Fiction

The Out of Focus Lens

Photo: SplitShire.CC0/Public Domain.
Photo: SplitShire.
CC0/Public Domain.

With his camera bag slung over his left shoulder, Sudir Awang positioned the three children met at a residential area in Kepong to take a photo while pretending to watch the Prime Minister tabling the year’s budget.

Since the ruling party has a stake in The Malaysian Tribune, it had always become a must for photographers and reporters alike to cover anything, be it small or big, related to the party and its politicians.

Today’s assignment though was a must as the daily plans on having a double spreadsheet capturing moments and reactions (positive ones, of course) of Malaysians during the live telecast of the budget’s tabling.

“Okay, adik, you move slightly to the left and pretend you’re watching the telecast,” he said to the youngest kid, positioning him at the centre.

“I want you to put your arms around your brother’s and can you point at the screen?” He gave orders to the children. They held his iPhone with a screen-grab of the Prime Minister giving his speech on the budget.

“But bang, this is just a photo not video!” The youngest boy said.

“Just do as I say lah, boy,” Sudir, slightly hot tempered at times, barked. He was rushing for another assignment and wanted to get this one over and done with as soon as possible.

The kids pose and Sudir snapped the photo, checking it afterwards through the camera’s screen to see if the shot taken was okay. He was satisfied with it, passed RM1 to each kid and thanked them while patting their heads.

Seeing the kids dash off to a nearby saundry shop, Sudir walked slowly to his souped up Honda CRZ and started the engine.

That was when he got a call from one of the bosses.

“Sudir, there is a raid to flush out illegal immigrations tonight at the flats in Jalan Ipoh. We’re lacking in manpower tonight as Razali has taken a medical leave. Can you go on his behalf?”

“Do I look like I have a choice?” Sudir asked. He was the only photographer assigned on standby for the night duties. And since everyone else were much more junior than him, he was usually assigned to cover such raids.

Not that he complained as he enjoyed taking photos of the GROs detained for his own personal collection. But the raid on illegal immigrants was a real pain in the ass as the waiting could take ages.

“You can come slightly late to office tomorrow. Thanks yeah?” The head of the photography department, Mr Tan said as he placed the phone down.

“Fucker,” Sudir cursed as he hit the signal on, turning the wheel to the right and drove off.

Earlier Sudir had covered a minister who had launched a row of shop-lots in Puchong in the sweltering 11 o’clock morning heat.

The event, which was supposed to begin at 9am began two hours later when the politician arrived in a black Mercedes Benz escorted by four policemen, two at the front and two others at the back. With their sirens blaring, Sudir jostled with other photographers to take the best spot for an aesthetic shot.

The minister walks into the shop-lots and launches the row of shops after cutting ribbons and then delivers on the cuff press conference commenting about the government’s efforts in providing some imaginary, yet to be planned or conceived programme which would take three years to implement but only to be scraped off if this politician loses the elections – which he might, Sudir thought – and then the minister leaves.

All that waiting for a fifteen minute moment.

Sudir cursed under his breath. He had to daily take two required shots of the lifestyle in Kuala Lumpur, which if is good, would be published at the front page and filed under Daily Pictures section for The Malaysian Tribune.

Being the photographer he is, Sudir had always had the niche to take photos which flowed with motion, leading him to be one of the best crime photographers around.

His photos are always fast, on the move, realistic and in the moment sort of images. Which explains why majority of crime reporters enjoyed following him for night raids. He knew the type of shots to take, leading the reporter to be inspired to write a kick ass news-piece should the raid haul a large result.

He parks his car along Chow Kit and looks around for a photo opportunity. Seeing none, he sighed.

Things were different fifteen years ago when he first joined The Malaysian Tribune. They had ice-cream vendors on the Kuala Lumpur streets. His best photo for the Sunday issue of the paper was a simple close up shot of a little girl staring at the lens, her eyes twinkling, her lips parted to a slight coy smile as she licks the melting ice cream.

It was taken during the dry season which went on for four months, leading the city to be blanketed in haze and reports of fires breaking out in various places throughout the country.

That photo won him multiple awards and was even listed under The Malaysian Tribune’s Top 100 Photos of the 90′s, a highly sought after centennial photo magazine. The publishing stopped when the circulation dipped after a new management had taken over the media company.

“You can never take shots like that now,” he thought to himself as he lit a cigarette and decided to observe Central Market.

As he walked, he observed his surrounding. The dusty Kuala Lumpur street seemed foreign. Uninviting.

Kuala Lumpur has lost its beauty.

As he sat by the Pasar Seni Lrt station’s staircase, he observed a beggar sitting in ragged clothes, rattling his coin box.

Feeling the impulse a true photographer feels, Sudir readies his camera, his lens focused on the beggar, specifically on the beggar’s right hand holding the coin box.

