The Reviving - Pilgrim near the top of Batu Caves, Thaipusam Ceremony, Malaysia, 2019 - Fuji X-T2 & 16-55, 16mm @ 2.8, ISO 5,000
A Different Destination
I’ve just returned recently from my annual sojourn with my Fuji’s – exploring this wonderful planet. As a teacher in Australia, I get six weeks holiday at Christmas each year, so I was very excited to start another journey. However, this year it was to be a bit different. My wife only had about ten days leave, so it was decided she would come with me for those days, then she would fly back home and I would carry on alone for another month.
To make a very long story short she talked me into going to Malaysia (after our ten days together in Bali). She had been there two years ago with her sister and really liked it. However, I am very aware that my wife’s holiday ideal is different to mine – so I was very suspicious. I want to see no ‘White Man’ (even though I am one of them), no tourists and definitely no Western style countries. She wants fancy hotels, sleeping in until 10am, laying by the pool, and eating lots of food. I wanted to go to Vietnam and stay with her folks in HCMC, get my motorbike out of cobwebs (I used to live and teach in Vietnam) and head off by myself. Anyway, as usual my wife won and after ten days in Bali together, I was winging my way to Malaysia.
I had planned a few days in the big city of K/L, just to settle in, then off to Kuantan for a few nights, then up to Penang for about six nights, then down do Malacca for about a week, then back to K/L for the remainder.
My holiday had started off very well in Bali. Even though it is a party island (we don’t drink alcohol), I was able to avoid the bars and too many ‘White Men’, and keep my wife happy at the same time – some undertaking believe me. As usual I hired a motorbike there and was able to go wherever I wanted with the help of Mr Google. I stumbled upon a recycling/rubbish dump where people lived and made their homes out of scrap. I went there several times over the 10 days taking gifts back for the children. I had a wonderful time and kind of became friends with some of the folk there. They let me into their homes and I was able to capture some brilliant images. It was with this expectation and aspiration that I landed in Malaysia.
Tough Guys - Garbage Tip/Recycling Slum, Bali, Indonesia, 2019 - Fuji XT2 & 16-55mm @ 16mm, F4, ISO 400
Off to Malaysia
After the few days in K/L I headed off to Kuantan. Oh my goodness – it was here that I realised I had made a big mistake. The lady in the hotel looked at me as if I had asked for a flight to the moon - when I asked to hire a motorbike. That was impossible, so I was kind of stuck with expensive ‘Grab’ Taxis. After the first miserable day there it started to dawn on me the magnitude of my plight. Everywhere I looked there was nice homes surrounded by fences, lots of cars and highways (but mercifully, no tourists in Kuantan). When I got to Penang a few days later, it only reinforced my conclusions from Kuantan. Though I was able to hire a motorbike, I could not do my usual ‘thing’ or operate under my MO – as I do in the rest of Asia (plus there were thousands of ‘White Men’). In Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar etc, I can usually get to where the ‘normal’ people live, by just getting a few kilometres out of the city or town. I can wander in places of work, schools, brick factories etc, and with a smile and wave and pointing at my camera, I am able to stick around and get my shots.
Focus - Playing Sepak Takraw, Streets of Penang, Malaysia, 2019 - Fuji X-T2 & 16-55, @ 55mm 2.8, ISO 1600
A Big Mistake?
There was no way any of this was going to happen in Malaysia! All of the things I tried to leave behind in Australia – boom gates, guards, rules, regulations, six lane highways and even council workers writing parking tickets - were all waiting for me there. Please don’t get me wrong, the people there are amazing, I felt safer than I do in Australia and I was treated accordingly. However, I did not realise that it is just a big Western, First World country like here at home. I was unable to wander into anywhere to take my pictures. Guards and security chased me off industries, work-sites, streets, and just about everywhere. Even driving all over the place on my motorbike in Penang, and then later on in Malacca, I could not find anywhere that I could get spontaneous images like I can in Cambodia and Myanmar.
