Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Last night

A red-brown Dachshund called Ryan was dying.

From the garden of No. 20 I walked over to the garden of No. 18 to cuddle and photograph him.

* * *

Thing is, Ryan is a black-and-tan. George is the red.

Barring unusual circumstances, neither will die in the garden of No. 18.

* * *

When I awoke I remembered that Japanese movie 10 Promises to My Dog.

Monday, September 28, 2009

On blogging

I was drafting a reply to Lish's comment on my last entry, but then it got a bit too long for a comment (by my standards) so I decided to turn it into an entry on its own.


Someone once said that a blog is like an online diary. If I kept a real diary, this is very much how I would have written in it.

I recently found myself leafing, I mean, scrolling through entries I'd written in 2005 and I remembered many of those moments vividly. For those I could not summon to memory, I asked some of those who had a part in them, and it did not take too much effort to pin the now-obscured meanings down.

Indeed, I won't remember every experience, but that's not the point of blogging. If there's anything worth remembering forever, God will remember it for me and I shall collect that memory when at last I look upon His face.

As I recently told Aunty Sheila, my blog is not a portfolio (and for that matter, neither is it a pulpit). It is kept, not to draw visitors or get a point across or share ideas or champion a cause (though these may find application through the blog), but to serve as a place of rejoicing and thanksgiving, of ranting and trying to make sense of things.

Think of it as leaving a trail of footprints in a forest. Each entry marks a place I've been, or things I've done; a fragment of time frozen forever. And as far as a blog/diary is concerned, I think it matters little more than that.

Friday, September 25, 2009

So I told Doulos...

Yeah, it's late, I know
But it's one of those nights.

The body is weak
But the mind is alive
And the thoughts won't go to sleep.

* * *

It's been quite a day; unusual, hectic, challenging, fun, and full of experiences I haven't had in quite a while (and some I've never had before).

Creativity increases exponentially to the number of heads in the picture.

Cupcake. Failed alarm clock. Forgotten photo shoot.

Lights out. The world all over the floor. RM 3.00 only.

Passages and windows. Baguz disaster. Walking books.

Halogen lamps. Strange pincers. Japanese and Bangladeshi.

Starbucks. Long wait for the journey home. Preparations.

* * *

It is now the 25th of September.



Ai Wei.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Scanner dilemma

Scanned by a drum scanner. RM20.

Scanned by a 35mm film scanner. 40 sen.

I'm wondering if the slightly better colour rendition and highlight control is worth the extra RM19.60.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees,
which is hypocrisy.
There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed,
or hidden that will not be made known.

What you have said in the dark
will be heard in the daylight,
and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms
will be proclaimed from the roofs.

- Jesus of Nazareth -

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lights, Camera, Action!

When it comes to lighting and dramatic photography, few can challenge the National Geographic.

Read the story of how Simon Norfolk convinced the editors at NG to support his ambitious shoot of the Maya ruins in Central America here.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk for National Geographic.

* * * * *

Photograph by Benjamin Ong.

Coming soon:

Experimental Theatre
University of Malaya

Friday, September 18, 2009

Handwriting no more

I just read this article in TIME, 14 September:

Mourning the Death of Handwriting.

So true.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Viva Malaysia!

This year, I had arguably the most meaningful Merdeka ever. It began with home-made dhall curry and ended with, among other things, a brinjal ratatouille at Upekka in Section 17. Gastronomy aside (for we Malaysians mark our days with meals and our weeks by mamak suppers), it was a day which saw a bunch of young people hanging out in and around old, dilapidated buildings.

Here, I will tell the story of the afternoon, for the morning's adventures must be saved for another day. We journeyed from the solace of beef noodles to the ironic freedom of the exterior of a prison, then from the ecstasy of ice-cream to the melancholy of a train station.

* * *

We started with beef noodles opposite Central Market, along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock.

Shannon joined us at Central Market, after I'd picked up a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 (because I badly wanted to shoot the day in black-and-white).

