The world's photographers are gathering at Obscura, Penang's shutterbug festival


  • Arts
  • Wednesday, 19 Aug 2015

French photographer Cedric Delsaux places characters and vehicles from Star Wars in modern-day cities in his Dark Lens series. Photos: Obscura Festival

The Obscura Festival, now enjoying its third edition at the George Town Festival in Penang, is a photography festival to attract seasoned shutterbugs and curious enthusiasts.

Festival director Vignes Balasingam describes the festival as “an orchestral arrangement, something to be taken in as a whole.”

He is a big believer in festival design, and doesn’t see the festival moving to Kuala Lumpur any time soon.

With its roots in Penang, the Obscura Festival has grown in stature – in the region and on the international front.

“With festivals, you can just cut and paste them elsewhere,” says Vignes, a KL-born artist, before adding that he prefered George Town’s compact size, which allowed visitors to walk from site to site.

As with previous years, this year’s festival is centred at the China House on Lebuh Pantai, while other venues are within walking distance of each other.

With the humble beginnings of 8,000 visitors in its first year in 2013, the festival has done well in securing an audience. It surged to 25,000 visitors in 2014.

From Obscura Festival’s inception, Vignes has always pushed the education element, saying the festival was meant to become a platform for photographers to connect with those outside the country and lift themselves to the next level of photography through masterclasses.

Vignes admits to having a soft spot for the masterclasses, saying they were his pet project after a positive experience which made him consider going into photography full-time. “I knew what better was, but I didn’t know how to get there,” he says.

Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi's By An Eyewitness series is a provocative retelling of Iran's most notorious death scenes.
Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi's By An Eyewitness series is a provocative retelling of Iran's most notorious death scenes.

Bangladeshi documentary photographer/lecturer Sarker Protick presents the fantasy world of his homeland's film industry, Dhallywood, in the Love Me Or Kill Me series.
Bangladeshi documentary photographer/lecturer Sarker Protick presents the fantasy world of his homeland's film industry, Dhallywood, in the Love Me Or Kill Me series.

The festival’s open-air slideshow nights, with its free admission, remain popular with the masses. They will also be held at The Whiteaways Arcade.

An international cast of curators will be involved, including British photographer Louise Clements (Aug 19), Germany-based Calin Kruse (Aug 20) and Melbourne-based photographer Ying Ang (Aug 21). All three photographers have initiated and curated many commissions, publications, mass participation, art, film and photography programmes and exhibitions.

In addition to workshops, the Obscura Festival also features 11 print exhibitions, masterclasses (pre-registered affairs), a Photobook Show and talks by some of the best photographers in the industry, including Alisha Sett, the founding director of the Kashmir Photo Collective, American-born artist/photographer Waswo X. Waswo and Ying Ang.

“We curate carefully to ensure the works all link together,” adds Vignes, before revealing over 30 events will be held during this edition of the festival.

The festival’s two major showcases are Truth Imaginariums by Arko Datto (from India) and Open Curation by Vignes himself.

Datto’s showcase features a multi-national cast presenting photographic works which investigate the aspects of truth and imagined realities within the context of photography.

To bring a smile, look no further than Bangladeshi documentary photographer/lecturer Sarker Protick, who presents the fantasy world of his homeland’s film industry – Dhallywood – in his Love Me Or Kill Me series.

In the Dark Lens exhibition, French photographer Cedric Delsaux transports Darth Vader and the whole gamut of Star Wars iconography to a post-apocalyptic, urban-suburban landscape of endless parking lots, high rises and wasteland interzones, bereft of ordinary human life.

French photographer Cedric Delsaux's Dark Lens series.
French photographer Cedric Delsaux's Dark Lens series.

Cristina de Middel, a London-based documentary photographer, adds a slice of vintage (or frozen) adventure with her Jan Mayen series. It documents an expedition by a group of wealthy scientists who set forth to discover the island of Jan Mayen in Greenland in 1911. Elsewhere, Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi’s By An Eyewitness series is a provocative retelling of Iran’s most notorious death scenes. More than anything, Azadeh has found a novel way to narrate some brutal episodes in her nation’s past.

The venues involved for these exhibitions are The Camera Museum, The Daily Dose, China House Artspace 1, Poh Hock Seah, The Press, Inch And Plates and The Whiteaways Arcade.

Meanwhile, Vignes curates three works made exclusively for the festival. The photographers involved in Open Curation include Waswo X. Waswo, France-based artist Diana Lui and American reportage photographer James Whitlow Delano.

Interestingly, this year’s Obscura Festival lineup features fewers Asian photographers compared to 2014’s very Asian-centric curation.

While the festival’s direction is based on an aesthetic set by Vignes, he is also assisted by a team of curators. This, in turn, leaves the international taste as little of a surprise, considering the huge mix of backgrounds among the curators

The board of curators include scientist-turned-photojournalist Arko Dato, Dutch photography lecturer Marco Wiegers, Malaysian-born British photographer Ian Teh, European photobook publisher Calin Kruse, globetrotter Ying Ang, Fillipino contemporary photographer Wawi Navarroz, artistic director Louise Clements and Australian photo archivist Daniel Boetker-Smith.

Cristina de Middel's Jan Mayen series is about a group of wealthy scientists who set forth to discover the island of Jan Mayen in Greenland in 1911.</p><p>Photo: Obscura Festival
Cristina de Middel's Jan Mayen series is about a group of wealthy scientists who set forth to discover the island of Jan Mayen in Greenland in 1911.

“We’re aware this is an Asian festival and try to push Asian works, but we also need to bring works from outside Asia to push our local audience,” says Vignes.

Vignes believes the festival has started to raise the level of photography in Malaysia.

“You start seeing things move and change in big ways. Conversations have been getting more sophisticated over the last few years,” he says. While admitting that it was perhaps not all hinging on the Obscura Festival, Vignes likes to think it’s done its part to push things along.

Perhaps like film, photography just needs a little time and the right stuff to develop.


The Obscura Festival in George Town, Penang is on till Aug 31. Entry to all activities, except the workshops, is free. For the list of venues and other details, visit www.obscurafestival.com or e-mail info@obscurafestival.com.

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