Ignorance, fear and photographic freedoms in Malaysia

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Photograph all you want. Prague, Leica M9-P, 50/1.4 ASPH

Several recent experiences in Kuala Lumpur have prompted me to write this article. They’re all pretty similar: I’m out and about walking on a public road, photographing various objects – never people – and I will be accosted by a rent-a-cop or security guard telling me that I am not allowed to photograph. Photograph what, specifically? Everything and anything which he deems is under his jurisdiction. There are two problems here: firstly, photographing from a public place is allowed so long as you are not on private property; the intended use is actually irrelevant – at least in Malaysia. The second problem is that these people are often immigrants who have both a very poor command of any of the local languages, zero to no education, and often questionable immigration status.

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Think carefully. Though this was shot a few years ago from the street and a good 50m away, I still subsequently had unhappy people waving and holding out stop-hands at me. Nikon D3100, 28-300VR

What this means is that even though you might be able to legitimately convince another person that you’re within your legal rights to photograph where you’re standing, you’re at a dead end because the rent-a-cop you’ve got to deal with is both ignorant and incommunicable. It’s extremely annoying because I’ve had this happen four times in the past week; I know my legal rights and won’t push it in a situation where I’m on private property and I’m trying my luck. The trouble is that this seems to be a worrying trend; it’s happened with increasing frequency over the last year or two. And it’s not because I’m photographing any different subjects than normal, or any more frequently – if anything, I’m shooting a bit less of my own personal work.

Although you could try very hard to convince them that you are a) harmless and b) within your rights, I’ve since found it less frustrating to simply move on to the next place and try to continue shooting – assuming of course that I’m still in the mood at all.

I can see why some of the more interesting places might be off limits – building owners have a legitimate interest in protecting their property rights after all; the problem comes when somebody is trying to protect rights that are not legitimately theirs in the first place. In fact, smart building owners should generally encourage non-commerical photography – in a world that is now full of social-media savvy consumers, you’d be stupid not to do otherwise. I can’t see any downside in having hundreds of images – some of them probably quite good – of your property out there, especially if it’s a commercial building and high tenancy rates are one of your objectives.

This level of ignorance is a very sad thing for Malaysia, because it compounds the existing lack of appreciation for art the population at large already suffers from. People are very happy to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a stack of PowerPoint slides that contain absolute garbage and executionally impossible strategies, or for life insurance schemes with an EV far less than parity – yet something that actually requires skill such as the production of a photograph, or copywriting – goes completely unappreciated.

The underlying problem is twofold: firstly, education, and secondly, something a little more deep-seated that’s a cultural mentality which we shouldn’t be proud of – and certainly shouldn’t keep encouraging. The lack of education keeps the population as a whole focused on assigning value to tangible things only – ignorance keeps people from realizing the added value of service, design, packaging, visuals – in short, the whole customer experience. It seems that repeat customers are not really a high priority for most businesses here – they just want your money; whether you come back or not is not their problem. It certainly isn’t the problem of the minimum wage employees actually doing the work.

A viciously destructive cycle is born: you don’t get repeat customers because the service is crap, so you have to cut costs to maintain profitability, which means even worse service, and even fewer customers. Do something wrong, and everybody is reading about it on Facebook or Twitter in a matter of minutes. Make the wrong person angry, and that number can easily run into the tens of thousands. The inverse is also true, of course. (It’s just one of the many reasons why I try to reply to every single message I get.)

I can’t help but wonder if a lot of why we’re stopped from photographing things is because there may be some borderline illegal elements at play – foreign workers without permits or operation without permits or licenses are at the top of the list, and both are rampant in Malaysia. In cases like this, I can understand why proprietors get understandably nervous about any form of documentary, especially cameras. A government that seems to turn a blind eye to this kind of thing for the right amount of ‘convincing’ does not help things, either. Once again, it boils down to a lack of education – forget prioritizing a sustainable business over a profitable one – and the cultural obsession with making money any way possible. Again: if you’re running a legitimate operation, a smart person would want as much publicity as possible to create awareness. It would seem that there are not so many smart people here.

On the whole, I’m both saddened and frustrated. Malaysia remains one of the most rich countries for photographic opportunity because of both the pace of change, depth and variety of cultural traditions and large social contrasts. It’s a great place to practice social documentary and architectural photography – or it would be, if we could just photograph within our rights. Interestingly, I’ve almost never experienced this kind of restriction overseas – I don’t know if it’s because I fit the stereotypical Asian tourist profile, or because the general level of education is higher, but the difference can be felt. In fact, I think I only remember being stopped from photographing something once in London – and I was at fault because I was trying to be stealthy despite the liberally posted ‘No Photography’ signs inside a private museum.

