It was not yet two o’clock in the afternoon – our appointed time for the interview – but Eric Peris, the photographer, was already seated comfortably in the airy kitchen of the Sutra Gallery, an intimate art space in a leafy part of Kuala Lumpur.
Eric’s 36th exhibition NAMO, or homage in the Pali language, is being held there as a retrospective body of work he created between 1975 and 1980. Those were years which marked a pivotal point in his life and photography.
Eric is what many consider to be a godfather in Malaysian photography, and has sat on the regional selection panel of the Joop Swart Masterclass by the World Press Photo since 1995. He is 74 this year and still making pictures everyday. He also does not own a car nor a mobile phone. Buddhism has taught him to want and need little.
Eric speaks with a soft and gentle voice. Like his photographs. He spent close to three hours talking to me about the lessons photography and Life taught him. It was one of the few interviews that I could let the tape recorder run and just listen.
There are people who had so much to say that a story about them requires nothing more than their own words and talk. Eric Peris is even rarer a subject because of that.
“I was born in 1939, just before the World War II started. I hope I had not started the war. My father came from Sri Lanka. He was already an established artist and had studied painting in Paris. He was also a dramatist and musician. My mother was a Malayan from Kuala Lumpur. She also had a musical and arts background. My sister was eight years older. I am the third child, the youngest. I had a brother who was the second child but he passed away before I was born. When we were young, my family left Johor Bahru for Muar as my father was invited by Mr Koh Koon Toh, a Chinese man who runs a Bangsawan theatre. Mr Koh asked my father to help out at the theatre and so, he did all the paintings of the backdrop and wrote new plays as well. He knew all about my father because he was a royal artist in the 1920s. They were quite wrapped up during the Japanese Occupation. The Japanese were happy because there was something that the people could be entertained with. The audience were Malays, Chinese and Indians but the language of the theatre was in the Bahasa. We enjoyed listening to the Bahasa. Sometimes, the comedians would pepper dialogues in Chinese dialects into the performance. It would start at 7pm and end at 10pm.
“We grew up with culture around us. We understood the Malay adat and why red was an important colour for the Chinese. We spoke English at home but living in a small town like Muar where the Malays, Chinese and Indians mingled, I realise I already owned something, that is, our Asian culture. I remember going to this ais kacang stall where the Catholic priest, the Hindu priest and the Muslim Imam sat together for coffee, chit-chatting away. Can you imagine the effect that has on us?
“After the war, I attended school, both primary and secondary. But, I was a stubborn student, so to speak. I don’t like exams. To me, it was not getting Grade One that was important. Yes, I enjoyed studying Physics but I did not attend university. My parents taught me a lot of things – religion, lifestyle, attitude – through example. I found that I absorbed things much faster that way, because they were not lecturing me with a cane in hand. Then, we moved to Singapore in 1957. At that time, we were still one country so, it was no big deal. I just had my Form Five exams and was teaching in a private school. One day, one of my friends asked me if I would like to join a newspaper. So, I was introduced to the general manager of Times Publishing. I joined the Fanfare magazine, which was a very well-known pop magazine.
When I first joined the magazine, the editor asked me if I knew how to take pictures. I said ‘Yes’, and he said ‘OK, you take the camera and go take some pictures’. So, I went to Bras Basah Road, took some pictures, processed them and showed them to him. He looked at them, then at me and said, ‘Good, from tomorrow onwards, you are doing both (reporting and photographing). Remember, if you miss a story, we can still hunt it down. But, if you miss the picture, you are dead.’
“After Singapore and Malaysia separated for some years, I decided to go back to KL. I arrived in KL on the 30th May 1970, and joined the press here. My father never wanted me to be an artist, because it was not an easy life at all, especially in Asia. He was lucky because he was a royal artist. I never wanted to be a painter as well. Takes too long a time to do it. The camera is much faster …
“In photojournalism, you are the eyes and ears of the public and therefore, your responsibility is very high. You are going to tell the people this story through your eyes because they are not in the position where you are. So, you have to give them the images that describe what you saw, and you can only do so with several images.”
“For a while, I was quite happy doing what I was doing, running around, doing my own photo essays. One day, I got a call and was asked, “Would you like to be the next photo editor?” I said ‘No, thank you very much.’ A year later, in 1990, I was called by the Deputy Group Editor who said ‘No more questions. You are the photo editor. Fullstop.’ I thought I would be a photojournalist all my life. But, by the end of 1994, I retired and never to return to the press again. I had my 24 years in the newspapers. They were very good and exciting times. In photojournalism, you are the eyes and ears of the public and therefore, your responsibility is very high. You are going to tell the people this story through your eyes because they are not in the position where you are. So, you have to give them the images that describe what you saw, and you can only do so with several images. For personal work, you are the editor of your work. In a way, you have to be so much more prepared on what you are going to work on first. This involves reading, studying, reflecting and even meditating on it. The most important thing is to get that first picture. But getting the first picture is the difficult part. If you are well-prepared, you are able to see things in a proper context. You must never choreograph the picture. I once saw a picture in an encyclopedia about a rubber tapper in Malaya in the 1960s. This man wore a nice songkok and baju Melayu. Who goes rubber-tapping in that outfit? Don’t try to change the story. If you can’t show it truthfully, then don’t show it at all. You’ve got to have respect for your own art. You must constantly ask questions in your mind until after a while, they become second nature to you. You may think there is too much thinking to do and you are worried about missing the picture. But, so what? I don’t mind missing pictures.
