The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) once said that art is not the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty. It is not a production of pleasing objects. And above all, it is not pleasure.

“It is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and is indispensable for the life and progress toward the well-being of individuals and of humanity,” he wrote in an essay.

It might be easy to say that we would all be better off with a little more of this. After all, Malaysia has lots of space for art to grow into – or is it space for us to grow into art?

Kuala Lumpur-born photographer Vignes Balasingam, who is the man behind the homegrown Obscura Festival of Photography, has plenty to say about art and, inextricably, photography.

“Every possible human expression when expressed honestly is a work of art. From the birth of radical scientific ideas to economic policies, art exists everywhere where humanity has projected its own transcendence unto the world,” he says.

In this sense, the idea for a flying machine and the endeavours to make it happen are as much works of art as they are scientific.

“In our earnestness we find transcendence, or come close to it,” he comments.

But in a society where “art” and “photography” exhibitions are often discussed as if they were two separate entities, how do we bridge this perceived gap?

Photo: Nadirah Zakariya

Art is an expression of the human spirit, says Vignes Balasingam. Photo: Nadirah Zakariya

Vig is having none of this.

“Art is an expression of the human spirit,” he says. “In this sense, photography has always been art to me, and the failure to realise this rests in the ignorance of the beholder.”

The founder and director of Obscura Festival of Photography wrapped up co-curating an art photography exhibition, Person(a), at Publika in Kuala Lumpur, last month.

Meanwhile, work has already begun for the fourth edition of Obscura Festival in Penang next year.

Since the inaugural festival in 2013, Vig has been swept up in a whirlwind of constant building, deconstructing, and rebuilding.

“To preserve the element of surprise and keep the festival fresh, we tear down the previous festival’s structure and redesign it from ground up,” he says.

He describes Obscura Festival as a story-telling event which works with personal photography projects (ranging from journalistic to the more conceptual) and brings together some of the most interesting stories around the world.

It is a big dream, borne of ideas gleaned from other international festivals and forums, and spurred by the realisation that we do not have any major international photography event in the country.

Among other things, being part of the Asia-Europe Emerging Photographers’ Forum and visiting the Angkor Photo Festival and Photo Phnom Penh in Cambodia, provided Vig with an idea of how a good festival could be run.

Participants of the Pinhole Camera Project posing with their array of pinhole cameras made from recycled materials at the Penang Youth Centre on Acheh Street. The five-day workshop taught 30 youths the science of images and how cameras work in conjunction with the Obscura Festival and one of its partners Ecocentric Transitions. Photo: The Star/Goh Saik Lee

Participants of the Pinhole Camera Project posing with their array of pinhole cameras made from recycled materials at the Penang Youth Centre on Acheh Street. The five-day workshop taught 30 youths the science of images and how cameras work in conjunction with the Obscura Festival and one of its partners Ecocentric Transitions. Photo: The Star/Goh Saik Lee

From the show Confessions of An Evil Orientalist at Obscura Festival 2015. Photo: Waswo X. Waswo (US).

From the show Confessions of An Evil Orientalist at Obscura Festival 2015. Photo: Waswo X. Waswo (US).

In putting together the initial plans for the festival, his goals were to study the rest of the photography festivals in the region and to produce a festival that supported their efforts.

“If I were to conjure a festival up from scratch, it needed to have an element of building on what the other festivals have done and to design experiences that were not available or simply different. In this way, the uniqueness of each festival would shine and Obscura could hope to be part of this amazing movement of photography festivals in Asia,’’ he says.

This year’s Obscura Festival saw a dozen exhibitions, six slideshows, six talks, a photobook festival and eight workshops, which hosted some 70 participants from around the world.

“This has been a positive progression since the first exhibition in 2013. Next year’s festival should host a conference weekend and see some new ideas come to be,” shares Vig.

He hopes that the festival will eventually support photographers by providing grants, residency opportunities as well as pushing out local and regional artists to the world.

Obscura Festival comes at an opportune time – where there are ripples in the local photography scene, but they are still, for the most part, rarely sustained.

“There isn’t a lack of talent in Malaysia,” says Vig when asked about the future of photography in the country. “But photography here is in its infancy, and the photography discussions largely amateurish and ill-informed. We don’t have a strong legacy of work coming from this country made by local photographers, save a few household names.”

He points out that developing a more inclusive photography community cannot be a solo project.

A conducive environment is essential, and for this to happen, there needs to be a lot of inclusiveness within the photography community, art buyers, the public, the education system and the government.

“We see a lot of support for the arts in Singapore and Thailand, but countries like Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia seem to be lagging behind,” he points out.

A visitor soaking in the works at an exhibition during the Obscura Festival of photography at one of its venues China House, Beach Street in Penang. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai

A visitor soaking in the works at an exhibition during the Obscura Festival of photography at one of its venues China House, Beach Street in Penang. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai

Vig criticises how some photography “masters” have fabricated a social reputation within the community of emerging photographers (in online photo forums, amateur photography groups, and the like), and hold these followers captive, enclosed and brainwashed.

“There are many Little Napoleons within the amateur photography circles who have divided the turf and rule over the people they ‘preside’ over. These groups with their ‘gurus’ are not dissimilar to a religious cult. This needs to go as it perpetuates divisive borders that keep people isolated and hypnotised,” he says.

Another obstacle regarding photography here, he observes, is the “lack of interesting and original conversations” on the subject.

“Without proper education on photography, we will not see a rise in good photography,” he says.

There are many Little Napoleons within the amateur photography circles who have divided the turf and rule over the people they ‘preside’ over.

Still, in this digital age, there is plenty one could do with information right at our fingertips.

Vig himself did not start out in photography. He was a musician.

What he did have, however, was a keen interest in it and a desire to keep learning and growing.

“I have been really interested in photography growing up. But it was not until music college where I had to make album covers for my music did I rekindle the passion I had for photography,” he recalls.

He began shooting bands, most of which were fellow musician friends, and made album covers for them. His music took a back seat as his photography took off, but Vig says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Still, he contends that there really isn’t a separation of the two.

He stresses, “Both the music and the photography are expression of the same person, of the same thing.

“And I don’t regret the switch. In all honesty, photography is a purer expression for me and I am glad I made that transition,” he concludes.