Photoessay: The immigrants of Kuala Lumpur

Developing countries have just as much, or perhaps even more immigration going on than in developed ones. For starters, border controls are a lot more lax; as is visa enforcement. At a recent visa amnesty, the Malaysian government granted over 600,000 national identity cards – representing permanent residency or citizenship – to previously unregistered foreign workers or illegal immigrants. Put that in perspective for a moment: that’s nearly 2.5% of the people in the country who were previously operating under the radar. What do they all do? Well, mostly provide cheap labor or services for the jobs the locals don’t want to do; and as the immigrant community expands, many have started businesses providing a bit of home for their own people, too.

There’s one part of Kuala Lumpur that’s mostly home to the Bangladeshi, Burmese and Nepali immigrants of the city – it’s the area around Leboh Ampang and the older portion of the city. I took a walk around with a student a little while back, and this is a short series on the other side of Kuala Lumpur. Understandably, a lot of them are still nervous about being photographed, because I suspect some are not officially supposed to be here…MT

Shot with a Leica M9-P and Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Distagon. Exif data is intact, click through to Flickr to view.

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  1. Fishnose gives an excellent critique, one that I agree with. Ming, you are very humble to accept the criticism willingly and gracefully.

  2. Ming,

    Could you consider an article on tones sometime?

    Best Wishes – Eric

  3. Stunning Images! I really like the one with the reflection in the puddle. There’s a huge range of tones which really adds to the subject separation. Do you notice these contrasting tones when you take the photo? Do different lenses help with rendering more tones? Inspirational as always.

    • Thanks – it really seems that this set is provoking mixed reactions.

      Yes, I do notice the tones – it’s an integral part of watching the light. No light, no photo; boring light, boring photo. It’s subject-independent. Better lenses will give you more microcontrast or tonal differentiation; more contrasty lenses will give you better overall tonal separation, but at the expense of dynamic range. And there are color transmission issues that come into play with different glass, too. Pick your poison – it’s one of the reasons I’ve got 8 ways to get to 28mm…

  4. I think there is no story in these pictures, Ming! I am from India and still I am unable to differentiate the faces… These could be some random street shots and that is the feeling I get here. What these immigrants do for a living and the state in which their lives are does not get captured in these pictures. Am no expert in photography but these are my thoughts!

  5. why so much immigrants granted citizenship so easily, easy,….elections coming soon, the government wants them to vote for the existing federal government. Just tell the immigrants you need to vote for the federal government to stay, else if opposition takes over they will be sent back..

  6. No, not in B&W. They lose far too much.

    • Why? Second time I’ve been criticized on this set, and I’d love to understand why.

      • I have no idea why the others are posting critical comments, but if I look at these images I would say that they lack a little sense of passion which you other images show. Certainly I would never be able to tell that they are immigrants, they look like normal folks living a normal life. I miss anything which would educate me into their culture. As far as street shots go, only the one of the man looking at you over his shoulder strikes me as interesting as the expression in his eyes forces me to take a longer look. Even then though I would have preferred a shallower DOF as the background buildings are not very interesting and take my eye away from the subject. 🙂

        • That’s useful feedback, thanks. It looks normal to other people living outside Asia because I suspect they have no clue that Malaysians don’t look like this! We’ve also got to be a bit careful when shooting them because a lot of them are illegally here, and get very nervous around cameras.

      • Nothing pops. They’re just pictures. Pictures of any people on any street without a sufficiently obvious theme, compositional consistency or unusual style.
        If the peoples’ appearance/ethnicity is in some way significant, it is only significant for those viewers who know what Malaysians look like otherwise, and how many non-Malaysians live in Malaysia. And even that doesn’t prove anything about them – they might as well be legals for generations, nothing in the photos tells me otherwise.
        I could certainly take photos on the street in Stockholm of lots and lots of people of highly varied, obvious non-Northern-European ethnicity/appearance. But it wouldn’t prove anything either, other than that there are far, far more people in Sweden that were not born here than many outside Sweden realize. Which is no big deal. I’m not born here either.

        I feel the B&W is an attempt to give the images a photojournalistic flavour, but the images are not nearly strong enough for that to work. It’s just photos of any people on any street.
        The water reflection image is just a puddle upside down, not particularly amazing. Art Photography 101.
        Maybe colour would have made them more powerful. Maybe not.

        What does get interesting is when there is a powerful sociopolitical oir socioeconomic overtone: poverty, culture clash, incompatible dress codes and behavioural codes, friction, exclusion from society. If it’s not obvious the photographer has to find a way to MAKE it obvious.

        That’s one of the disadvantages of stills photography when compared to video: a frozen moment has to be larger than life to convey a message that video conveys far more easily. Such things as body language, interaction and emotion almost disappear in stills – unless your timing is absolutely perfect and your patience almost infinite.
        With a videocamera you just stand there and capture it all, then dump the clips that don’t give you what you want.

        • Thanks for the honest feedback: this set just doesn’t work.

        • I like the shot of the puddles. There is a rhythm and balance in shades: dark light dark light dark light etc; would be perfect if his shirt were darker and trousers lighter , because the photo is a tad bottom-heavy. First photo would benefit from mobile-man looking in opposite direction.

          The rest looks like random “street” snaps. /armchair critic

  7. You really are good with the 28mm FOV on the M9, so much so that you have me thinking of trying it. I read through your cameapedia and was a little surprised to see that you didn’t list the 28mm cron as a lens you’d used. I guess you are so happy with the Zeiss that you have never needed to try anything else.

    As an aside, all your framing is so good regardless of the focal length, so I shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the 28mm would make any difference to me 🙂

    • Not true – I tried the cron briefly but wasn’t blown away with it, especially not at that price. The Zeiss is sufficient but not exciting. I doubt I’d make anything that exciting with 35 or 75, they’re just not intuitive to me.

  8. William Jusuf says:

    Ming.. Brilliant photos..

    Esp. your vision on the reflection .. I love it

    Thanks for sharing your vision and knowledge


    • My pleasure.

      • Firstly, I think that “some of the worst stuff Ming has posted all year” is better than most of the best stuff many people have posted their whole life. Without saying why, constructively, that is just too harsh. Besides, I wouldn’t really pay attention to anyone who favourites this type of stuff.

        I would have liked to see those immigrants working the low paid jobs. What skills do they have? I’m not denying their abilities or anything, I’m genuinely interested in seeing what they do. That would have made it more interesting for me personally. I realise it would be even harder to get those images of illegals though… especially inside… 🙂

        Could you included some images of the richer segment of society [especially with a darker skin tone for B&W] doing the better jobs so that people would see the difference more clearly? Just a thought.

        Thank you, it was a nice read. I like the image of the gentlemen all folding their arms and also the one guy looking over his shoulder.

  9. eric estrada says:

    this is some of the worst stuff youve posted all year


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