A young school girl comes along with a packet of currypuffs and passes to the man. She also took the pains to buy the man a bottle of mineral water.

Sudir snapped that photo.

To Sudir, it was photos such as this which made him keep going. They were out of the box, out of the ordinary.

To Sudir, religion was the art of handling the camera and spirituality was when the heart resonates with the finger that taps on the clicker.

Five hours later the photo would be rejected as it did not resonate with the headlines of the daily, the photo of the minister launching the shop lots.

***

“Okay, I want everyone to be silent,” the state Immigration Department director, Faroze Bidin said as he instructed everyone to crouch in a nearby bushes.

The old dilapidated looking flats loomed ahead while the midnight moon served as light in the darkness of the night and a backdrop with the stars acting as the extras.

And then, just like that, through the shining of torchlights, the raid began.

Nearly 50 personnel knocked on every door, floor to floor, level to level, shouting, screaming, some even pulling the foreigners out forcibly.

A handful of the illegal immigrants are hauled up and made to huddle together as one officers demands for their passports.

“Passport mana?” One officers say to a scared-looking Bangladeshi.

He doesn’t response and the officer asks again, “Mana passport?”

The poor guy, sweating from his brow keeps mum.

The officer slaps him on the head using the log book in his hand.

“Mana?? Cakap?”

“Dia tidak boleh bertutur dalam English tuan,” an Indonesian man, in his early twenties said slowly.

“Tunjuk passport dia?”

“Tidak ada, Tuan,”

Seething with anger, the officer motions a person to handcuff the immigrants.

“Pandai ko datang sini tanpa passport eh?”

“Cari makan Tuan,”

The officer hits the Indonesian, “Cari makan cara Halal lah! Ini tak, datang negara tanpa passport,”

Sudir snapped the photos. It was the biggest haul and it could be front page material, a full size photo that Sudir took would be inserted along with a bold title, “STATE IMMIGRATION DEPARTMENT DETAINS 150 ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS”

There’ll be a blip below with the department director’s quote, “This is proof we’re doing our job!”

To Sudir, having his photos published at the frontpage is nothing really.

These photos don’t mean a thing. To Sudir, there was a deep sense of sympathy he saw in the illegal foreigners.

“They’re humans like me too,” He would say whenever the photographers asked why he didn’t like the way they’re treated when hauled up.

“But these are the folks who do most of the crime in Malaysia!”

What foolishness, he would curse.

As he changes his camera’s battery, he hears someone from the 6th floor shouting out the director’s name. Apparently they had found something.

It was a signal. Sudir readied his camera, holding it tight like a weapon and follows the personnel who dashed up the stairs. Sudir followed suit.

They came upon a house, which was open, dimly lit and as they walked into a room, they found an elderly old man, laying on a bed reeking with urine and feces, his body shriveled and thin, head shaven.

“Is he dead?” The officer says.

One comes in and tsked while another repeatedly said God’s name.

Sudir stood shocked by the doorway. The director bends over to the man and says, “Uncle you okay?”

It was a Malay man, paralyzed, abandoned, drenched in his own created filth, and neglected.

“How can someone do such a heartless thing?”

“Look at the walls, filthy!” One remarked.

Sudir snapped the photo of the immigration director carrying the old man.

It was blown out at the front page the next day, opening a can of worms on everything that is Malaysia.

***

“SON ABANDONS PARALYSED FATHER” was the headline which sold the daily. The one moment, where the media government owned conglomerate scored a brownie point for themselves.

“Sudir, standby at HKL yeah? Bosses want to go big on this one,” Mr Tan said the night before and slams the phone down.

The politicians came in a large numbers with each having their own entourage of ball sucking, ass licking personnel officers who took photos of the “touchy-feely” moments where the politicians pretended to be teary eyed, hugging the poor old man who just wishes to rest and be left alone.

“Datuk! Datuk, posing sikit. Cuba cium kepala Pak Cik sikit,” one photographer said. Sudir took one shot, took a look at it, and scoffed in his head.

Bullshit.

Later, these same politicians gave seemingly touching press conferences, “What has become of Malaysia? What has come to us? We need to be a society, we need to be better children. Children in this era don’t appreciate their own parents. Which is why we have them on the streets demonstrating. If every child can spend time looking after their parents than joining Opposition organised rallies, this would be an amazing country,” said one.

Of course The Malaysian Tribune ran big with this one.

“YOUTHS SHOULD FOCUS TIME ON PARENTS INSTEAD OF JOINING RALLIES”

A reporter from an online news portal asked a brilliant question.

“Datuk, so what is the ministry going to do to prevent such a thing from occurring? Doesn’t this also show the lackadaisical attitude of the Welfare Department who don’t conduct–”

He was stopped short mid sentence, “Which media you from ah?”

The young reporter mentions a name.

