Visual Artist Nadirah Zakariya On Finding Her Voice In Photography

By Chong Seow Wei

The Kuala Lumpur-based Gen.T honouree talks about accepting her skin condition and why selfies can be empowering

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A self-portrait for the Vitiligo series (Photo: Nadirah Zakariya)
Cover  Nadirah Zakariya turns the camera on herself for the "FANTAGIRL, I am the woman I am" series she did with womenswear brand, Fantabody, and Vogue Italia (Photo: Nadirah Zakariya and Vogue Italia)

Growing up, there was no doubt in Nadirah Zakariya’s mind that she would become an artist. Her preferred medium, however, she only came to realise when she entered college. Initially intending to study graphic design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, she took a class on black-and-white photography—and found her calling. 

“I remember being in a dark room, watching my self-portrait slowly appear on the photographic paper”, recalls the Kuala Lumpur-based visual artist, who later transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York to formally study photography. “It was so magical to see this happen and realise how it came from a craft that’s also so technical.” 

Photography was not new to Nadirah, however, as her father has long been an amateur enthusiast. “He always has a camera with him and all these different lenses [at home]. We also always had amazing family portraits that I later realised wasn’t the norm for other families.” 

See also: 5 Award-Winning Photographers Discuss The Power Of Photography To Evoke Global Change

More than a decade after graduating from FIT, Nadirah has built a weighty portfolio that includes an ongoing series featuring people with vitiligo, a skin condition that she has been dealing with since she was 16 years old, as well as a portrait of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Her works have been featured in exhibitions worldwide as well as in international magazines, from The New York Times Magazine to Vogue Italia.

In September 2021, Nadirah and her co-founder, Steven Lee at Exposure+ Photo, will be organising a city-wide exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, featuring the works of around a dozen local photographers illustrating the theme "Belong".

We chat with Nadirah about her photography style, pandemic projects and perspectives on the selfie.

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Nadirah Zakariya (Photo: Khairul Imran)
Above  Nadirah Zakariya (Photo: Khairul Imran)

Can you describe your style of photography?
My style is feminine and sort of dream-like. I’m a very emotional photographer and can get very attached to the things I shoot. That’s why I love taking photos of flowers because every day is different for them—they’re either blooming or wilting—and they remind me that life is temporary. When I’m photographing people, I like to get to know them first such that the photo I take of them becomes meaningful to both of us.

Has the pandemic affected you or the way you take photos?
It has been a whirlwind of a year, but if anything, it has given me the extra time to explore what I personally want to shoot rather than what others ask me to. 

Since the first movement control order began in KL, I’ve been photographing flowers more. It began as my way of coping with the situation, but it later evolved into a side business when people and magazines started reaching out to me requesting to publish and buy my work! It made me realise that great work can come out of even the toughest times. 

Are you experimenting with different ways of shooting or styling flowers?
Yeah! Lately, I’ve been obsessed with putting flowers and fruits into agar-agar. There’s just something about these edible sculptures that I like in all my works—the dream-like aesthetic, the layers of texture and the mix of colours.

Taking self-portraits can be liberating and empowering. It’s sort of like when performance art meets photography, but done in the comfort of your own space
Nadirah Zakariya

Can you share what was the creative process behind your photo series on vitiligo, the skin condition that you’ve lived with since you were 16?
The project started about a decade ago, when I was still in college in New York. It started as a way for me to learn about the condition and how others with it approached it. 

After photographing several people all over the city, the project became slightly overwhelming for me as I was meeting so many people of different ages with different experiences. Although the matter was so close to home, I think I hadn’t fully come to terms with it myself. So I took a break from the project, and only returned to it when I moved back to Malaysia. 

That was when I realised there was something missing from all the photos I had taken, and that was my own story. So I turned the camera lens onto myself and took a series of self-portraits. In some sense, this was my way of expressing my acceptance of vitiligo. 

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Self-portrait from FANTAGIRL, I Am The Woman I Am (Photo: Nadirah Zakariya)
Above  A self-portrait from the "FANTAGIRL, I am the woman I am" series (Photo: Nadirah Zakariya and Vogue Italia)

Was it intimidating for you to turn the camera on yourself?
Not really, because self-portraiture was one of the first photography genres I explored. I find that taking self-portraits can be liberating and empowering. It’s sort of like when performance art meets photography, but done in the comfort of your own space. You learn more about yourself and it can help you to accept what others may see as flaws.

Photography can serve as a tool for self-discovery and self-acceptance. With the vitiligo project, I realised that I was never ashamed of having the condition, but I was always lazy to explain it to others when asked, because I felt like it just brought too much attention onto me—or so I thought. When the photos came out, I felt more confident knowing that my story is finally out there. 

The project, for me, served a bigger purpose. When I photographed others for the series, there were common experiences of insecurity and depression. So I told myself that if I could use my platform to raise awareness about vitiligo or help someone feel less alone in their experience, I’ll definitely use it.

See more honourees from The Arts category of the Gen.T List 2020.

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