Sunday, December 30, 2007

Tostada chips and some new insights

Where was I about a year ago?

I stumbled upon an old draft a few minutes ago. It was written on 2 January 2007 and contained only a few lines (here corrected for punctuation), among which were:

Sivin's favourite quote of the day, spoken over tostada chips: "When all else fails, there's still chips."


I am a delayed person. Dr Chin once gave me a jab and said 'oi?' because I didn't cry. Only later did I cry. Delayed response.

I spent New Year's Day 2007 with Yen, Tien, Shern Ren, Li-Shia, Fang Hai and Sivin at Chili's Mid Valley. You don't get a more unusual combination!

Looking back, I should've shot the entire basket of tostada chips instead of leaving it only half in the frame. I suppose I've made the most leaps this year in framing, and perhaps most of all because of the 50mm lens. Prime lenses really make you think about what you're putting in and what you're leaving out. They make the photographer a lot more discerning.

Not that zooms are bad, but in the wrong hands they are more often than not an excuse for lazy composition resulting in crappy pictures. I use my 18-55mm now more than ever (since getting the 50mm), but the sort of pictures I'm taking post 50mm are markedly different from those before. For one, I'm now more inclined to use my legs instead of my fingers to adjust distance.

Didn't quite expect such a lengthy reflection on tostada chips. :-P

Speaking of reflections on photography, I've noticed that people who've never used an SLR almost always hold the camera shutter-side down when composing vertical shots, i.e. they twist their right wrist 90 degrees back. It happened both in Malacca and Camerons.

At first I wondered if it was a left-hander thing, as one of my friends is left-handed. But the others aren't, so it couldn't be. I think it's because most people are used to holding digital compact cameras that way; there's no need to support a lens, and as the camera is light it makes sense to just flick the wrist back for a vertical frame.

I never actually noticed all of this. I think it's because I always hold the camera with my right hand on top; any other way would exert a good deal of strain on the arm (except where space constraint is a factor).

(If there are any SLR users reading this and you disagree, please comment below. This is only a theory, after all, and I'm not even sure if anything I'm saying is true; it just seems to make good sense of the data so far.)

All is quiet on New Year's Day.
A world in white gets underway.
I want to be with you, be with you night and day.
Nothing changes on New Year's Day.

--U2, 'New Year's Day'

Saturday, December 29, 2007

One tag too many!

Double-tagged by SooT. I'm going to attempt one now, and the other long and tedious one perhaps another day.

* * * * *

(a) A holiday with Li-Shia.
(b) Nikon DX Nikkor 12-24mm f/4 lens
(c) Nikon Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4 lens
(d) Nikon D300 DSLR
(e) A ticket to a U2 concert

(a) Do I need a reason for this? :-P
(b) Wide angle!
(c) Dramatic close-up shots!
(d) With all those lenses, a second body is useful
(e) Best band on the planet. Period.


(a) Very musical.
(b) Has weird plans for facial and cranial hair
(c) Very intelligent.
(d) A great model (for photography; role model I'm not so sure :-P).
(e) Lightning-speed eater.

Agreed to partner me on TM Squared. Much of it started from that point.

MOST LOVED INVENTION (does not need to be technologically advanced):
It's a tie between the pen and the camera.

Hypocrisy. Mine included.

Li-Shia, Denise, Suit Lin, Kee Aun, Ming-Shien, Melody.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Malacca: Entangled

I did it in Mersing and I thought it might also work in Malacca: for want of better direction in my photography I decided to build my photos around a theme in Mersing. The environment there lent itself very well to the 104th Psalm which, in my opinion, is one of the grandest psalms celebrating God's creation.

At the end of the trip I had put together a collection of photographs whose very diversity astounded me. I have remarked that it was the best photography outing of the year so far for it was a breakthrough in many ways.

I would later learn that it is not uncommon for travel photographers to use the device of a theme or motif or, in the great National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson's words, an assignment. After all, you can't shoot everything while on holiday, and you certainly don't want the sprawling lack of focus in a photo collection characteristic of an attempt to do so.

Thus I decided to use Scripture again. But I think I learned there (and more so in Cameron Highlands, but more on that later) that God will not be used.

Considering the historical nature of Malacca and the abundance of colonial erections, the word 'stronghold' suggested itself to me. It wasn't long before I found myself at the 46th Psalm whose first and last verses read thus;

God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble...

The LORD of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold

--Psalm 46:1,11 (NASB)

Also, I reminded myself that it was about time to start shooting for the Publicity Department of the PKV's Easter 2008 production. I asked Suit Lin for the theme a couple of months ago, and so I put aside that word till the holidays. It was 'Entangled' and I was free to interpret it photographically as my creativity and imagination led me.

My train of thought went something like this: Entangled. Stronghold. Colonial influences mingled with local culture. Entangled. Roots hold a tree in the ground. Tangled roots. Strong. A tree is like a stronghold. The Porta de Santiago (A' Famosa) is a stronghold. A tree can stand longer than a human stronghold. Trees are nature's stronghold. Entangled. God with us. God holds us fast. God got entangled in human history and culture in the midst of a Roman colonial environment.

Something like that.

So I set out to shoot photos which would juxtapose local elements with colonial ones, and I decided to use colonial structures as the subjects.

A personal mission of mine, totally unrelated to the Easter production and the psalm, was to shoot popular structures at unpopular times of day. Thus Valerie and I found ourselves at the peak of St Paul's Hill at the crack of dawn with nothing stirring but the wind and everything else dead but the shifting shadows cast by nearby sodium lamps.

This was the result:

Many have taken photos of St Francis Xavier in the harsh afternoon sun, so I thought I'd show the more mystical side of the St Paul's Church ruins. Along the way uphill, I almost thought St Francis turned his head! It turned out to be the movement of a leaf's shadow.

