The fo­cus wi­dens

Photographer Jef­frey Lim ex­plores new hori­zons with his pi­lot Kanta Bor­neo project.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Arts - By QISHIN TARIQ star2@thes­

DE­SPITE what maps may show, borders are not rigid lines for a coun­try and its peo­ple.

Jef­frey Lim, a KL-based photographer and cy­cling ad­vo­cate, in­tends to prove that through his on­go­ing Kanta Bor­neo project, which will see him trav­el­ling by bicycle to doc­u­ment the peo­ple liv­ing in Sarawak and Sabah’s geo­graph­i­cal and so­cial fringes.

“I want to ex­plore the idea of what makes a cit­i­zen. Though there’s much talk about racism in Malaysia, there’s no such thing as ‘pure race’ in Malaysia,” says Lim, 38.

An eth­nic Chi­nese, Lim ques­tions if he would be con­sid­ered Chi­nese or a “ba­nana” as he does not speak the lan­guage.

“We’re fac­ing an iden­tity cri­sis, all around the world, peo­ple are grav­i­tat­ing away from race iden­tity,” he points out.

Even if some borders are based on phys­i­cal lines, like the Mer­a­tus Moun­tain range that cuts through Bor­neo, Lim says peo­ple liv­ing in border towns, can eas­ily cross with­out pass­ports, or are deemed state­less. This has made him ques­tion their con­nec­tion to the space.

Hav­ing worked with in­dige­nous peo­ple in his pre­vi­ous Kanta projects – done in the Belum Rain­for­est in Perak and En­dau Rompin Na­tional Park in Jo­hor – he notes that most do not iden­tify them­selves by their tribe but where they’re from.

“Like me, I’d say I’m orang KL not orang Cina,” he main­tains.

Lim feels peo­ple do not be­long in such cat­e­gories now, as many live in the city, and even those who live out­side still de­pend on towns for trade.

The mod­ernised na­tives also present a quirk to his project. Photography is not some­thing novel to them as most have smart­phones and know all about self­ies. For­tu­nately, Lim’s choice of cam­era, the Kamra-e-faoree (a hand­made wooden cam­era box that was both a cam­era and a dark­room in one) is prob­a­bly a novel ex­pe­ri­ence to any­one.

“They call me ‘cam­era man P. Ram­lee’ be­cause of how old fash­ioned the ac­tual Kanta looks. Even when I set up in malls and fes­ti­vals, peo­ple still get ex­cited see­ing it,” he says.

Lim’s wood­box cam­eras, which he calls Kanta Box, were in­spired by a doc­u­men­tary he watched back in 2011 on the Afghan Box Cam­era Project. Later on, he met Lukas Birk, one of the peo­ple be­hind doc­u­men­tary. He learned to build his own wood­box cam­era.

“My Kanta cam­era is made from waste and farm ma­te­ri­als, so if any­thing breaks while I’m trav­el­ling, I can eas­ily find re­place­ment parts,” he says, dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view at his stu­dio in KL.

His Kanta Boxes, if any­thing, can eas­ily be mis­taken as waste ma­te­rial, es­pe­cially the wood boxes and Cap Ben­dera cook­ing oil cans utilised.

The cam­era, lit­er­ally a box, also means Lim can store his photography ma­te­rial and some gear inside it, and carry it on his back us­ing a gui­tar strap, even while he cy­cles from town to town.

The other unique thing about the Kanta Box is how it uses in­stant paper with a sil­ver gela­tine, like ana­logue cam­era film, which al­lows Lim to process the pho­tos and cre­ate a near in­stant print.

“Some call this the liv­ing form of photography, com­bin­ing imagery and print. I feel photography has be­come so dis­con­nected now, we just click ‘Ctrl+P’ and it comes out of a ma­chine.

“The idea of ‘in­stant’ has changed a lot too. My fastest time (pro­cess­ing a Kanta photo) is about five min­utes, from get­ting the shot to print­ing it,” he replies, when asked if the Kanta Box is as quick as tak­ing a Polaroid.

In the con­text of the Kanta Bor­neo project, the in­stant prints are an in­te­gral as­pect to this short tour, giv­ing sub­jects a tan­gi­ble im­age of them­selves. It also al­lows him to print mul­ti­ple copies, one for the sub­ject and one for him­self. Resin coated (RC) paper is also used for its dura­bil­ity, be­ing wa­ter­proof and made to last 100 years, eas­ily.

Lim has had some per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with the joy and mystery of find­ing old pho­tos. He re­cently dis­cov­ered a por­trait of his great-grand­mother (from over a cen­tury ago). Sadly, he re­veals that nobody re­mem­bers her name, where she lived or where to find out more about her.

To avoid a sim­i­lar prob­lem, Lim makes it a point to record peo­ple’s sto­ries in his Kanta work, not just their pho­tos. He calls this an iden­tity project, fol­low­ing the motto “tak­ing pho­tos, true photography to see peo­ple”.

Kanta Bor­neo, which started in Miri early this month, will see Lim trav­el­ling through Sarawak and Sabah this month.

He started by build­ing a base of op­er­a­tions in Miri where he had ad­di­tional gear shipped in. Hav­ing never been to Sarawak be­fore, Lim worked with Teach For Malaysia (teacher Huda Ne­jim) and the Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) NGO to make in­roads with the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

In Miri, he set up his cam­era in a lo­cal mar­ket, at­tended a tra­di­tional long­house wed­ding and even held a work­shop in a school.

“Miri is filled with trea­sures if you know what to look at,” he says.

“I usu­ally plan trips of over a week, so two lo­ca­tions in Miri and Keningau will take about 10 days each,” he re­veals.

Af­ter this doc­u­men­ta­tion project, Lim in­tends to re­turn to Sabah and Sarawak to fur­ther his Kanta Bor­neo work.

There is no dead­line, nor plan of whether the project will be pre­sented as a book or ex­hi­bi­tion. How­ever, Lim hopes to have a pre­sentable body of work by mid next year.

More info on Kanta Bor­neo at ‘Kanta Por­traits’ on Face­book.

‘They call me “cam­era man P. Ram­lee” be­cause of how old fash­ioned the Kanta looks. Even when I set up in malls and fes­ti­vals, peo­ple still get ex­cited see­ing the box and the pho­tomak­ing process,’ says Lim about his Kanta Por­traits work. — Pho­tos: IBRAHIM MO­HTAR/The Star

Lim and his Kanta Bor­neo project mak­ing a stop in Miri. — Kanta Por­traits

In­spired by a doc­u­men­tary on the Kamra-efaoree (a hand­made wooden cam­era box that was both a cam­era and a dark­room in one), Lim made his own ver­sion called the Kanta Box cam­era.

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