With a glass like intimacy, Byron Hamzah's portraitures tells so little but so much at the same time.
Puan Robiah, the paddy farmer.
Photo developed by @makeiteasylab
I was travelling in the north-west Malaysian state of Perlis and was exploring the stunning paddy fields in the region. I was lucky as it was during the period of growth and the greenery was quite breathtaking. During one of the afternoons, I walked pass few kampung houses and I saw Puan Robiah hanging clothes outside her house. We ended up having a long chat and being a typical friendly and welcoming northerner, she invited me for a drink at her patio which was in front of her 5 acres of paddy plantation, so the view was rather spectacular. As she was getting advanced in age, she was no longer able to farm the field herself hence she had to hire others to do it. She did admit that the past 2 years was a bit of a struggle as many of her paddy shoots did not bear rice and she was still unable to identify the cause. Nevertheless, she was not giving up as the paddy field is her entire life.
Can you share with us a little about yourself?
Originally, I am from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I moved to the U.K as a teenager for my studies and then pursued medicine. Currently I am a practicing doctor in the British National Health Service based in Nottingham but photography has become my great passion.
How did you get into photography and how long have you been at it?
I started photography about 5 years ago. I lived in a house that had a lovely flower garden at the back. During the spring and summer seasons, the garden was spectacular and I really wanted to show my friends and family how it looked. I was not satisfied with what my camera phone was taking so I decided to buy a camera and ended up with my first entry-level DSLR, the Nikon D5500. That camera changed my life and my perception of imagery. What started with photographing my garden progressed to photographing the people around me. I always had my camera with me and it started to annoy my friends as I used any social events or gathering opportunities to photograph them. During this period, my camera was constantly at automatic mode as I was unsure in exploring other technical features my camera could offer.
Then, I attended a day photography course offered by Jessops (a British retail shop that sells cameras and camera-related products) in the city I was living in. The 3-hour lesson gave me the low-down on the principals of photography and image taking. It also encouraged me to start shooting in manual, and that is how I have been shooting ever since. A lot of what I know about photography were also acquired via youtube videos or photography books.
In the creative sense, if there was a turning point in my photography endeavours that made me take it to the next level was when I saw the documentary ‘Finding Vivian Maier’. I was on a flight back to Malaysia and none of the in-flight films interest me. However, the documentary caught my eye, having heard her name mentioned in the past on the news. Watching the documentary and seeing her works opened my eyes to photography in ways I did not expect; primarily on how profound photography was not just as an art-form, but also as a tool for story-telling. I was simply inspired. This spurred me to learn about other great photographers like Steve McCurry, Dorothea Lange and Abbas who until now still continue to inspire me.
As time progressed, I started shooting street portraits and creating small documentary photo projects to challenge and force me to hone my skills. I have always viewed myself (and still do) as a perennial amateur, but my loved ones suggested I submit some of my documentary portraits to the British Journal of Photography Portrait of Britain Prize one year which surprisingly I won. This was followed by submissions to the Taylor Wessing Portrait Photography Prize organised by the National Portrait Gallery London. I managed to get to the final round of judging but sadly I did not win. This reassured me that I was not incapable as a photographer and a reminder of how far I have come.
It seems that you shoot a lot on film. How did the foray in film photography began?
I blame it on Instagram. For most photographers, Instagram is not just a tool for image disposal or consumption, but also serves as a vital source of inspiration. I realised that the images that always caught my eye were film photos. However, the thought of having to learn a new skill set that entailed in shooting film was a bit daunting. I finally relented by buying my first film camera, the Olympus Trip 35. As it was a simple point-and-shoot model, I felt it suited my aptitude as a beginner. I took it while backpacking in the south of France and used it mainly in landscape and architectural photography and I was blown away on how beautiful the images were. As most film photographers will attest, you never stop at owning only one vintage film camera. This was followed by several film cameras to what I am currently shooting with, a medium format Pentax 6x7.
I still shoot in both digital and film as I see the appeal in both mediums. However, I do shoot most of my documentary and street portraits in film.
Yang Tinggal Hanya Kita or translated to All Thats Left is Us is a series of photographs taken by Byron Hamzah over the past years. Comprising of intimate portraitures of his family, this series explores the photographer's relationship with his family who are all still based in Malaysia, particularly his mother.
Part of the series Yang Tinggal Hanya Kita
In this photo is Adam and Imran, my nephews who I love and miss dearly. This was after the Eid-ul-Fitr prayers and I wanted to capture them wearing the Jubbah they wore to the mosque. Each time I photograph them, I am always reminded by their innocence and the playful affection they have for each other harks back to my childhood with my siblings.
When did this project started and how did it come about?
I spent so many years photographing various people and strangers, but never have I really considered using my family as photography subjects. I perceived such an act bordered into an intimacy that was rather uncomfortable. As much as I don’t regret my decision to remain in the UK, the choice I made still weighs as a silent guilt in my psyche. My family unit that is left is not large; I have a sister and two nephews. I also have three half-siblings I have not met in years that I have a rather fractious relationship with.
