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Blog // Images
February 14, 2012

Telling A Story – Choosing A Story

Last week I was in Penang, photographing the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. I was also joining a workshop run by Matt Brandon and Gavin Gough. One of my goals in attending the workshop was to become better at telling visual stories, or to put it another way, creating visual essays. The Assignment We were given […]

Thaipusam As Carnival

Last week I was in Penang, photographing the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. I was also joining a workshop run by Matt Brandon and Gavin Gough. One of my goals in attending the workshop was to become better at telling visual stories, or to put it another way, creating visual essays.

The Assignment

We were given the opportunity to join devotees (and their friends and family) as they prepared for and underwent the rituals associated with Thaipusam. This festival is perhaps best known for the dramatic piercings (spears, hooks & pins) that many (but not all) devotees undergo.

But, of course, there’s a lot more to Thaipusam than that. I researched and photographed two stories that you’ll get to see on this blog next week, along with creating a slideshow documenting the final night of the festival. Hopefully they will give you some sense of the roles that faith, friendship, family and community play in this celebration.

While I was immersed in photographing those stories, a lot of tough questions came up about how we tell visual stories. I’ve never photographed an event that could be described in such radically different ways, simply by the kind of images we choose to create and share.

The Carnival

For example, the image at the top of this post was taken in one of the most crowded parts of the procession near the Waterfall temple. The scene, with pierced and colourfully decorated devotees weaving and dancing through the crowds, flanked by loudspeakers blasting out driving rhythms and marquees offering food & drink all reminded me of Latin American spirit of Carnival.

In fact, it was the uncle of one of the devotees I was photographing, who made me think about that connection. He was already curious about the possible similarities between the Kevadi (burden) of Thaipusam and the self-sactrifice of Lent.

But, of course, religious festivals might have some similarities, but they also have distinctive differences as well. Posing the devotees as carnival performers might make for fascinating images on an aesthetic level, but that approach will fail to shed light on important facts.

The Spectacle

For some, the sheer physical spectacle (and horror) of the body piercings capture all the attention. In fact, I saw several photographers who seemed to be totally focused on shooting this aspect alone, sometimes being invasive and, well, rude in the placement of themselves and their cameras.

Thaipusam As Spectacle

While this dramatic and eye-catching image works on some levels, I believe it would be misleading to use this as a stand-alone photo to describe Thaipusam. The photo, in many ways, exaggerates the piercings. Or, to put it another way, the scene when you were there, didn’t look as horrific as it does in the photo.

The Story

Partly, that’s because the atmosphere of Thaipusam is not a circus or a freak-show. As I moved around the people preparing to be pierced (or “poked” as most referred to it), the feeling was, quite simply, one of love. Friends and family, parents and children and, of course, devotees and their Gods.

Thaipusam As Story

For me, there is a lot more value in using my camera to try and understand people, their beliefs and how they live within their community. After all I’m on their turf, taking up space in their lives.

None of the photos I took during Thaipusam would have been possible if I had just stood on a street corner with a long lens and shot “sniper-style.” I’m not that great a photographer, but I was able to go close to the best I can do by being in amongst the people, talking to them and building some sort of rapport and relationship with them over a number of days.

And, ultimately, that’s the big lesson I’ve learnt about photographing people. Cameras, lenses and post-processing do matter. But, the thing about photographing people is that, well, you are photographing people. The images you create will depend on the relationship you have with them. And, the stories you tell will depend on the way you approach that relationship and choose to document it.

Matthew Brandon 12 years ago


Nice read. As you stated the story isn’t the poke, it’s about the folk… so to speak. As you wrote above, even your photo of the guy being pierced can be taken out of contexts. My guess is that was not blood, but vermillion powder. In fact there was very little blood through out the whole event. We story tellers can make any story from an event like this. Some of this comes from deciding what is our Point-of-View. But, beyond POV we have a responsibility to truth, what actually happened. This is were ethics come into play. The problem is with the democratization of photography is we have not developed a set ethical parameters and we risk a ethical free for all, where anything goes. Just some random thoughts.

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Matt – thanks for the comment. I can attest that although the photo suggests there is blood, it is powder and sweat. You can see it better in the image I posted here – http:/2012/02/observing-thaipusam/ – which I am far more comfortable with, since it has a sense of dignity and strength to it.

In fact the only person that was really bleeding on that day was me. I have a stain where the bag was rubbing on my back during the day!

I don’t bemoan the “democratization of photography” because I’m a beneficiary of it. Digital allowed me to explore photography for myself, break free from narrow ideas I inherited and find kindred spirits. Moreover, it’s part of a bigger “self-publishing” trend that is also dear to me.

But, there are plenty of issues and I agree we need an ethical conversation. For beginners like me, I certainly look to more experienced photographers like yourself to raise the questions and get us all acting more respectfully.

Matt Brandon 12 years ago

If you permit me, I expounded on this on my blog today. You got my thoughts churning. https://www.thedigitaltrekker.com/2012/02/are-your-photographs-telling-the-truth/

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