“Have you ever been there?” he asks me. Without waiting for an answer, Ho proceeds to describe with remarkable clarity the market as he remembers it. “It was an amazing place. You could buy any possible kind of vegetable, fruit and meats. Back then in the 50’s, things were very basic and this market was a treasure trove of produce you couldn’t normally get anywhere else.”
The litany of words trails off and he pauses momentarily before adding halfwistfully: “I still remember the smell of lemons when I stepped into the market as a young boy.” For the Ipoh-born photographer, the wet market represented a wealth of memories that go back as far as when he was just ten years old.
When news broke that the historical market was about to be shut down for good, Ho embarked on a personal project to document the people of Central Market in a series of photographs in the final weeks prior to its closing. He admits to not having a plan at the very beginning. “I was simply taking pictures of the scenes at the market at first before deciding on portraits.”
Taking portraitures of people however, wasn’t something he set out to do immediately. “I needed them to be comfortable with me with the camera pointed straight into their faces,” he recalls. He “hung around” them and built relationships with the plain-speaking, hardworking traders, fish mongers, vegetable sellers and the people who worked tirelessly in the dank interiors of the wet market. Like his inspiration, American photographer Diane Arbus, Ho spent considerable time with his subjects before finding just the right moment to take the best shot, using an ordinary film camera.
“It was the only way I could produce the type of photographs I was aiming for,” explains Ho, adding that he went there every day for many weeks before it was closed. “I’d go there around 4.30 in the morning because that’s when the activity starts,” he recalls.
The sheer beauty of his shots was heightened by the fact he never posed or planned them in any way. Each caught the drama, wit or joy of the immediate, or “decisive,” moment. “I told them to be themselves, look into the camera and try to find that quiet space within. That’s why you’ll find that they’re looking straight at the camera.
They’re not posing; they’re simply being,” he says waving to the stacks of framed photographs behind him.
It’s a far riskier and time-consuming proposition to forgo the manipulated shots and instead view photography as a collaborative venture between two souls on either side of the lens. But Ho points out that the more he took himself out of the picture, the better they became.
Many of his monochromatic portraits show people on their own at a time when they’re not involved in busy communal activities; an almost meditative time when