Hitam Manis. Image courtesy of Nadirah Zakariya.
Hitam Manis. Image courtesy of Nadirah Zakariya.

Textural and melancholic, Nadirah Zakariya’s photographs are like moments frozen in time.

Nadirah’s love for photography blossomed when she spent a year in Japan as an exchange student. “It was just a hobby. After I got back from Japan, I realised this was something that I enjoyed doing. And so what started off as a hobby ended up being something I wanted to pursue.”

After moving to the US for her studies, she stayed on in New York for six years to pursue her career which has led her to shoot under notable names like fashion photographer Yelena Yemchuk and photojournalist Bruce Davidson. She also counts working with OK Go, Au Revoir Simone and Liyana Fizi among her long line of accolades.

Nadirah’s latest piece is titled Hitam Manis and she is one of the 20 artists who will be showcasing their works under the exhibition Person(a): an investigation into self. The theme of the exhibition invites artists to distill their identities and what it means to be themselves, to be a person and put your vulnerabilities on display.

Translated as “sweet black”, Hitam Manis is a Malay term widely used to describe individuals with a dark, brown skin tone and as a child, Nadirah was often called that. However, over the past decade and a half, she gradually developed a skin condition called vitiligo.

Vitiligo is characterised by lost of pigmentation on skin. It appears at random and often results in colourless, whitish patches throughout the body. Having vitiligo has allow Nadirah to re-examine the notion of beauty and perceptions of other people.

“Back in 2008, I started to do documentary projects on other people living with vitiligo. When I got back to Malaysia, I think because of the weather my skin was more sensitive and I ended up getting more and more spots,” she says.

“It became more visible and then I realised, before I continue shooting other people with it, I should go on a self journey and point the camera to myself.” For Person(a), she will be showing three self portraits.

Nadirah’s photos are darkly coloured with multiple odd, white blobs spread across the images. These foreign looking patches marked the exact spots where her skin is afflicted with vitiligo, the stark contrast highlighted from use of a lightbox.

Her method of displaying the photographs also works into the story she wants to tell. “I decided to use a lightbox to make sure that my images were backlit. Number one is the fact that I wanted to show something that is often seen as ugly or not beautiful, to show it in a light that could be beautiful,” she explains.

Hitam Manis. Image courtesy of Nadirah Zakariya.
Hitam Manis. Image courtesy of Nadirah Zakariya.
Hitam Manis. Image courtesy of Nadirah Zakariya.
Hitam Manis. Image courtesy of Nadirah Zakariya.
Daughters Ago. Image courtesy of Nadirah Zakariya.
Daughters Ago. Image courtesy of Nadirah Zakariya.
Liminars. Image courtesy of Nadirah Zakariya.
Liminars. Image courtesy of Nadirah Zakariya.

“So I purposely darken the rest of the image except for the spots, I wanted to show the strength from within. I feel that vitiligo makes me a stronger person. Because of the critiques, people will be like ‘aww, kesiannya’. Padahal I don’t think its anything. It’s not harmful to my health. It’s just completely aesthetic or cosmetic, its like getting grey hair.”

Working on the project has been an important personal journey for Nadirah. “In that sense, for me, doing this project was like self acceptance. So that’s why I felt like I wanted to make the spots glowy.”

Her choice of using the lightbox also reflects on how we view images on devices like mobile phones and TVs these days. “I wanted to showcase something that is familiar for people. They might not automatically understand or pick up on it. But I feel that its relevant to our time now.”

Hitam Manis is a cross between our ideals of beauty and a reflection of the digital era we live in now. But the project does not just stop at Nadirah alone. It is ongoing and evolving. “At the same time, I’m working on a series of portraiture on albinism. So it’s kinda like vitiligo which is lost of pigment.

“I want to capture that nostalgic feeling, a sense of dreaminess.”

“It had led me to want to explore this whole idea of what’s beautiful, what’s normal, what’s not and also, on skin.” She continues to shoot other people with vitiligo in Malaysia in the hopes of expanding the project to other parts of the world when she is done.

Though Nadirah does not consider herself a documentary photographer, her photos irrevocably tell stories through creative play of colour, techniques, texture and more. “I want to capture that nostalgic feeling, a sense of dreaminess.”

Previous projects like Liminars and Daughters Ago are examples of that. “I’d like to somehow create my own world within that picture. I’m not interested in keeping reality,” elaborates Nadirah.

I love texture, I love colour, I love high contrast and I love emotions. My aim every time I take a picture, is I’d like someone to feel something.” Commercial works aside, her personal projects do capture a quiet kind of intimacy that will make you pause for a moment of emotional recollection.

Nadirah puts it simply, “That’s the beauty of photography, you can take the same photo by different people, but each one will shoot it from their own eye. And for me, that’s all I can offer, something from my point of view”.

Hitam Manis will be exhibited at Person(a) in Black Box, Publika from 31 October – 8 November. Find out more about Person(a) here.

Words by Lyn Ong. Photos by Nadirah Zakariya.

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