OBSCURA 2016: 10 Questions with Eiffel Chong

By Leonard Goh (freelance writer/Singapore)

We spoke to the Malaysian photographer to find out more about his photography, and his thoughts about the craft

Eiffel Chong is a Malaysian contemporary photographer who has been very active in his local circuit. While most of his works are created in his home country, museums and galleries in other parts of the world have exhibited his works before. Poignant as a nod to the past while exhibiting signs of the future, Eiffel’s images come across to some as minimalist, conceptual, and for some, even documentary in nature.

We got to Eiffel recently during the OBSCURA Festival of Photography in George Town, Penang, where we posed the below questions to him.

Q: How did you get into photography?
A: I did graphic design in college and photography was one of the subjects. Back then, we have to learn to process and print our own photographs. I really like how the anticipation (which mostly ended up in disappointment) of the whole process was and that was the major reason why I fell in love with photography. I like how photography as a whole affects my emotion. I continued my education in London by doing a degree in photography. There, I learnt that photography is not just about pretty pictures. I learnt that I can put in my emotion into the pictures.

Q: What have you been busy with this year?
A: I have been working on a series of work that’s based on the idea of identity and I have been using mask. I have been using my students as the model for this as I have also reached a point where I realise the age gap between me and my students is really big so that I am starting to not understand them. I have been teaching for the past 13 years. It used to be a fun thing to do, sharing ideas and experiences with my fellow students. However, due to the difference in age now, I find it harder for the students to communicate with me. I am interested in finding out how they think and how they respond to daily life and more importantly, who they are.

Q: According to your profile online, you have a fascination with life and death. Why?
A: I can’t really answer that as I don’t really have the answer to it but I guess people have always been fascinated with the paranormal. I grew up reading horror fictions like the True Singapore Ghost Stories by Russell Lee and it scares me every time I read it. I think photography as a medium plays a role in creating the life and death concept in my works, too.

Q: Photographers often explore the notion of identity. So what’s your interpretation of identity?
A: Identity changes and evolve based on the society and location that one’s in. So it’s hard to pin point identity sometimes. Interestingly, this is something that I am exploring too except that I am exploring on the millennial children (my students range from 17 to 22 years old) Identity could be something that’s “fake”, a make believe, a mask that is worn. The younger generation constantly creates multiple identities for themselves so they can “use” it based on the different situation they are in.

Q: Some of your works, such as Theatre of Cruelty, A Fragile Thing Called Man and Malaysia Misspelled portray criticism of the world around you. What’s your ideal world like?
A: I don’t know. I never actually thought of it in this way. I mean, though the world is not perfect, I think it is the imperfection that make it interesting. For example, Singapore tried to make the country “perfect” and in return, it has created a fairly boring country.

Q: As a landscape photographer, which city do you want to photograph but haven’t, and why?
A: Can’t think of a city/place outside of Malaysia that I really want to photograph. I mean, sure, there are places that I would like to visit and photograph but not photograph for my work per se. It’s more like photograph for my Instagram, haha! My works are predominantly taken in Malaysia and though you still find some works that are created outside of Malaysia (Seascape and This Used To Be My Playground), I try to create my works in Malaysia. Of course it will be a different case if I am in an artist in residency programme.

Q: How do you feel about the global state of photography now?
A: With everyone owning a camera and calling themselves a photographer? I think we are experiencing the evolution of photography at a faster pace and because of that, a lot of the older photographer couldn’t accept the changes. I still remember my lecturer telling me that I was lucky to get to use ISO 800 and 1600 films as our super fast film and 400 was like the fast film where 100 was the normal speed film because during his time, ISO 100 was considered the fast film and 400 was considered the super fast film. He was using ISO 25 or 50 most of the time. Today? we have 6 digits ISO number and can take photographs at almost pitch black places.

Photography changes all the time and we have to learn to adapt that. When George Eastman came out with the Brownie and the tagline ‘You Shoot and We Do The Rest’, I am sure the photographers at that time complained about how everyone can be a photographer now and the art has been lost, etc.

Q: Which photographers’ works do you draw your inspiration from?
A: I am inspired by the Dusseldorf School of Photography movement. I love the Japanese photographers, too. There is no one photographer whom I look up to as there are so so many talents out there. I draw inspiration from my fellow photographer friends as well whenever they work hard in creating their works.

I draw inspiration from Haruki Murakami, the Japanese fiction writer, too.

Q: What gear do you use?
A: Throughout the years, I am fortunate to have the chance to try out different gears. As I started during the film era, my first serious camera was a Nikon F-801s and the Nikon FM2. Then, as a student, Hasselblad in Malaysia gave us an offer where we can purchase their camera for half the price. I bought the 503cw and the XPAN. My room was broken into when I was in a university in London and all my Nikons and Hasselblads were gone. With the insurance compensation, I bought the Mamiya 7II. I realise that perspective control is important to me and I bought the ShenHao HZX45-IIa, a Chinese made large format camera.

Hasselblad had been kind enough to loan me their H4D camera system a few years ago and I was using this system almost exclusively for 4 years.

Today, I am using the Pentax 645Z system with 6 lenses.

Q: Any advice for aspiring photographers?
A: It’s not about the money and the glamour life like in the movie ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty‘. I read it from somewhere that there are currently 2 billion smart phones being used and if there is a photograph created by a phone in a day on average, we have 2 billion photographs created in a day. That’s a lot of photographs and a lot of them get drown in this massive wave. Taking photograph is getting easier and easier due to the advance technology of the camera but taking good photograph is getting tougher and tougher.

Leonard Goh

Leonard is an advocate of photography in Singapore and also an educator in this field. He has served as senior writer for the now-defunct CNET Asia, before moving on to working for various camera companies in the business development and marketing capacities. He is also a co-founder of Platform, a not-for-profit photography initiative in Singapore which also published Twentyfifteen, a collection of 20 books to commemorate Singapore’s Golden Jubilee (SG50).

More on OBSCURA 2016 from the author

Exploring the West County
Memories of The Immense Night
OBSCURA Festival of Photography scores on diverse selection of works and activities

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