I was that girl constantly with a camera.
Malaysian photographer, Nadia J. Mahfix, sees the thorns in the roses, partly thanks to a 90s diet of grunge, philosophical pondering and existential angst. When translated into her photographs, they are moody but striking reflections of our darker selves. An emerging photographer, her work has been exhibited in Malaysia, Japan and Singapore. She was one of six photographers in a Malaysia-Japan joint project, Two Mountains, portraying Mount Kinabalu and Mount Fuji. She also exhibited at the Asian Women’s Photographer Showcase 2015 in Singapore, curated by Yumi Goto. Nadia has self-published a book entitled ‘Is This The [n]?”, which is completely sold out, leaving not even one copy for herself.
I personally believe that photography is an art and you should always shoot from your gut feeling or heart.
You are a self-taught photographer. Tell us about your photographic education – how you got into photography, where you learned the skills, how you progressed your craft.
You know that famous quote from the movie ‘Lost In Translation’, that “every girl goes through a photography phase at some point in their lives”. Well, that’s exactly how I started photography, except that it wasn’t just a phase for me. I was that girl constantly with a camera. Right after high school, I discovered lomography and I guess, that’s what triggered me to be more experimental with my photography. I like their philosophy of ‘don’t think, just shoot’ because I personally believe that photography is an art and you should always shoot from your gut feeling or heart. From analogue, I switched to digital photography when my dad brought back a 1.3mp digital camera. However, it was my mom who got me my first digital camera, a Sony V3 – halfway between a point-and-shoot and a dSLR. Having a digital camera made it easier for me to share my photographs online and get feedback on photography forums and websites. From then onwards, it was more just a trial and error process for me until I finally found what I want with my photography style. To be honest, technical aspects on photography bore me but nevertheless having a basic knowledge on how to compose and shoot helps a lot if you want to do photography.
Photography serves as a source of therapy for me. It helps me not only to ‘see’ beyond the obvious but also in expressing myself.
There is a decidedly foreboding and melancholic slant to your photographs. As a psychology major, what does that say about your take of the world? How does the camera help you make sense of it all?
One of the reason I studied psychology was not only to understand the world better, but most importantly was to understand myself. Growing up in the 90s, fueled up with existential angst I went through the whole phase of “I hate myself and I want to die”. To be honest, I still do sometimes but nowadays it’s more under control. But I guess sometimes it shows up in my photographs. That being said, photography serves as a source of therapy for me. It helps me not only to see beyond the obvious but also in expressing myself.
Your series, Into Nothingness, did it start as a pre- conceived idea? How did it develop as a project?
The series was developed in a workshop I did with Maggie Steber at the Obscura Festival of Photography in 2014. As with my other works, the theme is centered around life and death. It’s a visual exploration on what happens after we die and where do we go from here, based on my own self-intrepretation.
You have an obsession with dead things, which shows up in your photographs of dead birds. What is it about death and decay that fascinates you?
I am afraid of death – of the unknown that goes beyond it. And I figured the only way for me to overcome that fear, is to at least try to understand & embrace death, come what may. Also, death is the only thing that is certain in this life. Everything dies, everything ends.
I am afraid of death – of the unknown that goes beyond it.
So this is your way of confronting death through art. And what has the process of confronting mortality taught you?
Two years ago I was warded in the hospital due to a bacterial-infection, leptospirosis. In most cases, it is fatal. I was in the ICU for three days and there was this moment that I thought I really was going to die. I hoped to God to give me another chance with Life. God heard me alright and I came out alive. All I wanted to do was to make amends and live my life as fully as possible. I was a changed person. I got reacquainted with God and mended bridges that I had burnt. But somewhere along the way, I lost my way again and I’m back to where I was before and perhaps, even worse. I’m not sure if I have actually learnt anything about life, death and everything in between. The older I get, the more I realized that I know nothing. The only thing that I’m sure of is that I love photography.
We are looking at new work you produced for a recent group show called Person(a) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Can you tell us more about the work?
It’s entitled “The Undiscovered Self”, a series of visual memorabilia collected over the years – bits of writing from my journal, photos of my parents & family from yesteryear. It’s a visual-diary that is supposed to help in understanding myself better.
What have you discovered about yourself through this work?
As the title suggests, I still have not found whatever it is that I’m looking for. Perhaps I need to dig deeper.
Because your work can be so personal, is it difficult to put yourself out there through your photos?
It’s not really that difficult. I’m not really worried whether my work will be accepted by the public or not but I don’t want my family (especially my parents) to ever find out about my personal works. You know how an Asian family is, everything is taboo.
Is there any taboo in your work?
No. I try to include and experiment with anything for my work. Well, except for maybe nudity (on myself).
What do you find most challenging about being a photographer a) as a female b) in Malaysia?
The only challenge of being a photographer (despite what gender you are) is that people tend to think that it is an easy job – that everyone can take photos. So if you’re thinking of doing photography as your main source of income, think again. For me, I’m still struggling with calling myself a photographer. But then again, what really constitutes a photographer?