Robin’s take: Thaipusam 2019

Thaipusam is one of the largest festivals in Malaysia, drawing no less than 2 million people to Batu Caves in 2018. MT did a splendid job covering it in 2017 with the Hasselblad H6D-100C (photoessays here, here and a video here), shooting mostly in low light as the rituals start on the eve of the actual celebration. This year, I decided to brave the crowds at Batu Caves but was also intending to do things differently. Instead of punishing the camera in impossibly low light situations, I played to my strength by shooting during the day and utilizing the beautiful morning light.

MT’s note: I’ve covered Thaipusam on several occasions in the past, but tend to prefer working at night for both the atmosphere/drama and the lower temperatures (though it brings its own challenges in the sheer crowd sizes, light levels etc.) Had to sit out this year because of my back, but glad to see one of the team made it!

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Photoessay: Thaipusam 2017 cinematics, part II

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This is the peak of the event: handover of the offerings at the temple inside the cave (and at the top of 272 steps); the exit of trance and seeking of blessings by both participants and visitors. There are just as many exhausted devotees as ones dancing in religious fervour. I’ve always been careful to be highly respectful and not intrusive when photographing the ceremonies; we are privileged to be allowed to observe (and in a way, participate) in what is a very sensitive and private ceremony. Every year I’ve attended, I’ve been called over by one of the participants in trance to receive blessings in turn – and in a way, it feels as though I’ve been given permission to be there. I guess I’ll be going back again next year. MT

Additional coverage and full size sample images are here at The video is here.

This series was shot with a Hasselblad H6D-100c, 50 and 100mm lenses, and post processed with the cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images Ep. 4 & 5.

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Photoessay: Thaipusam 2017 cinematics, part I

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Part one of the photoessay covers the ascent: arrival, preparation and the activities at the base of the steps to the cave temple. Relief, chaos, trepidation, anticipation…the full gamut of emotions can be seen, but it’s not over yet – even after having trekked the better part of 13km from the departure temple. To be continued tomorrow in part II. MT

Additional coverage and full size sample images are here at The video is here.

This series was shot with a Hasselblad H6D-100c, 50 and 100mm lenses, and post processed with the cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images Ep. 4 & 5.

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Fortitude: resolved, a film (or: Thaipusam 2017 with the H6D-100c)

Fortitude: resolved from Ming Thein on Vimeo.

Note: the video was shot in 4K, and will play at 4K if you click through to Vimeo, or use the full screen player and pick the appropriate setting.

Every year, a huge number of Hindu devotees gather at the Batu Cave temple outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the Thaipusam festival. It celebrates a significant event in the life and mythology of Lord Murugan: the gifting of a weapon to defeat evil. Participants burden themselves with offerings to Lord Murugan in various forms – from milk pots to portable Kavadi shrines and other offerings piercing their body. It is believed that the more significant the offering and the higher the personal suffering, the more blessings are accorded to the devotee in their struggle against their own personal challenges.

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Alternate presentations: cinematic Thaipusam 2016 photoessay

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As a follow on to the article a few days ago about my experiences shooting medium format for low light reportage work, I’m presenting the promised cinematic set from Thaipusam 2016. I deliberately left a few articles’ gap between them rather than presenting them back to back; this allows a bit of settling time and objectivity between the two sets of images. It also brings up the question of stylistic choices: how do you decide?

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Reportage and medium format: Thaipusam 2016 with a Hasselblad H5D-50C

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Thaipusam is a Big Deal for those involved religiously* – but also quite an amazing experience as an observer. One of, if not the largest of these festivals takes place in a cave temple about 15km outside of Kuala Lumpur every year at the Batu Caves. I’ve photographed the event previously in 2008, 2011 and 2012. This year’s festival happened just a couple of days ago on the 23rd-24th of January, and I went back for the fourth time. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a very special experience even as a non-participant and not really understanding the significance of the ceremony to the believers. There really is some energy there from the sheer number of participants and general positive and hopeful thoughts that are going around at the time.

*Wikipedia does a much better job of explaining it than I can.

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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.