The source of this research was derived from an old photo-documentation project of a defunkt prison which was situated in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which I had done during a six month period from August 2002 to March 2003. These images were made from my own first-hand experience while navigating through the prison. The project was done completely instinctively and was put together with reference to the significant shapes and types of graffiti found within the prison’s cells.
The images that appeared in this portfolio carried many kinds of writing. Most of the anecdotes, quotes, and poetry came with very little in the way of bibliography. These graffiti were already anonymous despite the reclusive nature of the inmates who produced them. I began to realise that there was actually no need to find the authors of the graffiti (futile perhaps), if the intended research was to have a historical approach. I knew that proceeding with this research would reveal very little about the origin of the graffiti’s authors. As I knew nothing about the writers and had no specific details of the past inmates, it would not be possible to fully explain the drawings’ rationale. However, I do believe that this gave me the inquisitive nature in looking for a common ground in how this type of graffiti links the inmates to the devotional objects and subjects of their lives, while ignoring their crimes or confessions.
I avoided thinking of these images as a kind of ‘depictive misery’ of incarceration. On several occasions, there were accounts of many horrifying stories of the suffering of the inmates that evoked sympathy about the injustices that happened in the prison. Most of the local people think the graffiti might demonstrate a world of ghosts and paranormal, which I found quite interesting as it was common for the local people to practise black magic. It is a subject which I do suggest in certain parts of this research is one of the reasons behind the rationale of the graffiti, though it would not be the main focal point. The drawings of the graffiti within this portfolio go beyond being about prison reform and social justice. The works may contain some of that, but I know not to get involved in something that needs a much more in-depth examination of the penal system.
I have presented papers of this subject on many occasions, locally in Malaysia and to international audiences. Many questions were raised by it and I had welcomed the supportive responses. But there was one occasion, when I was discussing why it should be shared with the world, I was silenced by the question: “What do you mean by understanding?”, which had came about my intention of sharing this work as a mean to open the dialogue of how these graffiti needs or ought to be looked at.
That question, grew and I was obsessed with finding the answer for such a fundamental response. I had assumed that this concept of ‘understanding’ was not important, despite hundreds, if not thousands of hours spent looking at these images. I began to realise that there was no need to begin to explain what these graffiti meant, as the audience had their own capacity to read and experience these images as they wanted without needing my instructions as to how they should be looked at.
The drawings I found were simple and used techniques which did not follow the usual rules as expected in art drawings. Yet those hard lines on the walls defined the spirit of their makers’ will and certainly carried a different weight compared to drawings done on paper. Over the intervening years, these drawings have remained silently on the dark walls of the prison, and now, these marks will disappear from the world as the wrecking ball plummets into the bowels of the prison.
The graffiti within Pudu Jail would disappear without any move by the respective authorities to keep them intact. However, this portfolio would save the last few remnants as a way of acknowledging them.
Experiencing the Prison
To be alone in Pudu Jail for the entire six months was an unusually rewarding experience. Having been given permission by the UDA Holdings, the gatekeeper for the prison at the time, I was given access to the prison with the initial intention of documenting the facility soon after they had initially made plans for it to be demolished and turned into a commercial zone. For six months between September 2002 and March 2003, I had regularly been in and out of Pudu Jail carrying out the documentation.
Almost on a daily basis, I would wait by the Main Gate for the gatekeeper, ‘Abang Bob’. He was more of a gatekeeper than a guard, as he would just sit on a chair all day long rather than doing his rounds. This made me question my own safety if anything were to go wrong during my documentation of the prison. We did joke together every now and then, but light was too limited to waste time on idle chat, as I had judged it better to shoot within the prison blocks in the early morning and late afternoon as the sunlight slanted perfectly through the prison cells at those times.
I wandered across the prison compound, a large area with several blocks of buildings. Although it was barely seven years since it had been vacated, there were significant signs of dilapidation and vandalism of the prison’s structures due to the constant cases of vagrants sneaking in to steal iron and steel as they are considered valuable materials. Many doors, and locks, to the cells were missing. Stories from the locals described a time when trucks were driving in and out, illegally, a few weeks after the prison closed down. The prison was ransacked for its valuable materials such as cast iron, teak wood, electric cables, steel pipes and various other materials, which would be expected in any old buildings. Most parts of the prison were badly dilapidated and certainly some were too dangerous to go through. On my very first day, as I recall, during my initial assessment, I almost got buried underneath one of the wood shops as it suddenly fell apart. However, the main prison building block still remained strong, with most parts of it still accessible.
