Why preserve history? Talking to K. Azril Ismail the answer seems to be “because it is there.” The sands of time may move slowly but development moves faster than one can blink, swallowing up history and former ways of living, demolishing in weeks things that have been around so long not even recent ancestors would have remembered a time before it. Just as quickly, the space once historically occupied is filled with something that serves the modern world better, something that brings in investment and that makes money.
The battle between modernization and conservation rages hot in Asia’s major cities, including Kuala Lumpur. There are those that insist we must change with the times, that sentimentality stands in the way of commerce and globalization. Others point out that unlike new buildings, old ones are irreplaceable and should be kept to remind us that we weren’t born yesterday, that what we are was built upon centuries of learning from achievements and mistakes. Their compromise is to keep old buildings but to convert them into something financially useful – a hotel, a restaurant, a museum – something that will earn its keep.
Then there is K. Azril Ismail. While the wars are fought elsewhere, he slips unseen to make friends with what provoked them. Regardless of the final outcome, he knows, a form of preservation can and should start at once.
Seeing K. Azril’s work is like putting on a long-needed pair of glasses. The world is pulled into sharp, detailed focus, the colours are alive and you know instinctively how every surface would feel under your fingers.
Two years ago, Azril held an exhibition at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) called Dragons of Malaya.
The subject was a soon-to-be retired train depot, the largest in Malaysia and one of the largest in Asia. For generations entire families – an entire community – made its livelihood there in Sentul, “the city of locomotives.” With permission from KTM (Malaysian Railway), Azril and his team spent months taking pictures of them using a technique called high dynamic range (HDR) photography.
“The process takes 5 or 6 times longer than more conventional methods,” says Azril. “We were lucky to get 3 or 4 good shots in a day.” The effect, however, is stunning.You can see every grain, bump and scratch on a rusty locomotive, you can count the bricks on the walls closest to you and furthest from you. You can read the tag on a pair of trousers hanging in an office. You see more clearly than you would if you were standing there, taking it in with your own eyes. Although most workers were shy about being photographed, Azril spoke to many of them – people who had never known any other work, home or life. “There are so many stories,” says Azril. Not only from the people themselves but from the building, the trains and the objects strewn about. “There are workbenches with tools so old that no one remembers how to use them anymore.” Although Azril only showed a handful of these images at his exhibition, he compiled the rest into a book, Iron Dragons of Malaya, ensuring that the history he captured is kept and shared.
THE SOMBRE PAST
Unlike the railway, there is little nostalgia and no romance about another building that has entranced Azril for years: Pudu Jail. For over a century it housed the criminals of the day, from thieves and murderers to P.O.Ws and political prisoners. The death penalty and corporal punishment, still both practiced in Malaysia, were both carried out liberally within the prison walls – 180 people were hanged after 1960 alone (before that there was torture and beheadings during the Japanese occupation). There was a problem with over-crowding (at one time the prison was full to five times its capacity and prisoners had to sleep in shifts) and brutality and illness also claimed the lives of many.
The prison is said to be haunted, with moans and screams reportedly still heard coming from certain cells, hallways and the gallows. This could be part of the reason why this building was left standing despite being mostly vacant for over a decade, standing on prime land next door to one of KL’s largest shopping malls and a short walk from one of its most popular shopping and dining streets. However, sturdier things have fallen to progress and in spite of its history, its unique architecture and those clamouring to leave the building standing, demolition of Pudu Jail has started and a new development of condominiums, offices, shops and a hotel will shortly take its place.
Just as the subject of Azril’s current study is different from the last, so is his way of recording it. “The project should define the approach. Pudu is more film-based, I can’t see it in digital format… The work on Pudu was more personal, I felt closer to this subject – it reminded me why I fell in love with photography.” Azril admits there is something addictive about developing his own photographs in a darkroom. “Everything is in red, hearing the running water is very pleasing. And it gives me the excuse to slow down. I can be prouder of my work.”