Apparently he wanted to test the mask's effectiveness against AH1N1, and figured that downtown KL was the best place to do so.

I showed him this picture last night, and I remember his response included words like (or to the effect of) 'danger', 'fear', 'panic' and 'Malaysia'.

Street view across the Central Market building.

But for the buses and some of the signboards, this picture could have come from the 1950s. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the two photo shops; photography is alive and well! And just now in class, my coursemate Yani noticed the person staring out the window of the frontmost bus.

Exterior, Pudu Jail.

Between the brick wall and the vast open field, there is a path. I saw children cycling along it recently and was determined to explore the route. Come Merdeka, we did.

Guard tower, Pudu Jail.

I like the symbolism of the cross frame in the window, as if saying Jesus is watching over everyone, inside and outside of the prison. C.S. Lewis wrote, in The Abolition of Man, that there was no one in prison Jesus did not minister to.

When I see this picture, it is hard to think otherwise.

So we are developing, and we've put ourselves on the map in so many ways.

But do we really know where we are going?

It was the 31st, so we paid Baskin Robbins at Times Square a visit.

A quart and five pink spoons go a long way!

Having paid the old KL Railway Station a visit on 28 August, we decided to come back and do a proper shoot. And what better time to remember a monument of our colonial past than on Merdeka itself?

Over the weekend before Merdeka, I came across this article. It's not often something I read makes me cry; this piece did:


An excerpt:

The overall impression [of KL Sentral] was that of greyness. [...] Here the roof trusses and ceiling were grey, the polished granite covering the floor was grey (with a few beige highlight pieces) and the walls finished in grey aluminum cladding. All very modern, yes - but this could have been any where in the world. At the old station you knew that you had arrived in Asia - with its humidity and colour and hustle and bustle. The spires, minarets and Moorish arches announced that this is a city whose inhabitants are Muslim. The old concourse was not air conditioned so the hum of city traffic penetrated the hall, mingling with the pungent smells of food from the nearby canteen. Now you arrive in a grey air-conditioned cocoon. This is progress they say, but it takes all the romanticism out of train travel.

One of several giant glass windows, between the platform and the foyer.

At first glance, it's just a window. But no other structure will allow sunlight to bathe the otherwise dark interior of a railway station, other than a glass ceiling.

(The PKVians who went on the Ipoh trip might remember the rather glorious foyer of the Ipoh Station. Same idea here.)

That Elton John song comes to mind: this train don't stop here anymore...

The waiting.

(Finally, a shot to go with my now three-year-old 'Evanescent Shadows'!)

Empty arrivals and departures to nowhere.

(Thanks to the newsstand proprietor who allowed us to use the newspaper rack as a bench!)

Ruth returning the flags Hyma abducted for our romp through town.

Yani said Ruth looks 'cute, very childlike'. It immediately occurred to me; what happened to the childlike pride and enthusiasm we used to have in flag waving?

This morning I read on the cover of The Sun that Malaysia will soon have a Formula One team. The model car Najib's proudly displayed was quite literally Malaysia's flag wrapped around an F1 car.

But the flag is not just something we wear around our heads or one our uniforms, not just something we plaster everywhere once a year or affix to our cars and motorcycles, not just something we paint on our faces or tattoo on our bodies, whatever.

Say what you will, the flag is what we wear in our hearts. Blue for love and unity, not tolerance; red for courage to do what is right, even if it leads to our death; white for purity and wisdom, not self-righteousness; yellow for the sovereignty of our beloved Malaysia, and the reminder that our allegiance to our nation and to our Lord are inseparable.

* * *

In recent days I have been thinking very much about our colonial heritage. After all, I spent seven years in a colonial institution, and the effect it has had on me is unquestionably profound.

Independence is not about the hibiscus we stole from Hawaii or the flag from America or the oil palm from Africa, all of which we have proudly appointed as ambassadors of our nation.

It is about remembering in so many ways the influence of colonialism on Malaysia and knowing that we do not move forward by leaving the past behind, but by bringing along the past which remains alive in the present.