The prison consisted of: a three part administration building, visiting block, the armoury, a large kitchen and mess hall which also functioned as a cinema, a block of barber’s shops, several workshops which were usually used for woodworking, book binding, shoe repairs and metal work, and a clinic which sat next to a courthouse. The main prison block consisted of six sections of three-storey-high blocks; there was also the isolation block, a separate building for the women, a pre-release block, two large fountains which functioned as open air bathing for the inmates, two large open courtyards with poles to hold nets for games (badminton or takraw games were common), wardens’ quarters, a small mosque, and the gallows.
The inmates were predominantly placed within the main prison block, with a few blocks for the women and the pre-release block, which was separate. The main prison was three storeys high and contained an estimated 900 cells; separated into six sections alphabetically, with the inmates being placed according to groups which were usually as follows: the locals, the foreigners, short-term convicts, juvenile, the mentally sick, the isolated block and death row.
With such a large expanse to cover, I decided it would be best to document the area sequentially, starting with the administration blocks, the workshops and finally the main prison block. The penetrating lights within the buildings were exceptionally harsh, filling the rooms with a range of high contrasts, which meant that I had to approach it as a challenge by applying various methods with black and white film. To try to document it with film was a difficult task as it introduced a very large margin of error, which could be avoided only with patience and knowledge. It was the instinctive approach to the available lights and calculated measurements to the time of the day were essential to rectify these problems.
Unfortunately such a large-scale area required various factors, which I could not fulfil with simple flash strobes and, without any electrical connections, artificial lights were impossible to manage, as most of the cables were ripped apart by looters. I decided to approach the documentation using available sunlight, which worked well for me as it projected the dramatic and powerful effect of the prison itself. With almost all electrical lights missing due to them being taken away by thieves, the passages were dark for most of the day and the place went absolutely dark when it reached dusk. At night, the prison’s exterior was only illuminated by the city, so any possibility of documenting the area at night would prove to be impossible.
Darkness seemed to embrace this prison well. The conditions required me to set up a tripod and sit still for quite some time to achieve each image. Some took minutes; some took hours for an image to be exposed. With luck and suitable lighting, I could manage as much as three rolls of film a day at most.
The first month went past with ease. I had stopped in every building and section within the prison documenting its architecture. On several occasions I encountered a few drug addicts snooping about the prison in order to get their fix or to steal iron from the prison compound. I had to avoid them and keep my guard up, as they were extremely dangerous when in need of a fix; I feared them much more than any paranormal activities within the prison itself.
Matters were made worse as thick bushes had grown tall and occupied most of the land of the prison. The darkness welcomed nests of rodents and crawling insects, with hundreds of mosquitoes constantly swarming around the prison area after rain, which at times made it a real challenge to document the cell spaces in peace. The climate in Malaysia is tropical. With its harsh, hot sunlight and humidity because of the constant traffic in the city centre, this prison quickly became an oven. When it rained, the building’s treacly surfaces and fungus trapped within the skin of the walls quickly made magnificent dark patterns. The prison lacked any form of colour and was suffused with the musk of rotten wood, the stale thick air of cement dust and the acrid smell of old urine from the corners of corridors; the peeling walls were covered with a thousand shades of shadow from such decay and abandonment.
As the documentation continued, I noted a significant number of graffiti, which had caught my attention while navigating around the prison blocks. Initially I began noting various wall writings, which ran into thousands in number, and I began turning my lens towards the walls, capturing those images instead as far as I could. It was fascinating at first, and then it turned into an obsession. Cell by cell, I managed to sit quietly and began to stare deep into each of the images I had documented. From gods to calendars, portraits to landscapes, maps, animals to trees and buildings, from familiar words to languages unknown; these forms of drawings and writings began to take shape on how each room ‘felt’ upon entering.
The graffiti within the cell spaces were predominantly done with carbon pencils, some with ink, and even markings which may suggest it was done with body fluids such as blood and feces based on observation and tactile nature of the graffiti (though this could not be proven at this point other than assumptions based observation on the latter). The walls were predominantly soft; as I recall there were a few of the cells’ walls where it took only a very little pressure to leave one’s mark.
Almost all the cells’ windows in the first two storeys were boarded up, leaving very little light to work with which had caused me to adjust the hours I would need to capture the right amount of light. Most of my shots were done following the morning sun and in the late afternoon. Most of the time during the hot midday, I explored the cells, sometime stumbling across shredded documents such as work orders, scheduling and release forms.
Sitting within the dark cell, my eyes would adjust themselves to see in the dark. It was never immediate, but almost gradual and gave me a disoriented feeling of floating images or texts, which I began to see out of the corner of my eyes. There were times when I would find myself reciting the words on the walls, or staring blankly into the eyes of a portrait as I waited for the camera to fully expose, yet didn’t realise its presence until later. This experience was oddly fascinating, yet I believe, gave me a platonic relationship with the graffiti.
For more info and images of this project, please do get in touch with the author.
Other references to this project: