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Faces: The Farmers’ Odyssey

There is something about a human face that is both captivating and mystifying. One’s countenance divulges the subtle intimations of the inner man, try as one might to hide it.

This is material for photographer Amri Ginang. Much can be gleaned, he says, from a person’s face. A twitch of the lips, a lift of the eyebrow, a glint in the eyes …

It is no wonder, then, that Amri chose to capture the faces of small oil palm planters for his latest photography series. Aptly named Faces: The Farmers’ Odyssey, Amri endeavors to bring to the fore the human element of the palm oil industry.

“My original idea was just to have faces of people because I believe the face of a person can tell you lots of stories. When you see their eyes, the wrinkles or the sweat, there are many stories there,” says Amri in an interview at Wisma Sawit in Kelana Jaya, Petaling Jaya in Selangor.
Malaysian photographer Amri Ginang aims to show the human side of the palm oil industry. (The Star)
Malaysian photographer Amri Ginang aims to show the human side of the palm oil industry. (The Star)

“But I wanted to make it a little bigger, which is why I pulled back the frame and showed a bit of the ambience,” he shares.

Supported by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, Amri’s exhibition will grace London’s The Strand Gallery on Feb. 23.

MPOC’s CEO Yusof Basiron explained that the importance of Faces is for visitors to see “the faces behind the creation of palm oil. The small farmers of Malaysia are the quintessential small farmer ― relentless in making a living and undaunted by challenges thrown in their way.”

“They are the real people of Malaysia, the strong ones who have improved their prosperity and helped to lift millions out of poverty and towards a better future. That is the true story of palm oil in Malaysia ― and these farmers are the faces that tell the story,” says Yusof.

It took Amri nearly two months to complete the shoot, which brought him to plantation sites in Sabak Bernam, Carey Island and Bentong, among others. The fruits of his labor were 60 stunning, monochromatic photographs.

The photographer was particularly enamored with Wak Guruh, a 54-year-old man from the Sungai Besar, Sabak Bernam plantations.

The composite photograph shows a wrinkled and stout man, his face slightly tanned, probably from working under the sun, carrying an albino cobra around his neck.

Perfectly undaunted and comfortable with the venomous serpent, Wak Guruh wears a reserved smile, one that is filled with happiness but held back conservatively.

Next to this image is another image of the majestic animal, its hood expanded. One can only imagine terror gripping the senses when confronted by such a dangerous creature.

One wonders, then, as to Wak Guruh’s affinity for the reptile.

“There are many snakes in the plantations. For those who don’t know much about snakes, they will kill it. What Wak Guruh does is he takes care of them and he also educates the planters about them. In his area, people don’t kill the snakes any longer,” says Amri.

“What’s fascinating about this man is that he has made a living out of this. He is simply a worker in the plantations. Now he is earning additional income by selling the snakes’ venom,” he adds.

This makes Amri’s exhibition a tad more interesting. Instead of allowing the audience to figure out for themselves about the person behind the photograph (which is how most artworks are meant to be experienced), Amri provides short captions on his subjects.

“When you see a portrait, you always look at it and start making guesses informed by your own life experiences. You do a lot of guessing.

“But with a story accompanying each picture, it makes it more vibrant,” asserts Amri.

Another captivating series of photographs highlights the Mah Meri community, one of the indigenous tribes living on Carey Island in Selangor. They are seen with big, wooden tribal masks made from the palm wood. The photographer iterated that his concept was to show the human side of the palm oil industry, sentiments echoed by Yusof.

On top of that, he also hopes that his photographs will “show sustainability.”

“The plantations sites are clean, there aren’t any burning areas and the people are not suffering. This was one of the main ideas behind the show as well, to show the sustainability of the oil palm industry but in an artistic way,” says Amri.

Yusof also believes that this exhibition could potentially be a platform to change antipalm oil sentiments.

“Amri’s photos show the pride and the joy on the faces of these farmers and you can also see that they have worked hard and earned their success.

“We do not want to just talk about palm oil. We want people to see the faces of these farmers, the people who are the backbone of palm oil in Malaysia, to see that they are no different from any other farmer in Europe, or small farmers of other crops around the world.

“Farming is a well-respected profession in Europe. Hopefully this exhibition will show that the Malaysian small farmer also deserves respect and congratulations,” adds Yusof.

Yusof also mentions the strong inspirational impact of the show.

“The faces in this exhibition are small farmers ― but they dream big. They have all gone on a long journey, not just to make a living out of palm oil but to build a life. That dream continues today and into the future. Hopefully, many others will follow them down this successful path, in the years to come,” he says.

And that is what Amri eventually saw in the eyes of his subjects: hope.

“I can see hope in their eyes. I have photographed many homeless people or AIDS victims. There is no hope at all. It feels like I’m just documenting sorrow.

“But with this, I am not only documenting diligence and hard-workers but also hope and them being smallholders makes it even stronger,” Amri concludes.

By Dinesh Kumar Maganathan

(The Star)