With the aperture open at f/8 I left the shutter for 20 seconds at ISO 200. It's an interesting photo, and the bright planet (not star, as it wasn't blinking) adds a dimension of life and timelessness to the composition. One of my favourites from my trip, but I suppose at most merely an experimental shot.

* * * * *

Half an hour ago, I decided to scrap the psalm, despite having all the photos I needed to illustrate it as I did Psalm 104. Some of the photos weren't good enough, and I didn't want to overshadow the photos that really mattered.

Because to me, the purpose of taking photos is not to illustrate Bible passages; the Word of God is so much more than that. But I wanted to show the connection; how God has amazingly, through His Word and random ideas, enabled me to make a picture I think perfectly embodies the spirit of all the various influences I mentioned earlier.

It was a great trip for my friends (the BF Classmates) and I, and we have a fair share of memorable group and individual photos. And for Suit Lin's mission, I shot from various angles. a mass of roots between the Stadthuys and the Aldy Hotel where we stayed.

But just over half an hour ago I saw one of my favourite photos in a totally new light. It looked good on the camera; it looked great on the computer. This is one of those moments when a photo just means so much to a person that every other photo pales in comparison.

When you look at it, there may be nothing special about it. But when I shot it mounted on a tripod from the near-impossible ground level angle, I had no idea I would be capturing such a rich scene in one frame.

* * * * *

It is dawn, and the sun has yet to rise. The white tomb stands in the middle of a garden; the green grass reminds the observer of the battle that was waged in Gethsemane three nights ago. Satan's forces fell when this man Jesus acknowledged his name.

"We are looking for Jesus."
"I am he."

It's just a pronoun to most of us, but the Jews knew the name of God. Above all Satan knew the name of God. I AM. Perhaps it reminded Satan of another garden, the Garden of Eden, where God promised to break the curse and crush the serpent. At Gethsemane the promise looked to be fulfilled.

But then Jesus surrendered and we all know what happens next.

It is Sunday, and before the sun is up (and before everyone knows the Son is up), the women are on their way to the tomb with spices ready and hearts perhaps not yet quite able to accept the death of their Lord.

Beyond the tomb lies the ruins of St Paul's Church. The house of God in ruins. When Jesus died something happened in the Temple; almost as if Jesus declared by the ripping of the temple curtain that he wasn't done with it yet. Indeed Jesus was well known for causing chaos in synagogues and the temple courts, driving out thieves and swindlers, healing the frail, claiming to be the Messiah. And now even in death he wasn't done with the temple.

So the church is in ruins, the tomb lies in the middle of the garden and there is a tree with huge roots in the foreground. Such a stark contrast: life upon life thriving in the halls of the dead. Perhaps the image also suggested itself to the women and the disciples; the irony of the dead being laid to rest in the midst of so much life.

We don't know yet that the tomb is empty, nor do we know that there are angels at its entrance bearing news that would be too good to be true. But that was Easter morning: a journey fraught with irony and unspoken grief.

A journey of entangled emotions and thoughts, thinking of Jesus' prophecies about himself yet knowing that dead people don't rise. Recalling Lazarus and thinking that maybe Jesus might just do what he said. Having seen the very gory death of Jesus and feeling that that hope was just a little too far away to believe this time.

But above all a morning when the God who chose to entangle himself in humanity would show the way through this tangled mess of our lives, bringing life through death and the promise that the strongholds of the tomb and our so-called 'great' constructions and obstructions are no match for the strong hold of God himself.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Thoughts on Pride and Precedence

Meet Yen Mii, a usually reserved fellow d'NAer but with some really interesting and profound insights and hidden depths of wackiness.

Today at some point in the journey from KL to Seremban the topic of pride for an educational institution came up. I commented on the differences between UM and the VI; how UM students don't seem to have nearly as much pride for UM than Victorians for the VI.

Yen Mii said it's probably because those who enter the university have never known what it is like to be proud of an institution with traditions and a rich history. And since the 'cycle of pride' is never started, there are few (if any) seniors to pass it down to the juniors.

Over dinner I realised this idea is also true in another context. Li-Shia says my Nikon P5000 digital compact camera has excellent colour reproduction, but I always beg to differ. It has, however, occured to me that my judgement is probably due to overexposure (no pun intended) to the SLR system such that I now expect a lot more from a camera than before.

But then again, Li-Shia is no stranger to my SLR-produced pictures. Is it then because I rarely see photos taken on digital compacts such that I don't have level grounds by which to compare the P5000?

Oh, the possibilities...

* * * * *

Written at 9.00 a.m. on 15 December 2007:

(On holding on to what you know is right in an otherwise upside-down world)

We do not know how long the night will last
Or when the dark will turn to day;
But if we do not hold our candles fast
There'll be none to light the way.

Friday, December 14, 2007

It's not about being Green

Henri Nouwen wrote, in The Way of the Heart:

"...the end of the persecutions [in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D.] did not mean that the world had accepted the ideals of Christ and altered its ways; the world continued to prefer the darkness to the light (John 3:19). But if the world was no longer the enemy of the Christian, then the Christian had to become the enemy of the dark world."

* * * * *

Last Thursday, when having lunch with Fang Hai and Guruparan at Annalakshmi Mid Valley, the topic of biofuels surfaced in conversation. Guru pointed out that, despite the success of cane ethanol, sugarcane plantations were eating into the Amazon.

I support biofuels and I think cane ethanol is a wonderful energy source. It was reported in National Geographic (October 2007) that cane ethanol has a lower retail price compared to an energy-equivalent amount of petrol, produces 56% less greenhouse gas emissions than petrol, and has a whopping 1:8 input:output ratio of fossil-fuel energy used to make the fuel compared with the energy in the fuel.

However, Guru's remark alerted me to the flip side of agro-fuels and, indirectly, the darker side of environmentalism.

Al Gore's recent hit An Inconvenient Truth had the world talking about global warming, but I have always thought of the whole environmental problem as much more than a matter of trading in carbon credits and/or adopting an energy-efficient lifestyle. Because if you think about it from his point of view, then sugarcane plantations are a good thing, because they maintain the green cover on the planet in addition to producing cheap, clean fuel.

But then in Annalakshmi I saw the whole 'Let's Fight for a Greener Earth' argument fall before me. Extrapolating the idea to Singapore (and to YTL's Sentul East and Sentul West projects), I realised that green landscaping is not the same as conservation. Singapore is well-known as a 'garden city' with lots of trees everywhere, but no serious biologist will consider Singapore's greenery a thriving ecosystem (save, perhaps some parts around Bukit Timah).

The point is, we can eradicate all the forests on Earth and still maintain the greenery. Brazil's situation is proof of that: clear all of the Amazon and replace it with plantations; Earth remains green, global warming is in check... so what's the problem? Only this: we would have lost thousands upon thousands of plant and animal species, most of them probably as yet unknown to science.

Mr Gore and a lot of 'green earth' activists overlook this. You can fill a city with trees and have all the plant-a-tree campaigns you want, but the value of a forest is not that it has a lot of trees; it is that it has a lot of different trees. That's what biodiversity means, and diversity means there are plants that just won't be feasible in a city either due to maintenance or aesthetic issues. Keeping Earth green will keep carbon dioxide levels low, but not prevent mass extinctions.

Deforestation is a bad thing; reforestation good but nearly impossible. To effectively 'reforest' a plot of land, the reforester has to know the exact composition of plant and animal species in the area before it was cleared. And even if all the plants can be replaced by some miracle of seed-sourcing, most of the insect and animal species may be gone for good. It is also folly to assume that animal species are homogenous in the same region; Perak's rainforests exhibit a different biodiversity from those in Pahang.

Global warming is a big issue, but it is only a small portion of the environmental problems humanity faces. Ultimately the question is not about monitoring greenhouse gas emissions because from an evolutionary point of view, it is no threat to the environment at all, as polar bears which lose their icy homes will probably evolve aquatic appendages... or die in a classic case of 'survival of the fittest'.

And surely the Big Meltdown can't be any bigger than the other famous disruptions in the history of the universe like the Big Bang, the Big Dino-busting Meteor and the Ice Age. I mean, we're probably living in the Oven Age; what's so bad about that? Thermophilic bacteria aren't complaining.

The heart of the problem is what we make of Earth. Is it worth saving? And if it is, why? To me there is no better answer than the preservation of Earth's biodiversity. But this is also the least profitable and fashionable reason. Al Gore has made environmentalism 'cool' and accessible, but there is more to it than high-profile campaigns. It involves convincing governments all over the world to choose the preservation of nature over massive economic gains, and in a greedy world it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

I believe this is a subject I will return to in the near future with newer insights. Environmentalism is a big thing and questions about what it is and how best to go about it have yet to be answered at length.

* * * * *

So where does the Nouwen quote come in?

If we take it as part of our Christian duty to care for the environment as stewards of God's creation, then the present situation is this: the world is also following suit. Environmentalism is becoming a subject of international acceptance, much like the Church under the rule of Constantine the Great.

But the physical growth of a church (i.e. its numbers) says nothing about its spiritual condition. Likewise environmentalism is becoming something like wearing a red ribbon in support of AIDS sufferers not because you actually care, but because it is easy to do so. Not many who eagerly wear the badge will volunteer to work amongst AIDS patients for fear of, among other things, infection.

The world has ceased to become the enemy of the Church in this sense. In fact there are Christians who claim the environment is not worth caring for, simply because the universe is temporal and we should be investing in heaven, not earth. (I shall leave the stupidity of this statement to speak for itself.) Hello, if this Earth is pointless, then why does the Bible open with a grand account of God creating it and declaring it 'very good'?! Does an artist produce a masterpiece only to have it trampled underfoot by swine?

But the alignment of the world to what seems to be a noble ideal does not mean that it has accepted the ideals of Christ. As I have pointed out, the vogue in environmentalism today is about doing as much as we can but not too much; it's about convenient methods which do not compromise on profits too much. It is, ultimately, merely utilitarian.

How does the Christian become the enemy of an environmentally conscious world? Not by saying the environment is not important, but by being aware of the hypocrisy of environmentalism. By remembering the Maker of all things created, seen and unseen. By working for the preservation of God's creation despite it being difficult and unprofitable. In many ways this reflects the call of Christ to deny ourselves, carry our crosses and follow Him.

In His teachings, Jesus would begin with a contemporary problem, examine it in the context of Jewish (and sometimes Roman) law, and then shed 'new' insights on it based on the original purposes of God. Like when the Sadducees asked about marriage and heaven, and Jesus said that they had their whole concept of God wrong, that God is God of the living and not the dead.

Our contemporary problem is the deteriorating world. In the context of present-day environmentalism, we are aware of measures we must take to keep this world afloat. But we must move beyond the sacrifices of lambs and pigeons to the One Sacrifice; beyond the purposes of man to the purposes of God. To save the world because at the end of the day, it belongs to God and He will call His stewards to account. And we are His stewards.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Judgement and Botanical Photography

I have of late been drawn to the biblical passages on judgement, specifically the writings of the minor prophets. Just now, in the evening, I read this in Amos and it really jumped out of the page.

"You only have I chosen
of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you
for all your sins."

--Amos 3:2 (NIV)

Amos begins with prophecies on the destruction of the nations around Israel and Judah. But then the judgement on Israel and Judah is even harsher, because they disobeyed the Law of the Lord. Much more was given to them, and thus much more was expected.

I couldn't run from it. God has given me so much, and for me to stoop so low...

Father, forgive me. Forgive us. Let the judgement not be too harsh.

* * * * *

Went shooting at the Orchid Gardens in KL with Kelvin yesterday. The following are some of the best pictures of the day, all shot with his lenses on my camera. Proof that it is, above all, the lens and not the camera that makes a picture great (besides the photographer, of course!).

Minor highlight and shadow adjustments, and a little sharpening here and there, on the computer.

Close-up of a half-floating flower in a pond.

Nikon D50 + AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f2.8 lens, 1/320 sec at f5; ISO 200

This orchid reminded me of the elegant orchid mantis. And I began to wonder, does the mantis resemble the orchid... or does the orchid resemble the mantis, as in this picture?

Nikon D50 + AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f2.8 lens, 1/100 sec at f5; ISO 200

Some of the orchids for sale.

Nikon D50 + AF-S 17-55mm f2.8 lens, 1/250 sec at f5; ISO 200

Possibly the best insect shot of the day. There were many interesting insects, from fruit flies to shield bugs, but the excessive wind made focusing a nightmare and many of the shots were blurred.

Nikon D50 + AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f2.8 lens, 1/200 sec at f5; ISO 200. Cropped from the original as I dared not approach too near for fear of scaring the wasp off.

* * * * *

(I comment on the following out of context.)

Do two walk together
unless they have agreed to do so?

--Amos 3:3 (NIV)

Walking together is so much more than the agreeing. It also comes with the bearing whatever comes of it.

But by the grace God that is exactly what we will do.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Reflections on Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

I finished Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea yesterday (or was it the day before yesterday?) after about three days of much reading, having begun it during training for Royals but never getting very far since.

It's a great book, although 'great' depends on whether or not you like Hemingway's simple, disarming style. He's not much for style, but he's a great storyteller. To me, what's most amazing about this book is that it really is about the old man and the sea. 75 of the 99 pages in the Vintage Classics edition are dedicated to the old man's adventures in the open sea.

Take away picturesque settings (it's endless ocean and sky), intriguing characters (the most exciting characters are the sharks and, of course, the giant fish), engaging dialogue (the old man talks to himself... and the fish) and dynamic plot (it's basically a cat and mouse game, only worse: the old man has already hooked the fish, but he's chasing it in order to reel it in when it's weaker)... and what do you get? I don't know how Hemingway squeezed 75 pages out of this barrenness, but that is exactly what he did!

And to top it all off, it was a page-turner and read like any exciting thriller. The following are some of my favourite quotes/excerpts:

* * * * *

... the fish's eye looked as detached as the mirrors in a periscope or as a saint in a procession.

p. 74

"But man is not made for defeat," he said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated."

p. 80

(This is my favourite, and I think it sums up what the whole story is about:)

Then his head started to become a little unclear and he thought, is he bringing me in or am I bringing him in? If I were towing him behind there would be no question. Nor if the fish were in the skiff, with all dignity gone, there would be no question either. But they were sailing together lashed side by side and the old man thought, let him bring me in if it pleases him. I am only better than him through trickery and he meant me no harm.

p. 76

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

--Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NIV)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Hits, Misses and Stray Shots

Soon, Dad will return this laptop to the office to be sold off. When that happens, I won't have access to my photos for some time as Windows ME on the other computer is hopeless when it comes to picture management, due to compatibility issues.

So I won't be blogging for a while; at least, not the usual photoblogs. And considering that I've been less wordy lately, it's unlikely I'll be writing anything long either.

Looking through some of the photos on this laptop (i.e. those either recently taken or transferred here en route to CDs/e-mail), I've selected a few to talk about. Some of these were real breakthroughs this year, others were creative misadventures; all are equally unforgettable.


* * * * *

This is where the year really shifted into forward gear: with the addition of the 50mm f/1.8 (a.k.a. portrait) lens to my arsenal. The very first photos I took with it were of Yen, and they remain among my best ever.

After a while, some photographers can get bored of the usual portrait styles which tend to include most of the face. So I thought of experimenting with this lower-half-of-the-face shot of David. It proved to be somewhat more successful than the attempts on other d'NAers!

I was trying to demonstrate the effect of high ISO shooting to Yen. I shot one in colour and one in black-and-white, and the latter remains one of my most iconic pictures of the Sahur Café yet, reminding me of the strong character of grainy monochromes.

The night we arrived at the Fraser's Pine Resort for the CC Trip, I looked out a window in the function room and experimented a little with composition. Adrian liked this shot very much, and it has proved to be one of my most unique this year.

For some reason, this fun shot at the KLCC Park's wading pool turned out to be a big hit with virtually everyone who's seen it. This is not a work of art and no photographic expertise was required. It was a creative romp in which Chee Seong, Yean Khinn, Amos, Evans and Oliver participated enthusiastically. The little child was a coincidental blessing indeed.

Li-Shia came over to celebrate Georgie's 6th birthday. What a good time we all had!

The usual suspects at KLCC for the MPO's performance of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. They wanted to pull off a Mafia-esque pose, and I suppose they had most of it right, except (and a very big except!)... they were a tad too cheerful!

One of a series of 'album cover' shots at UiTM during the Royal Debate Tournament, it is this kind of photo that begs the question: who is the real Kang Zarul Irwan?

While Hugh, Kee Aun and I were chatting with Iera and Fairuz of IIU (background), I noticed this cat lazing in the drain. I decided to go for a crazy angle, and I daresay it worked!

The night of the final day of Royals, Li-Shia and I managed to catch The Idea of North at Alexis Ampang. This was a low-light photography triumph, representing the other great function of the 50mm f/1.8 lens: excellent low-light performance due to its large aperture.

This is a political observation. 'Premis Bersih' made me think that, taken from a different point of view, this could be the headquarters for the Bersih movement in the country. Throw in a few Indian characters, and you have signs of Hindraf. But really, this is an Indian restaurant with no connection to those rallies whatsoever.

Yet there is something that I cannot escape: looking at the Malaysian flag in the picture, the 'Bersih' word and the Indians, I realise that this is the truest face of Malaysia. It is a land in which freedom of speech and assembly still prevail despite government crackdowns, simply because Malay gerai, Chinese coffee-shops, Indian banana leaf houses and mamak stalls still exist.

Whatever words are exchanged on either side of the equation, the people have the final say, and this is something no government can ever take away from us Malaysians.

While waiting for Hugh before leaving for the MMU Friendliest of Friendlies at Cyberjaya, I noticed that the morning sunrise cast really wild and fiery shadows on the wall behind Kee Aun. It was a shot too good to be missed.

* * * * *

Throughout the year, I have discovered this truth:

Between SooT and Yen, they could fill up a gallery with their portraits without risk of monotony.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Message through Habakkuk

Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed
and establishes a town by crime!

Has not the LORD Almighty determined
that the people's labour is only fuel for the fire,
that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD,
as the waters cover the sea.

--Habakkuk 2:12-14 (NIV)

A necessary reminder.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Swan Lake and Quantum Theory

The Swan Lake gang, L-R: Jon Chu, Ivan, Mei Si, Ai Wei and Suit Lin.

I like this book's title (and also the little caption on science books above it)!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What for?

I was at someone's blog. Someone whose blog I read for the first time nearly a year ago.

Some people can really write and take professional-quality (as in, professional advertising quality) photographs with consumer-level equipment. Some people navigate art as easily as fish navigate water (yes yes, big cliché).

And it makes me wonder, why am I still here? Why am I seemingly deceiving myself into thinking I can write and take photographs?

Dunno lah. It's like this need to express. Without pen and paper, without camera and lens, I would burst with all the thoughts and emotions within.

If you are somewhat lacking in the talent to do something, yet find yourself having an irrepressable need to do that something, you must have issues. And I'd venture to say, BIG ones.

If you're like that, maybe we should talk someday over coffee or tea or whatever it is that calms your nerves.

If you're like that, maybe you're a little like me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mersing Dawn

Stumbled across this while looking through the Mersing photos.

It's that reflective time of year again.

First Journey to the Past: A Place of Healing

For some reason, I like this picture. A lot. SooT really nailed it. And in light of our recent conversation, life is like trying to climb onto a log in the sea: it's easier to fall off than get on.

S: Lately I find my mind wandering to times we spent together.
W: Indeed and why?
S: Once in awhile i think of... the past. And it so happens you are one of the more prominent voices. I remember with acid clarity the day you scolded me about the whole [censored] thing. I remember the oranges... but I forgot if I was eating, or you.
W: I didn't remember the oranges. I remember vaguely your face, the room, the people walking outside.
S: You remember that day also?
W: Yes I remember that day. I remember sharply the discomforting feeling in the pit of my stomach in having to scold you and seem like a rigid religionist because the younger [ones] didn't understand and were following you blindly.
S: But what do you mean they were following me blindly?
W: Well, you might not have realized, but [they] looked up to you a great deal--you, H, S, T... they were all starting to act [in the wrong way] too.

* * * * *

This sign spoke to me with particular eloquence, given the events of the day and the week before. I reproduce my thoughts below verbatim, grammatical errors and all, from the planner in which I wrote them.

Of all the photos I took of that day, I did not take one of the most significant encounter.

The aunty was trying to hail a cab, but couldn't. She asked me how to go about it. I said it was difficult on this side of the road. Told her to cross to the other side and walk to the petrol station. Shouldn't have done that because I said 'petrol station' in English while the rest of the conversation was in Cantonese.

It was she who called to me when me, ST, David & Alex were on the bridge's steps awaiting YC. On our way to the monorail, I met her again. She asked the same thing and I gave the same reply: cross the road.

I may never meet her again; I regret not walking with her. And in doing so I think I failed God's biggest test today--I was too focused on our 'agenda' (i.e. getting into the station etc.) that I didn't think of sparing some time to help her out; I would've immediately done so with a friend.

Jesus allowed interruptions to shape His ministry, from Cana to the woman with the issue of blood, from Zacchaeus to the feeding of the 5000.

When will I learn to do so?

Father, I gave thanks for your grace upon us today. But all my thanks is meaningless because I failed to show simple grace to another in need.

Especially when I realise I might've been the difference between a 'lost' wandering in the drizzle, and getting closer to her destination.

And especially when I realise of all the things she could've benefitted from on such a dreadful afternoon, a companion and conversation might've been the greatest blessing.

Lord, grant that I may never forget this.

* * * * *

(I converted the picture to black and white, increased contrast and cropped it a little.)

Photographers don't see everything. The photographer can do everything but look at himself/herself, and even self-portraits are, at best, educated guesses.

That is why it is good for photographers to have fellow photographer friends. I consider my Mersing portfolio to be the best--certainly the most cohesive--collection of photos I have this year. But they are not complete with the photos SooT took, such as this one of us 'landing' on Pulau Rawa.

In every sense, it is the perfect group picture.

Friends are there to drag you to the edge of reason, to the very brink of trouble... and then hold you back just as you want to jump in.

They meet you in the morning, get you started and bear with you while you warm up.

And then they leave you shortly after lunch to face the storm alone. You wish they'd stay, but then you later realise you would've missed a great deal had they not left.

Thus you drag your other friend who wanted to finish his journey his way. You want something which is too dangerous for both of you; he says no. He wants something that is dangerous for you; you say no.

And he won't do it because there won't be a way to remember it by.

Friends are absurd creatures sometimes.

* * * * *

Found this on Mich's blog. A great poster by WWF!

It says, 'The Future is Man Made'.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

In the Right Places

You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me." But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.

--Deuteronomy 8:17-18 (NIV)

An article I read recently (thanks Shannon) talks about talents and the ability of anyone to become anything he/she wants.

My point here is not to discuss the article (with which I generally disagree). But this morning, in searching the Bible for passages on talents and finding only the parable of the talents in the concordance, I thus looked up 'ability', and among the verses listed was Exodus 8:18.

As I read and reflected on the chapter (Exodus 8), thinking also of a decision I made over the course of yesterday regarding a major upcoming event, I was reminded--not just the flashback sort of reminder, but the kind that confirms something in the present on the strength of something of the past--of God's grace in bringing me to where I am now, amidst and through all the complications that life is prone to.

And a group e-mail from Steven which I just read, seems to be another sign in this direction. Though of course I am not part of the people to whom the e-mail was addressed, I identified with his distinction of people and the places they ought to be in.

But it all began with what a certain friend said yesterday morning about the differences between me and another friend. Differences which, she remarked, suggest that my place is not his, nor his mine.

Wars are fought in such a way that two men holding the same weapons may not be fighting for the same cause, and those assigned to different platoons and different ends of the earth may truly be more united in their mission than they realise. And not every soldier marches.

Lest I think that I am where I am by the work of my hands and the scheming of my mind, God has reminded me this morning that I am nothing apart from what He enables me to be, and that I am unable to be apart from the grace provided for in His covenant.

I still think it uncanny that so many signs should appear, and so many coincidences come to be, in the space of 28 hours.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Reflections on Remembering

It's been an unusual week, to say the least. Three exams in what is my first university finals, submitting my photos for the PAUM Photography Competition, having a lot of suppers along the way, and waking up yesterday morning feeling very weak.

Felt extremely thirsty after breakfast yesterday (I had bread with garlic spread, but the thirst was beyond what garlic normally causes), and extremely hungry in the later part of the day. Shivered at night but there was no fever at all.

Many theories, but I think it could be some form of food poisoning.

I say it's been an unusual week because despite the flurry of activities, it has been a relatively calm week compared to many of the weeks this semester, and because I have been reminded of many things that have happened. It's been a week full of trips to many significant moments in the past.

I'm still trying to make sense of it all, so maybe the best thing I can do here is to describe my encounters with these various figures and images of the past, in order of appearance in the past week:

* * * * *


I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone.

But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for.
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for.

When How mentioned U2's 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' seemingly out of the blue early in the week, I had no idea just how much the song would haunt me over the next few days. And not just the song, but music in general. Jee Haw's (classical) guitar was a real blessing, and by the end of the week I was able to pluck an arpeggio accompaniment to the songs 'Sanctuary' and 'O Mighty Cross'.

Back home, I searched for and found the live U2 performance with the New Voices of Freedom Choir in the Madison Square Gardens back in 1987. The gospel-style, mostly a cappella duet was probably the highlight of the Joshua Tree Tour back then.

But the reason why this song stirred so deeply in me is probably because it was one of the first U2 songs that actually grew on me a good number of years back. I was in Form Five then, and The Joshua Tree was my second U2 album after All That You Can't Leave Behind.

I could identify with the song in its sense of searching and not quite getting there yet. That year was a whirlwind of a year and I remember there were a lot of things--mostly spiritual--I was grappling with. Lately, echoes of 2004 have been emerging, and again I find myself at a place where I'm questioning God--not about His existence or theology or my faith, but about an apparent decrease in my desire to do what is right.

At this point in time those lines quoted above really mean something; I don't know if I'm speaking with the tongue of angels or holding the hand of a devil. Sometimes I can't tell the difference, and sometimes even if I can, I don't care.

* * * * *

Mr Kali

Now, if you walk past your friend quickly, can you shake hands and say hello? No. Likewise, molecules at higher temperatures, which have higher kinetic energy, cannot form bonds. Because they move too fast.

But if you walk slowly, can you shake hands? Yes, and you can say hello and form... BONDS!

Mr Kali said this sometime in July 2005, and because I liked it I put it up on this blog on 23 July. Recently Fiona included it in the header of the revamped BF Classmates blog. The words seemed awfully familiar and when I did a search on my blog, I discovered it was indeed the exact same quote.

I think none of us realised back then just how powerful the imagery of bonds would be for us as a class, and just how important Mr Kali would be in the formation of the BF identity. I think we owe a lot to our eccentric teachers who more often than not gave us not only food for thought, but food for talk. Oh, to recall all those episodes of imitating them!

And then there is that word: slow. Mr Kali was absolutely right there. Everyone knows life is hectic, and everyone knows--at least deep inside--that slowing life down is the key to solving most of its problems. But it's easier said than done. I'm glad those words have not been lost, that these little symbols and residues from our schooldays continue to journey with us.

The significance of all this sees further explanation further on in this post.

* * * * *


On another issue, there is something that is currently perplexing me but there is no need to dish out details of it here. I have only this to say: We have all received the same teachings and heard the same things every week, together; yet how is it that we have differing views and stands and become so convicted in them that it divides??!!

I can identify, at least in part, with what Melody wrote on 16 October on her blog. But the meaning these words had for me lies not in my identification with them but with how they express the passage of time.

Received the same teachings and heard the same things... differing views and stands... convicted... divides...