It took my mother some time to come to terms with my decision and as time passed, I could
see that our values and views of life have changed and so has the dynamics of our
relationship. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, I was not able to see my family in Malaysia
for almost three years and this made me re-evaluate my relationship with them, particularly with my mother. I wanted to explore the dynamics of what remains of my family, and the chasm that exists between us and perhaps heal it to some form of harmony. I was also keen to explore my mother’s relationship with her faith which has become so integral in her life particularly after the death of my father.
When I discussed this with my mother, I was surprised that she agreed to sit for me. She was rather averse to being photographed and there are hardly any recent formal photos of her.
A portraiture of Byron Hamzah's mother
"Being an immigrant in the UK, I was not able to see my family in Malaysia for over 3 years during the pandemic. My family is not large but we have a complicated history, so this time apart made me re-evaluate my rather complex relationship with them, particularly with my mother. I have never considered my family as part of my documentary or artistic photography endeavours as I perceived such an act bordered into an intimacy that was rather uncomfortable to me. Hence this project was an opportunity for me to explore the chasm that was created over time and distance."
Your works seem to revolve around portraitures, why portraitures?
It is hard to explain or articulate on my affinity towards portraiture. Each time I am in an art museum, it is always a portrait painting that stops me in my track rather than any subjects or objects of painting. I think a lot of it is the ability of the face and body to convey so much of a story despite it being only a snapshot of a moment. I am also intrigued by its ability to lie and manipulate its viewers to inspire a narrative that the artist wants to evoke. Hence, the power eventually lies on the photographer’s ability (or even luck) in capturing the moment regardless of whether the moment is authentic or manufactured. I find this particular aspect rather fascinating.
What are some of your previous portraiture works that you feel is unforgettable to you?
There is one street portrait that I took when I was travelling in the north-east Malaysian state of Kelantan that stays in my mind. One afternoon, I was strolling in the Cahaya Bulan Beach and the place was brimming with people. I love taking street portraitures of people at the beach and the setting there was perfect for me. I was photographing few families there and there was a young Muslim woman that caught my eye. She was wearing a full niqab and she was sitting on the beach wall staring quietly into the sea as if she was meditating. Whilst most Kelantanese were very obliging when asked to be photographed, I was a bit nervous approaching her as I perceived that her rather conservative attire may suggest a reticence on being photographed by a man. To my surprise, she was very happy to be photographed and most obliging. I got her to stand on the rocks in front of the windy sea where she confidently posed for the shots, looking very elegant.
Through this photo and my experience of acquiring it, I wanted to show that despite appearances and preconceived notions, people can surprise you and prove you wrong. I also wanted to show that just because a woman chooses to wear a veil, it does not make her a wallflower.
What influences your photographic works?
When it comes to the technicalities of it, it would have to be the lighting as I rely exclusively on natural light. Embarrassingly, I am one of those photographers who still cannot wrap his head around the physics of flash photography so I actively shun using it. Despite doing a lot of street portraiture, I actually love doing indoor portraits with a good source of natural light from windows, as the way the light falls on the subject never fails to evoke a dramatic and atmospheric outcome.
When it comes to the creative depth itself, I do derive inspiration from the greats of photography. I suppose one can say my first source of inspiration during my early formative years in photography was Vivian Maier particularly for street portraiture. Then, there is Steve McCurry and Dorothea Lange for documentary portraiture. Then I discovered more greats such as Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Eve Arnold and Diane Arbus.
Over the years, I realised that my exposure to and inspiration for photography was too Western- or Euro-centric being in this part of the world. I felt this strange confusion of identity and I wanted to be inspired by people that share my heritage or by those that came from the same parts of the world as me. Hence, I started looking into great photographers of Asian/East Asian heritage and I discovered so many of them like Daido Moriyama, Lu Guang, Ho Fan and Oscar Motuloh whose bodies of work are just as peerless. It made me realise how under-represented and under-acknowledged East/South-East Asian photographers are in these parts of the world when there are so many of them out there.
What are you up to these days? Any new projects in the works?
At the moment, I am still working on my Malaysian-based projects. Apart from the project discussed earlier, I am also doing another Malaysian-based project in parallel. For this particularly project, it involves me visiting all of the 13 states in Malaysia and photographing the people I meet along the way. Admittedly, I have not properly focused this project into a more cohesive or thematic manner but as I imagine that this project will take several years, I am confident it will make more sense the more I delve into it. I am also looking to start a UK-based project since I am predominantly based here.
I have also been lucky to have recently come across a group of photography enthusiasts in Nottingham that is based in a local film photo lab named the Make-it-Easy Lab. It attracts a lot of interesting and talented photographers around the area, particularly film photography practitioners. I found it very useful and quite comforting as for so long I felt rather isolated and insulated in my practice which I imagine is a common occurrence amongst photographers. Apart from getting my films processed and developed there, we have a lot of socials where we share and discuss about our photography works and talk about photography in general. It was great being able to see and be inspired by the works of others and the camaraderie from this was very much needed.
I am also planning to do a Masters in documentary photography and photojournalism in London so we will see how that turns out.