By the end of the first week I was sitting in my hotel feeling very dejected. Other than my Bali shots, I didn’t have too many nice images in the ‘bag’. Had I blown my big trip for 2018/19? Would I have to wait another twelve months to get away to somewhere decent to get the people images I so crave to create?
I decided I had to be positive and just get out each day and take what images presented themselves. Shortly after arriving in Malacca – I realised I had booked there for too long. Even on my motorbike I couldn’t find anywhere that was off the track from city traffic or fenced in houses. You can only walk around Jonker St for so many times photographing the busloads of Chinese taking ‘selfies’ at the fountain!! I tried to be creative and get up early, stay up late etc, but the images I was seeking alluded me.
Then I remembered that on the flight from Penang to Malacca, I had read something in the flight magazine about Thaipusam. Thaipusam is the annual Hindu Festival where they pierce their faces and body parts, prostrate themselves and carry their burdens to the place of worship. I also read that the biggest place of celebration for this festival – on the planet – was Batu Caves in K/L. I checked the dates and could not believe how lucky I was. It was starting in two days, on the 21st of January. I happily cancelled two days off my hotel in Malacca and headed off two days earlier to K/L.
I was told there would be well over 500-600 thousand people crowded into the area of Batu Caves - worshippers from all over the world. Though I was getting very excited, I had not prepared myself for the visual feast that awaited me. Really, if you have not been to one of these festivals, nothing can prepare you for the sights, sounds, smells and sheer sensory overload that beckons. The traffic and ability to get out there and back was a sheer nightmare. The day I arrived in K/L, I just unloaded my bags in my room and headed straight out to Batu Caves. That was the 20th and eve of their celebrations. Though they had started, this was a mere warm-up for the next day. I left the caves at about 9pm and got to my hotel by midnight. I had three hours sleep and got up at 3am, and went straight back out for the big day.
The Pilgrim - Climbing the steps to Batu Caves, Thaipusam Celebrations, Indonesia, 2019 - Fuji X-T2 & 16-55 @ 55mm, 2.8, ISO 400
Were my over two year old cameras and gear able to keep up with the swift movement of people, the dim light (no OIS), and the dust and water everywhere? I was photographing like a man possessed - both of my Fuji’s were working so hard that they got quite hot. I went through five batteries and thousands of images. I had my magic - off the planet 16-55 glued onto one camera, and the beautiful 90mm F2 glued onto the other X-T2. This is my setup that I have written a lot about in my other blogs. It has taken me seven years of experimentation and lots of money and wasted purchases to arrive at this glorious equipment. Both cameras and lenses performed perfectly in the incredible heat, water and choking dust. I never ever change lenses and I am glad I did not have to there. Even in the dim light and darkness of the early morning on the second day, I did not long for any OIS or camera stabilisation – I just cranked those babies up to ISO 6,400 and kept cranking out the shots.
The worshippers start their flagellations down at the river. They work themselves into a trance, where the steel rods and hooks are pierced into their flesh. When their burden is loaded upon them, they start the long journey to the steps of Batu Caves. The highlight of my trip was being squeezed up the steps to Batu Caves, as thousands upon thousands of worshippers pressed up the stairs, to their final destination – the actual caves themselves. I was able to turn around on several occasions and shoot back down the steps, capturing the pilgrims in the foreground, and the disappearing mass of humanity in the distance.
Just as an aside, I noticed one very obvious thing now that I have started to wade through a few of my images on Lightroom. Prior to my two trips last year (Taiwan/Cambodia and then Thailand), I had always used the 18-55 lens, and then a bit later on the 18-135 zoom. I think this trip brought home to me the grave importance of getting the best glass you can carry. Yes my 16-55 is a big lens and some folk think it is a bit too heavy. So is the 90mm F2 – you certainly know at the end of the day that you have carried these two around for 8 hours. However, the difference when looking on Lightroom now is chalk and cheese - particularly this trip and these images of Thaipusam. The dim light, the fast movement, the high ISO rates – all contribute to bringing out any softness or weaknesses in your lenses. I could not help but notice just how wonderfully sharp and beautifully rendered all of my images were from this trip – using those two magical Fuji lenses. There is no way on earth I would go back to shooting crumby, second rate glass, like I did before. I encourage you to put up with the bit extra weight, pay the extra money – you will be greatly rewarded!