There is one workaround, however. Despite proliferation of cameras and variety, the perception of ‘big black camera equals threatening’ remains; use a small, nondescript compact and you’re generally ignored. (In fact, I was most frequently stopped when shooting with the F2T; it probably doesn’t help that I’m very, very slow with this camera due to a lack of built in metering, manual focusing and general care with film.) Fortunately, compact camera technology has evolved enough that using one doesn’t entail as much of a compromise in image quality as it would have done a few years ago – even under low light conditions. Granted, I love the D700+85/1.8G’s ability to make beautifully cinematic stills at night, but I can still do exhibition-grade work with the RX100 and it’s 28/1.8 equivalent. What it does mean is that a change of style is in order; mainly because I no longer have the same freedom of choice in equipment if I want to shoot the same subjects – or, I simply have to shoot different subjects.

I suppose one really has to look at the bright side of things here – I could continue to bemoan the ignorance and diminiution of photographic freedom, or I could embrace the forced change as a challenge to push me out of my comfort zone which would in turn force my evolution as a photographer. I might not like it, or think the overall change in societal attitude is a good thing, but it’s not as though we have much of a choice is it? MT


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  1. Hi Ming,

    Coming late to this post. I think I caught a typo: “The underlying problem is twofold: firstly, education, and secondly, something a little more deep-seated that’s a cultural mentality which we *shouldn’t* be proud of – and certainly *should* keep encouraging.”

    Best wishes for the coming year!

  2. a man inside a structure, mmm, I like it!

  3. Same experience here… was stop by the security guard few times. It happened not just here in Malaysia but also in Singapore during my trip there. My argument with them that I was photographing outside the building not inside and I don’t think I’m disturbing their crowd. It just me and my Oly E-PL2. The only reason they will let me to continue photograph if I bring someone to photograph such as my daughter.

    • Wrong argument. You should have said you have a legal right to photograph in public for non-commercial use and offered to take it up with police and/ or a lawyer.

  4. I actually enjoy the covert process of trying to get “that shot” under duress. Like you Ming, I have found that the smaller physical properties and image quality of the newer camera systems actually make it easier to some degree. The RX100 I bought was initially a backup camera, but increasingly I am utlizing it as a primary. It’s photo/video ninja capabilities are simply amazing for it’s size. Less is more.

  5. Good post Ming. It would be also interesting to cover the other end of the security problem, meaning the lack of it. I do most of my photography while travelling and there is the constant threat of being mugged (I am not being paranoid, I have escaped from sketchy situations too many times). This problem, definitely cuts your freedom too. My conclusion: At the end of the day, its better to risk it than not having photographs at all. J.

    • I can’t argue with your conclusion, but I also can’t say that I’ve experienced any feeling of personal danger here – could be because I’m generally quite stealthy and don’t go around with large cameras, but it could also be because I’m shooting in a familiar environment and tend to instinctively avoid problematic situations. But yes, always be careful when shooting in an unfamiliar location.

  6. Jorge Balarin says:

    I always thought that my country – Peru – was the leading one in terms of stupidity, so it is nice to know that blindess is all around the world. Recently a photographer wanted to take the first 16 gigapixels panorama photo from Machu Picchu, an archeological site that is our main touristic attraction. Because the idea was to do a panorama, he put his tripod over a hill – very much far away from the main ruins – with a robotic head and a Canon 7D. Of course he was repeatedly inportunated by security guards, because his camera was “professional”. Fortunately the guy did some annoying official paperwork to neutralize the security guards.
    Here you could see the video. It is funny: http://www.gigapixelperu.com/Making_Of.html

    Also I realized that you are free to do photos with everything but not with a DSLR. As Flaubert (the french writer) said “if we have no defense against something is against stupidity”. Greetings.

    • Unsurprisingly the challenge isn’t so much the technical execution as the people involved…does this mean you’re not allowed to bring a DSLR to Macchu Picchu?

      • Jorge Balarin says:

        You are allowed, but if you take a monopod, tripod, or a big lens, perhaps you will be disturbed by security guards. My last line was refered to the general tendence of security and normal people, to react against big DSLR cameras, and not against smaller ones.

