There isn’t a separation between the work I do and who I am. It terrifies me
kG Krishnan is a young talent from Malaysia. A fashion and commercial photographer by trade, he has since expanded his repertoire to include works centred on the themes of identity and a sense of belonging. Continuum, a portrait series of transwomen, has been exhibited in China, Malaysia and Myanmar, and won the Golden Peacock Excellent Photography Works Award at the Xishuangbanna Foto Festival 2014. kG lives and works in Kuala Lumpur.
Let’s go to your beginnings in the creative arts. I believe you have a dance background.
I trained for 14 years in classical dance, majoring in Bharatanatyam, and studied sitar after that for seven years. I didn’t know I wasn’t going to be a professional dancer, until I did. My exposure to the arts has been seamless. I don’t have this transition when I decided I was going to be in the arts. Performing arts school allowed me to experience it all in a continuous, larger way. I went to dance school when I was five. I stopped dancing after I went to university.
My dad started to get uneasy about it, when he realised it wasn’t just a hobby. He felt that it had an impact on my sexuality. He said that dance makes you gay, and not because you dance because you are gay! I then wanted to pursue writing so I studied journalism in Kuala Lumpur, then cinema in London.
Were you thinking of becoming a filmmaker?
I wanted to be a hardcore journalist, but I was interested in cinema. I studied cinema to watch some amazing screen language. I thought I was going to do a broadcasting major, but it turned into a cinema major. I was late in appreciating my education. I tell people if I could do it all over again, I would do it better.
I thought I was on my way to becoming a serious documentary photographer. Suddenly, I woke up and found myself as a contemporary artist.
How did all this lead to a career in photography?
Photography was never set to become a career, I still thought I was going to be a newsroom reporter. Photography just happened. I started shooting at the last year of high school. The first time when I felt the draw to take my camera and shoot was four weeks before SPM. I went to India on my own with two cameras and made black and white photos of the mountains. On hindsight they were terrible photos, but I remember one of the moments when I (makes a shifting movement with his hand), aah that’s much better. I felt it was a very conscious decision of making a photo and I couldn’t wait to come back and see it.
In university, I started shooting fashion as a favour to a friend. Being in London helped a lot because art was everywhere. All you need to do is take a 10-minute train somewhere and you will be in the presence of a Rothko or Annie Leibovitz. When I came back, I worked a lot of different jobs. I never worked in cinema. I like the screen language but I don’t like the production. I can work in teams but I can’t work on a piece of work that includes 80 over people, and then call that piece of work mine.
So you had your start in fashion photography, at which point did you start moving into social documentary work?
Photography has always been secondary to the situations that allowed for the photography, if that makes sense. Basically, I went into the kitchen hungry before I saw something that I wanted to photograph. I’ve always been looking for ways to express myself. At some point I didn’t want to work in fashion anymore. At that time I was living in this totally crazy punk household with vegans, activists, and that pulled my social consciousness. I was interested in what they were doing. It was my day-to-day reality, and I wanted to work my photography with that.
I went into the kitchen hungry before I saw something that I wanted to photograph.
Your first step in this direction was the KL series you did for Juice magazine, which you had pitched to the editor.
They are stories of the city. My dad was in property development, so I had already developed a draw to construction sites, so I started photographing development stories in KL and Southeast Asia. I got a gig for which I pitched a long-term plan. By this point, I was aware of how a photographer could work within a network or a client, and how to work with a set of stories.
How did you gain this awareness?
Ian Teh. The realisation of how Ian spent ten years in China working on a bunch of stories that formed Traces. That format was a revelation for me on how to study a situation long enough and photograph the truths of the situation, on how to work on long-term stories, how to see stories.
Influence-wise, it all started when I flew to Hong Kong to see Kevin (Lee of Invisible Photographer Asia). In many ways, I regard him as my original mentor, the first person whom I call my teacher in photography. It would be him, TK Chin, Ian Teh, and afterwards a whole lot of people.
Continuum is your first major body of work, and it is a beautiful portraiture series of transwomen in Kuala Lumpur. Tell us about this award-winning project.
