Sacred River B&W Photography Exhibition Hin Bus Depot
I met Chong Kok Choon on the eve of his latest photography exhibition, aptly named “Sacred River” B&W Photography Exhibition, at Hin Bus Depot, Penang.
I had entered the exhibition space from the café entrance at the back and walked through the garden and through the half-drawn roller shutters.
The black and white (B&W) photographs are being strung up; a petite woman was seen measuring and aligning the prints with a spirit level and a ruler.
A slim man, dressed in casual blue tee and shorts greeted me shyly.
Chong the artist and photographer is intense and quiet behind his horn rims.
Chong is from Kuala Lumpur and couldn’t converse in the sing-song Penang Hokkien that I speak.
We struck up an easy conversation in a mixture of halting English and Mandrian.
Finally, we settled for Cantonese and we could speak freely.
CHONG KOK CHOON
A Fine Arts graduate from the Malaysian Institute of Art, Chong is a kampong boy at heart. He grew up in a Chinese village in Salak Selatan, Kuala Lumpur.
As we spoke at length, looking at images on his notebook and viewing his book on a long table top, perched high on the bar stool.
My eyes scanned the exhibits.
This series of Black and White prints are riveting.
Even as we spoke, my eyes veered to the right and I was drawn to the photograph of large groups of people squatting on the ground, their hand shielding their eyes.
I was compelled to the same photograph that drew me in when I first step into the hall.
We walked there.
I stood rooted and drank deeply of the image.
Most of the people in the photograph are womenfolk with their faces and eyes averts away from the camera, looking away.
The man on the left stared back anxiously. His interlaced straightened fingers are strong indicators of the frustration and insecurity he was feeling.
I could sense his hopelessness and confusion.
As I stare at the photo I began to pick up details in the scene, the women were picking and bundling betel leaves and filling up sacks.
I stood transfixed.
IT BEGAN IN KOLKATA
Chong’s focus on humanity is the driving force behind his trip to Kolkata the capital of India’s West Bengal state to photograph the city’s people.
Trained as a colorist in a Hong Kong style comic publication, he worked on several publications fuelled with the love for art and the Bruce Lee comics of his youth.
After his promotion to Art Director, Chong felt he wanted to pursue his artistic aspiration after a lapse of 20 years when his focus was solely on his career.
HIS FIRST NIKON
In 2011, he bought his first camera, a Nikon D7000 for RM3, 500 which was almost his two months’ salary and began to study photography seriously.
“My forte is Black & White photography. I choose to work in dark earth tones which is unlike gothic and its dark side connotation. I began to shoot landscape and human’s placement in their environment extensively and ventured into portraiture.
His quest took him to a district in the Indian state of Bihar for two weeks on a pilgrimage trip to Bodh Gaya with friends.
“India is unlike other countries when I arrived in India, I felt I landed smack in the center of her culture, my every sense was assailed by the sights, sounds, and color.
There wasn’t a chance for a slow immersion to the culture at all.”
My first impression was chaos ~ Chong Kok Choon
I felt I was in a tight space, so cramped, noisy and dark; there are so many people everywhere.
I was stunned.
In Kolkata, there was no space for personal space.
I grew acclimatized after a few days and started to shoot. Even dressed like the locals to blend in.
I would walk, stop, sit and wait. Drinking in the environment, being with the people. Although I couldn’t converse with them, I felt I was drawn into their world. I could connect when I look into their eyes.
As a photographer I take a piece of a memory from them, it is always ‘that’ moment that captures the essence of the people who lived very hard lives with little hope,” said Chong.
Life starts by the river. Chong’s rendition of the mighty Ganges also called the Ganga River is the second largest river on the Indian subcontinent. His travels continued on the distributary of the Ganga River, the Hooghly River, and Buriganga River one of the most polluted rivers in Bangladesh.
Riveting, stark and dark, the images come cuts across all boundaries and is evocation and emotional.
FROZEN IN TIME
His photographs are moments in time. Somehow he is able to connect through his camera’s lens. Their eyes not only stared back.
I felt the weight of their stares through the photographs.
As I ventured from each photo, I began to see India and Bangladesh through Chong’s eyes. He picked up details of how industrialization has affected the lives of the locals.
There was a picture of workers chiseling rust off a ship. The din was frightful and the workers are hard of hearing.
Looking at that picture, on the left was a young man who was chiseling away, balancing on a rope high above everyone else.
Closer to the ground were men in their twenties and thirties. The smell of rust filled the air at the shipyard. One of the workers wore a handkerchief mask to protect his mouth and nose.
At the foreground an old man was sitting on a stool, chiseling away.
“He’s probably deaf from years of working, the noise no longer bothered him,” Chong said.
I look and interpreted the scene as a progression in life. The old man probably only knew this work.
He probably started young and was able to earn more money when he could work at the high level. Now that he is old, he works almost at the ground level; still eking out a living for survival.
That’s the life of the people living by the river.
Chong records the lives of the people there whose livelihood revolves around the port and shipyards.
LIFE BY THE SACRED RIVER
His art is emo. You will linger and stare hard at certain pieces, some you glance away quickly.
Strangely, there are only two pictures of the river.
I asked Chong out of curiosity “Weren’t there any burial ceremonies at the Ganges?”
Chong said there were but he didn’t photograph these out of deep respect.
Instead, he photographed the people of the city at work and at leisure, pictures of kids, tuk-tuk, and ships.
Stark and powerful.
A general worker, Ala Min from Bangladesh who was helping Chong set up the exhibition was touched when he viewed the photographs.
“I feel homesick when I see the photos of my hometown and miss my family very much,” he said.
Hin Bus Depot is opened from noon until 8.00pm on weekdays and 10 am to 11 pm on weekends.
The exhibitions end on February 8, 2016