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Bangi Girl Makes It Big In The Big Apple

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A local studio called the Republik in Wangsa Walk, Kuala Lumpur, had never seen an overwhelming turnout eager to see a Malaysian who has brought the country to the world stage of photography.

That was until Nadirah Zakariya appeared.

In a small, dark room of the studio sat a young and emerging artist from a small town called Bangi who was anxious to present her artwork to the Malaysian public in person for the first time since she moved to New York four years ago. Nadirah, a 26-year-old who specialises in self-portraits, has gained a reputation by working with award winning musician Bjork and prominent photographers such as Bruce Stevenson and Yelena Yemchuck. One would never have thought that Bangi could produce one shining star who has started to carve out her name in the history of Lomography – an analogue type of photography – at a very young age.

“I used to do my own experiment without having to bother anyone…it is also a form of self-expression,” Nadirah, who was on a short trip to Malaysia recently, told a packed studio. But what started out as a hobby has brought her photography skills to greater heights – where most of her artwork has been featured in art galleries in New York, California and London.

The New York’s Fashion Institute Technology (FIT) photography graduate slowly began to work behind the camera by featuring other people but still considered her work as self-portraits. Elaborating, she said there were two types of photographers – mirror and window – and she categorised herself as the former.

“Mirror photographers photograph subjects that reflect who they are, while window photographers capture what they see, like documentary photographers. As for me, I cannot deny that I am a mirror photographer,” she said, adding this was despite someone else is in the photograph. “When it comes to editing and selection process, I would usually choose images that I can relate to…even though there’s a shot of someone else, I still think there is a part of me in the photographs,” she said. Refusing to put herself in a box, Nadirah tends to explore a variety of photography styles, which finally brings her to the concept of ‘liminality’ – a perfect term to define her.


“Liminality means the state of transition between two worlds. So my work is between reality and a dream state. “And the people or things that linger in between the state are called liminars, which brings to my current body of work,” she said.

According to her, the concept is “really compelling” as it portrays her journey of upbringing that detached herself from the outside world. “I tend to feel that I am neither here nor there, as it is hard for me to feel completely at home when I am somewhere,” she said, adding that this was due to her upbringing abroad. “When I was younger, we lived in Texas for a while. When we moved back to Malaysia I was considered too Americanised and I wasn’t able to fit in,” she said. Now that she has moved to New York, things have not quite changed either.

“When I am over there, I am obviously a Malaysian, but a foreigner. So it is not home either. There’s always a feeling that you belong, but you don’t. “It is a big part of me and I try to convey that through my work,” said Nadirah. Explaining further on her work, she said small children have been her favourite subjects to capture for her on-going project, as “they are not conscious of themselves”.


“I am not interested in shooting models in bland white background…but kids, they are most fun to work with because they are not conscious of how they look. They are also disciplined when I tell them what to do and each shot takes me about two to three minutes each because they have short attention span.

“But I enjoy shooting them because I would get the purest expression and I guess it is the same when you capture older people. They are pure and innocent.” As technology grows rapidly, many professional photographers are familiar with the use of digital singlelense reflex camera or DSLR compared to analogue cameras that use films. While many would argue about the difference of quality of the end products, Nadirah disagrees with the notion that a medium plays a major role in appreciating the value of the artwork.

“I personally feel the value of the artwork is in the art itself and not necessarily the medium.

“For me, I choose my medium based on the project but I must admit I shoot more with films than digital,” she said. However, she stressed that she has nothing against digital.

“Sometimes, my choice of camera depends on my knowledge of the camera and my comfort level of using them…digital and analogue offer different qualities, not more or less than the other,” she explained. Many would perceive that New York , the city where dreams are made of, opens up opportunities and appreciation for artwork due to its wide exposure. Taking a different stand, Nadirah says Malaysia too, offers art and inspiration to anyone as long as they have passion to seek it.

“There is art everywhere…in New York, it doesn’t have the jungle, it doesn’t have the islands and the people would think that the grass is greener on the other side.

“But rest assured, people would kill to be here (in Malaysia). They would say, ‘I wish I was there, it is so cold and uninspiring here’,” said the fourth child in the family. She says that it is the surroundings that contribute a lot to inspiration of an artist, no matter where they may be. “It is you, yourself and your interest as long as you have the passion. You can do whatever you, wherever you want,” she said, adding that art doesn’t necessarily need to be created in some popular places.


Citing an example, she pointed out one of her photos was shot in Malaysia before she moved to New York – and is still her favourite. “If you have seen a photo of me in a pool, I shot that here, before I went to New York. Until today, that is still one of my favourite images. “You don’t need to go all the way over there to be able to create images or to be inspired… be inspired by people around you, by music, by politics or everyday life,” she said with a smile.

Even though Nadirah has graduated after four years of study, she still would like to pursue her dream to become a professional photographer in the Big Apple. “Even since I was in university, I was still interning and working as a personal photographer. But now that I have graduated, I would have more time to do freelance work and I try to do a show at an art gallery in New York next month,” she said.

However, she did not rule out the possibility of moving back to Malaysia if there is a market for her artwork. “I haven’t really worked in Malaysia yet, but maybe if they are interested in my work, I wouldn’t want to say no to it. But now I am going to do as much as I can in New York while I am there and see where that leads,” said Nadirah.

She expresses hope she will come back to Malaysia on a longer trip in the near future. “I love it here. Let’s pray that I have enough money so I can come back more often,” said Nadirah.

Nadirah’s artwork can be seen a www.nadirah.net

This review was originally published for The Selangor Times.
Pictures by Nadirah Zakariya and Vignes Balasingam (The Republik).


Rahmah Ghazali was a journalist who was interested in writing about the current political landscape and success stories of undiscovered talents in Malaysia.

This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 28 February 2011.

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