Art is a powerful tool that can rise above the challenges posed by tough times. Somehow, artists will find a way to make things happen. Convinced that photography can keep them motivated as they communicate their stories, Exposure+ Photo made an open call to photographers to submit project proposals on the theme of “Belong” in January last year.
The word is open to wide interpretations, says co-founder and curator Nadirah Zakariya, and inclusive as it resonates with a lot more people now as a result of the pandemic creating distance, isolation and fear. “We were in lockdown for so long, the project kept us creative and motivated, and gave us something to look forward to.”
Photographers were invited to reflect on what it meant to stay connected and belong, especially after months of confinement. “We were looking for new and fresh projects for people to create. We looked at what they intended to shoot and how they would interpret the theme.”
Eleven submissions picked from the 96 received feature at Exposure+ Photo, which is being held simultaneously at eight venues across the Klang Valley from Feb 26 until March 13. Curated works by five international photographers are shown alongside them at the different locations.
The idea is to give participants a platform to introduce themselves to a wider audience, exhibit and sell their works, and use project-based photography to communicate “thought-provoking, socially conscious and personal stories”, Nadirah says. Each story is different, from fat positivity to a desire to put a beloved island under main-media focus to shots that document Kuala Lumpur in the hours between seven and eleven at night.
“We believe fine, cerebral photography, especially in Malaysia, must be given more visibility in an industry that is often seen to be participatory and aesthetics-driven. The effective use of photography opens our hearts and minds by creating a deeper awareness of the human condition and mankind’s relationship with its surroundings.”
Accessibility is the reason for the eight venues, namely GMBB Arts and Events Complex; High Street Studios Arts Events Space; LOKL Coffee Co; Kloé Hotel; Lullaby Bar and Event Space; Lot18 Gallery; REXKL; and Zontiga photography gallery and studio.
“Exposure+ Photo is for everybody to enjoy. We want to take art out of conventional galleries. We also have talks, workshops and walk-throughs where the artists explain their works and processes,” she explains.
Running over the same three weekends at GMBB is KLPA2021, featuring 56 portraits and 10 projects by last year’s winners and finalists of the Kuala Lumpur International Photoawards. London-based Malaysian freelance photographer Steven Lee, who initiated the annual competition in 2009, thought it would be nice to have an explosion of photography displays at the same time.
“Photography is starting to be exciting. There are organisations such as Women Photographers Malaysia, which started during the pandemic and shows works by women. KLPA features portrait photography.
“Everything we do is to elevate the art and contribute something new and fresh. It is a strange time to have shows after being cooped up for so long. We hope with Exposure+ Photo, more people will be inspired to take more photos and organise projects and exhibitions.”
This is the inaugural show by Exposure+ Photo, “a collective that runs on passion”. Channelling the passion are Lee, the co-founder cum curator; members Munirah Rohaizan and Stacy Liu; and Nadirah, who also wears the hats of producer and director.
“We work as a team to make sure everyone submits on time, talk to the sponsors, work with location owners and the photographers personally if a topic had to be changed because of Covid-19. Leading up to the show, we held workshops to raise funds,” she adds.
Two years ago, the collective had an open call on the theme of Kuala Lumpur that led to KL20X20, which saw some of the artists selling their zines, books and prints. “We thought it would be a one-off, just to celebrate KL that year. Unexpectedly, it generated much interest from the public and they started to anticipate a KL20X21 and KL20X22. But we didn’t want to run a programme restricted to just the city, so we kept the concept and decided to call it Exposure+ Photo.”
Planning the current event has taught both the organisers and artists that “it is not easy but it is possible. We just had to be flexible about date shifts and open to change.
“The photographers all had their own creative processes and it was Steven’s and my responsibility to guide them the best way possible and be understanding. On the bright side, the challenges inspired some interesting ideas, such as photos of mothers from around the world doing homeschooling with their kids, shot remotely through their handphones by Patricia Krivanek.”
Circumstances beyond everyone’s control broke down the borders of photography as well and pushed back limits. “I think everybody powered through and they have been able to create beautiful works that we are proud to share. Exposure+ Photo is about the artists and their works. It’s their time to shine.”
Nadirah is a professional photographer herself and the owner of Layar Lucida, a production company that makes commercials, short films, series and music videos. She studied photography and digital imaging at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and has had her pictures published in Bloomberg News, The New York Times Magazine, Refinery29 and Vogue Italia, among others, and exhibited in New York, London, Paris, Milan and KL.
In 2017, she submitted her photos in response to an open call by the KLPA. “My entry was not selected but Steven noticed it. He contacted me personally and asked if I was interested to do a creative workshop during the KLPA event. We realised we had the same interests and motivations in photography and the local scene. From there, mutual respect for each other was born and here we are today.”
Nadirah knew she wanted to be an artist from young. “The moment I went into the dark room [during a photography class at college], there was no turning back. I loved photography and wanted to learn more. I think it’s exciting and a very healthy tool for self-expression.”
People snapping away using their phones reflects growing interest in photography, but she hopes they will go deeper into it and focus on content and intent: what pictures to take and for what purpose.
“The word is elevating — how do you elevate your works and interpret ideas in your own voice. You don’t have to go far or use fancy equipment to create something strong. Sometimes the best stories are right under your nose, inside your own home.
“Some of the workshops I really enjoyed teaching during the pandemic were projects on isolation — how to keep yourself creative despite being indoors. You can use photography as a tool to cope with everything you are going through but cannot articulate verbally. A lot of people struggled with feeling stuck and used it to escape.”
This article first appeared on Feb 21, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.