Portrait of Wau Bulau maker, Kelantan, Malaysia

The Shoot:

We had to arrange a meeting place and McDonalds was so very very central, it would have been churlish to ignore it. That is definitely the only reason that I am sat in the Kota Bharu outlet of the golden arches at 6 am in the morning.  Malaysian McDonalds do have Ribena on tap but that certainly didn’t influence my decision in any way. It also had no bearing on repeated visits in Kuala Lumpur which were also very much through necessity and I definitely didn’t enjoy.

As the beautiful blackcurrant elixir reaches my lips my phone rattles across the table interrupting the sacred moment. Fathi is going to be slightly late. I met Fathi yesterday whilst taking a portrait of an old man outside a mosque.  As the profusely sweaty, long-haired foreign photographer was starting to scare the gentle old man by waving a paper in the air and repeating the words ‘model release’ at varying volumes, Fathi had appeared. Saint-like, he had taken the situation in hand. He followed up his initial good deed with an excellent line in earnest inquiry during which I confessed many exasperations, most of which revolved around the mysterious Wau Bulan makers that so far I had wholeheartedly failed to locate. A short period of silence, re-positioning of glasses and hair adjustment followed during which Fathi seemed to reach the decision that he could help me in two ways:

1: He knew where a Wau Bulan maker lived

2: He had a car and would be happy to drive me there

Sitting outside McDonalds in Fathi’s black Proton the promise I made to myself to be more careful, when my camera equipment was stolen, starts to feature in my thoughts. Fathi looks over at me, ‘ Hope you don’t mind, but I am going to pick up a couple of friends on the way’. Now I am fairly sure that driving into the Malaysian wilderness with £12’000 pounds worth of camera equipment and 3 men I don’t know to find a man who lives in a hut and makes ornamental kites isn’t what my insurance company would refer to as due care and attention. We journey through the ramshackle outskirts of Kota Bharu until Fathi pulls up outside a house situated in the Malaysian version of a Cul De Sac. Jihan takes some time to appear at the door when he eventually does he is sporting a small camera bag and looking a little tired. I say ‘small camera bag’ it may well be normal size as it is immediately obvious who would be victorious in any form of conflict between Jihan and I. Jihan squeezes into the back seat of the car and we set off, waving to his wife who has appeared at the door. 15 minutes later Fathi pulls the car to a halt beside some large black electric gates that guard the entrance to an opulent looking house. Fathi exits the car and taps on the electric keypad. After several minutes of waiting and many more attempts on the keypad Fathi returns to the car. He holds a conversation with Jihan in Malay, which is incomprehensible to me. However I note one word ‘Lipak’ is repeated many times and is obviously the crux of the conversation. ‘LAZY…sleeping, late’ Fathi responds to my inquiry regarding ‘Lipak’. The gates suddenly jerk into action and retreat toward the house. A smaller Malaysian man with neat hair and a white t-shirt exits from what I now suspect to be his parents’ house.  He happily swings open the car door and takes a seat. Fathi introduces Muein to me and then there is silence. Fathi and Jihan are both looking at Muein. Muein dons a slightly sheepish smile. After a couple of seconds I break the uncomfortable silence….. ‘Lipak?’ I say.

Our journey takes us beyond the outskirts of the town through a sparse jungle terrain. Men stand on piles of coconut husks at the roadside, sweating as they wield dirty looking machetes and add to the piles. We pass back onto a main road. Now Fathi is leaning over the steering wheel and studying the roadside huts intently. He performs a sudden impromptu U turn and we head back the way we came eventually pulling over in front of a rickety looking wooden construction that is deemed to be the workshop of the mysterious Wau Bulan maker.

The padlock on the door is not the most auspicious sign. Unless the Wau Bulan maker has been locked in by a particularly irate customer, it seems very unlikely that our knocking will elicit a reply. It does not. Now follows a comedic set of events in which we discover the Wau Bulan maker’s home address, drive there only to be told he left for his studio at approximately the time we departed it. Half an hour later we arrive back at exactly the same spot having achieved nothing other than extra space in the fuel tank. This time the door is open. The inside of the hut is unlit and gloomy, it takes a while for our eyes to adjust but as they do the vivid colours and shiny foils of a myriad Wau Bulan’s glint at us. Their brightly finished surfaces are a stark contrast to the wooden grey slats of the hut. The kitemaker is a small, thin, kindly-looking old man. I walk the few metres to the inner depths of the hut and shake his hand. Taking a step backwards I survey the hut. As I do so I note the floor feels distinctly soft, I don’t remember seeing a carpet or rug. An appraisal of my foot locations reveals my right foot to be positioned on a deceased lizard. It also reveals a cluster of ants who are looking up at me, they seem unhappy that I am standing on their dinner.

The Shot: The most important lesson I learnt from this shoot was one I thought I had already learnt many years ago. Attention to detail and don’t be afraid to ask.  Initially the kite maker was wearing a t-shirt baring the motif ‘Tourism Malaysia’ which I did not like. I felt so relieved to have found the kite maker and finally be shooting that I didn’t feel inclined to push my luck further. However my mutterings obviously weren’t that subtle because Fathi suddenly said ‘he will take that off if you want’!

I used my new Canon 5D III for this shoot, I knew I could push the ISO further and I didn’t want to use flash.

Technical: Canon 5DIII, Canon 70-200mm, ISO 800, f5.6, 160th, Lowepro CompuTrekker