I think that is why Jesus wore the nail marks on His hand (though indeed they need not be present in the resurrected body), and I think that is what Steven Curtis Chapman meant in the words, "Remember your chains, remember the prison that once held you before the love of God broke through."

It is so easy to relegate the Malaysia this generation does not know to the history books, but I owe it to people like Chung Chee Min and Kok Kin who taught me that we cannot move forward if we abandon the past.

Knowing, truly knowing, our heritage is the only safeguard against both false sentimentalism (the sort of patriotism the government tries in vain to instil) and armchair cynicism ("Those days were better; there is no future for Malaysia").

But the catch is that heritage is not something that can be learnt from books. It is inherited through the stories we hear from our grandparents, from first-hand accounts; it is acquired by visiting the sites and sharing in the footsteps of those who have walked those paths.

* * *

Keluar. Exit. Get out. Leave.

I woke up this morning to this thought: I still believe in Malaysia.

Last night's 'roundtable' discussion the Wendy's left me with quite a bit of food for thought, in spite of my relative inactivity in the conversation.

Tim wondered why the seats in Parliament are fixed, while those in the UM Student Council are not; "So what if someone from the Government wants to sit with a friend from the Opposition?"

My answer to him reflected something I've been thinking about quite a lot lately: there is a much greater sense of humour here in campus than there is in the political world out there. Here we still know how to laugh at ourselves; politicians have long since forgotten.

Maybe there is something in the path Tim is walking, i.e. to become a doctor. Perhaps that is also why I see myself heading towards becoming an educator. Maybe we believe in the bipartisan search for truth, or maybe we're just not strong enough to take sides.

Either way, I'm glad I'm not alone.

Later, as Shannon drove up into my college, he said the discussion gave him little reason to want to stay in the country. I realise that, in contrast, nothing has ever made me want to leave this country.

I'm no blind patriot, but I hold on tightly to the words of the apostle Paul to the Athenians.

"From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him..."

So for what it is worth, I still believe in Malaysia. If God hasn't left it, I don't see why I should.

* * *

I love film scans! Except for some brightness adjustments to compensate for (very) minor scan infidelity, none of these pictures were edited. I will not begin to estimate the amount of Photoshopping needed to get a digital image to put on as much character as film black-and-white.

Film equals merdeka from hours slaving in front of the computer. With less time spent touching up photos, I can spend more time thinking of what to write. The pictures and the words both stand to improve.

Maybe i'll set some of the pictures to poetry. Some of them seem to be screaming for some rhythm!

The sweetest Merdeka message yet: "We may be two independent individuals, but we'll have each other to rely on, always!"

* * *

All pictures by Benjamin Ong except the one of Ben and Shannon by George Zachariah. Black-and-whites shot on Kodak Tri-X 400 with a Nikon FM10 and 50mm f/1.8 lens. Colour pictures shot on a Nikon P5000 digital camera.

(For the record, this is post number 750; I'm three-quarters to a thousand!)

Happy 46th Birthday, Malaysia!

Monday, September 14, 2009

The greater depth of film

When Yen first saw these pictures, she asked, "Which is better?"

After some thought, I answered that they should be interpreted as one unit, as a diptych of sorts; the forward swing and then the return swing.

Last night, while preparing the square montage for this post, it occurred to me for the first time that there is a story going on behind Yen: Jon and Zheng are walking out of the frame.

It also occurred to me that the results would have been very different had I shot in digital with autofocus. I would have fired more shots, and while that in some ways gives us more to choose from, I think it somehow dilutes the immortality of the moment.

With film, you have less of a buffer; one or two shots may be all you have, and the effort taken to make it count, as well as the so-called liberation from time, knowing that you can't go back, translates into the negative.

I look at these two pictures, and I don't see a shoot in which I am trying to capture Yen on the swing; I see, instead, a chance moment when Yen was swinging, and I happened to walk by, and I happened to have my camera, and I fired two shots not knowing what I'd get.

