By Zarina Holmes
This year, Rahman Roslan’s works appeared on The Guardian, Time Magazine, The New York Times and The South China Morning Post. The rising star of Malaysian photojournalism speaks to Sojournposse about his project on migrant, and on dealing with media censorship in Southeast Asia.
Q. The abuse of migrant workers from Indonesia in Malaysia has been going on for years and I know that it has been covered extensively in the country’s domestic media. So why is this still an ongoing issue? Is this a mentality problem amongst Malaysians? Why the prejudice towards Indonesian workers?
In my opinion, it is still an issue because it is still happening, and yes, it is a mentality problem amongst Malaysians. Those who abuse their maids normally have this ‘I am your master and you are my servant’ mentality.
The problem is that most of them don’t really see that it is wrong to abuse them. I don’t think the prejudice falls on Indonesian workers only. It happens to any immigrant workers, any given country. It’s just that when it happens to an Indonesian, the media will highlight it more, because of the close love-hate relationship between the two countries.
Q. You were commissioned by the Malaysian NGO, Tenaganita, in 2010 to cover the “Human Trafficking” story. Did your report helped raise awareness about the issue? What was the result?
After I finished photographing “Nur“, I personally tried to spread the work to reach every continent and the wider public the best that I could. It has reached a considerable good amount of people. Some people came up to me with very positive feedback; some are still very sceptical about the situation. There are some who even questioned: ‘Why would I make my country look bad with this story?’. For me, it is not about Malaysia, it’s about human rights. I believe all human craves for compassion, but not oppression. As long as these abuses happen, the problem has to be visible for it to change.
The story has been published in few different avenues, which I am grateful for. Tenaganita does have a plan to organise a photo exhibition to raise awareness among Malaysians of this issue, but it is still in discussion.
I hope I could do more in the future to help raise the awareness. Maybe by giving out talks and presentation in schools, universities, et cetera, to reach a younger audience, who will lead this country one day.
Q. Do you think female migrant workers are vulnerable in Southeast Asia and the Middle East? Some years ago, while in Saudi Arabia, I saw the bad treatments suffered by the Indonesian migrant workers from their employers in that country. Almost like modern day slavery. How can we get around this problem?
I do think the female workers are vulnerable. I am not sure about the Middle East, but in Southeast Asia, there is not much in the law that protects their rights. I think this problem also happens due to cultural differences. In Saudi Arabia, the men are always depicted as a superior being than the women, which a value also shared in some parts of Southeast Asian culture.
I do think continuous effort to raise awareness about this problem and early education about human rights could help address the problem.
Q. Nur’s story is pretty harrowing, but definitely not an isolated case. How long did you follow her movement? What happens to her now?
With Nur, I was introduced to her by Tenaganita, a week before her departure to Indonesia. I was not allowed to pay her a visit at the new shelter, due to security policy. In the past, trafficker came to harass the workers who are seeking refuge at the shelter.
When they told me that I would be the only one who will accompany her to Indonesia, I felt a bit nervous. I know I will be the connecting link between Nur and her family later, as I am the only one who can verify her stories to her family. I basically followed her for five days on that first trip. Then I visited her again in December 2010 to photograph her progress and also to hand in some donation made by Malaysians who sympathised to what had happened to her. They found out about Nur through my blog and Facebook posting.
She is now rebuilding her abandoned home. She got the funding through the money she earned while working for a program designed by Tenaganita when she was in the shelter. Her relationship with her husband is still at stalemate, as she has not decide whether to get a divorce or try to give it another try. After so many years in absence, and the fact that the husband re-married, she is still considering her options. But she never blames her husband of what has happened. She totally understands his situation too.
Her family are very supportive of her, although sometimes through phone calls. Sometimes she texted me, and I will call her back just to chat about her well-being. I could still sense through her tone that she is still struggling to rebuild her life. She also told me that she has this plan to open a small ‘waroeng kopi‘, or a small coffee stall beside her rebuilt house. I plan to pay her a visit during Ramadhan (the Muslim fasting month) later next month.
Q. You have covered quite a lot of high profile topics, and now have been featured quite regularly in international media. I find your global point-of-view fascinating, but at the same time you manage to retain a local eye while observing complicated issues at home. I think Western photojournalists, without sufficient local knowledge, would struggle to explain some of these situations. How do you adopt both global and local points-of-view as a storyteller?
I think besides doing your research well, the most important thing is to respect to the subject or the story, and give room or space for it to breathe at the same time. I try not to judge any situation, or try to be sceptical. I do put my own opinion on each story I work on, but I also try to be as sensitive and open as I can, so that the viewers could have their own opinions as well.
Being a local definitely helps a lot as it gives you a deeper understanding. But being a stranger would also gives interesting outtakes, as long as you give enough respect to the subject or the story. When you treat them with respect, you will be much more sensitive. And when you are more sensitive, you become a better photographer.
Q. Would you consider exploring multimedia to expand on your photo reports?
Absolutely. I am working on a project about refugees in Malaysia, and I am doing the video and sound recordings as well. Looking forward to produce my first multimedia piece soon.
Q. What about media censorship in Southeast Asia? Have you encountered any problems with regards to the topics you cover? Are there any countries that you find difficult to report on?
Media censorship exists here, of course. Maybe Indonesia has the least of it. Generally, it’s not just the censorship, but the biasness as well. For example, in Malaysia, everyone knows that the government controls the mainstream media. Having said so, there is a lot of issues that are difficult for me to cover here alone, mostly politically-related. Maybe we can learn something from Indonesia.
Q. What is your focus at present and in near future? What story fascinates you at the moment?
I am currently working on two projects. One is called “Halal”. It is an ongoing project about the Muslim demographic, their lifestyle and culture in Malaysia, in order for me to explore a deeper understanding on how Islam is being accepted and assimilated in Malaysia.
Another project is “PATI”, which is an abbreviation for “Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin“, meaning “illegal immigrant”. I am documenting the influx of illegal immigrants in Malaysia, which has hugely affected the demographics of this country, socially and economically.
Visit Rahman Roslan website. His work on “Nur” was shortlisted in Anthropographia Human Rights Award 2011.