Revisiting the Past in Malacca, Malaysia

Thoughts on Progress

  A grocery shop by day gives over to night-time souvenir sales on Jonker's Walk, Malacca.

A grocery shop by day gives over to night-time souvenir sales on Jonker's Walk, Malacca.

Its been 15 years since I last visited Malacca - probably around the time that the photography bug had started to take its hold on me in earnest. Back then I was still using my  Minolta Maxxum 7000 35mm SLR film camera; didn't have much of a clue about photography (or Malaysia / Asia for that matter) and was relying solely upon my sense of wonder and awe at the "different-ness" of everything surrounding me to try and generate what I thought would be great travel photos. Intoxicated by every detail of this vibrant, historical and  colourful town, I was beside myself with photographic anticipation. This  kind of visual curiosity is never  a bad place to start when you want to make more personal travel photographs. Only, I wish I had known (about photography) back then what I have learned now.

  Captain America, a one man show stationed outside the Hard Rock Cafe, Malacca,  poses during his cigarette break.

Captain America, a one man show stationed outside the Hard Rock Cafe, Malacca,  poses during his cigarette break.

This return trip to Malacca was providing plenty of conflicting feelings, as I made the jump back and forth between the past and present in my mind. This made me want to follow the urge to: go-back-to-that-spot-and take-that-shot-properly, to pressurise myself into surpassing past efforts, provide instant digital evidence of improvement! Confirm that I have indeed progressed in skill, since those days of fumbling to reload another 'Fujifilm' canister, while caught up in the excitement of visual overload.  "I'll do it right this time", I thought to myself. Back and forth my mind went. This is perhaps why I ended up packing everything but the kitchen sink this time around. Everything that is but the essential camera battery charger or a fully charged spare! Duh! A rookie mistake! As if a ghost from the past had already begun to haunt me; this meant that I had no choice but return to the economy of shooting like in the days of film, in order to make that sole battery last for all of a couple of days and a night. Maybe this was to be a blessing in disguise after all?

As if to echo the very history of Malacca itself, this sense with being at odds with the present and haunted by the past, was to reoccur throughout the visit. This time around I found myself  less charmed by the place. New volumes of  tourism have overwhelmed its narrow streets, riverside and squares and it seems as if  this once quirky and interesting location has been forced reluctantly into providing that lowest common denominator of tourism experience and compromise its inherent charms. Having said that, it does remain vibrant and colourful - only that someone has whacked up the saturation, brightness and the auditory volume on the whole place.

In contrast to the previous visit here, I recognised that I am now more inclined to seek shots  populated with people and to go for street portraits more than I would have done before. This time, I was less fascinated by the still lives, architecture and abstract vignettes that the Malacca of the past provided and more socially conscious to the melee around me.  I began to feel sad that perhaps my innocent curiosity for the more "mundane" subject matter of the past may have have been lost, just as much as I wished I had today's bravery to shoot strangers back then. So I resolved to try and find a way to combine the two and examine these feelings in my shooting.

Since I had brought a tonne of equipment and had limited battery life, I decided to split-up the battery power between day and night shooting, determined to use the tripod and off camera flash, after trudging around with it all the while. Just as in the past visit, I spent most of my time there in a sweaty mess - this time fumbling with the tripod and / or the speedlite.

Happily, I noted that I was still as excited by the photographic opportunities before me. I felt empowered by the medium of photography and was able to take comfort from the familiar and still embrace that curiosity for what was not.

Repeat-visiting a location like this is always good for one's photography. Not being too hard on oneself is another lesson I learned from returning to Malacca. Currently, I am reading Robert M Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", a book which back then I wasn't ready for but am reading again now - and it seems to resonate. Pirsig says: “To live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.” Just as in travel, our natural quest to be the best kind of photographer is also a journey and perhaps it doesn't have to simply be about arriving at the destination that truly enriches us?

Jumpa lagi!