Interview #5 - Mujahid Johar


I admire how Mujahid (or Jay, as I usually call him) gives meticulous explanations to his images. Personally, I can't explain some of the images I took - as long as they look great to me then I'm content. Mujahid has recently ventured into doing portraits. Some might think, he's quite raw into the photography scene in Brunei. I feel he puts a melancholic touch to his work, which I find is quite unique. 

You can find his work on Instagram and his blog - It's Raining Planes & Helicopters!

 Photo credit - Leong Choy Kwan

Photo credit - Leong Choy Kwan

Just tell us briefly about yourself? What do you do?

 I'm actually really quite new to serious photography. I got into it after I brought my first DSLR to France and Switzerland. It was a Christmas gift from a few years ago, but I never pursued it as an art form until last year.

To pay the bills, I teach English and Drama. I also write and illustrate now for various publications.

Talking about writing, I notice you run several blogs?

 Yes I do. Or mostly did. It's Raining Planes & Helicopters is my main blog. It started out as a personal blog. When I went to the UK to study, it became a music blog, which got me a gig writing for this UK zine called Musical Mathematics. Now, It's Raining Planes & Helicopters is my photography site.

I help run The Social, which is an online magazine by The Collective. I used to also run Muzikaliti, a Brunei-centric music site. There are plans to revive it in one form or another, really soon.

Maybe I could ask why writing is important for you?

It's important because it's the best way I feel I can express myself. It's the best way I can capture myself the same way a photograph captures a moment. In a way, writing is my own kind of self-portrait.

So you recently ventured into photography? What made you do it? 

It was when I realized that I could have as much control over photographs as I could with writing over stories, or with a pencil over drawings. A different kind of control, yes, but control nonetheless. It was and still is liberating.

Control in what area?

Control over the end product. It is stupid to think of it now, but I never even considered that I could have so much artistic freedom over something that's already there. Before, I felt restricted by the fact that you seemingly can't change what's in front of you.

But when I realized I was wrong -  that things like composition, lighting, angles, etc. can be played with - I knew that I can use photography to express myself by using existing things. I was used to expressing myself by creating things from thin air, either with words or with drawings.

I guess that applies when you shoot portraits?

Yes, definitely. To express myself using other people and their surroundings is an exhilarating experience. It's something completely new to me, and I'm still having fun exploring what that means.

I have my opinion, portraiture-wise, about the scene here in Brunei. I want to know what’s your take on the photography scene (or industry) here?

It's mostly dominated by wedding photography here, which is itself a fine category. But I can't really name you many Bruneian photographers, portraiture or otherwise, who pursue a more artistic side of photography. The rise of Instagram has definitely contributed more to photography's popularity, but it hasn't translated quite yet to a significant increase in quality, only in quantity.

Does it frustrate you?

It does frustrate me to a degree. I still get lots of questions over what lens or camera I use, yet I am almost never asked about my technique or post-processing. Being someone who also does writing and illustration, I can directly compare these things. Nobody ever asks what pen or laptop I use to write. Nobody ever doubts the talent it takes to draw something. But for some reason, portrait photography is sometimes still seen as basically pointing an expensive camera set on Auto to a pretty face.

Alright, going down to a lighter subject. How do you prepare for a shoot?

I usually meet the model somewhere first over coffee. If it's someone who's not a friend, I'll get to know them better, see what they're comfortable with. We'll discuss the concept and what we both want out of the shoot. We also discuss locations. I usually would've already scouted a few locations by then. Over the next few days, we'll discuss clothes, makeup, hair, etc. all through Whatsapp. On the day itself is when everything should already be sorted and there is nothing left to do but shoot.

Do you have preferences over models/subjects?

I prefer working with female friends. That camaraderie is important to me in shoots where the models themselves will probably be doing something out of their comfort zone. I also really love the aesthetics that can be played with when it comes to female fashion and hair. I also find women seem to embody my melancholic aesthetic a lot more naturally.

Nice! I also notice you do those “fragment” photos on Instagram? Is that one of your creative outlets?

Yes, definitely. I love playing with photography apps. It's something I want to do more of. Again, it's that control of the visual I want so much. Unfortunately, my iPad is dying at the moment, so I haven't been able to experiment as much as I would like to.

Let’s talk about your Favorite 5. I’m aware that you just started doing portraits. I just wonder why you made the choice to pick those 5?

I really like the first one because the concrete gives it a very paint-like quality. I am in love with concrete. I love how it contrasts with Victoria's (the model) bright pink look. And to find these parallel blocks of concrete seemingly there for no discernible reason just baffled me.

I chose the second one because of mostly the location. It is quite near to where my grandparents used to live in Kampung Ayer, before the fire destroyed pretty much their whole village. That place is an abandoned primary school. And I found the 'Smoking Free Zone' to be both so gorgeous and out of place. Much like Liz (the model) in Kampung Ayer.

The third one is the only 'accidental' shot out of the five. That was not a planned shoot. It was just a day out at the beach and I met these foreign students who were about to swim. I asked them if I could take pictures while they swim and they said yes. The sunset at the back is incredible. I swear Brunei has some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world.

The fourth one represents a recurring fantasy of mine of walking towards the sea and just disappearing away. It's an encapsulation of how I feel on so many days.

I love how the leaves turned out in the fifth one. Eleena just nailed this one despite that being her first shoot.

How much you think that people will appreciate your work?

I'm not sure. Sometimes I feel I'm lucky enough that people actually like my work, because I'm so relatively new. On other days, I feel like I'm way out of my depth because of all the great work other people are putting, especially the other photographers being featured here.

Anything that excites you in the future?

Working with more models. The more shoots I do, the more open people are when I ask them.

So after all of this, what do you want to achieve from doing photography?

I would love to have my own exhibition. A gallery full of work I can be proud of.

Do you feel a sense of competition against others or yourself?

Mostly against myself. I am too in awe of other photographers to even consider myself as competition. I like the feeling when I look at my old work and feel like they're rubbish. It can be a mortifying experience, but it's also how I know I've improved.

What motivates you to shoot?

I want to have a piece of myself out there for other people to see. To achieve an expressive piece of work that communicates a permeating everyday sadness. This desire to express myself is a powerful motivator.

Last question, I know you're a huge fan of music. Any good albums that you listen to?

I am just floored by how good Jamie xx's "In Colour" is. Alabama Shakes' "Sound & Color" is one of my top albums of 2015. Other stuff from this year: Kamasi Washington, Kendrick Lamar and Sleater Kinney. I've also just been listening back to Funeral For A Friend's "Hours" because it's the 10-year anniversary.

And do you feel there’s a parallel connection between music and photography?

I don't tend to mix the two, but the parallel's there. You're always trying to capture moments and emotion in these two art forms. You're always looking for that human connection in both.

P.S. I would love to shoot for an album cover.