Ten years after its the establishment, The Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur launched the Malaysian Photobook Archive in 2022 with Zontiga, the photobook store and film lab. This laudable effort in providing access to nationwide photography catalogues, however, is an independent enterprise. The club maintains that institutional support is crucial in shifting the perception of photography from that of an accessory to a serious medium worthy of the respect and rigour afforded to other mainstream art forms.

It was great to meet you online from London during the Malaysian Photobook Exhibition 2022 in September. It was a good introduction to the Malaysian photobook scene, which is now vibrant and on the cusp of being recognised internationally. When did you found the Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur, and how has the scene progressed? What were the challenges you faced in introducing and championing this special storytelling art form?

It was a pleasure e-meeting you last September, when we had a great sharing and discussion about the After The Rain photobooks. My co-founder Liyana and I founded the Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur in May 2013, inspired by the movement initiated by Matt Johnston in Coventry, UK. At the time, photobooks were not unfamiliar to those familiar with photography in Malaysia. However, in comparison to today, the audience for photobooks has grown significantly. Initially, the club was well-received and gained traction consistently.

The Malaysian Photobook Archive team. © Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur.

However, we soon realised that not everyone was fully aware of or receptive to the concept of photobooks. Many people didn’t understand why photographers would choose to create photobooks or the value they could bring to a photography project. Despite this initial challenge, we continued to hold meetings and events featuring different photographers and their photobooks. We enjoyed sharing our passion for the medium with others and seeing the responses and reactions of our attendees.

But after a while, we found it difficult to sustain the club and keep it moving forward. One major challenge we faced was finding a physical location to host our meetings and events. Without a dedicated space, we were constantly on the move, trying to find suitable places to hold our gatherings. This was not only logistically challenging, but it also made it harder for people to find us and participate in the club.

Ian Teh sharing his work during a photobook meetup in 2014 at Center for Asian Photographers, The School, Jaya One, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. © Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur.

Eventually towards end of 2014, we went into a dormant period where we were unable to hold regular meetings and events. It was a frustrating and disheartening time, as we had put so much energy and effort into the club. However, we continued to acquire Malaysian photographers’ photobooks during this time, as we were still passionate about supporting and promoting the medium.

In 2021, during the post-covid era when events started to pick up again, we finished our Eyes That Speak project with KL-based alternative school Buku Jalanan Chow Kit (BJCK). It was then that things really started to take off.

Eyes That Speak Exhibition at Chow Kit rooftop. © Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur.

Early in 2022, I finally met Mr. Lau from Zontiga, a film lab, photobook store and exhibition space in Petaling Jaya. We talked about the idea of compiling and cataloguing all Malaysian photobooks to make them accessible to the public for reference and research purposes. This is something I’ve had in mind for a while because there is currently no comprehensive catalogue of all the Malaysian photobooks available. Not only would this help document our own history, but it would also allow others interested in this field to gain access to these photobooks.

We visited Zontiga’s photobook library at Petaling Jaya recently. It’s inspiring to see a thriving photography community and a substantial collection of photobooks by Malaysian photographers in one place. How do you keep tabs on all new photobooks produced by the Malaysian photographers? On the other hand, how do you introduce work by international photographers to the local audience?

To maintain a current collection of photobooks by Malaysian photographers, we rely on recommendations from our network within the photography community. This includes hosting book meetups, which not only introduce the audience to international photographers, but also provide a platform for local photographers to showcase their work. Additionally, we utilise social media to share information about photographers and their projects with our followers. In the past, we have also invited visiting photographers to speak with our audience and discuss their photobooks and projects in-depth.

Kumpul Buku Foto Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in 2013. Photo by Kurniadi Widodo. © Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur.

We collected a few photobooks at Zontiga by Malaysian photography talents such as Triple-Flavoured Fish, Kanta, Objectophilia, Jugni Ji and The Malay. They cover diverse subjects from cultural identity, spirituality, abstract still life to a candid view on the refugee crisis. We’re probably living under the rock in the UK, but we certainly don’t see this level of sophisticated thinking from following the typical Malaysian news outlets. Do you think the Malaysian photography audience has reached the level of maturity where they could hold philosophical dialogues?

