The Malaysian collectors don’t really appreciate photographs because they regard it as a plastic art and has ‘no value’.
Eiffel Chong is one of the few contemporary photographers in Malaysia; a fact exacerbated by a tough market in which to sell photography works. An understated artist, his work comprises of quiet and contemplative observations of life around him. Through the banal, the commonplace and the overlooked, he tackles large themes such as life, death and the ironies of everyday situations. He has produced a few distinct series, notably Institutionalised Care, Seascape and This Used to be My Playground. Eiffel’s work has been widely exhibited in Malaysia and across Asia.
How did you get into contemporary photography?
I started with graphic design and we learnt photography as part of the course. It was through the film process that I became really interested in photography. Maybe it was the anticipation of the photograph as it develops. Later, I continued my degree in London. I was initially interested in documentary photography and my dream was to enter Magnum. I think things changed when I was doing photography in the London School of Printing. The school’s ideas, philosophy and facilitators were very much geared towards fine art and contemporary photography. It’s almost like I had no choice but to change and be influenced by them.
How did you find your education in photography?
I had a really tough first year there. I was learning about photography from a very limited point of view here in Malaysia. In London, everything that I was thought was good photography was seen as old-fashioned or not good or interesting. I had doubts, why am I here? Am I in the wrong place? All my work was rejected and I had to start all over again. It took me two or three years but I started to enjoy my new life with photography. My final year facilitator helped me see things differently and started introducing newer generations of photographers to me.
Do you think a formal education in photography is necessary?
There is this debate whether someone should go to photo school or not to be a professional. I would encourage people to go because of this type of classes where you get to learn everything and appreciate everything, not just look at photographers you like. A lot of great photographers have not gone through photography school, but those are the minority, I guess. I really enjoyed my time in London, and that’s because I was exposed to so many different kind of photographers and work. And London, as a city, constantly has talks, exhibitions and events. Those things helped a lot.
Everything that I was thought was good photography was seen as old-fashioned, or not good or interesting. I had doubts, “Why am I here?”
You’ve said that your work deals a lot with the themes of life and death, and observations of life around you. Are these themes of interest to you?
I’m interested in things that interest me. Some artists have a huge agenda that they want to educate the world. For me, doing art is just something I like doing; it is personal. I like doing things that attract me. It might not have any meaning for other people, but it has strong emotional meaning for me. I use art as a means to release normal working tension and pressure. When I’m out walking or hanging around, and I see certain things that interest me or capture my attention, I take photographs of them.
How did the Hospital series come about?
The first idea for the hospital series was that I wanted to visit a hospital. When people ask why, I just say that I think they are very beautiful. The reason why people feel so afraid of going to a hospital is because it means something serious, whether for loved ones or ourselves. But going to a hospital as a tourist means that you do not have that baggage. It means that I am free to be carefree and look at the design, the colour or the machines, and observe how people work. Photography is an excuse for me to go into the hospitals.
How did you get gain access to these hospitals?
I had to send a lot of letters. I slowly got replies and had to rewrite more letters to convince them. But once the project got going, and I had a couple of photographs to show, it became slightly easier. When I first started photographing, everything was so new and fascinating to me. It was only when I went back and started looking at my photographs that I realised there were just beautiful photographs, nothing much. Halfway through the project, my grandmother passed away at a hospital. From that time onwards, I began to see hospitals in a different light. Things became different. The empty bed had a different meaning, the machines showed me a different side of their face, that’s when I thought that things became a lot more personal and quiet and painful. I was using this project as a mourning period.
Your work is usually devoid of people, or they are shown as tiny specks in the distance. Why do you not photograph people?
I think with people it creates another type of dialogue. For example, the hospital series, I was more interested to talk about death and the fragility of human beings. The moment I put someone in there, it will become a gender or a race issue. That is how our mind sees things sometimes. I want to talk about humanity in a broader sense.
How do you sell work in Malaysia?
I think it is quite hard to sell work, the only person who can survive selling work is probably Yee I-Lann. I think even she has two or three jobs working film sets and other stuff. Minstrel Kuik used to teach, and I teach as well. I don’t think there are any contemporary photographers in Malaysia who is doing it full-time and is self-sustaining. It’s difficult here simply because painting is a more dominant practice in Malaysia. The Malaysian collectors don’t really appreciate photographs because they regard it as a plastic art and has ‘no value’. It is a technology thing, I can do it with my phone, so what is so special about your photograph?
And how do you react when someone does that to your work?
I just laugh along and say, maybe you can try taking that photograph and so on. That is what the Malaysian market is like. There is almost no market for contemporary photography here. But things are getting better. There is more education, a lot more understanding of photography with a couple more collectors. Maybe they are bored of collecting the same paintings and are looking at the not-so-usual stuff. Or maybe it is because it is a booming industry with more people travelling to art fairs. With better education and better exposure, they are beginning to see the value in photography.
So you see the situation improving?
Yeah, yeah, I hope it doesn’t stop. There is more appreciation of photography right now, compared to ten years ago.
How about yourself, have you sold a lot of work?
I would like to sell a lot more, but I am happy at how my work is being appreciated in Malaysia. Like when people who come up to me and say they actually see what I see, understand where I’m coming from or why I’m doing this – that really makes me feel good. I think that is the biggest fulfillment for me, rather than just selling the work.
What was the first photograph that you sold?
I sold my first piece at the Malaysia-Japan show to an American who is teaching theatre production in Malaysia. It was from the hospital series, and it was a photograph of an empty bed with an image of a religious figure on the wall. The photograph reminded him of his dad who was really sick. The photograph reminded him of how he had to care for his dad.
What are you doing to market or brand yourself?
I am learning a lot from artists from Singapore and Hong Kong. I am lucky to have friends from these countries and I learn a lot from them. Some have told me, as an emerging artist I have to do this kind of show or work. Once I’m established, I have to then do that kind of show or work. They also advise on people that I should be meeting and talking to. When you are a mid-career artist, your work changes; your quality and quantity will definitely have to change. It’s developing a career. To me, a lot of established Malaysian artists are not going out simply because they are selling very well in Malaysia. They don’t see the need to go out to market themselves elsewhere. It is a big risk and they don’t see the need to do that.
I enjoy being part of something, the sense of achievement is more important to me. I was telling that to Richard (Koh), who said I was quite naive to think that way. But I enjoy being part of the Southeast Asian photographers showcasing in different countries, even though there is no financial gain.
What new series are you working on now?
The Malaysian work, where I’ve been photographing weird and quirky things that attract my attention. It’s not a social commentary but things that attract me. The photographs are pretty random and I’ve been collecting them for awhile. I work on a very subconscious level. I don’t think I was consciously photographing Malaysia, but suddenly it became a social commentary. My intention has never been political. But because of the times and the current situation, it’s being seen as political, especially the photographs of the torn flags. But what I am interested to show is just the torn flag, things that people don’t take care of. Someone commented it almost shows that Malaysia is not working, like Malaysia Misspelled. I thought it was a great title and asked if I could use it. I later abandoned it because by putting Malaysia in it makes it a political statement.
When do you intend to show the work?
I don’t know. I am still collecting. I don’t know when I’ll get my next photograph.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.