Buku Jalanan Chow Kit students speak through the camera lens


Zahid, one of the students, captured this image of KL city, while showing his love for clouds. Photo: Buku Jalanan Chow Kit

Sometimes, words aren’t enough to express how you feel.

Eyes That Speak, a photography and video essay project by KL-based alternative school Buku Jalanan Chow Kit (BJCK), was set up to document the learning process of students during the pandemic and explore questions of mental health.

The 28 BJCK students (aged 13-17) who were involved in Eyes That Speak project learned how to handle film cameras through a series of workshops and participated in dialogue sessions with counsellors and dance-therapy sessions with Manizia Kajiwara, a Japan-based dance-therapist.

This community-based initiative, which ran from February to September this year and supported by the Vans Checkerboard Fund, culminated with the recent publication of a photobook called Eyes That Speak.

The 105-page bilingual (Bahasa Malaysia/English) photobook, designed by Moka Mocha Ink, contains photos taken by the students alongside two essays written by the curatorial team and sociologist Dr Azhar Ibrahim (National University of Singapore).

“The title of our project is in line with the idea of how our ways of seeing and perceiving can be an important way to articulate our collective and collected experiences, particularly during the pandemic.

“We cannot articulate everything that we experience via words which have the tendency to reduce and dehumanise our sense of being. And sure enough, the students spoke through their eyes,” says Zikri Rahman, co-curator of the project.

Photographer Akmal Zamri and Faisal Aziz, the founder of Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur, completed the project team.

The photos – more than 800 were taken but only 65 photos made it into the book – give an insight into the lives of the students. These works capture a series of visual memories during the MCO, with the students photographing lockdown life at home, their siblings at play, right to how they prepared for online classes, and helped their parents at a stall.

“I love walking everywhere. But because of Covid-19, I’m restricted from going for walks like these,” shares Nafisah, a student, referring to her images that depict being trapped at home.

Another student, Sarah, shares her happy times with her friends when they were able to roam the city during the conditional MCO period after being stuck at home for months.

Right before the second MCO was enforced in January this year, Zikri helped to organise a series of cultural mapping projects for BJCK students. He says through this project, many anecdotes were gathered about the students’ experiences during the pandemic pertaining to their daily lives as well as their families’ wellbeing.

“There’s so much for us to digest on how the students’ lives had been impacted by the pandemic and their status of being in the at-risk community was far from being helpful,” he adds.

The 105-page bilingual (Bahasa Malaysia/ English) photobook is designed by Moka Mocha Ink. Photo: Buku Jalanan Chow KitThe 105-page bilingual (Bahasa Malaysia/ English) photobook is designed by Moka Mocha Ink. Photo: Buku Jalanan Chow Kit

The idea that was mooted was to let the students themselves articulate and document their experiences through a series of photography journals and video essays.

In the workshop sessions, the students explored the art of storytelling via photography (using disposable cameras) as a medium for self-exploration and self-discovery, specifically in exploring their personalities during the pandemic.

The workshop sessions were conducted online. TikTok was also used to show the students how to handle a camera. They were then encouraged to go around and capture photos using these prompts: space, self-love and collected memories.

“Not only were the students able to express and share their concerns via photography, but also each story became a form of exchange for them to get to know each other better,” says Zikri.

The dance-therapy also allowed the students to explore their emotions and communicate through a series of interactive and impromptu dance choreography sessions.

Nafisah talks about being trapped at home through her series of photos. Photo: Buku Jalanan Chow KitNafisah talks about being trapped at home through her series of photos. Photo: Buku Jalanan Chow Kit

The final element of Eyes That Speak was the documentation process where the students got to choose their own photos.

“The idea for the documentation process was really to allow it to be a safe space for reflective thinking as well as for expressions to thrive,” says Zikri.

The photos and the experiences by the BJCK students were then documented on an interactive website which was also launched last month and collated into the photobook.

Zikri shares that if the situation permits, there will be a physical exhibition of the photos in January next year.

Apart from that, the curatorial team is also arranging multiple photo-outing sessions with the students. The students will also be collaborating with Manizia in a choreography-based project with special needs students in Japan.

BJCK, founded in 2015, focuses on giving opportunities and equal rights of education to the community, particularly among the youths in Chow Kit who are at risk as a result of systemic social inequalities as well as being deprived access to education as a result of their undocumented/stateless status.

BJCK programmes include Sekolah BJCK, a homeschool programme that runs every Monday to Friday, Weekender Night Class that runs every Friday and Sunday night, grassroot football club BJC Football Club, art class #KolektifAnakChowKit and technology-driven classes by Arus Maker Academy.

More info here.

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