April 29, 2007

Self-Portrait Challenge- Street: Mall Reality

This month’s SPC prompt is street photography, and for me, with this prompt came an entirely new way of having to think about my portrait. There are so many different variables in taking a portrait out in the world, that this week I was challenged to come up with a unique image. I will discuss the variables momentarily, but I want to address a few other challenges that I face living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Let me start with these challenges, since I will have to deal with them for the next four weeks.

Street photography, as I understand it, is the idea of getting the photographer to engage with his/her subjects out on a street. Due to their vivacious personalities cities like New York, San Francisco or Paris beg for a camera to capture the life bubbling on their streets. It is easy to capture interesting images by simply walking the streets of cities like the ones mentioned. The first and most obvious reason is that they are pedestrian friendly. This is the first and I feel most important obstacle I face here in KL. The aforementioned cities have long avenues and boulevards filled with shops, restaurants, and cafes, which make strolling not only practical, but also enjoyable. Downtown KL is a maze of empty streets. There are very few things to do, so nobody walks. It even lacks the hectic street life of cities like Hanoi or Bangkok. KL is a city of highway overpasses not sidewalks. There may be long tree lines streets, but they start from nowhere and lead even further away from that. But let’s get to the second reason why people do not walk in KL.

It is hot and humid all the time! The temperature is a steady 93 degrees and the humidity must be about 90%. It is like walking out of a hot shower into a sauna- All the time. This doesn’t make a suitable environment for casual strollers, street artisans, or street performers. So even if there were proper streets for people to amble, the temperature would make it difficult. So where does every one go? What do we do here in Kuala Lumpur to pass the time? You guessed it; we go to one of the, at least twenty, malls in town.

Air-conditioned to near artic temperatures, cafes, restaurants, and shops make for an easy way to stroll an afternoon away. Want to go out on the town? Fear not! Your local mall has fine restaurants, bowling alleys, movie theaters, and venues for live music. When we first arrived in KL, I brought along my elitist bohemian ethos. I had been living in NYC after all, the capital of street culture, and I was not about to spend all my time in a mall. Three years later and let me tell you that I spent about six hours at two different malls today. (Don’t worry. There are a few cool streets here, and I will do my best to get to them and take a few shots before the month is through, but I felt this was the best way to start this month’s challenge.)

Which brings me to my second epiphany for this week, and the variable I mentioned earlier. I also want to explore the idea of fantasy versus reality. For the last ten months, since I started SPC, I have spent a few hours alone each week recreating myself. I have worn make-up, gotten naked, and crawled inside a closet- anything to create a sense of fantasy for both the viewer and myself. I have tried my hardest to make each image unique in the sense that it is me, but not really me. The entire experience has been very private thus allowing me to take many risks. Because I took each shot, I knew nobody was watching. I didn’t care what people thought once the image was out there, because I was allowed totally privacy and freedom to take it on my terms. While at home I was in full control. I could control the lighting, the angles, the number of shots till I got it right, but out in the mall I had very little control over any of this. Especially since my wife was actually capturing the image. Taking this show out into the world changed all the rules. Suddenly, I felt self-conscious being photographed. It all seemed so much more vain. I thought this was very interesting. I want to try and recreate my private photo shoots out on the streets in the coming weeks. This month’s prompt calls for more bravery and risk taking. Fear not, I am up for the challenge.

The interesting thing, however, since I didn’t recreate fantasy out in the world, is that I was forced to capture reality and see myself as I look to the world. So that is what this week’s image is: I am just another dad spending his Sunday afternoon cruising the mall with his wife and daughter. Not only did I realize that this is okay, but I found it very reassuring. It is great. It is perfect. Perhaps the younger me would have been horrified by the normality of such an act, or perhaps the bohemian in me would like a more imaginative way to spend my time, but my daughter needed to go to her Gymboree class, then we needed lunch, and then groceries. This is life. This is okay.

This week I learned that art is not about shocking people, or always trying to push buttons; art is the ability to fully engage life, both in fantasy and reality, and to convey that engagement to an audience. I have spent the last thirty years dealing with fantasy and escapism. Since I quit drinking nearly two years ago, I have been learning to not only accept my reality, but to revel in it and see that there is beauty in it. I mean if I saw this guy walking toward me, even with that scowl on his face, I would think to myself, “That man is happy.” He is on the right path. What would you think?

Note to SPC viewers. I am not sure how many of you read my other posts, but for those of you that don’t, I recently wrote a post asking for votes about a picture I have posted on JPG magazine. I would love a few votes from you guys. So click here to see it and vote. If you have never seen this site check it out.


  1. I read your post to my partner and a male friend. At the end, I turned the laptop screen show them the picture. "What would you think?" I read them the last line in your post, and then turned the screen. One guy said, "I would think, "Nice Butt", and at the same time, the other guy said, "I would think, "Nice calves." I was confused until I looked at the picture again.

    Freakin' guys. ;)

    I think the words "elitist bohemian" are very interesting. I'd love to hear more about what you think about this.

  2. I used to do that type of photography. I took pix at night in downtown Minneapolis. I lost my nerve. Times change as there is more violence to worry about.

  3. Irene5:26 AM

    "art is the ability to fully engage life" how true is that.

    this is a very interesting post.

    I love your SPC photo this week and can't wait to see the next ones.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this post, I have many of the same experiences... now living in a hot, humid place in need of A/C and how horrified my 20 year old self would be at my 35 year old self, but how happy I am now I am here! I so enjoyed reading how you love your real life, all the while working on creating a visual record of the other layers of you. If I passed you in the mall and was told you are the author of Intrepid Flame I would not believe it, sorry, just shows how I shouldn't judge a book's cover and all that. Looking forward to more.

  5. this is very cool and very ordinary and very cool!

  6. Great post. I have not been to a mall in almost 2 years. I used to work in one about 8 years ago, and I loved to sit and people watch every day on my lunch.

    I have not done my SP yet this week... I need to get on that.

    And I think your Dream scape photo is incredible.

  7. Very cool shot. Like Gay said -- 'very ordinary, very cool.' Interesting to read that the pedestrian streets of KL aren't busy like I would have expected.

    Agreed about feeling more conspicuous with the 'on the street' challenge than most others.

    I'll be anxious to see what else you come up with!

  8. What an impressive image! I love how much else is going on in this picture... many talking points. I look forward to seeing more of your images!