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Old-style box-camera portraits intrigue Malaysians

Photographer's pinhole pictures capture the heart and soul of the country

Jeffrey Lim shows students a camera he made with an oil tin. (Courtesy of Jeffrey Lim)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Observers could be forgiven for wondering why graphic designer and artist Jeffrey Lim lugs an old oil tin around with him. In an age of super-slim camera phones, it is far from obvious that Lim's tin is a combination camera and darkroom.

Lim, a youthful 39-year-old, has been travelling around Malaysia since 2014 to take photographs of people in market places and villages. "It is really as simple as light through a pinhole falling onto paper coated with silver," he said.

A young girl photographed by Jeffrey Lim (Courtesy of Jeffrey Lim)

Lim built his first pinhole camera, which he calls a Kanta Box Kamra (kanta is the Malay word for a lens) after being inspired in 2012 by a documentary set in Afghanistan, where basic box cameras are still used to earn a living, He has since built six more, two from waste materials and four from custom-made parts such as wooden box frames and specialized elements salvaged from vintage cameras.

Pinhole cameras can be as simple as a light-tight box with a small circular hole to allow light to enter, with a strip of film or photographic paper placed inside to record the image. Exposure times can be lengthy, but photographs have infinite depth of field, with the entire image in focus without distortion.

Strapped on his back, Lim's quirky oil tin earns many curious glances as he zips around on a bicycle, his usual mode of transport. Weighing a mere 3kg, it takes only a few minutes to assemble into a fully functional camera.

Lim said it was a photograph of his paternal great-grandmother that made him realize how such simple portraits can reach out across time. He had never met her and did not even know her name. Yet the black and white photograph of an unsmiling elderly woman, wearing heavy loop earrings, her hair pulled back and gazing straight at the camera, struck a deep chord within him.

"It's a very precious photograph," he said.

Shapes and shades

Many Malaysians appear to feel a similar nostalgia for simple portraits that reflect their history. Part of the reason for Lim's photographic journey was to capture the elusive Malaysian identity in its many shapes and shades.

Jeffrey Lim photographs a student in a school near Miri in the state of Sarawak. (Courtesy of Jeffrey Lim)

Since 2014, Lim has taken hundreds of portraits in Kuala Lumpur and villages in peninsular Malaysia. He exhibited some in May at a well-received exhibition sponsored by Think City, a Malaysian agency tasked by the government with revitalizing Kuala Lumpur's cultural life.

Lim said visitors often spoke about their own personal identity and the bigger identities reflected in nationality, ethnicity and religion. "It sparked so many reflections," he said.

Yap Sau Bin, an artist who works as a curator and is an arts and humanities lecturer in a Malaysian university, said Lim's work is fascinating and appealing for its "simple complexity." Although the photographs are simple, the process of using a self-built camera and mobile darkroom requires a depth of knowledge and experience.

Ironically, Yap said, the old-style Kanta Box cameras can seem like magic in the age of digital photography. "He takes the time to explain the magic, but it is still enchanting. He's taken a part of everyday life and turned it into an art form," Yap said.

He added that the photographs have an experimental feel set in different moods, reflecting adjustments made by Lim for different lighting conditions.

Lim said the old-fashioned box cameras build rapport between himself and his sitters. The process can be slow, because he spends more time answering questions than posing subjects, but it produces evocative and timeless photos.

"People are always curious about how it works, and when we see the print developing, there's a wonderful connection between us," he said.

Many people's first reaction, he said, is excitement about being able to recreate an old-style photograph. "They talk about their grandparents' time, and start to look at themselves differently," he said.

Borders and identity

In early August, he took two cameras to the Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, travelling to the outskirts of Miri city in Sarawak State and to Keningau town in Sabah State. The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic when he visited schools and a traditional bazaar, and joined a day of celebration for Malaysia's indigenous peoples.

Jeffrey Lim shows an indigenous woman in Sabah her photograph. (Courtesy of Jeffrey Lim)

Beverly Joeman, 47, was one of the sitters. She met Lim when he was setting up his camera on Aug. 10. "I was so intrigued. It was like being back in the days when photographers would go from town to town to take photos," she said.

Over the next two years, Lim plans to take the project into remote areas to photograph Malaysians and other people living near the country's borders -- particularly those who have no legal status and are deemed stateless.

His aim is to explore what state boundaries and nationality mean for a person's identity. "This question of borders, and national control over our identity, this is something I'd like to explore in the next stage," he said.

With more than 700 photographs in his growing collection Lim hopes to be able to mount another exhibition within a year or two. He said he has sold around 400 portraits to sitters, for between 20 ringgit ($4.75) and 40 ringgit, with proceeds going to the art festivals at which he exhibits his work, as well as to fund his photography project.

"I hope by the time I have gathered more photos I would have understood more about this idea of identity, which I now see as something that is always being recreated," he said.

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