These words were like flickers and glimmers of the past, my past. Which is in every probability nothing at all like what she meant in writing those words. But that is not what I am concerned with here. The words awoke something real in me, something true about where I've come from, something living about the experience of these last four years.

I'm glad that people can still be together in division, and that some of the people closest to me are those who are, ironically, most divided with me. Yes, divided with me, not against me.

* * * * *

T.S. Eliot

The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence... [it] is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.


Some one said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we
know so much more than they did." Precisely, and they are that which we know.

These are lines from what is said to be Eliot's most famous essay, 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' which I learnt about (from Agha Shahid Ali's introduction to Eliot in the Poetry Speaks collection), found and printed yesterday. Eliot was always a strong proponent of tradition, and here he explains his understanding of 'tradition' and why it is so essential especially for the modern poet.

If I understand Eliot correctly, what he means is that a poet ought to be connected with the past in such a way that the past continues living in him. I think this is what he means because it is the effect of his poems. Eliot's poetry is very much like a reincarnation of poets and writers and dreamers and sages and prophets past; they live on in his verse.

And this stirs something in me because I have come to learn that it is the way in which I write. Maybe it's because I started with Eliot; he was an early influence on my writing. Well, actually Max Lucado was, but it was only with Eliot that my writing shifted into forward gear.

I have learnt so much from some of these great writers of time past and I've come to realise that little good writing can come from those who write only in the present, and by 'good' I mean thoughtful and able to stand the test of time. It shall serve as a continual reminder even in my writing, for I truly believe I shall cease to be able to write anything of value the day I forget this.

* * * * *

Teeming and Yen

Talking to them last night was therapeutic, to say the least.

Teeming requested I call her; I requested to talk to Yen. Both experiences were truly what I needed.

I came to realise that I'm not easily content with a challenge-less life. Sometimes this is good, but in moments when I have to persevere with something familiar, it is bad. Like now, when the only challenge on the horizon is doing something possibly illegal.

If Teeming helped me identify the source of my struggle, Yen helped clarify the cause of it.

It would seem as if I'm in the holiday mood a little too early. Blame it on the two-week study break during which we started planning for the d'NA Trip in December, and during which I met up several times with Li-Shia. And then, sooner than we knew, the exams were upon us. And now there's a two-week break before my next paper (actually the next is on 12 November, but it's an open-response paper without anything to actually study).

All these so-called 'breaks' in between kind of confuse me. And the last time I felt like this was around this time back in 2004, when the SPM was split in two because of the Hari Raya holidays. It's like I'm caught in a time warp, as if the holidays have begun when they actually haven't... and it's hard to get rid of the holiday effect.

* * * * *

Frederick Buechner

... that still room within us all where the past lives on as part of the present,... The name of the room is Remember--the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.

... weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulles us through at least this far, at least to this day. Foolish as we are, a wisdom beyond our wisdom has flickered up just often enough to light us if not to the right path through the forest, at least to a path that leads forward, that is bearable. Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond our power to love has kept our hearts alive.

... remember those moments in our own lives when with only the dullest understanding but with the sharpest longing we have glimpsed that Christ's kind of life is the only life that matters and that all other kinds of life are riddled with death;... that what he has done, he will continue to do, that what he has begun in us and our world, he will in unimaginable ways bring to fullness and fruition.

Decided to read Buechner's essay 'A Room Called Remember' at breakfast this morning, and use it as a springboard into today's Bible meditation. I was led to King David... and a clearer understanding of the significance of this week.

I think the whole thing about remembering Mr Kali and the crazy times in Form Six makes sense in light of what Buechner wrote. We are able to move on because we remember; the embers of the past ignite the fire of the present. And maybe in a similar way, this is the effect the poets of the past had on Eliot.

I think God is telling me to remember. Not just to recall experiences from the past, but to relive the journey of the last few years.

(Coincidentally, Tien sms-ed these words as part of a reply to me a few days ago: "Remember God.")

* * * * *

King David

They brought the ark of God and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and they presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before God...

That day David first committed to Asaph and his associates this psalm of thanks to the LORD:

Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.

Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.

Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.

Look to the LORD and his strength;
seek his face always.

Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,...

--1 Chronicles 16:7-12 (NIV)

Look to the Lord and his strength,
Seek his face always,
Remember the wonders he has done,
His miracles,
And the judgements he pronounced.

As Buechner writes, "It is the Lord, it is God, who has been with us through all our days and years whether we knew it or not, he sings--with us in our best moments and in our worst moments, to heal us with his wonders, to wound us healingly with his judgments, to bless us in hidden ways though more often than not we had forgotten his name."

* * * * *

d'NA 2004

Over and above all these reflections, it feels as if 2004 is reliving itself all over again. I remember, crystal clear, how I felt about d'NA that year. I was in the midst of preparing for (and later sitting) the SPM, and at the same time in the midst of reading through The Message (and blogging about it with the online streamlined version of U2's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb playing in the background; it wasn't released yet).

I remember looking forward to d'NA because it would be a time when I could wrestle with God and lie in his presence atop the monkey bars.

I think I'm looking forward to the d'NA Trip this December for similar--if not the same--reasons. I've made more trips this year than any other year in my life: Malacca, Singapore, Mersing, Penang, Sabah, Genting Highlands, Jasin, Fraser's Hill. But the year isn't over yet and I believe something awaits me up in Cameron Highlands that I have not found in any of the other places.

Do I sound delusional? Mystical, even?

d'NA 2004 was such an amazing experience, and in many ways I would say the best of the three stages.

Maybe it's because of the person with whom I shared a room.
Maybe it's because we were neither too young to feel odd nor too old to feel too familiar.
Maybe it's because my photography took off from there.
Maybe it's because of the morning petal shower on the last day.
Maybe it's because we said things then that we'd laugh at now.