  7. My 2 cents worth…here in the Philippines, some malls require that you obtain a permit before being allowed to shoot although I suspect that has more to do with with setting up a tripod in a public place due to the inconvenience it may cause. Casual shooting is ordinarily allowed. I love shooting in Hong Kong because everyone seems indifferent to the “tourist with a camera” and don’t really mind whether it’s indoors or outdoors. Same as in Europe (Italy and Spain) although some shopkeepers in Venice and other places post “no photos” signs as they’re probably sick of people coming in to just shoot without buying anything and crowding up the place for the regular shoppers. That’s why its sometimes good to accompany my wife when she’s out shopping like when we do our marketing in the markets in Italy. When they see her buying stuff and notice we have several grocery bags with us, they ordinarily don’t mind at all when I shoot as well. Ironic but it’s usually the artists like street painters and art establishments and galleries who forbid photography. An artist banning another artist from doing what he likes or fear of pirates? I resorted to making sure my pockets had coins to drop in the tins of street performers, etc. before i shoot them. Some may find that unethical but in my opinion, it’s a fair and convenient exchange and they look happier and more natural that way.

    • I don’t mind supporting other artists, but I’m not going to pay for a cliched shot – I draw the line there. Using the other half as a decoy is fair game though, I think 🙂

  8. Hi, i think common sense is needed about this issue.
    I not a photographer, but i like very much to shoot candid snapshots at the street.
    Taking pictures at public locations its perfectly legal but everyone as personal rights, and the right to image is one of them.
    So, i have the right to take a picture, but the subject as the right to is own image.
    How to balance this?
    I personally think that the legal solution over here in Portugal is quite reasonable: you can take pictures in public places, but if someone doesn’t want to be photographed can ask you not to do it.
    Of course, buildings don’t have personal rights, and yes, security guys can be really boring all over the world 🙂
    No big deal…
    Tomorrow is another day.

    (I been following your site since i started digging around for the OMD – i own one right now, with the Oly 12/50 and 45 and waiting for a Pana 25 – and really enjoy not only the outstanding photos, but also your writhing and thoughts. Daily following)

    (sorry for my poor english)

    • Don’t be sorry at all – I think your point was clear and well-reasoned. Yes, take pictures in public, and if somebody objects, I’m fine to stop. Most of time, people don’t care. It’s only overparanoid security people that make every effort to make your life hell.

  9. The more things change the more they remain the same. Back around 1990, I was covering a big fundraising NYC gala, some guy (not even a guest) threatened me if I took his picture–he was more than 40 feet away in an set-up area!

    For the longest time, Big Black Cameras have always been seen with suspicion–you’re either a pro or a spy (how many movies is the bad guy spying with a long tele lens and slr?). People get tense when you “aim” a big black object at their general direction. Camera marketing even uses hunting terms in selling gear–8/10/12/60 FPS (shoot like a machine gun!), more power, quick draw camera straps, etc.

    The Leica M and similar small, RF-style cameras have always seemed much less threatening and not “pro” looking, and thus their popularity with documentary PJ’s and street shooters. Even in the 1980’s, lots of PJ’s (me too) carried both Nikon F3’s and an Olympus XA or Leica M4 tucked away somewhere–often the Nikon to show that you were a pro and the other to take candids.

  10. This is a world-wide problem. I’ve had issues photographing in San Francisco! It’s my impression that there has been a perceptible uptick in paranoia since 9/11, from fear of photographers to fear of germs (every grocery store here has a big container of the hand-sanitizing substance Purell out in front; as a kind of magic potion to ward off disease.)

  11. Hi Ming Thein,…very well written. It is ridiculously stupid for lots of owner to be so negative about being photographed. You said it right, good photos can help them publicize.
    Just to share my experience, which I find bloody stupid. I am a beginner and learner photographer, so I follow the advise of always carrying my camera and look for things to shoot.
    – Once I was in Auto City Prai during sunset, there was these outdoor shop tents in the walkway with trees in the mixture. I thought I could try to see if I can compose something and get a special shot. I setup my tripod, within minutes security guard stopped by and questionned what I was doing. I told them taking photo, and questionned them if I did anything wrong. They looked abit annoyed by my question, and they said that some shop owners complained. I said its just a hobby and they agreed to let me get on.
    From where I am shooting, it is not inside the shop, it is the outside area, I was not even close to the shops.

    – Second experience, was with my wife and little baby in a shoe shop in a shopping complex, thought of trying to capture some moment of my wife trying shoes for our baby. Stopped by shop assistant, fine. Then I walked out and thought of shooting from outside window frame. Then he came out and said I can’t do it. I was bloody pissed, the only thing that stopped me from having a real go at them was my wife and baby are with me.

