NEVER has there been more people taking more photographs, and populating them on more platforms.
Photographs are the universal language of our era, and most people have hundreds and thousands of them on their phones.
Taking and sharing photographs have become the way we engage with the world.
Images of Penang – with its colonial architecture, scrumptious food, street art and beaches – are especially popular.
But even amid this ubiquity, photojournalist David Loh felt the rush of excitement at the visual narratives Penang has to offer.
He was enthralled by his hometown when he returned in November after decades away in Singapore.
Loh had left Penang when he was 19 to embark on a journalistic career that has spanned 26 years – telling stories of the world through his photos in his stints at The Star, Reuters and now Malaysian Insight.
“I thought I knew Penang so well. I wanted to rediscover Penang but I didn’t expect it to take my breath away,” says Loh, who shoots and posts his photographs of Penang every day.
His compulsion to tell Penang’s stories is palpable – in his photo essays, the images he blasts to his whatsapp group daily and especially in conversations with him. He says he is never off the clock – he takes photos and talks to people all the time as a way of life.
Loh also literally saw Penang from a new perspective, through his drone.
“I started taking drone photos in 2015 to impress my clients. But I crashed my first drone eight months later.
“In January, I started taking drone photos again after buying the DJI Phantom P4 Pro and crashed it in March. But somehow I kept at my drone photography and it was lucky that I went for it,” says Loh who describes the drone as “God’s gift to photographers”.
With the drone, a photographer is no longer “limited by access or restrictions”, says Loh who was amazed by the bird’s eye views and the angles he could explore with this technology.
Within a few months, Loh has amassed a collection of aerial images that he felt compelled to share with a wider audience.
In March, a friend suggested that he showcase his works at this year’s George Town Festival, and Loh’s exhibition, Over Penang, has been drawing visitors since it started on Aug 4.
“It was a big rush getting ready for the exhibition. I wanted my exhibition to wow viewers so that they’d see Penang like they never did before,” says Loh.
As a photographer, Loh has always focused on shooting people. But in his Over Penang exhibition, it wasn’t the faces that were in focus but the broader landscapes and context of the state. But Loh believes he has captured the “soul and culture” of Penang.
One of his most arresting photographs is the aerial shot that captured Penang Hokkien’s reverence of the Heavenly God, featuring the full length and breadth of the tables laden with offerings at the Chew Jetty.
He also offers views of the intricate labyrinth of streets and shophouses in George Town and the island, literally in new light.
Of the over 30 photographs that Loh showed, seven were of Seberang Perai.
“I made an effort to shoot the mainland. Perai is a new place to me. Like everyone else, I only knew George Town. But when I covered the elections, I got to know the mainland,” says Loh.
The beauty of the port in Butterworth is captured magnificently amid a gathering storm, as is the natural beauty of Tasik Gelugor’s emerald ponds in Guar Perahu (known to locals as Penang’s Jiuzhaigou).
Even for locals, the image of the Perai River meandering through Butterworth, with the blue railway swing bridge and the Butterworth Outer Ring Road across it, offers a new perspective.
Photographs are powerful because they are the most accessible medium, without a need for shared language.
They are evocative for they capture a moment in time, a mood.
In Loh’s images, he has distilled the mayhem of every day life and the majesty of the state, and invites us to see Penang from up above – and to look again, and to look with wonder.
It’s no mean feat in this Instagram age.
The Over Penang exhibition runs till Sept 4 at the E&O Hotel in George Town, Penang.