Cheeky Smile - Thaipsuam Celebrations, Batu Caves, Malaysia, 2019 - fuji X-T2 & 90 mm, F2 @ ISO 200
A Blessing in Disguise
It wasn’t until I finally staggered back to my hotel a day later, and was able to take a peek at a few of my images, that I realised the blessing in disguise. I have always wanted to go to India. Steve McCurry is my hero and I just love the images he has taken there. He once said he has been there over 80 times. Though I have been to Cambodia now 14 times, and all over Asia now for 15 years photographing this amazing planet – I have never been to India. I just love Indian people, their food (I’m a vegetarian), their hard working ethic and just so many things. I have a few Indian students at a couple of the schools where I teach and they are so hard working and studious – (puts the majority of the lazy Aussie kids to shame). It dawned on me then that though I had never even landed on the shores of India - I now have the most amazing images in my portfolio. Many Indians told me that even if I had been in India, there is no greater celebration for Thaipusam than what I witnessed at Batu Caves in Malaysia.
Steering the 'Cow' - Boy in Street Celebrations for Galungan, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, 2019 - Fuji X-T2 & 90mm, F2, ISO 400
Ode to my Wifie!
I am never one to admit it to my wife, but she has the uncanny and annoying knack of usually always being right. She insisted that if I went to Malaysia I would not regret it and could get some different but great shots. She actually turned out correct again. If I had my own way I would have got to Vietnam again then over the border to Cambodia. I would have got some great images for sure, but nothing like I did from this trip. Even the shots I got in Malaysia of the street art, buskers, funny stuff that tourists do etc, were all a breath of fresh-air and quite different to what I would normally have taken.
Beauty - Small Child at Garbage/Recycling Slum, Bali, Indonesia, 2019 - fuji X-T2 & 16-55 @ 50mm, F4, ISO 640
Would I Change Anything?
As mentioned above, if you have read any of my other blogs you will have followed the slow progression of experimentation and equipment changes to arrive at where I am today. Both of my Fuji X-T2’s I have had now for over two years apiece. Many of my friends and folk who know I am a very keen photographer, have asked me when I am updating. I tell them not for a very long time. I can honestly say that my two cameras with their lenses attached were absolutely marvellous. I shot in the rain, the dust and dirt and heat every day. The shots that I took of the people in the showers (Batu Caves – down by the river), I was actually half in the shower with them and my cameras got soaked. I just wiped the lens filter with my hanky, and kept cranking out the shots. My gear never missed a beat and even checked out fine when I got home. Many of the images I took in the very early hours of the second day were taken at very high ISO settings. I was surprised at just how great most of the images look.
I could easily hanker and buy two X-T3’s, but I see absolutely no need. I never shoot video (would not even know how to turn it on), and the autofocus on my two cameras never missed any shots because of hunting or being too slow. Many of the shots were taken of people spinning and dancing and moving very fast – my cameras froze the action and had an over 90% hit rate.
I am going to use the money that I would have to spend to update my gear on more travel to see this magic planet. My wife wants to go to Japan this year, so I am getting very excited now to book and plan that trip. I’m already starting to polish my gear and get it all ready for the next magic moments that my Fuji’s will enthral us with.
Oh, and by the way, next time your wife suggests a destination, you had better listen!!
Milk Girl - Pilgrims ascending the steps to Batu Caves, Malaysia, 2019 - Fuji X-T2 & 16-55 @ 40mm, F3.2, ISO 1600
PS - Be sure to check out my website. These pictures are just a tiny sample of the many wonderful images I took on this trip. I still have thousands to wade through in L/R, but check my site from time to time and more will be going up in the next few weeks.