The work is so hypnotic that Azril has lapsed into fatigue in his dark room. “Once I was in there for 4 days straight. My wife was worried.”
The images that reveal themselves to Azril in his darkroom are as sombre and often as unsettling as his subject, black and white images that are more shadow than light, of thick walls, bars and barbed wire. And of the dark cells which have held tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, captive.
THE WRITING ON THE WALLS
As a landmark, Pudu Jail is most famous for the mural that runs along its outer wall. Painted by an inmate, it took over a year to complete and was listed in the Guinness World Records as being the longest mural in the world. However, most people would be surprised to know that there is just as much artwork on the inner walls.
Azril calls it visual literature, this graffiti scratched into the soft surface. These he has photographed by the hundreds, immortalising on film what writing in stone could not. Many of the inmates’ drawings or writings are religious, which Azril believes have less to do with faith and more to do with a library that contained mainly religious texts. A cross, an Indian deity, praying hands, passages from the bible or the Koran in a number of languages. There is poetry, “if the police calls, tell him I died,” reads one, while another says “love is a dream” above the marking off of days and weeks. Most of the graffiti depicts memories and redemption. Some are instructions for survival. One has the weekly menu.
In the women’s section, Azril notes, “there are few drawings but they are carefully done.” There were no brushes, so any painting was done with the hands and anything that would stain the walls.
“During the first month [of their captivity, the inmates] write and draw, but after two months they stop. They have become used to their surroundings.” This suggests that the graffiti was a way of coping, which would explain why the condemned cells are entirely covered in writing and images. Azril tells me of another prison he visited. The prisoner who was going to be hanged was from Botswana and during the night he spent in the condemned cell he wrote, in French, on every surface he could reach. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the whole room was full,” says Azril.
GHOSTS AND SPIRIT
Altogether, Azril spent 8 months in Pudu Jail, often on his own. “I love how it looks when it rains,” he says. “The feeling is different when you are on your own. You feel awe, you feel like a speck.”
Though not superstitious, he did leave with a few odd, spine-chilling stories. He shows me a picture of a figure standing slightly inside the doorway.
“Who is that?” I ask.
“No one,” he says. “There was no one else there.” He also says that when he walked up into the gallows he felt like he “was carrying ten people.” He had to go up those stairs several times, because each time he got in the tiny room, his equipment would malfunction and the cameras refused to shoot. When he took them outside they worked fine. He kept going in and out and jokes that eventually whatever was camera-shy got tired because he finally did get a couple of pictures.
It is hard to describe what Azril does without using the word “and” several times. He a photographer and a lecturer and a writer and a visual anthropologist and a social historian and a researcher and an archivist and and and and… Some of the things he does earn him decent money, some less, some none at all. He does sell his work, usually to buyers who have sought him out, and although photography is one of those rare art forms that can be duplicated as many times as needed, Azril has only printed one of each of the Iron Dragon photographs and produces only 5 of each of the Pudu works. “It’s too hard to keep track if there are too many.” Certificates and a particular chemical signature help prove authenticity.
Like the Iron Dragons, Azril’s Pudu photographs will eventually end up in a book. It will be different. “Iron Dragons [of Malaya] is very visual, documents are missing.” Pudu will contain both photographs and documentation and will be likely be immense. “I’m always thinking of something new to put in the book.” His urge to make the book as complete a study as possible has kept him improving it for years and likely will for years longer. He does say, “I’ve got to finish it, I’ve got to finish it,” but he also adds, “No promises.”
The fight to keep certain things or to replace them with others shows no sign of abating. In the meantime, Azril snaps on, preserving history in his own way so when the body is gone, the soul continues. In strange irony, even if the conservationists had won and Malaya’s dragons and Pudu’s walls were had been left intact, most of us would have never seen what Azril’s lens has captured, kept and shared.
Source: This article appeared in The Expat during the year 2010
This article has been edited for ExpatGoMalaysia.com
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