Malaysia’s audience has demonstrated a maturity and eagerness for sophisticated forms of photography, as evidenced by the success of works like the photobook Tasik Chini by Adnan Hazri and Henry Chan. This book, published in 2012, employed a unique interdisciplinary approach that used photography as a medium for research, delving into the themes of identity, space and cultural heritage.

This trend is expected to continue in the future, as more photobooks are published that explore deeper and more thought-provoking themes. The audience in Malaysia is ready for contemporary and intellectually stimulating works that challenge traditional notions of photography.

However, despite the readiness of the audience, the lack of a dedicated platform and institutional support for photography in Malaysia presents a significant challenge for local photographers. Without a proper platform to showcase their work, many photographers find it difficult to gain exposure and recognition for their work. Furthermore, without institutional support, photography is often viewed as an accessory rather than a serious medium.

Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur and Zontiga have successfully launched the Malaysian Photobook Archive 2022. What were the challenges and discoveries you made whilst collating and finding the entries? Is this effort going to continue in the future?

Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur and Zontiga faced several challenges while compiling and curating the entries for the Malaysian Photobook Archive 2022. One of the major challenges we faced was identifying and locating all the photobooks that have been published by Malaysian photographers. Despite the growing interest in photography and photobooks in Malaysia, there was no comprehensive catalogue of all the photobooks available, which made it difficult to track down every book that had been published.

Another challenge was sorting through the photobooks to determine which ones were suitable for inclusion in the archive. This involved evaluating the quality and content of the photobooks, as well as ensuring that they met the criteria for inclusion in the archive.

Malaysian Photobook Archive team cataloging books at Zontiga. © Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur.

Despite these challenges, we were able to discover a wealth of hidden gems and uncover previously unknown photographers through the process of collating and finding the entries.

As for the future, we hope to continue the effort of compiling and cataloguing the photobooks to make them accessible to the public for reference and research purposes. We believe this is an important step towards documenting our own history and promoting the medium of photography in Malaysia.

Photobook-making is becoming more elitist in the West because it’s currently too expensive to access and produce. However, it’s an important piece of a nation’s voice that must be preserved for the future generation. How accessible is photobook production in Malaysia? Does it need more support from the public and arts sectors?

In Malaysia, photobook production is still relatively limited and not as accessible as it could be. The cost of producing photobooks can be high, making it difficult for many photographers to create and distribute their work. Additionally, the lack of a dedicated platform and institutional support makes it difficult for local photographers to showcase their work and for photography to be viewed as a serious medium.

However, there are examples in other countries where photobook production has become more democratised and accessible. For example, in Indonesia, there has been a growing movement towards self-publishing and DIY photobook production.

Malaysian Photobook Exhibition at Zontiga. © Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur.

In order to make photobook production more accessible in Malaysia, it would be beneficial to follow the example of Indonesia and other countries that have embraced self-publishing and DIY production at another level. This could be achieved through the creation of online platforms and resources that provide information and support for photographers interested in producing their own photobooks.

Who are your photography heroes?

Anders Petersen and Nozomi Ijima. Anders Petersen is a Swedish photographer known for his raw and intimate black and white images that often focus on the margins of society.

Nozomi Ijima is a Japanese photographer known for her highly personal and introspective photographs. Her photographs are characterised by a strong sense of intimacy and a deep connection to her subject matter around her farmhouse.

With Nozomi Ijima at Georgetown Festival 2014. © Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur.

Print, PDF or e-book?

All mediums of publication serve different purposes and have their own unique benefits. Print books offer a tangible, physical experience and have a timeless quality that can make them more valuable as collectibles. They are also more durable and can be passed down as a legacy for future generations.

PDF or e-books offer the convenience of being easily accessible and readable on various devices. They are also more environmentally friendly and take up less space. Additionally, e-books are often less expensive to produce and distribute than print books, making them more accessible to a wider audience.

When it comes to publishing a book, it’s important to consider the intended audience and the purpose of the book. For example, a photography book may be best suited for print, as the physicality of the book allows the viewer to fully engage with the photographs. On the other hand, a technical manual might be better suited as a PDF or e-book, as it will be more easily searchable and accessible.

Ultimately, it is important to consider the audience and the purpose of the book when choosing the medium of publication. While print books may be more traditional and offer a certain legacy, e-books and PDFs can be more accessible and convenient for some readers. In any case, publishing a book allows the photographer or author’s legacy to go on and takes the work beyond the moment of creation.

About The Photobook Club Kuala Lumpur