    The experience that I encountered is ridiculously stupid. The reason I am shooting at their premises is because, I am trying to learn how to make an “ordinary and boring” looking place look good in photograph. These funny people thought I am trying to copy their design idea for my own shop? Thinking that their shops are the best designed?
    They must have rock or sh*t in their head if this is what they think. I am not a shop owner, even if I am, their shops are the last place I would try to copy, because it is just (I repeat again) a very ordinary and uninspiring looking shops.

    • The only thing I can say is that a) you’re really not in the mood to shoot after that, and b) those places do not deserve your money. Sorry to hear that.

  12. I’m located in Finland, Europe.
    Public photography is mostly permitted everywhere, but shop owners can ask person(s) taking photos/video to leave and
    then forcibly remove them if they don’t comply. In no case they have the right to even see or remove the photos.
    Already couple years ago got enough of the harrasment from rent-a-cops and salespersons’ denials about photographing –
    both on and off their premises.
    I made paper with all the relevant rights, laws and orders that concern photographing and laminated the first A4,
    which I will hand over to anyone who tries to stop me from taking photos.
    Most of them still insist on their false rights to stop me, until I ask them to call the police –
    who would simply tell them to stop bothering me.

  13. Reblogged this on filmcamera999 and commented:
    hmm…altho malaysia has a dampened-down, friendly version of islam, don’t forget that youre in an islamic country…and so you just have to follow their often antiquated rules…like it or not! but what gets me is this…if they come over to the countries of the west…they enjoy full freedom to do whatever pleases them….something wrong somewhere there….;)

    • The rules of Islam have nothing to do with this. It’s just ignorance of rights and law and the attitude of ‘I don’t care’. Whether you have freedom to do something or not – pretty much true anywhere, it’s only whether you get caught or not – and whether you choose to do so are two totally different matters.

      • You see. It SOUNDS ignorant. Like these anti-Islam people like it. Never said that you ARE uneducated. I know very well that you are an educated man. That’s why I thought it unfortunate that you would write this way. As you can read in the other comments it can happen all over the world. Saying “it’s because of those stupid immigrants” is only oversimplifying the issue regardless of the immigration situation in KL.

        • I’m Malaysian, I’m Muslim, I used to work for the government, and I know first hand it’s a problem both for the Muslims and non-Muslims here alike. I don’t always feel it’s necessary to explain my position, but I don’t make comments offhand without some very good reason for it.

  14. You’re walking a thin line with your argument about “questionable immigration status”. It sounds very uneducated and uninformed as well. You do not know about their immigration status for a fact. Just like they don’t know about the legality of you taking pictures. That being said, of course your problem is real and a bother. But it has nothing to do about education level or where they’re from. They don’t want you to take a picture, period. They use their method to deter you regardless of legality. And they succeed don’t they? That’s how the world works. People make rules, people bend rules.

    • It’s a well known and documented problem in this country. During a recent amnesty, 600,000 illegal immigrants were registered in Kuala Lumpur alone – that’s about 1/5th of the population of the city. And you can bet your bottom dollar that they aren’t working white collar office jobs. It seems that perhaps you should do a bit more research before you accuse me of being uneducated and uninformed.

  15. it is the new world order:(
    Take a walk these days on Bondi beach carrying a DSLR and you will be accosted by council rangers trying to extract a licence fee from you because they immediately assume you must be going to use the pics commercially and worse there are the rednecks who just assume because you take pics of people that you must be a pedophile or a pornographer.
    My theory behind these unfortunate attitudes is it is they are the result of too much privilege and too little education

  16. I love the Photograph all you want photo!

  17. Thank you Ming for sharing some of these frustrations you’ve encountered while trying to ply your trade. What I find just as interesting as your main topic of being stopped is your other one about “service”. I travel for work and had an opportunity to visit with another fellow Ricoh GXR shooter in Barcelona this month and that very topic surfaced about the lack of quality service these days. I think its become a world wide issued if you’re encountering it in Malaysia as I see it every day in America as my friend in Spain has too.

    I am not as brave as some when it comes to shooting in public as I’m only too keen on those watching me photograph. I may worry too much about be confronted, whether from those that may come into the picture or the lawman.

    I was in Paris this past winter and had only a short amount of time to shoot (two hours) as I was traveling for work. I really enjoy the subway scene and did not realize that one is not allowed to shoot in the Paris subways. It sure didn’t take long for me to get noticed. Fortunately I don’t speak any French but I quickly realized it was best that I get my camera back into my bag ASAP.

