For much of its history, the city of Kuala Lumpur has attracted migrants from all over.
Rich with tin and opportunities in the 19th century, thousands of migrants made KL the place to rebuild their lives.
The capital’s storied past, with contributions from migrants, can be seen through large murals in the old city centre.
Today, KL remains a port of call for many who want to seek a better life. Sadly, especially in the wake of the pandemic, there has also been disturbing stories of prejudice and discrimination against migrants.
KL-born graphic designer/storyteller Allie Hill and photographer Amin Kamrani, an Iranian who has been living here since 2011, were saddened by these developments, which were rampant last year.
Together, they decided to work on a photo zine project called Portraits Of A Diverse City – Stories Of Migration In Kuala Lumpur.
“As KL-lites today we are truly the children of migrants who came, who saw, and who made community together. Today’s migrants come from different places, but they dream the same dreams our ancestors did a long time ago, ” says Hill.
“The stories in the zine help us see how much we have in common despite our diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
“I hope we will keep asking the difficult and painful questions and have more conversations. How have we Malaysians, as children of migrants, got to this point of now saying that other migrants do not have the right to share in our wealth and development, especially in the context of a globalised and interconnected economy?” she asks.
For Amin, the best way to respond to this xenophobia is through this art project... or more specifically, storytelling and photography.
“We wanted to tell the stories of people who we knew so people can see how migration has contributed to the diversity in KL. And this diversity is the greatest thing about this city, ” says Amin.
Portraits Of A Diverse City is funded by the Diverse Voices Media Grant 2020 from Projek Dialog.
Projek Dialog, established in 2012, is a social development project that works to promote healthy debate and understanding, within and among the diverse cultural, ethnic and religious groups in Malaysia.
A shared passion
Amin took to the streets last year and did the photography work for Portraits Of A Diverse City, while Hill came up with the graphic design.
Both of them wrote the stories in the first issue of the photo zine. The subjects featured in the zine are people the duo know.
“This inaugural issue features the stories of different types of migrants of different ages and backgrounds. Some people were forced to flee their homes. Some came to seek a better life for themselves and their family. Some came for love and a great thirst to learn more about the world. All the stories are compelling and inspiring and yet very relatable, ” says Hill.
Among the stories is The Road From Damascus which sees two brothers – Abdul Salam and Khaldoun A. Sh from war-torn Syria – sharing their story and poems.
From Our Faces, We Wiped The Debris Of Grief is a raw mix of narrative and art from Iranian poet/illustrator Masuma Tavakoli.
The zine also features the story of Hill’s own grandmother, and Hill dedicates her work in this zine to her memory.
“There are also Malaysians in there, who share their thoughts on what it means to be a Malaysian and also a global citizen.”
Portraits of the city
“We used a mix of new and old photos. The pictures of the city are from my archive, but most portraits were new photos, ” reveals Amin, who also had photo series titled 20/20 last April to raise relief funds for refugee communities here affected by the pandemic.
“I always love to meet individuals when I want to take their portraits. It is part of the process; for instance, you invite them for a coffee in a cafe in heart of KL and start a meaningful conversation with them.
“These gestures will have an impact on what is behind their eyes in a portrait photograph, ” he adds.
Amin and Hill say the zine is full of stories of ordinary people, who had been through extraordinary life journeys.
They add that they would hope to make another issue of this zine, but it all depends if they can find funding for it.
“We hope we can start conversations about this topic, and we eventually evolve as a society to understand that the presence of others is an opportunity and a blessing and not a threat, ” says Amin.
“The collaboration itself is very meaningful to me. The responses were very heart-warming. I felt that we did the right thing, and we must continue telling more stories that matter.
“This project is one of the highlights of 2020 for me, a year that will be hard to forget. I am happy I have positive moments to remember from it. I also love how we can put a picture of a beautiful Afghan girl on our cover. That picture by itself is challenging a lot of stereotypes, ” he adds.