I don’t know what it is, but the last two weekends I have been encountering flocks of docile pigeons during my walks with the dog and elsewhere. Perhaps it is the time of the year, when it starts to get colder, they fly around less and spend more time huddled together. Was it Plato who wrote about ‘birds of a feather flock together’ or it could even be much earlier, but what we know for sure is, the saying holds true in whatever we do, in today’s societies.
How we select our friends, our social and work affiliations, our interests and politics, our work colleagues – and even amongst the social circles from art and photography – are determined by commonalities like genres, interests, upbringing, education and outlook.
People congregate and share common interests and goals. This is a natural thing and made easier with social networking today. There are no more physical boundaries but only unlimited experiences.
In Malaysia today, there’s a groundswell going on in photography, where I keenly and closely have my ‘eyes on the ground’.
Obscura Festival, a world-class event is now established in the annual arts calendar. We have just seen the first Kota Kinabalu Photo Festival concluded this week. There is the KL Photography Festival which attracts product manufacturers as well as hobbyists in every field and genre, as well as professional events like the WPPA and numerous other speciality groups. Personally, I have been involved in the KL International Photoawards since 2009, again a niche and event promoting portrait photography in the region.
Several ‘collectives’ and groups have formed in recent months and perhaps more will spring up in the near future, and that is encouraging. My observation tells me that there is a healthy discourse amongst the many photography groups that are established to cater for almost every aspect of photography – wildlife organised by the Malaysian Nature Society, film shooters, street photography groups are particularly active, various photowalk social groups, Afghan box camera, large format enthusiasts, and so on.
However, what is lacking, in my opinion are fine art practitioners and serious documentary photographers. A handful of friends and acquaintances are indeed working in these fields, but as a whole, there is a lack of interest. A few years ago, a spark was lit in photography book making, but recently this have fallen silent, as least from where I am observing.
These activities set within the larger photographic communities lack impetus, support and opportunities to maintain momentum – not helped by the absence of dedicated photography galleries and space, curators, collectors, funding, and education.
Photography education by it’s very definition, is misleading. At least in Asia. Education is a path to a career, but photography is a past time. The very concept of enrolling into a photography degree, BFA or MFA to become an artist, is unheard of amongst the general student populace a decade ago, and today there are only a handful of colleges and universities offering photography as modules or subjects with Graphic Design, Journalism or MassComm degrees and diplomas. The modules are also largely technical based with introductions into all manner of photography genres including camera handling and practical skills. Perhaps lacking are the historical references and personal development, critical examinations and research aspects in photography that is much needed.
Perhaps there just isn’t an appetite for anything formal or structured, and that is fine. Perhaps there is a latent demand for formalised training, following the ‘if you build it and he will come’ adage. I personally think there are opportunities to explore. I am always open to new ideas and methods and listen to the experts. There is perhaps a need to engage with colleges and universities which are providing photography education – to take a lead, or innovate with private groups. There are also avenues to explore in private workshops and programs specially targeted at young and keen photographers.
Then there is the question about opportunities. What are the channels that are available to young photographers to show their works? There are no dedicated galleries, or proper curation of work. There is little funding available from government and corporations, little or non-existent collectors of contemporary photography. Independent groups can only do so much in terms of advancement of the art. Festivals provide a useful glimpse of what the rest of the world is up to but is not entirely accessible due to specificities of curation.
A plan is underway to bring together some leading players from the region to Kuala Lumpur in May 2017, to share ideas and recommendations on how to address this gaping hole that is, photography education. I hope also to have the educators. students and lecturers come together and create dialogue.
I invite everyone who is thinking along similar lines to support and attend this KL gathering – to discuss, give your views and help shape future plans in photography education in Malaysia and also the region.
More information soon, or send me an email message if you have any proposals or comments.