    We live in different world now and I don’t see it getting better.

    • I’ve always thought that service is a communication issue, but now I’m convinced it’s probably more fundamental than that: whoever is doing the servicing has to actually care. In today’s work-for-pay environment, I think that’s sadly a very rare thing. I see a mix of all four situations: people here who can’t communicate and don’t care; people who can’t communicate but at least try; people who can communicate and don’t care; and the very rare breed of both. I think it’s probably worse in the third world because we are in both a seller’s market at the high end, and one where the talent pool has either gone elsewhere or won’t work in the service industry. Yet fundamentally, that’s what photography is; I make no secret of the fact that one of the advantages I have over other pros is that I’m very used to dealing with senior management, having being an exec director of MNCs before.

      As for the subways…try using a small point and shoot. Nobody seems to care about those, oddly enough.

  18. Living in London as I do means I recognise those all too familiar problems – untrained scurity goons with no knowledge of the law, a power-mad attitude, and English as a second language. Fortunately here at least the police are reasonable and once summoned (as frequently happens) sort the whole mess out and all that you have lost is the time it takes.
    I had no idea that photography was getting more difficult in KL – a city I really like and visit from time to time – I’ve only had a no-no finger waved at me once to my recollection – in the “public street” through Pavillion IIRC.
    Maybe you need the local equivalent of “Phnat” and some mass protests, provided of course you can gather enough concerned photographers. But is there the will to do something about it?

    • The funny thing is that I’ve never had a problem in London. But KL is becoming increasingly unfriendly and frankly, off putting for street photography. I suppose I could carry around my press ID, but that makes things too official and kills the spontaneity. The only conclusion I can come to is that we have to be stealthier – smaller cameras and working faster. Sad but w hat can we do otherwise?

  19. My perspective is that security operations (especially privately owned) like to make up their own rules irrespective of the prevailing legality. By doing this and then challenging photographers it is remarkably successful for them. That it has no basis in law is irrelevant, it is a power play and needs challenging so it doesn’t become more and more enshrined. I sympathise with your experience though.

  20. Maybe we should carry a dog tag in multiple languages including Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Tagalog, etc. saying that no one can stop you from taking photographs when you stand in a public place?

  21. Sorry to hear about your troubles.
    Have you considered getting a letter from a police authority authenticating your rights as a photographer?
    Would-be security might think twice to get in your way.
    If you do get one, make several copies, just in case.

  22. How will the new straits times get their pictures then ? Give these people a uniform and a badge they will be the law.

    • They only shoot where they are paid to shoot, stay long enough to get one (barely) mediocre publishable photo, then go sit at a coffeeshop. Our media photographers here are sadly almost all paid button pushers and have zero pride or ambition – just look at the site quality of the crap that gets published every day in our local papers.

  23. I am from India, and can sympathize with you, having been stopped numerous times by an uneducated idiot. This certainly leaves a bad taste in your mouth and you will be in no mood for a shoot afterwards. This has also happened to me in the West;I was stopped and questioned in London by the police while photographing. It seems that in today’s information age, where information can be easily disseminated through the web, a photographer with a camera is as feared as a terrorist with a gun.

    • In the west at least there is some degree of education and you can explain your rights – providing you know them. In the east…forget it. Just one more reason why I am increasingly fond of small, stealthy compacts.

  24. Just a suggestion… Compose in Word a brief extract of applicable legislation regarding freedom of photographing in public spaces, translate into the 3-4 most common immigrant languages in KL, reduce to small text to fit on a smallish card, photocopy or laminate, use as needed….


  1. […] Several recent experiences in Kuala Lumpur have prompted me to write this article. They’re all pretty similar: I’m out and about walking on a public road, photographing various objects – never people – and I will be accosted by a rent-a-cop or security guard telling me that I am not allowed to photograph. Photograph what, specifically? Everything and anything which he deems is under his jurisdiction. There are two problems here: firstly, photographing from a public place is allowed so long as you are not on private property; the intended use is actually irrelevant – at least in Malaysia. The second problem is that these people are often immigrants who have both a very poor command of any of the local languages, zero to no education, and often questionable immigration status.  […]

  2. […] essay is a loose continuation of the previous article on Ignorance, fear and photographic freedoms in Malaysia; increasing paranoia and protection of perceived rights. It’s just the latest driver in the […]

  3. […] Photographers rights… again Although this theme has been well covered in countless forums all over the internet, Ming Thein offers some deeper views based on his experiences in Malaysia lately: Ignorance, fear and photographic freedoms in Malaysia […]

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