Masjid Jamek LRT station. It has not been the most fruitful of days, photographically, for him, brought on probably by my shadowing. Somewhere near Lebuh Ampang, he stops at the mouth of an alley, quietly training his lens on a couple of workers huddled over a mobile phone. They ignore him as he clicks away silently. He smiles, “I think I might have something there.”

“Like Picasso says, your work is a portrait of you. And people tell me my work really reflects my character. Pablo Bartholomew called my work quiet. I suppose it is,” he says before walking away into the twilight.

Visit www.cheahmadazhar.com for more info.

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