Che Mat - a passion for street photography

PETALING JAYA: "If I don't press the shutter, I'll go insane."

The Ramadan month is difficult for street photographer Che Ahmad Azhar, not because of the lack of food or water during the day, but because for over a month, he is unable to prowl the streets of Kuala Lumpur armed with his camera.

"I usually shoot only on Saturdays," Che Ahmad, or Che Mat as he prefers being known as, tells The Star Online.

"At 5.30am, my wife will wake me up - abang, ada shooting hari ini? (are you taking photos today) - and go downstairs to make tea. We chat for a bit and then she sends me to the train station. By 7am I am in Pasar Seni, and from there, I wander Petaling Street, Leboh Ampang, Pudu, Kg Baru... areas like that."

The 49-year-old has been doing this for years as a hobby, devouring books on the topic and making many friends along the way. He only takes a break during Ramadan, as roaming in Kuala Lumper in the hot sun is too trying for a fasting body.

His photos - a vivid, street-level view of the nostalgic charm and sullen grandeur which imbues Kuala Lumpur - are the work of a small-town boy looking at a city which is familiar but still shockingly beautiful.

"But during Ramadan, I feel so itchy - like I cannot rest without the sound of a shutter!"

Che Mat, who has lectured in photography at the Multimedia University for 16 years now, never expected his hobby would win him such fame.

He was called to exhibit his work, titled Walk of Life, in the Obscura photography festival held in George Town earlier this year, where it was noticed by National Geographic photographer Maggie Steber.

"She said she liked my work and sent it to her friend James Estrin of the New York Times. He liked it, too, and next thing I know, I come back from Raya break and my work is featured in the New York Times!"

The glory kept rolling in when just a few hours later, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak tweeted congratulating Che Mat.

"Che Ahmad Azhar does beautiful street photography... Well done!" Najib said.

Che Mat couldn't believe it.

"I was in class and my students - meant to be listening but of course always on the computer doing something or another - told me that the Prime Minister had tweeted me! I was stunned!"

In Walk of Life, a man rinses down a duck carcass with a hose - thanks to a butcher's cleaver and poor light, both are headless. Two teens wearing Superman t-shirts wait for a vendor to prepare their grilled corn. A proud-looking man has his fortune translated from the lines scoring his palms by a silver-haired man wielding a magnifying glass.

"They are real, these people," Che Mat says.

"There's a sense of community. I sit and have teh tarik with them, we have a chat. When I don't come down due to a family function, they will ask me where I have been. They are real and honest. They are friendly, they smile."

Che Mat tried to capture the same evocative visuals in areas like Bukit Bintang, but found his shots fell short.

"It's just different. There's no sense of belonging. I came from a small town, Alor Star. I lived in Kampung Baru here after I graduated. I understand this sort of family bond between those who don't share blood."

A graphic design major from UITM, Che Mat learned the fundamentals of photography during his undergraduate years.

"After graduating, I worked as an art director in both local and international agencies. I fell into education in the late 80s after I got married. I couldn't be a family man and keep to the demanding work hours in the advertising industry."

Although Che Mat began as a landscape photographer, he found it frustrating being held ransom by Mother Nature's fickleness. 

He experimented with macro, still life, studio shots. But it was when he discovered street photography - a genre he didn't even know there was a name for - he discovered his calling.

He read books by Robert Frank, Garry Winograd, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson. The images they had captured struck a nerve.

Che Mat is a purist by nature. Because of the nature of street photography - familiarity with the subject, a frankness that requires your guard be lowered - Che Mat finds large obtrusive gear isn't conducive to capturing good shots.

"I use a simple compact rangefinder, usually with a 35mm lens. When I go out on Saturdays, I only carry one lens."

Che Mat wants to capture life, and believes strongly in the participant-observation photo philosophy. He studies the city by becoming part of it, even if just for a day.

"I'll be chatting with people I've just met, having a cup of coffee or lunch, then a cool shot will catch my eye and I'll dash across the shop, click the shutter, and return. My friends there are used to it."

Che Mat's advice to up and coming photographers is simple - focus (pun intended) and be persistent. Focus on a genre to excel in, and keep working at it.

"Photography is both expensive and time-consuming. You can't pick it up casually and expect to be good at it," he says.

Now that Che Mat has earned international renown, with compliments and praise flooding in from all corners of the globe, the humble lecturer and photographer has to set new goals.

"Before 2012, I'd only exhibited in small shows. Then I had a spate of good luck - I exhibited at Starhill Gallery in collaboration with Leica. Next came a spread in Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA), a platform for Asian photographers to come together.

"Then came the solo exhibit in Obscura. Next, I think I'd like to print a book, insya'Allah. I'll have to do more shoots because I think I've only got about 30 or so really nice photos."

Che Mat's visual storytelling should and will resonate with all Malaysians. The same day-to-day living you see communicated in his work is familiar across the nation - the humility, friendliness and open hearts that we all hold.

Above all, Che Mat says, his work is a story told in our own backyards.