Cover Kenny Loh (left) the author and photographer of Born In Malaysia (Photo credit: Kenny Loh)

Photographer Kenny Loh adds context to his portraits of diverse individuals that call Malaysia home and lends them a voice through his book series, Born In Malaysia.

Since returning to Malaysia in 2010 after working in China, Kenny Loh was overcome with nostalgic and decided to embark on a rediscovery of the land he called home. He had no intention of starting a photography project, or a book series, for that matter, when he set out with his camera. He started in his hometown, Ipoh. The curious shutterbug soon amassed a cast of characters of every Malaysian child’s memory, from the Indian barber, the breadman, vendors of cheap and cheerful street food, to neighbourhood shopkeepers.

“Once you have travelled in Malaysia, you would want to continue so. I can’t imagine being limited to just the city,” Kenny pronounced, recalling the journey that retraced the places of his youth. Kenny’s first book, Born In Malaysia: A Photographer’s Journey, took 3 years to complete and launched in 2014, containing snaps of heritage keepers plucked from distant memories.  His second book, Born In Malaysia: A Story Of Kuala Lumpur, debuted in April 2019. It celebrates the heterogenous residents in their natural surroundings, framing notable figures and regular people to even immigrants, with snippets of their stories. The project opened many pairs of eyes to what Malaysia stands for, in all its unimpeded authenticity. We caught up with the author and photographer, who already has his sights on a third book, on his own journey with Born In Malaysia.

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Was there a specific goal in mind when you set out with Born In Malaysia?

There wasn’t a timeline nor budget, it was just me travelling and visiting some of the places my dad took us to. Although while working with my book designer, Allison Hill on the first book, we knew that the format of the book would be small as we wanted the book to be compact enough pass around. That eliminated any thoughts of a big coffee table book.

What were the challenges you faced with the book series?

The first book was tough as I had to overcome some mental barriers on approaching total strangers. It was much easier for the second book. I went through periods when I thought I could finish it within a year and then I’d meet a whole new group of subjects and end up adding pages to the book. I thought the new book would be the same size as my 200-page first book. A Story of Kuala Lumpur ended up being 430-pages thick and slightly larger format than the first book.

What camera did you use to complement your shooting style?

I use the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with a range of lenses. My shooting style is casual, and the camera is more than responsive: it has taken a lot of abuse especially rain. I shot a number of times in the rain without any hesitation.

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What was the working process on the books like, with your collaborators?

I wrote the stories myself and Jahabar Sadiq edited it for me. My designer, Joanne Chew of Fictionist came in later on in the project and did an excellent job of packaging the stories into a book. With Jahabar, I was blessed in that he kept my voice and made the writing concise and much more readable! Eric Forbes at MPH Publishing edited the book again after we were done with it.

How do the chapters represent Malaysia's vibrant occupants? 

As the book was based on subjects in Kuala Lumpur, I always had friends recommending subjects I should interview. Some research was involved but it was mostly suggestions from friends. I had chapters like ‘dan lain-lain’, ‘pendatang’, ‘heroes’, among a number of other chapters. However, I did include some people from the main 3 races into the ‘dan lain-lain’ chapter simply because I am fed up of the narrative that is always about the 3 main races.

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What are the photos with the most memorable stories?

I especially liked the 1 with Francis Wolf where we spent the day together as he carried the kavadi. Some of the situations like the 16 Rohingya men crammed into 16-sq m living space on a construction site; I will always remember. Although they risked losing their jobs for speaking to me, they were adamant for their story to be told.

Who were the people you photographed whom you’ve always wanted to meet?

Siti Kasim, Syed Azmi and Datuk M. Chandran. These people are all heroes, in my view.

Have you met your dream subject or person to photograph?

I have already photographed my ‘dream person’, who is none other than Lim Kit Siang. I did not include him in the book as I made a conscious effort not to include politicians but he is the subject of a separate book I did on him which will be published this year.

What’s your advice to photographers wishing to embark on their projects?

Firstly, you have to believe in the message you are trying to get across. The rest will follow. One should also go easy on the editing. Keep it real.

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