“Ohh no wonder your question also like that,” the minister says, drawing laughter from the other press.

The minister then gives a shitty answer, altogether dodging the question which tried peeling everything off and going to the crux of the matter; what is the government going to do about this?

“We will place the man in a Welfare Department and the son has already been remanded by the police. Let the investigation be completed,”

Sudir spat on the floor after the press conference once he was outside.

“That’s not the answer,” Sudir thought as he lit his cigarette. To him, every solution in the country laid in the manner the education system works in the country.

Right now, from where he is standing, in the next 20-years from now, there is a high possibility Malaysia would end up becoming a country with first world facilities but a third world mentality.

Kuala Lumpur would be a city filled with skyscrapers with every floor of the each building is packed to the brim with empty minded, closed hearted, zombified Malaysians.

Francis Choo, a reporter from the news desk, assigned to cover this story approaches Sudir and lights his cigarette.

“Wahh so cruel ah the son?”

Sudir thought hard, bit his lip and replied, “Yeah. Cruel.”

But he knew, deep down, there was something bigger to it.

“Eh Francis, you want to go and speak to the neighbors of the old man? Dig up and find out more about this?”

“Sure!” Francis, every willing to be on one of Sudir’s adventure said.

Francis, is a new reporter, who had joined the company three months ago. Sudir was the first photographer assigned for him during his first assignment, a street poll for the “City Life” section. That section carried news on neighborhood events and lifestyle in the city.

What made him gel with Francis was that, unlike the new reporters, Francis was able to easily go up to a stranger and ask a question.

“Wahh it’s like you’re meant to be a journalist lah! Usually for other new reporters, I have to pick the people to interview,” Sudir laughed and remarked, to which Francis said, “I always wanted to be a journalist. This is my dream job, man!”

He loved the newcomer’s enthusiastic approach. With the rate Francis is going, he is bound to be a famous and memorable journalist in the country.

That afternoon, the both of them went to the low cost flats and interviewed the residents.

“He never says hello. Nothing. Always comes back late night. We didn’t know he had a paralysed father until we saw the news!” An old Malay woman said, holding a crying two-year-old.

Children ran past the four of them as Francis asked, “So why didn’t you talk to him instead? What happened to the spirit of being neighbors?”

“Aiyoo tak baik jaga tepi kain orang,” came the reply.

Half an hour later Francis would be complaining to Sudir.

“How can she even say that? Do you know on Facebook everyone says it’s the son’s fault. But according to reports he has lost his job, and works odd jobs until late night, divorced, and recently the mother had died. I think he is depressed lah, Sudir. People lose the purpose to live like that,”

Sudir nodded. “You’re right. It is not right for society to blame the son alone,”

“So who do we blame?” Francis asked, his face red with anger. What Francis doesn’t realise is that this event has led him to open his eyes further.

“We can only blame ourselves as Malaysians, Francis.” Sudir said calmly.

“But I didn’t do anything wrong! How about the Welfare Department? The son did not know how to apply for it! That shows that they are not working harder to promote their services.”

“True, true.”

Francis continued, “Instead our top heads are focusing on the wrong things. The whole debacle on the Allah issue. I mean, come on lah, we just found an elderly man neglected and here we are arguing over trivial things? These are the issues we should be addressing. Period!” Francis was fuming.

Sudir handed him a cigarette to which he took and lit.

“It starts from our mindset. And mindsets are usually shaped in schools. The short term solution would be to charge the son in court for neglect, imprison and the Welfare Department would be organising programmes after programmes on community development. Of course, this comes with cost. But Francis, if the state of our education is the level of a third world country, where critical thinking is not recommended, where children are taught to memorise and regurgitate lessons, we would continue seeing more of such things. Waste of cost. Waste of time. Waste of everything. It has to start from education for a long term solution,”

Francis kept silent. And then broke it, “But don’t forget, in order for good education to he in place, we need a good government. I don’t foresee it now,”

Sudir laughed, “Malaysia is in a catch-22 situation. Which came first, chicken or egg?”

Francis pondered.

“Fuck it. It all starts from you and me. You make the difference. The rest will follow suit.”

“So what do you intend on doing?” Francis asked.

Good question. It was Sudir’s turn to think. And then he said, “You know, it’s high time for me to hang the boots. I’ve done enough running around.”

“You mean?” Francis grew concerned.

“I want to take more realistic photos. Not fake ones like you see in the papers. Photos that evoke true emotions. Make you think.”

“You want to educate Malaysians through your photos?”

Sudir never thought of that. But the suggestion seemed inviting. He always had a niche for taking such photos.

“I suppose so, Francis. The country needs more of such photos.”

Two hours later, Sudir would hand in his resignation and devote his time updating his personal photo blog with human interest photos depicting the lives of the unique and different denizens of Kuala Lumpur.