Kenny Loh: Listen Before You Click; Only Then Will a Picture Paint a Thousand Words

BEHIND THE LENS

Kenny Loh: Listen Before You Click; Only Then Will a Picture Paint a Thousand Words

Photographer Kenny Loh is not content in just taking nice images. For him what’s more important is to tell the stories behind those images.

Photographer Kenny Loh’s work takes him to many places, from the remote village of Long Semadoh by the Kalimantan border to the fisherman’s cove in coastal Marang, a puppet master’s home in Kota Bharu and into a tiny square room of a migrant who has been trafficked seven times.

Many times, we photograph but don’t listen to the story. Pictures are supposed to tell a thousand words

“Being stateless means you have absolutely no bargaining power,” writes Kenny in his photo-essay of a young Rohingya who found refuge in Kuala Lumpur but craves for freedom which is still a distant pipedream.

These are the heartfelt stories that Loh wishes to tell through his work. “The photography is important but the stories are what people can identify with.”

“Many times, we photograph but don’t listen to the story. Pictures are supposed to tell a thousand words.” Loh identifies himself as a storyteller, not just a photographer. Hence, every image in his collection of series titled Born in Malaysia has a name and story (if not, a quotation) behind it.

“I must get the person’s name. I don’t like to put anonymous pictures out there. If there’s a name, there’s a story.”

AWANI Review met Loh during the launch of his exhibition - a collection of images depicting the diversity of Malaysia at KSK Land’s 8 Conlay sales gallery on Jalan Yap Ah Shak, Kuala Lumpur. The exhibition will be held until September 16.

What started off as a personal journey to retrace childhood memories in the Malaysian heartland, Loh’s passion for photography turned into a full blown book project.

“I was a fashion photographer and I shot a lot of musicians. After a while, I did some work in industrial design too,” says Kenny of his stint in Taiwan and China before he returned to Malaysia in 2009.  

“When I came home, I knew I didn’t want to do the same thing. So, I drove around by myself and took pictures for over a year,” Loh recalls. At the encouragement of friends, he decided to publish Born in Malaysia - A Photographer’s Journey in 2013 and has had his work featured in numerous exhibitions.

Photo by Pein Lee

In 2015, he published another book featuring a second collection of photographs titled Seberang Perai - Across the Sea. This year, Loh, who still dabbles in commercial work to fund his personal projects, is looking inward into the city and its dwellers with A Story of Kuala Lumpur.

The narrative of Malaysia cannot just be based on Malaysians only

“It’s still part of Born in Malaysia but the major change from the first two books is that I’m including the immigrants, the refugees and the expats.”

“The narrative of Malaysia cannot just be based on Malaysians only. There are all the other people who are just as important as we are,” explains Loh about the project’s aim to celebrate diversity.

“Even with the first book, it was never really about being born in Malaysia; it’s something about... if you call Malaysia home.”

“That’s one of the reason why the book is not about the different areas of KL. It is going to be one chapter on heroes, one chapter on change makers, one on Dan Lain Lain and Pendatang. I just want to show the diversity of KL.”

Asked about how he chooses his subjects, Loh says while there are planning involved (“I even did an Excel spreadsheet with all the subjects and areas I knew about,” says Loh) but often his journey takes him to surprising locations and personalities.

“Actually, I don’t select people. For example, I go to a small town, I’ll stay at home stays and with families. From there, I build rapport with the community, find out what they are interested in and often I get introduced to another interesting person,” says Loh.

I build rapport with the community, find out what they are interested in and often I get introduced to another interesting person

While shooting takes only a couple of minutes, he admits to sometimes spending days or even weeks in a place. But it is, nonetheless, a rewarding experience for Loh who enjoys learning about others and making new acquaintances.

At the moment, Loh is working on some commercial projects. He has travelled extensively to Orang Asli villages in Peninsular Malaysia for an upcoming book, in collaboration with Universiti Malaya’s anthropology expert Kamal Solhaimi and The Malaysian Insight’s Jahabar Sadiq.

Another project which he excitedly talks about is a book on Lim Kit Siang.

Loh has had the bird’s eye view on the 14th General elections, having been embedded with the DAP stalwart for two months during the campaigning period, photographing the political veteran at home, at meetings and at 'ceramahs' from every nook and corner of Malaysia. The book is expected to be available on sale to the public in October.

“We went to the kampungs - the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Orang Asli villages - and I can say that, there’s actually a huge awareness on politics. It just goes to show the power of social media.”

Loh admits that there are more pressure for photographers to showcase their work and ‘compete’ with influencers on social media like on Facebook or Instagram, something the 56-year-old admits with a laugh to ‘not doing very well’, yet he is appreciative that clients recognise the compelling work that he does.

“Clients do come to me because they saw my work on the website,” says Loh who now shoots using an Olympus camera. (“I used my smartphone too, nothing wrong with that,” he adds).

“The question I ask myself is if the project will make a difference in the community? Is it telling a story?,” says Loh on what drives his passion for photography. 

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