Stories from the Lenses

When two engineers, a professional photographer and a civil servant, get behind their cameras, familiar and rare snapshots of Penang begin to unravel. We find out about what goes into creating captivating photos of Penang.

Penang is pretty special. Other than its street food, the state’s charm lies in its photogenic settings. From its colonial and heritage buildings to its people, culture, rugged landscapes, idyllic seascapes and humble street food, there’s always a postcard-perfect view waiting to be captured. During the day, this fascinating state offers an exceptional amount of opportunity for shutterbugs, with its mix of characters, places and activities. At night, its hilly centre remains the best spot to catch the city’s lights sparkling in the dusk like ground-level fireworks. Throughout the year, there’s always a celebration going on and colourful street art to hunt. It is no wonder then, that its capital – George Town – was named one of the selfiest cities in the world by TIME magazine in 2014, with some 95 selfie-takers for every 100,000 people.

“There are many sights to appreciate and I hope I can record as many as possible in photos,” says photographer and electronics engineer Thum Chia Chieh, who often focuses his lens on George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thum has lived here while he was growing up – his photographs reflect his intimacy with the city.

“For me, George Town is incredibly unique. It seems to be unchanging in a way, yet parts of the city – whether buildings or people – do fade away unknowingly, only to be recollected as memories one day. What I see today may not be the same in the eyes of future generations.

“Take the iconic ferries for example. The service has ceased operations after 126 years. Our trishaws may share the same fate one day – they have dwindled in numbers over the years.

 

Trishaws passing by the Toi Shan Ningyang Wui Kwon Clan Temple on Lebuh King. The iconic wheels are at risk of disappearing as the number of trishaws has dropped significantly over the years. Photo credit: Thum Chia Chieh.

 

“Sadly, we lost two heritage traders. Joss stick maker Lee Beng Chuan and wood carver Yeap Siew Kay passed away last year. That’s why we must cherish our living heritage when we still can meet and talk to them. I think it’s essential for me to capture its streets and its people before they are lost to time,” he says.

While Thum prefers to capture the way he sees the streets as he walks through them, another engineer Govindarajoo Selvathurai enjoys getting to places an ordinary camera can’t reach. His trusted drone allows him to soar above landmarks, attractions and landscapes. His pictures – often of man-made marvels nestling within ancient rainforest or hulking over the sea – demonstrate that nothing is more beautiful than the stark juxtaposition of contrasting elements taken from rare perspectives.

 

Govindarajoo’s photograph of the Penang Second Bridge received a special mention in the Aerial Photography Awards 2020 under the Man-made | Transportation category. Photo credit: Govindarajoo Selvathurai.

 

The engineer from Penang also noted that there’s a lot that goes into creating breathtaking photos. “You have to be really passionate and curious about Penang. Other than landmarks and attractions, Penang is also blessed with many shades of green, like the paddy fields in Seberang Perai.

“Nevertheless, the rice fields are not always green or golden. Sometimes, all you get is dry or burnt patches of land. So, I observed the harvesting seasons to get the best picture I want. After all, photography is an art of observation – it is about finding the unique in the ordinary,” he says.

Sure, this is a state that thrives on its diversity but capturing its rich beauty in a photograph can be a daunting task. For many city shutterbugs, cars aren’t the best co-stars – their bodies block the important aesthetics of heritage mansions and shophouses such as dado walls and balusters. Drone pilots are often approached by onlookers, taking their attention away from their drones, which could be dangerous – especially when capturing festivals with a massive crowd.

“Someone could get hurt,” says professional photographer Sherwynd Rylan Kessler. “ You must focus on piloting your drone all time. Otherwise, the drone might lose its signal or the battery might become drained. It will then crash onto the crowd.”

 

Major celebrations, such as Thaipusam, often draw thousands of devotees. Taking an aerial shot of a crowd with a drone can be dangerous for various reasons. Photo credit: Sherwynd Rylan Kessler.

 

Which is why Kessler prefers to use a camera instead and set up his shooting spot somewhere further away from the public, so he could focus on his craft. Although he removed the risk of potentially hurting a worshipper with a drone or losing his focus to inquiring onlookers, capturing celebrations – especially annual occasions with scheduled fireworks displays – proved to be equally challenging too.

“This one shot I wanted to take of the Kek Lok Si Temple during its annual lighting ceremony,” Kessler recalls excitedly. “I remember feeling quite nervous. A lot was at stake as it is a once-a-year event – one mistake and I have to wait for another year to try again.

“There was a lot of planning involved. I browsed through shots taken from previous years to get an idea of my desired composition and the important elements I want in the photos,” he explains. Taken from a nearby hill, the picture shows the temple complex, the Kuan Yin statue and the Kek Lok Si Temple, bathing in ten of thousands of lights under the dazzling display of fireworks and an illuminated sky – all perfectly framed in a single shot. Today, the photo is one of his most-shared snapshots on social media.

Although Thum, Govindarajoo, and Kessler favour images emblematic of Penang, another photographer, Oh Chin Eng, focuses on capturing its people. One of Oh’s photographs shows Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow getting a haircut from his long-time barber Uncle Ling, who has been cutting Chow’s hair since the 90’s.

 

Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow getting a haircut from Uncle Ling, a traditional Chinese barber at Jalan Hutton. Photo credit: Oh Chin Eng.

 

“Uncle Ling came from a generation where they had to pick up a trade at a very young age. He started cutting hair when he was 13, and he still cuts hair today in his sunset years. Both of his children are working professionals – one of them is an engineer. Although none of his children will continue his trade, he is fine with it. These days he just enjoys spending time with his family in the shop,” says Oh.

Though focusing on ordinary people, the special officer in the Chief Minister’s Office manages to make daily encounters compelling. That’s because photography, to Oh, is more than just capturing their photos – he captures their stories as well. “To me, that’s the core of photography – engaging with life. I create conversation and I make earnest connections. Some have become friends. After years, they still remember me. I also develop their photos and give them as a token of appreciation.

“They might not know it, but these people are the soul of this place. Documenting this social fabric is important as a record of how our society has developed and how it has affected who we are today,” he says.

Find these breathtaking photographs by Thum Chia Chieh, Govindarajoo Selvathurai, Sherwynd Rylan Kessler and Oh Chin Eng in the Penang at a Glance photobook. The book’s publication will be followed by a photo exhibition, scheduled to be held alongside George Town Festival 2021 in July this year. Click here for more information.