Malaysia’s natural landscapes are breathtakingly beautiful, but you cannot be told this fact in order to believe it — it is a sight you must see for yourself to truly understand. Undulating mountain ranges, expansive oceans and rich plains heave with life and an elegance so mesmerising they move you to tears. But to really feel these emotions, you have to see them for yourself and personally witness their majesty.
This is exactly what photographer S C Shekar did, strapped to a specially retrofitted helicopter and with camera in hand.
As part of a personally funded project, the former photojournalist was on a mission to aerially record the nation’s topography, starting with Pulau Langkawi. And he could hardly believe that the country he called home had so much beauty.
“I wanted to get the lie of the land and I started with Langkawi because it is the birthplace of Southeast Asia — the first land mass that arose from the sea is located here, just beyond the shores of The Datai, called Anak Datai. I learnt this only as an adult and I was surprised that I’d never known this fact before! So I put together all the funds I could get, hired helicopters and aerially photographed as much of Langkawi as I could,” Shekar tells Options.
He was so intrigued by what he discovered that he decided to travel across the nation, capturing riveting images of our natural landscapes and our different communities. This meticulous process of visual documentation — each image has been geotagged, for example — was inspired in part by Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado Júnior, who went around the world photographing various landscapes and cultures.
“The grandfather of the current Sultan of Terengganu was an amazing photographer who captured stunning images of his state, and Eric Peris, who I trained with, has also captured so much of the nation. As a young photographer myself, I was very inspired by what these photographers had already done and the images that they had taken of our country. I became aware of the need to document Malaysia in this day and age and, of course, the need for it to be done properly,” Shekar explains. “And as I kept going, I began to get a feel of what this land is actually like and how staggeringly beautiful it is.”
The news photographer turned documentary lensman did not start out with an end goal in mind but soon realised that the images he captured of the nation needed to be shared. As he made plans to publish a coffee-table book filled with his photographs, Khazanah Nasional Bhd stepped in with an idea for an exhibition — the company was intrigued as images of this kind had never quite been captured before. Both the book and the exhibition are entitled Grit & Grace — The Grandeur of Monochrome Malaysia, and represent the aspirations of a young nation that has achieved so much.
Shekar’s images are exclusively black and white, which was deliberate on his part. “I’ve always found that colour is a distraction; almost like an embellishment you don’t need. Over the years, I’ve really grown to prefer black-and-white photography because when you remove colour, you’re left with only form and function,” he says. Captured with a Fuji mirrorless medium format camera, each image was taken in raw format and then converted to black and white — no other digital imaging technology was applied.
Although the initial plan was for a 200-page book, the sheer amount of content that Shekar had amassed necessitated a change in plans. The book now stands at 330 pages and weighs a hefty 5kg — “you’ll get a hernia carrying it,” he jokes — and because he wanted to showcase the landscapes as he had seen them from the air, the book includes 15 gatefolds that open to 4ft.
Of the images in the exhibition, 50 are from the book, while the rest have been specifically chosen for the show.
The prints will not be for sale, however, as Shekar has a nobler plan for the images themselves. “When I go one day, all these pictures are going to go to a repository where they can be accessed for free. It’s pointless for the images to be sitting in a computer; they need to be shared. People need to see how beautiful this nation is, how beautiful its people are.”
The book and exhibition, which were aptly launched on Malaysia Day, are deeply connected to Shekar’s allegiance to the nation and the legacy he will be leaving behind. “At the end of the day, what am I going to leave behind as a photographer? What can I do for this country that has nurtured me, that has made me who I am?” he asks. “This sort of thing is what I can do. It is my contribution to the nation. A nation whose beauty I hope everyone will be able to see and enjoy, just like I did.”
For more information or to place an order for the book, visit www.scshekar.com/gritandgrace.