What is the Highest Honour for a Malaysian Photographer?


For many Malaysians, international acclaim heralds their arrival, placing them firmly in the same league as the global players. But as Vatsala Devi learns, the accolades that photographer Yaman Ibrahim especially cherishes are decidely more local.

Yaman Ibrahim can attest to the truth of this statement as he has found fame for capturing images that make people stop, take a second look, and find revealed an untold story. If judging by the number of international awards that Yaman has won over the years, this man from rural Pasir Mas, Kelantan has definitely done well for himself. But for Yaman, one of the most momentous events in his photography career took place on the final day of 2013 when the Balai Seni Lukis Negara (National Visual Arts Gallery, or NVAG) bought one of his photography collections to be exhibited at the gallery.

Yaman recounts the moment: “It is not common for art galleries to exhibit photographs, as their main interest lies in artworks, so when the NVAG representatives expressed their interest in purchasing a collection of my photographs to be a part of their permanent collection, I was taken by surprise. To have your work exhibited at NVAG is definitely no small feat,” he gushed of the honour. “To me, that was the moment that sealed my presence in the local photography circuit and it was also the perfect way to end the year 2013 and start 2014 with expectations of pushing my own boundaries.”

A Creative Childhood

So what set Yaman on his journey from rural Kelantan to the colourful life of being a successful photographer? He explains, “I have always been creatively inclined, and even in school, I had a tendency to lean more towards the arts. When I was in forms four and five in Pasir Mas, I painted all the murals on my schools walls. And when word got around, other schools were commissioning my services, as well. Together with two other students, I would go from one school to another, beautifying the walls,” said Yaman who was already honing not only his creative talents, but his entrepreneurial skills, too.

With such an early recognition of his flair for art, one would think that his career path was somewhat preordained, but armed with a degree in Malay Literature from the University of Malaya (UM) and a diploma in Education, Yaman became a school teacher for 10 years at the Sekolah Menengah Damansara Utama. “After 10 years, I left the teaching profession because I felt that my heart wasn’t in it anymore and that I was doing a disservice to the profession. He smiled and added, “And maybe also setting a bad example to the students by going in to school late… albeit by only a few minutes.”

“I think even in my teens, I was destined to be a photographer; fate was always leading me towards it, only I didn’t see it,” Yaman reminisced. I bought my first camera – a Yashica FX-7 – at the age of 18, and it cost me a bomb. And when I entered UM in 1986, I was made the official photographer of the residential college,” he said. In that role, Yaman was given the liberty to experiment with the shots and the kind of pictures he wanted to take. He went to the Pusat Kebudayaan (Cultural Centre) at the university and took some lessons to improve his photography skills and that is how his journey to becoming one of the hottest properties in the Malaysian photography field began.

Branching Out

Yaman, now 48, said that after a seven-year stint heading the creative department in a production company, he decided to focus solely on photography and set up his own studio. With that, the Neo Studio was established in 2006. “My past experience working as an illustrator and airbrush artist enabled me to take good photos because i knew how to compose a good shot,” he explained. “Artistic elements are very important to for an artist or photographer because those are the elements that help determine the quality of your pictures. A good photo,” he continued, “should have a good design element and a strong story behind it, and when these two aspects combine with the human interest element, the image will capture the audience’s attention and leave a lasting impression.”

Telling a story with a single image, naturally, can be a challenge, Yaman learned early on. “Patience is a very important attribute for a photographer simply because we cannot summon the moments we want to capture. For us to capture the moment that we’ve envisioned in our minds, sometimes it just requires us to wait.” He paused. “It is hard to explain how to capture the moments or story behind a photograph, but if you look at a subject and decide that it would make an interesting photo, then you wait. Sometimes the moments appear and sometimes they don’t.” And the quest for those special moments has carried Yaman to such places as Nepal, India, Korea,Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines. But it was during his Malaysia travels that Yaman captured the shot that earned him the “Photographer of the Year” title at the Maybank Photography Awards.


Domestically Decorated

Now having wrapped up its second year, the Maybank Photography Awards (MPAs) were created in the hopes of bringing out the artistic nature within individuals and giving them the power to move and influence others with photos that, in effect, tell stories. In 2012, the inaugural MPAs were a big hit with photographers, with almost 20,000 submissions received. Realizing the potential the contest had unleashed, Maybank in 2013 expanded the competition to the broader ASEAN region and sure enough, over 67,000 entries were received within a span of three months.

Themed ”Inspiring Asia”, the MPAs last year offered a stage for photographers to not only attract their audience’s attention, but to speak to them. The range of human emotions captured in the images are able to break through any language barriers and convey stories wordlessly. Entries were evaluated by renowned judges like Ming Thein, Raghu Rai, Mike Yamashita, Jim Liaw, and Manny Librodo, and the contest ultimately saw category-specific winners from four different nations. The top prize, of course, was the coveted “Photographer of the Year” award, and when Yaman learned he was the recipient of this prestigious honour, a careerdefining moment was made.

Yaman’s winning picture (above) shows Azlina, a young Suluk girl from a fishing village on Mabul Island, a small island off the southeast coast of Sabah. The portrait, Yaman explained, was taken during a trip there in 2010. “I remember it like it was only yesterday. The girl in the picture was four years old at that time. I was walking in the village, and though I saw many faces, I was attracted to this little girl who was looking out of her house window.” He paused, deep in memory. “I looked up in passing and there was this young face framed in a window. It was so captivating, it made me do a double take! I asked her parents’ permission to photograph their daughter and took about 20 to 30 shots of her. In that series was the shot I submitted to the MPA under the Portraits Photography category,” said Yaman, adding that his dream photography project would be to tour the whole of India and capture the beauty of the country and its people.

Despite his accolades, Yaman is ever modest and said that he has yet to achieve his best and that there are so many ways he can improve and bring recognition to his beloved home country, Malaysia. “My work has taken me to different parts of the world and after a few days, I find myself missing home. No other country compares to Malaysia,” said Yaman with pride.

Among his achievements are publishing a photo book titled Malaysia: The Walk of Life and, in 2010, presenting his solo photo exhibition, also titled ”Malaysia: The Walk of Life”. An even earlier honour was winning the UK’s Digital Camera Magazine “Photographer of the Year” award in 2007. Yaman also placed third in the same magazine’s contest the following year, and placed third in the Travel category in the “Professional Photographer of the Year 2013” contest organized by Professional Photographer magazine.

The year 2014 promises to be an exciting year for Yaman as he has been receiving international and local photography projects and commissions. “Winning the Maybank Photography Awards has definitely opened the doors for local and international projects to come my way.” For this talented photographer possessed of not only a keen eye, but a deep love for his country as well, it seems only fitting that of his many accolades, the most memorable and career-lifting would come from an award he earned right here at home in Malaysia.

Source: Senses of Malaysia March/April 2014

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