On assignment: Thaipusam 2012

_M9P1_L1010892 copy Master of the cave. M9P, 35 FLE

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The limestone Batu caves are alive with primal energy through the night as millions of Hindu devotees bring offerings to the temple of Lord Murugan after a 25km trek from the companion temple in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

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The main cave in 2011, but this year looked much the same. I didn’t have the right lens for this perspective, for reasons I’ll get into later. D700, ZF.2 2/28 Distagon

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The offering dance. M9P, 35 FLE

This person – it’s not clear if it’s a man or woman – was very much in a trance, holding the bowl of fire and dancing in a haunting way. Her/his eyes were closed almost all of the time, but knowing when to pause to let an assistant or friend pour more oil into the bowl to keep the fire going. Leaves were waved through the fire, ostensibly for purification or offering. Lit mostly by the fire and the dim lights inside the cave, by her/himself she would have been a spectacle. Yet this was just one of dozens, or even possibly hundreds, of similar scenes going on at the same time. One can’t help but admire millions’ dedication to their faith – and yet at the same time wonder where the divergence lies, because if all religions fundamentally preach the same thing, why do people still lie, cheat, steal and kill? Why is there less and less honor and honesty in this world? I can’t answer that. Towards the end of shooting the sequence, one of her/his assistants advised me not to take so many photos; I probably wouldn’t sleep well that night. Things visit people, he said. I thanked him and left; I’d finished anyway. Most nights I don’t sleep that well, unless I’m absolutely exhausted. Strangely enough, I slept like a deep, satisfying dreamless sleep that night – for a solid eight hours, a lot more than the two or three I normally manage.

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Release. M9P, 35 FLE

What makes people act the way they do? What determines the nature of self? These are the two questions that come to mind after watching a devotee get released from their trance by what is presumably a priest of some sort (bald, at left) though I have also seen the procedure performed by another devotee. The releaser grips the head of the devotee and blows on his forehead; a grimace of pain and he collapses, supported by his friends or family. It can’t be physical pain, becuase he carried a heavy portable shrine 20+km on foot from the main temple in downtown Kuala Lumpur, with offerings of lime and milk pots attached to his flesh via hooks; it looks to be spiritual pain as something is separated inside and his own self is restored. Where does the self go? Why is there pain when it returns, not a sense of happiness or at least familiarity? Instead we see devotees slumped exhausted (understandable) and looking confused, lost and vulnerable. We are but a small, unimportant and impotent part of this world. And timing and luck are pretty much our only ways of being in ‘control’ – for instance, if I wasn’t exactly where I was with exactly the right camera settings and focus set, I wouldn’t have gotten the shot. Could I have controlled the elements, replicated the emotion of the subject? No.

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Proof that they do bleed. M9P, 35 FLE

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Exhaustion after the event. M9P, 35 FLE

Let’s revisit this exercise from a photographic point of view.

I’ve shot this event three times – in 2008, with a D3; 2011 with a D700; and this year with an M9P. Which was easiest? Without a doubt, the D700. I was using f1.4 or f2 primes with a very capable 8fps low-light body. Which was the hardest? Duh – this year. The M9P is a great photojournalism camera, but very, very challenging to use under these conditions. Subjects were fast moving. Light was uniformly very low, and very erratic; the center weighted meter on the M9P is very careful to protect your highlights, so if you have a few point sources in your frame, you’ll find the camera reporting 1/2000 at ISO 160 is sufficient at night. That means you’re both metering and focusing manually, all when the world is moving around you at a million miles per hour. Oh, and I only had one lens – the 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE (which is truly outstanding, by the way.)

But which images did I like the best? Again, the nod goes to the M9P set. There is a disconnect in the D700 images, which are more mature than the D3 images – if I can’t say I’ve improved as a photographer in four years, then I’m not trying hard enough. This year’s set has a rawness and direct connection that is lacking in the other sets; it’s more obvious the further after the event we get. Do I think I could do better next year? I certainly hope so. Would I change equipment? Probably not, actually. MT

The full set is available here on flickr.


  1. Nice! Awaiting your review of the 28mm Summilux…

  2. An awesome set of pictures. I can only imagine how hard it was manually focusing and metering with an M9 given the ever changing environment. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you. Short answer: you can’t use the built in meter because it keeps getting thrown out by point sources. Manual all the way.

  3. ‘I didn’t have the right lens for this perspective, for reasons I’ll get into later.’ Could you elaborate more on the reasons? Ive been learning a lot from your blog particularly re perspective and selecting field of view/ lens AFTER choosing perspective. Looking forward to your answer.

    • The gallery was originally shot for a Leica exhibition that didn’t happen, and I had to use their gear – the only fast aperture lens I had (it was extremely dark) was the 35/1.4 ASPH FLE; I’d have preferred a 24 lux and 50 lux.

  4. Great captures, when I visited the caves this is what I was picturing in my head.


  1. […] 1. Mint condition Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE (latest version with the screw on square hood, 6 bit coded). Glass is perfect and focusing is buttery smooth. I’m just not a 35mm person; I’ve since reverted to my natural 28mm habitat. US$5500 net to me via wire or 3% for paypal. Shipping via courier only, I’m guessing US$150 should cover it anywhere in the world. Samples from this lens and an M9-P here […]

  2. […] and pleasing image in all but the darkest condition. My earlier On Assignment post about shooting the Thaipusam festival was a surprise to me – it performed far better than I expected, but it wasn’t easy to […]

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