Despite what maps may show, borders are not rigid lines for a country and its people.
Jeffrey Lim, a KL-based photographer and cycling advocate, intends to document the people living in Sarawak and Sabah’s geographical and social fringes through his ongoing Kanta Borneo project.
“I want to explore the idea of what makes a citizen. Though there’s much talk about racism in Malaysia, there’s no such thing as ‘pure race’ in Malaysia,” says Lim, 38.
An ethnic Chinese, Lim questions if he would be considered Chinese or a “banana” as he does not speak the language.
“We’re facing an identity crisis, all around the world, people are gravitating away from race identity,” he points out.
Even if some borders are based on physical lines, like the Meratus Mountain range that cuts through Borneo, Lim says people living in border towns, can easily cross without passports, or are deemed stateless. This has made him question their connection to the space.
Having taken portraits of indigenous people in his previous Kanta projects – done in the Belum Rainforest in Perak and Endau Rompin National Park in Johor – he notes that most do not identify themselves by their tribe but where they’re from.
“Like me, I’d say I’m orang KL not orang Cina,” he maintains.
Lim feels people do not belong in such categories now, as many live in the city, and even those who live outside still depend on towns for trade.
The modernised natives also present a quirk to his project. Photography is not something novel to them as most have smartphones and know all about selfies. Fortunately, Lim’s choice of camera, the Kamra-e-faoree (a handmade wooden camera box that was both a camera and a darkroom in one) is probably a novel experience to anyone.
“They call me ‘camera man P. Ramlee’ because of how old fashioned the actual Kanta looks. Even when I set up in malls and festivals, people still get excited seeing it,” he says.
Lim’s woodbox cameras, which he calls Kanta Box, were inspired by a documentary he watched back in 2011 on the Afghan Box Camera Project. Later on, he e-mailed Lukas Birk, one of the people behind the documentary, and learned to build his own woodbox camera.
“My Kanta camera is made from waste and found materials, so if anything breaks while I’m travelling, I can easily find replacement parts,” he says, during a recent interview at his studio in KL.
His Kanta Boxes, if anything, can easily be mistaken as waste material, especially the wood boxes and Cap Bendera cooking oil cans utilised.
The camera, literally a box, also means Lim can store his photography material and some gear inside it, and carry it on his back using a guitar strap, even while he cycles from town to town.
The other unique thing about the Kanta Box is how it uses instant paper with a silver gelatine, like analogue camera film, which allows Lim to process the photos and create a near instant print.
“Some call this the living form of photography, combining imagery and print. I feel photography has become so disconnected now, we just click ‘Ctrl+P’ and it comes out of a machine.
“The idea of ‘instant’ has changed a lot too. My fastest time (processing a Kanta photo) is about five minutes, from getting the shot to printing it,” he replies, when asked if the Kanta Box is as quick as taking a Polaroid.
In the context of the Kanta Borneo project, the instant prints are an integral aspect to this short tour, giving subjects a tangible image of themselves. It also allows him to print multiple copies, one for the subject and one for himself. Resin coated (RC) paper is also used for its durability, being waterproof and made to last 100 years, easily.
Lim has had some personal experience with the joy and mystery of finding old photos. He recently discovered a portrait of his great-grandmother (from over a century ago). Sadly, he reveals that nobody remembers her name, where she lived or where to find out more about her.
To avoid a similar problem, Lim makes it a point to record people’s stories in his Kanta work, not just their photos. He calls this an identity project, following the motto “taking photos, through photography to see people”.
Kanta Borneo started in Miri, Sarawak in early August. Having never been to Sarawak before, Lim worked with Teach For Malaysia (teacher Huda Nejim) and the Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) NGO to make inroads with the local communities.
In Miri, he set up his camera in a local market, attended a traditional longhouse wedding and even held a workshop in a school.
“Miri is filled with treasures if you know what to look at,” he says. “I usually plan trips of over a week, so two locations – Miri and Keningau (Sabah) – will take about 10 days,” he reveals.
After this documentation project, Lim intends to return to Sabah and Sarawak to further his Kanta Borneo work.
There is no deadline, nor plan of whether the project will be presented as a book or exhibition. However, Lim hopes to have a presentable body of work by mid-2018.
More info on Kanta Borneo at Kanta Portraits on Facebook.
* This article has been updated. An earlier version of this story was published on Aug 21.