Photo festival founder Vignes Balasingam on the urgent task of documentation

Photo festival founder Vignes Balasingam on the urgent task of documentation

The photographer and festival director seeks to unearth Malaysia’s missing histories through the efforts of the OBSCURA Festival of Photography.

By Ellen Lee

Vignes Balasingam is concerned with gaps and absences, what could be and what currently is not, which is perhaps ironic within a conversation about photography, given that our contemporary world is overwhelmingly saturated with images. There are no gaps, no breathing spaces. Everything is relentlessly present and relentlessly demanding of our attention.

Yet in speaking about absences, Vignes is addressing the absence that underlies our current reality—the absence of critical, meaningful engagement with each other and the world we live in. “We all share this space, this land, together,” he says. “We should be concerned about it.” His solution to this was in founding OBSCURA Festival, an annual photography festival based in George Town, Penang.  

Vignes regards the task of photography as more urgent and serious than simply acting as an outlet for an individual’s self-expression, which is why the festival line-up tends to eschew the typical practice of artist’s talks in favour of more weighty programming. As part of the festival, he also runs an artist residency programme.

An evening slideshow at Hin Bus Depot
Vignes sharing thoughts behind his curatorial process at Awesome Canteen

Vignes kickstarted OBSCURA Festival in 2013. Trained as a musical composer, he eventually turned towards photography as his main form of creative expression, honing his skills by attending photography talks and workshops around the region. However, the deeper he got into the Malaysian art scene, the more he observed how fragmented and lonely it is, with scarce opportunities causing jealousy and cliquishness among people. His goal then shifted from self-expression to community-building. He wanted to find a way to unite all the conversations taking place around him. Seven years on, OBSCURA Festival is still running. Vignes is still trying to push us beyond loneliness towards a deeper examination of the world beyond ourselves.

National Geographic photographer Maggie Steber’s masterclass for OBSCURA Festival

Seven years is a respectably long time for an arts festival to run, especially when it is largely self-funded by the organiser himself. During the rest of the year, Vignes is hustling through commercial photography jobs to raise funds to invest in the next year’s festival. Despite a loyal network of enthusiasts helping him, the long-term management of the festival is still a fundamentally isolated role.

There is little money for the arts as it is, and when it comes to investing in photography projects, there’s almost nothing left to spare. Each year, Vignes approaches national arts-funding bodies about funding OBSCURA Festival, but each year he fails to gain substantial support. “I’ve had bouts of depression before from the stress,” he admits. “It’s my own personal, emotional, and financial investments at stake.”

Yet it’s very much in our self-interest to care. In our distraction with the present, we have begun to let go of the past. Vignes tells the story of Confluence, a project by Ian Teh for his artist residency with OBSCURA Festival in 2014. The project is an investigation into the Selangor coastline and its inhabitants. Its title has a double meaning: it refers to the Gombak-Klang river confluence, but also to the confluence of the city’s diverse population. Both are at the very heart of Kuala Lumpur, a city of migrants built by migrants, with human desire striving beyond state and national borders. In returning to the coastline, Ian sought to document the histories and lives captured by this desire.

Westport II. Port Klang, as captured by Ian Teh for his Confluence project

While researching the project, Vignes made a few visits to various national archival bodies to try and gather the information that could help contextualise Confluence. In shock, he discovered that no documentation of the Selangor coastline had been made within the past sixty-odd years. “I thought we would find a lot of information in University Malaya, or in the Klang and Selangor state libraries. But there was nothing. Everything was from the 1950s.” There existed no recent history of this site that is so deeply embedded within all our histories. In publishing the photobook for Confluence, Ian and OBSCURA Festival effectively published the first professional photographic documentation of the Selangor coastline in decades.  

Confluence is characteristic of most of the projects that the festival takes on for its artist residency programme—serious, investigative work with historical weight—but sometimes it also takes on more lighthearted projects that indulge and take simple delight in the photographic act.

A photo from the Friendship project by Joerg Brueggemann and Tobias Kruse
For this year’s artist residency programme, German photographers Joerg Brueggemann and Tobias Kruse collaborated on a project entitled Friendship, which will come out by the end of 2019. According to Vignes, the project is more accessible and fun in its storytelling. Though creating and maintaining national archives is important, so is creating and maintaining personal ones as they also function as unique entry points to the past. It could be said that OBSCURA Festival is as much a photography festival as it is a story-telling festival. The discovery of all these hidden, undocumented stories⁠—these little vignettes into the lives of others⁠—is what drives Vignes to keep persevering with running it. His vision allows him to see what’s missing among the overwhelming saturation of the present—with OBSCURA Festival, he’s trying to fill those gaps with something meaningful, to be relentlessly present in a different way.

OBSCURA Festival is running from the 16th — 21st August 2019. Click here for the full schedule. You can also subscribe to their newsletter to receive updates on future events.
Photos courtesy of OBSCURA Festival

Cover photo by Nadia J Mahfix

Ellen Lee is a writer and art worker based in Kuala Lumpur. She is interested in all forms of culture, from fine art and poetry to trap music and anime.