“When I stopped photojournalism, I reflected and realised I had to go deep into my own photography. I started developing my concept of photography in 1975. By then, I was already in my mid-thirties and about 15 years before I retired. But the good thing about being retired is that, you can do whatever with your time. That became a very interesting time for me. Sometime after I retired, I was also quite interested in Miyamoto Musashi. He was one of the greatest Samurai fighters. He came out with a statement, ‘Learn to see everything accurately’. As a fighter, when you are facing your opponent, you don’t go about blindly. You study everything about him – how he stands, where his sword is. From his sword to my camera, that advice was powerful for me throughout my career in photography.
“The duty of Malaysian photographers is to record something about this country. When we only want to travel overseas for our projects, are we saying that we have nothing here?”
“The year 1975 was also the year my father died. I told my mother I wanted to remember him by going around doing landscape photography on my leave days. With my mother’s blessing, I went off. There was an old tin mine just behind my house so, I spent quite a lot of time there. I don’t drive, so, my good friends would take me out on weekends to shoot. I started with black-and-white because colour photography film was too expensive. These limitations, however, make you think. With colour, we know the sky is blue, and the rose is red but you have taken away the mystery of the picture. With black-and-white, you get to play with tonal ranges and people get locked into it. A person looks at the picture and wonders, ‘What is it? Is it taken in the morning, afternoon or evening?’ It is that kind of interaction that you are caught into. And that makes it very interesting. When I was 32 or 33 years old, my father gave me a book of paintings by Rembrandt. He said, ‘Since you want to do black-and-white, this is a book on Rembrandt. He is the master of light. If you want to know light, read all about him.’ I still have the book. I also read a lot of books on artists – Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael – but I’ve never been to the West. I’ve only seen what it looks like on TV. Someone once told me they could arrange a trip for me to photograph the Lake District in England. But I told them, ‘We got enough lakes here.’ The duty of Malaysian photographers is to record something about this country. When we only want to travel overseas for our projects, are we saying that we have nothing here? What have we got against our own background, our own culture that we found no interest in them to do creative work with the camera?
“I only had my first exhibition in 1982. At that time, my friend Victor Chin had a gallery called Rupa Gallery and we had an exhibition on something I did about Thailand’s windows and doorways. From 1982 to 1992, I had to show what I had and that I was different. My father and mother used to tell me, ‘Don’t forget the discipline. You cannot do it once and forget it for the next 10 years. You got to be a regular at it.’ So, I was holding exhibitions once a year but my mother warned me that no exhibitions should be repetitive. If you are repeating, that means you are bankrupt of ideas. NAMO is my 36th exhibition. Have I done my best? I don’t know. I used to ask my father, ‘Now that I am in the first rung of the ladder of my creativity, how do I get to my second rung?’ He said ‘You can never. Why do you even worry about the second rung? Do your work, and the people will decide’. After all these years in photography, if you were to ask me on a scale of one to 10 where I stand, I will tell you I am still at ‘one’. You are always at the first rung of the ladder. Frankly speaking, I wished I had done a better job with all my pictures.
“I still photograph every day. Every morning or afternoon, I try to make 10 to 15 images even if these pictures are only about objects in my home. This is to test out whether I still have the values in me. Everyday, I take the camera and tell myself, ‘Let me see if I can record this.’ From the images, you will know whether you as a photographer have been too early, too hasty and could have waited a little bit more. Perhaps you have been telling yourself ‘I can’t spend eight hours waiting. The light will change and in the end, I get nothing. So, I might as well capture whatever I can in that period’. That picture on that wall then becomes your teacher. Through that picture, Mother Nature is telling you ‘I would have been kinder to you had you waited a little bit more’. The demand for patience is very high. Mother Nature plays games with you regularly. But at the end of the day, you will get your image. It is all very entertaining.
“But forget about the camera. The strongest tool you have is your eyes.”
“Photography is such a creative field that I don’t think a photographer would want to do anything else. But forget about the camera. The strongest tool you have is your eyes. When I sit in the bus, I would sit near the driver because in front of me is the screen. It is almost like seeing with an eye-piece. So when the bus turns, you find the entire view of the landscape changing. It gives you ideas on how to crop your pictures properly. All these are free information. If you want to be a photographer, forget about the status ‘I’m a photographer’. There is no glamour in this. It is in fact, a lot of work. You must understand what is front of you – the social structure, the elements and what you are working on. Those are your information sources so that when you take a picture, you get a cleaner picture. A picture can hurt a person very easily. People are fine with seeing a picture about suffering as long as they are not in it. So, you have to be very careful about that.
“The reward we look forward to is the recognition for our work. Not the far-flung praises kind, but an appreciation that I, as a photographer, has opened a new window for you to know more about ourselves. The most rewarding thing for a photographer is when the layman appreciates what he has done. That you have preserved something we have seen over the years. What do I think about people calling me a ‘legendary photographer’? I’d say, don’t use that on me. What we have done is not what others cannot do. People see the same things, go through the same situations. They can be just as inquisitive and so, can accomplish the same things.
“To me, legends are for people like Sinbad the Sailor.”
Eric Peris’s exhibition NAMO is showing at the Sutra Gallery, Kuala Lumpur until 25 May 2015.