In becoming a documentary photographer, I asked myself what kind of work did I want to do. I knew it had to do with human rights and social issues. I wanted to work with transwomen one way or another. I have a lot of friends within the community. I was hanging out with my friends and we talked about doing this project, and little by little we set it up. The work in a sense is young, because I knew what I wanted, I got it and I tied the corners. I didn’t let it expand or contract. With a bit more experience, I realised the work should be like wine, and it should be left to breathe and age.
I like the idea because of my relationship with it. I wanted to work with being proud and out. I wanted to show women’s bodies to begin with, and to study the female form. The face happened afterwards. I had shot them as full portraits, then I accidentally did a crop, and I thought, “Ok, maybe I just want to look at bodies to talk about this since the body is such a large part of being a transwoman.” Being transgender is internal but feeling your identity requires external change. I didn’t want to overwork the idea.
The project was also successfully publicised, how did you get the work out there?
Coming from a media background, I knew how to sell a story to a publisher, how commissions were executed. I worked with that knowledge. I took my photography to x number of people. When I had Continuum, I wanted to push my work based on it. I took it out there and showed it to people, slowly. It was difficult at first. There were some negative feedback but I just grit my teeth and went for it. As I was making the project, I asked myself, would I do it even if nobody saw it? And the answer is yes. Because that’s the only thing you have in the end, right? I realised that it was a story I could have my own touch on, in a way that hasn’t been done before.
You followed it up with ‘Between Lust and Longing’, a work that was conceived for a group exhibition show called Persona in Kuala Lumpur. While you were working on it, you were also going through a rough patch. How did you channel that into your work?
To me, there isn’t a separation between the work I do and who I am. It terrifies me. It’s something I’ve grown to recognise. Choosing to put this work out there at all was me channelling whatever it was I was experiencing. I had a premise within which if it had worked, it would have allowed this to happen. Never lie to yourself when you’re doing the work. Or lie to others. As a recovering drug addict, I did not keep it a secret if anyone had asked. In choosing to reveal possibly the darkest part of who I am, it meant that I had no more secrets.
Do you really have no more secrets?
Besides pending bills? (Laughs) Most of who I am is public knowledge. I told myself to be completely honest, and I wouldn’t edit the work to look too polished. It was going to be as good, or bad, or over-saturated as it came out. I wanted the work to be as transparent as possible.
Looking at your work, it has changed project to project – fashion to documentary and now art.
It is very frustrating. I am working on something and it comes out completely different in the end. I thought I was on my way to becoming a serious documentary photographer. Suddenly, I woke up and found myself as a contemporary artist. You can’t really say where your journey will take you. I feel that documentary art is my middle ground. I essentially want to be authoring ideas rather than having a genre.
So you are interested in exploring the vast possibilities of photography?
I have this epiphany that photography is bigger than my photography or your photography. What it could mean is that I’m not just a person making images. How I interact with the photographs also matters. Maybe my destiny is to show other people’s work or to find other people’s work. And the way to be on top of all that is to be on top of my own work. Working as a photographer doesn’t mean that I am only improving my skills in making images. I am networking and seeing other stories out there, I am mentoring. It is this whole eco-system and finding what you do inside of it is every photographer’s journey.
You need to constantly ask yourself, “Why are you doing what you are doing?”
Does this signal long-term plans to be an educator or curator?
I am suspicious about the way people perceive teachers, which is that you teach because you can’t do. I am nervous about that but that’s not going to stop me from working with young photographers or talent. I like working with other people’s photography very much. I have plans to teach university students on their final year projects. But my long-term plan is to work on my craft.
What would your advice be to a young photographer about self-promotion?
There is a lot of footwork involved. Great work will fall short of success without all the people who can take it to places. Great work sitting in the drawer will never be recognised. You need to push it. And you need to know what you and your work is about, and what you want out of photography. You need to constantly ask yourself, “Why are you doing what you are doing?” I knew I wanted to work on gender, sexuality, men, women, I want to explore identity and the body. I have a relationship with all the work that I make, a reason as to why I am even drawn to it. So far the work has all been really different, but all of them deal with the issues of identity, home and a sense of belonging.
Long story short, you need to market yourself. You need to get yourself out there and network. You can’t be a lazy young photographer, it will not work out for you.