And then I walked on.

* * * * *

It has been said that, when it comes to black-and-white, whoever claims digital can rival film either hasn't seen film, or is lying.

In the ongoing high-dynamic-range (HDR) debate, it is interesting to note that film (on the whole) has both incredible dynamic range AND biting sharpness and contrast.

This article, in which photojournalist David Burnett talks about some of the tools of his trade, is worth a read:


An excerpt:

The colors are bright. Every part of the image is crisp, so crisp that just picking the minuscule figure of Mr. Kerry out of the huge crowd takes a "Where's Waldo?" moment.

And then Mr. Burnett flipped to a photograph taken seconds later with the ancient Speed Graphic. Suddenly, the image took on a luminescent depth. The center of the image, with Mr. Kerry, was clear. Yet soon the crowd along the edges began to float into softer focus on translucent planes of color.

The effect is to direct the viewer's eye to Mr. Kerry while also conveying the scale and intensity of the crowd. In accomplishing both at the same time, the old-fashioned photograph communicates a rich sense of meaning that the digital file does not.

The digital picture pretends to display raw reality. The analog picture is a visualization of human memory.

* * * * *

On another note, congrats to SooT and Doulos on your purchases of the Zenit-19 and FM-2, respectively!

May the cameras serve you well, even as we attempt to herald to revival of film photography.


Friday, September 11, 2009

d'NA Pangkor 2009

In mid-July (17-19, to be precise), some of the d'NAers went on a weekend trip to Pangkor; we'd not been on a trip since Cameron Highlands in December 2007.

Indeed this time it wasn't an exclusive affair; we were joined by two significant others, Shen Han and JX, and one old friend, Steph.

We put up at the Nipah Bay Villa near the beach of the same name, Teluk Nipah.

Here's a glimpse of what happened on the island:

Yen turned 23 a couple of days ago, so we decided to light up the beach for her. There were some initial plans of drenching the sand in kerosene and literally setting Teluk Nipah ablaze, but we eventually settled for tea lights; not quite so dramatic, but a lot more charming!

It was also a night lit subtly by some bioluminescent zooplankton in the waves.

The next morning, I set out early in an attempt to catch the rising sun. It was, unfortunately, quite a cloudy day with none of the glorious orange streaks I was hoping for. However, all was not lost and I found myself in the company of quite a number of breakfasting hornbills.

If I am not mistaken, they were Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris).

Of my many hornbill shots I like this the most. It was actually an accident; the shutter speed I set was too slow for freezing the hornbill on the wing, but I like the abstract depiction of motion and the contrast between the light-coloured hornbill and the rust-coloured shutters.

Hornbills rise earlier than shopkeepers!

Close-up of a branch of the tree upon whose fruit a hornbill was feeding. A feather was stuck between the twigs.

I like the subtle hint as to the identity of the tree's avian guest.

Jon Hwa a.k.a. Wolverine, lying in a hammock at the entrance of the Villa.

Zheng a.k.a. Nathan, also lying in a hammock at the entrance of the Villa.

The Hwa cousins go well with hammocks.

We spent much of the second day off Pangkor. First we went to Pulau Giam, but it was overcrowded with other trippers and there was hardly any beach. So we got our boatman to take us to another island, and ended up on Pulau Mentagor.

In contrast, Mentagor was deserted and had a short stretch of beach.

Tien and the man from the sea; Jon's adjusting his snorkel in the background.

This, and the next two, shots were taken on the rocks fringing the coast of Pulau Mentagor.

JX and Joan.

This was a challenging shot as the rock surface was sloping, though it isn't quite evident in the final shot. It wasn't much of a problem for Joan, I think, but JX was practically upside-down for a few minutes!

Mich, Han and the Holga.

Zheng on the beach. I liked the way the leaves framed him.

Yen in the sea, with Tien and Mich.

Steph, old friend of Tien's and Mich's, from Kluang.

