Obscura Festival of Photography returns with a snapshot of the times

  • Arts
  • Thursday, 12 Jul 2018

The Obscura Festival of Photography includes exhibitions, masterclasses, photo books, panel discussions and portfolio reviews. The festival is on at George Town Festival in Penang next month. — TANG CHUN CHEUH

There is no shortage of photography festivals and events in this part of the world. In fact, the number might be close to 50 festivals, with the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap, Cambodia, remaining a major international photography event. Newer events like Photo Kathmandu, PhotoBangkok Festival and Chennai Photo Biennale have also turned heads in recent years.

In this part of the world, we have the Obscura Festival Of Photography, which was founded in 2013. It has been closely tied to the George Town Festival programme, which has naturally made the festival’s base in Penang.

This year, the Obscura Festival, which runs at George Town Festival on Aug 25-31, is taking on the theme of “multiplicity”.

Vignes Balasingam, the founder and director of the festival, says that the theme is a way to “discuss the many facets of personal, private, social and philosophical truths we are faced with and often come in conflict with.”

The upcoming Obscura Festival will feature the works of 23 photographers from around the world who were selected from a pool of 400 applicants.

Their work, says Vignes, will explore the themes of family, relationships, environment, science, space, history, heritage, gender and others – all under the umbrella of multiplicity.

Now entering its sixth year, the festival opens on August 25 as part of the annual George Town Festival (GTF) with exhibitions, masterclasses, presentations, photo books, panel discussions and portfolio reviews happening at various venues in Penang, including the Hin Bus Depot, The Black Kettle, Awesome Canteen, Cheah Kongsi and the Poh Hock Sah Temple.

The Obscura Festival is on at George Town Festival in Penang next month. Photo: Tang Chun Cheuh

Vignes, when speaking about the featured photographers, who come from countries like Belarus, Russia, Japan, China, Singapore, South Africa, Brazil, Poland and Thailand, says his Obscura team “chose a mix of deeply personal vignettes, as well as powerful documentaries and social commentaries.”

But more than the exhibition itself, the true backbone of the Obscura Festival is its masterclasses.

These masterclasses, seven in total this year, will begin on Aug 18 and are designed to not only to educate the participants but also to establish photography as an art form and a language that is deeply needed by all of society.

The masterclasses this year will be conducted by two-time World Press Photo winner Peter Bialobrzeski, conflict photographer Saiful Huq Omi, Leonard Pongo, Ian Teh, Wawi Navarroza, Miti Ruangkritya, Peter Bialobrzeski and Maggie Steber. These instructors bring with them invaluable knowledge and experience in the field of photography.

Another anticipated event of the festival is the portfolio reviews which gives photographers an opportunity to showcase their work to some of the industry’s most esteemed names.

The masterclasses by experienced instructors provide participants invaluable photography lessons.

Photo: Tang Chun Cheuh

“This is for anyone who’s hungry and willing to be put to the challenge of becoming better photographers and more responsible members of society.

“Despite the serious deficit in financial support and interest locally, Obscura Festival has taken the responsibility along with its few but significant partners to transform the landscape of photography for Malaysia and for South-East Asia and the Pacific,” says Vignes, a professional photographer, who has seen the Obscura Festival rise from the grassroots.

Vignes assures that the festival, which normally attracts more than 10,000 visitors, will have a litte bit of something for everyone.

“For those who have a keener interest in the discussions on the photographs and discussions that surround each work, we organise gallery walks and talks with the curators or the artists themselves.

“We also hold artist talks and in-depth conversations which aren’t just for the photographers, but as a means for the artist to communicate with the public about the reason for their project and the thought processes and struggles behind them,” he tells.

Panel discussions and talks with the curators and artists are available for those who have a keen interest in all things photography.

Photo: Tang Chun Cheuh

Although the festival is part of the GTF, Vignes says it is “completely independent and enjoy cross-collaborations with other institutions, festivals, individuals and organisations who share our vision.”

“We have been active around the world with curations opening in other festivals such as the Chennai Photo Biennale (2015), the Jeon-Ju Photo Festival, South Korea (2017), Photo 17, Zurich (2017).

“We also have a travelling exhibition through a fantastic photography programme we ran with the Goethe-Institut Malaysia which has shown the work of 12 South-East Asian photographers in Penang, Singapore, Bandung and Jakarta,” reveals Vignes.

Ultimately, has the Obscura Festival achieved its goal of nurturing a new generation of photographers?

Vignes says it has.

“Since its inception, the festival has already given birth to one World Press Photo winner (Britain’s Julie McGuire) from our photography workshops programme. We have also helped Malaysian photographers in exhibiting their works. Some have seen their works being published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other international media platforms.

“The festival has also run possibly the biggest young talent programme in South-East Asia through the South-East Asian Photography Masterclass with our partners the Goethe-Institut Malaysia and the Berlin-based Ostkreuz Photographers’ Agency,” he says.

The Obscura Festival of Photography is on at the George Town Festival in Penang on Aug 25-31. The masterclasses will commence on Aug 18. Registration for the masterclasses is now open. To register, visit

Obscura Festival.

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