The Obscura Photography Festival is an independent project based in Penang. This month sees its seventh instalment since it was established by Vignes Balasingam in 2013. The festival holds a variety of events, including photography exhibitions held at Hin Bus Depot (the main venue), Cheah Kongsi and Soundmaker Studio; talks about photography by practitioners themselves; and masterclasses that teach a range of different photographic topics. The exhibitions are open now until August 30th, but the official festival week, featuring a range of events, is from August 16th – 21st.

When I sat down with Vignes Balasingam to discuss this year’s Obscura Photography Festival, the first thing he was eager to stress was the festival’s audience. “We want people to have a robust conversation about what they see”, and to give them “as broad an experience as possible”. Stepping into the Hin Bus Depot studio, the main venue for Obscura’s photography exhibition, this ethos has been effectively materialised.

‘The Next Meal’, Cheng Jen Pei

Showcasing the work of sixteen professional photographers in one space (and this is not to mention another six photographers exhibited at Cheah Kongsi and Soundmaker Studio – more information about them here), Hin Bus Depot has become home to images which evoke a variety of moods, ideas, subjects and techniques. Katarzyna Mazur’s delicate yet violent monochrome images of the Female Fight Club Berlin, for instance, are exhibited opposite the brightly coloured and commercial-style still lives of Cheng Jen Pei. Some of the photographs are playful and humorous, some politically sharp and resonant; some even produce a visceral reacton of disgust. And some produce conflicting reactions in and of themselves: take Simon Menner’s, which appear comically deadpan until you realise that these people were the East German secret police, the Stasi, who were responsible for the imprisonment and torture of thousands.

Such a variety of images have been produced by an international spectrum of photographers. Selected from an open call of over 500 applicants, the exhibited artists come from all corners of the world — 13 countries to be exact, including Italy, India, Poland, China, Canada and Japan. Obscura’s exhibition, then, is an exciting cross-section of what contemporary photography is doing, and where it is going, on a global scale. It also highlights the power of photography to share a variety of cultural experiences. When explaining his early interest in photography, Vignes recalls pouring over the images in LIFE and National Geographic magazines, fascinated by their ability to connect him to a world of different societies and experiences. This inspiration does not just guide his work as a professional photographer but also manifests itself clearly in his direction of Obscura.

‘Anna Konda’, Katarzyna Mazur

But, vitally, these photographic international viewpoints are ones that are relevant and relatable to their place in Malaysia and their audience: these photographs don’t resonate with viewers just through cultural differences, but through shared experiences too. This is the case, for instance, with Mijannur Rahman Gazi’s series named Yes, We Consume Rape, which documents the disturbingly frequent rape scenes in Indian Bollywood cinema. While this issue is culturally-specific, it simultaneously prompts questions about the commercialisation of sexual violence on a global scale — to which everyone is a witness in one form or another.

The relatability of these photographs is perhaps surprising, considering that the theme of this year’s festival is ‘subcultures’ – a term that implies otherness and separation. However, this theme ensures that the exhibited photographs focus on lived-in contemporary realities, as opposed to officially-sanctioned national cultures and heritages. Hence they are incredibly human — at points, painfully so — and speak truths not just of specific groups but of humanity more widely. This is true for Katarzyna Mazur’s images; while the women of the Female Fight Club Berlin depart from patriarchal sanctions of femininity, their photographs speak volumes about what it is to be female, strong, vulnerable and human. For me, this is what makes Obscura fresh amongst Penang’s state-sponsored events such as George Town Festival, which tend to showcase more official and easily categorised cultures.

‘Stasi’, by Simon Menner

Works like Yes, We Consume Rape and those like the graphic images of Chinese dogfighting in Dogs Man by Jingli Wu all tackle contentious subjects; Obscura is not brushing issues under the carpet but instead bringing them to the fore. In fact, contention is evident from the Obscura Festival from the get-go. Pinned up around George Town, the Obscura Festival posters feature a photograph from Hannes Wiedemann’s oeuvre which merits a strong reaction: a technological device is half-slotted into a bloody slit in someone’s arm. Close up, tightly cropped, highly saturated – this photograph is unabashed and outright. Handing me a few promotional stickers of the same image, the Obscura team were discussing its dispersal; some restaurants had refused to take any for fear of putting customers off of their food. In a world of click-bait and provocation, to invoke strong reactions is often a cheap and quick method of gaining attention. But what Obscura is doing is far from cheap. Their exhibition is highlighting photography’s ability to not just shock but to create a productive and meaningful dialogue with the audience.

‘Dogs Man’, by Jingli Wu

By using photography to spark discussion and aid the exchange of worldviews, Obscura highlights that aesthetically great photography can be a social agent. In light of this, its exhibition location in Hin Bus Depot (as well as Cheah Kongsi and Soundmaker Studio) is incredibly fitting. This is not a white-cube commercial gallery, carrying with it associations of elitism and inaccessibility, but is a space visited by a great cross-section of Penang society, many of whom are not necessarily expecting to view art. Vignes spoke of his adamance to hold these exhibitions in spaces that are as public as possible – the only reason why these photographs are not exhibited in George Town’s streets is merely due to logistical issues. Obscura aims to show that photography is a democratic medium, and its audience is anyone and everyone.

As well as arranging exhibitions at Hin Bus Depot, Cheah Kongsi and Soundmaker Studio, Obscura Festival is hosting an exciting range of talks that give photographers a platform from which to explain their work. Vignes believes such talks are another way to develop a rapport between the people in front of the photographs and those behind the cameras. “We don’t expect anyone to understand everything about a photograph straight away”: talks are an accessible and approachable way for viewers to further their understanding of the stories and motivations behind each image. This is not a one-way dynamic though, for the audience is encouraged to ask questions and share interpretations; this is a dialogue, through which the photographs’ meanings are constituted by photographer and viewer alike.

‘Chachacha’, by Bego Anton

Although the exhibition is already open at Hin Bus Depot, you’ll want to book the official launch of the festival, on August 16th at 7PM, in your diaries. The evening will be hosted within the Hin Bus exhibition space and will include brief talks from the photographers themselves, as well as a live-action performance of Cheryl Hoffmann and Pauline Fan’s video installation, Alam (Tak) Nyata. In the exhibition, this video piece layers Hoffman’s hauntingly beautiful photographs of Kuda Kepang rituals with Fan’s poetry. When talking to Hoffmann about this, her excitement is contagious. You do not want to miss it.

More information about the exhibitions, talks and masterclasses can be found on Obscura’s website, which you can find here.

Thank you so much to Vignes Balasingam for talking with me. 

Written by: Eleanor Ohlsen