A holothuroidean sea cucumber in the waters off Mentagor.

This was, for me, the highlight of snorkelling that day. I'd seen sea urchins, but this was my first time seeing so many sea cucumbers up-close. It's quite remarkable how much their bodies expand on the sea bed, compared to the immense contraction upon being picked up.

Back on Pangkor, it was quite a lazy evening.

David and I borrowed bicycles from the Ombak Inn, some two or three doors away from Nipay Bay Villa. The bikes were in pretty bad condition, but they could be used.

We went as far south as Teluk Ketapang, south of Teluk Nipah, and found a beautiful beach there. Then we headed north to Coral Bay.

David liked the sand very much. "This is real sand," he said, so we did some sand art.

I like the texture of the leaves and the sand in this shot.

Back on the beach at Teluk Nipah, the whole company caught the sunset.

It wasn't the best of skies, but it was a pleasant sunset nonetheless. I photographed it in black-and-white, wondering if a sunset could still maintain its character without its characteristic golden glow.

David, SooT and Jon on a swing.

The sunset, interpreted by Steph. This picture reminds me very much of Henri Cartier-Bresson's legendary 'Behind the Gare St Lazare'.

The next morning, Steph and I arose early. I told her about the hornbills and she wanted to see them.

We took a walk on the beach and found lots of these polychaete worms washed up along the shore. They were quite small, only about 2cm long.

I filled a film canister with some sea water and put a couple of specimens inside. Immediately they started fanning their setae (hairs) in a very graceful, undulating motion.

Biology lesson: generally polychaetes are either predatory or filter/suspension-feeding. I suspect this species belongs to the latter; they did not have a well-developed head with eyes and jaws.

Hornbills waddling along the beach of a scrumptious wormy breakfast.

I justified my collection of polychaete samples by the simple logic that it was either death in formalin or death in the gastric juices of a hornbill's stomach.

The Hornbill Hunter by Steph.

Another one for my extremely small, but growing now and then, collection of profile pictures. This was a little out of focus so we took a couple more, but none of them could replicate the gesture in this.

Back at the Villa, we joined David, SooT, Joan, JX and later Tien for service, led by none other than the Bishop himself.

Sunrise: an alternative interpretation.

I like how the sun motif on (I think) JX's slippers is bathed in the light coming in from the doorway.


Half-boiled and scrambled eggs. (For some reason, Yen likes this picture.)

So much red, one might erroneously think that Malaysia was turning into a neo-Communist state or something.

On the return ferry.

Detail from a fishing boat.


Film lives on!

I'm not exactly sure when this was taken, but I think it was upon Mich and Han's return to the mainland very early Sunday morning.

It was a good retreat. Not quite as contemplative as the trip to Kuala Pilah and Sri Menanti, but slow enough in the spirit of Mersing, and with enough excitement to justify being called a d'NA trip!

* * * * *

The earlier colour pictures were shot on Fujichrome Provia 100, the black-and-whites on Kodak TMAX 100, and the Sunday morning pictures on Fujichrome Velvia 50. Sea cucumber shot on the underwater Fuji Quicksnap with ISO 800 film.

All pictures by Benjamin Ong, except the colour sunset and Sunday morning pictures on the beach, by Stephnie Yiau on a Canon Powershot A1000 IS; and the medium-format final photo, by Michelle Hong on a Holga with Fujicolor 400 film.

For what it is worth, the film images looked really good straight from the scan, such that I barely needed to edit them except for some cropping (the fishing boat and Yen's '23' photo) and brightness compensation due to scanning infidelity (hornbill abstract, hornbill feather, sunrise slippers and fishing boat).

Otherwise, details like colour, sharpness and tonal definition were spot-on. You don't get this in digital!

I'm also proud to say that the black-and-white roll is my best set of 36 exposures yet. In there are some things I've never done before, and some things nobody else is likely to do. Some of the photos closest to my heart are slow-burners, taking time to leave their mark fully, but permanently imprinted in memory once there.

Till the next trip!