A visit to Zontiga in December 2022 reveals not just a photobook shop and a photography studio. We discover a community of independent Malaysian bookmakers and publishers who articulate the experiences of a hopeful country through their photographs and journals.
The new Malaysian government, democratically elected by the people, was sworn in on 3 December 2022. It’s an ethnically diverse cabinet, a coalition of left and center-right parties, one that many feel reflect the true face of the country.
The trip to Zontiga in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia, was planned months in advance when we were in London, as the UK emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic.
On 19 December 2022, we were greeted by photographers and Zontiga staff Stacy Liu and Edmond Leong. Liu is also one of the organisers of Kuala Lumpur International Photoawards (KLPA). Leong is the Bronze winner of the Paris International Street Photo Awards 2022 for the Streets & Animals category.
We spent the morning visiting the studio, the dark room and checking out the photobooks by local and international photographers sold at the bookshop. We were joined by Nurul Munirah Rohaizan, one of the organisers of KLPA and Exposure Plus photo exhibitions, photographer Jayna Chan and Fitri Jalil, photographer and author of the book The Malay.
We had a look at the Malaysian Photobook Archive 2022 catalogue, which also features photobooks published by Story Of Books, namely After The Rain Number 1 and 2. We purchased a few photobooks from Zontiga to add to our collection.
Malaysian photobooks: a tipping point for social change
We can’t help but wonder if these photobooks, independent of the constraints of censorship plaguing the Malaysian mainstream media, don’t just supplement information but actually tell another truth about our country and its social construct.
“We can’t help but wonder if these photobooks, independent of the constraints of censorship plaguing the Malaysian mainstream media, actually tell another truth about our country and its social construct.”
For instance, Triple-Flavoured Fish by Badrul Hisham and Khalil Makata explores the relationship between the tomyam restaurants in Malaysia and the displaced southern Siamese, or the Pattani Malay ethnic group. The latter ironically choose a very Siamese identity (tomyam) to financially survive in their host country, despite the rejection of their home country. Fitri Jalil’s The Malay talks about the sitters’ perception of the materiality of their identity, which isn’t necessarily one of genetic construct. Kanta Manuscript 20 by Jeffrey Lim is a rapid ethnography of indigenous Austroasiatic and Austronesian people of Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan. Lim’s work informs us of what anthropologists, archaeologists, historians – and those who bother to take DNA test – know about the island nations of East and Southeast Asia: the genetic fruits don’t fall far from that one tree.
More of these will be explained in our video coverage of the books. Malaysia at its most reductive is best summed up via these foods: mee goreng (fried noodle) and teh tarek (milk tea). Every ethnic group at different point of time had pitched in to make these icons uniquely Malaysian. The photobooks imply that, from top to bottom, this is also how Malaysians prefer their country to be run: a contribution by all, for all.