Did I find what I was looking for at camp that year?

Will I find what I am looking for this year?

It's these moments when I know God is calling me into a world larger than any I have ever known, which are the most troublesome. What can I imagine this larger world to be?

I can only draw parallels to similar experiences in the past, and even that is often not enough. All I know is that even until today I have been unable to solve the mystery of the petal shower. I don't know why or how it happened.

Above all I still don't really know what it meant. There was joy and peace, but is that all there was? I can accept 'yes' or 'no' for an answer. But for now, I don't even know which it is.

I can only believe that God knows what he's doing.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Half Full

(Model: Shannon. Location: KLCC Park)

I've been busy lately working on the PAUM Photography Competition (deadline 31 October) and studying for my finals which begin next Monday.

Met up with Li-Shia on three occasions and DC on two over the last two weeks, visited school, wrote two articles, campaigned towards Mohan's victory in his bid to become a torchbearer for next year's Olympics, opened discussions for the next d'NA Trip, and added Nikon's Capture NX to my arsenal.

Productive holidays?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Shanti's Sky

"The much-remarked Japanese fondness for photography, the art of suspended animation which composes the chaotic world into tidy pieces, reduces 3-D mess to 2-D order, and not only transfixes the evanescent, but also domesticates life into still life..."

~ Pico Iyer, 'Video Night in Kathmandu'

(Quote courtesy of Yen, Picture titled by Aunty Agnes)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Simian Returns Soon

It's been a long time.

There are so many stories to tell and so many pictures to share. Study break is coming up so I'll write then.

But in the meantime, let's start with the monkey.

Last Friday, on the way back from Biostatistics class, Yean Khinn and I came across a whole (insert collective noun here) of monkeys opposite college. I started shooting and we parted ways.

A short while later, a man on a motorcycle stopped by the roadside a few metres from me; he was riding down from the Bukit Cinta area. He identified himself as a UM Security Officer who'd been working at the university for 22 years.

He questioned me about my photography and demanded to see my student ID. Something about fears that I was a spy of some sort who might have ulterior motives including sending the pictures to newspapers etc.

I don't suppose the fears were unbased; after all, it was elections campaign week and varsity elections this year have been a hot topic in the local papers.

After he'd taken down my details, I prompted him for his name, upon which he showed me his ID. Abdul Hadi.

If only he knew (or rather believed) what I was shooting... and that I was shooting nothing else.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Merdeka 2007... visually speaking

If not for Christine's request, I doubt I would've blogged about this so soon, if at all.

Merdeka this year was a mixed affair. I'd wanted to visit Putrajaya to see the fireworks but was too tired that week and decided I needed to rest. (Kelvin recently told me that the fireworks were somewhat disappointing as the bridge wasn't lit when he was there, thus eliminating the possibility of shooting the bridge and fireworks in the same scene.)

Also, Putrajaya was an opportunity to meet up with Sam, who's returning to India tomorrow. But once I found out that the Merdeka parade would be at Dataran Merdeka this year, that idea also flew out the window.

So I missed Sam and the fireworks. But I don't suppose all was lost. I didn't get quite as close to the present King as I did the previous one two years ago (when I stood within metres of his horse carriage), but I did get to experience a major event from the vantage point of a professional photographer.

Being the muka tembok photographer I sometimes am, I lingered as near as I could to the section of the road facing the royal dais, despite being chased away by a security officer earlier in the morning for not having an official press pass.

Thus I ended up being lumped together with the real press at the MC's booth--the perfect spot to view most of the day's events.

* * * * *

Kevin and I arrived on the scene early enough to catch a brilliantly-lit Sultan Abdul Samad building against the deep-blue dawn sky, and the yet-to-be-filled royal dais.

Prince Andrew greets Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah while Rafidah Aziz looks on.

The Yang di-Pertuan Agong inspecting the Guard of Honour.

A glorious 'Merdeka'.

An officer enjoying his cigarette break. (I doubt he noticed me despite standing only about three feet away!)

The Masters of Ceremony: Mahadzir Lokman (is there any event he does not emcee?) and his female partner whose name I do not know.

The day kicked off with a musical montage accompanied by those people who lift up pieces of cloth in formation to form words, signs etc... I don't know what they're called! This shot from the last piece says it all: 50 years might be a milestone, but already we're looking way ahead!

War veterans from the Commonwealth nations. I have no idea who the guy in red is, but judging by his uniform, he must've been quite an important figure.

Members of the Home Guard. I wonder if this was merely reenacted, or if they really managed to assemble some of the actual makciks who fought against the communists.

Visions of the future... Angkasawan Negara!

One of my favourite pictures, albeit by accident. ;-)

There were some familiar faces that day...

...and along the way to Central Market, lots of the stuff-that-makes-us-Malaysian!

* * * * *

Again remembering Amirul's words:

Hey guys & gals, Though ive been disappointed by d absence of fireworks display at klcc, and damn, i got d perfect spot.. but thats not what merdeka is about now, is it...

To be 'merdeka' , is to be free from that cycle that you're trapped in, to give up the things you're addicted to the most.

Im sure you all have your own definitions of independence, and so, i'd like to wish you;
Happy Independence Day!
-amirul z.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Reflections on yet another Farewell

It's been six-and-a-half weeks since Ah Ma passed away.

Since then, I daresay we've taken flight as much as she has.

We've done things we'd never done in a long, long time...

...seen faces we'd never thought we'd see. Together.

For out of the wintry ashes of death...

...a new hope for spring is born; fertility in a once barren land.

And with every sunset, a better day may rise with the dawn...

...for after all is said and done, the choice really is ours, isn't it?