Seeing Silence Speaking


Adam Tan, award-winning photographer, grasps moments otherwise unheard.

Twenty-five photographs, some in colour but most in breathtaking black and white, adorned the walls of the Camera Museum earlier this year. This is part of the “Here in this Silence” exhibition by award-winning photographer Adam Tan. His work is a dreamy encounter between the horizon and the sea through soothing, slow shutter speed capture; the landscapes become dreamscapes, and familiar places transform into the beginning of inner journeys. 

Karen Lai

Adam Tan

With long hair and a calm and deeply intelligent face, Tan gives me a tour of his exhibition. “I believe that silence speaks its own language,” he says. “Like that Simon and Garfunkel song, silence has the power to talk Adam Tan, award-winning photographer, grasps moments otherwise unheard. By Marco Ferrarese • Photography by Adam Tan to us. When I take shots like these, there’s something peaceful I try to capture, and that’s an expression of nature – an unspoken language it uses to interact with us.”

I ask Tan the reason behind the exhibition’s preoccupation with quiet landscapes, when he’s better known as a powerful street photographer. “I love many different styles, and in fact, the shot selected by National Geographic can be considered as journalistic street photography,” he says. “I chose landscapes because I love the beauty of our planet. But I also don’t want to do what everyone else does, using the standard rules of morning light, golden hour – everything done this way makes for very ordinary shots that tend to be too similar.

Long Road to Daybreak. Place Winner, National Geographic Photography Contest 2013.

Finalist, NTDTV Chinese International Photo Competition, the US, 2012.


I was inspired by Michael Kendall, a British photographer who produced strong black and white images, something otherworldly and abstract, almost Zen-like. I wanted to go in that direction and I studied his minimalist technique. I love it because it reflects the artist’s mind, and now I try to slow down and practise that same Zen approach wherever I go. To me, photography should be like pottery: you must present it in a way that is uniquely expressive of your inner feelings, your heart. It has to be personal work crafted by your own hands.

Tan was brought up the typical Malaysian- Chinese way: schooled to work hard and live a conventional life. “I was not great in school and I worked a regular job until I was 37,” he says. “The spark came when I saw the work of a Japanese photographer, and I immediately decided to go and study with him. I thought that if there’s a God, he gives everyone a gift, and photography is what he decided for me – even if I discovered it quite late in life. On top of that, like most Malaysians, I was shy and an introvert; I didn’t start taking part in competitions until I became a photography teacher about 10 years ago. The contests taught me how to take pictures better, how to have main and secondary subjects in every shot, frame my composition, etc. But I also think that the perfect shot is a moment – something casual and given from above. It’s not easy. When I took my National Geographic contest-winning shot in Yuanyang, China, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time,” he says.

At this point, it is natural to ask Tan whether he prefers to shoot after careful planning, or in the spur of the moment. “It depends,” he answers. “Great minimalist expression requires something abstract like water. In this exhibition’s case, I went to the sea, waiting for something to happen. I didn’t really look for anything in particular, but I tried to find some details, like a jetty, rocks or a boat to help work the shot’s magic. Then I simply came back at the right time and let nature surprise me.”

On the subject of nature and authenticity, I feel compelled to ask him about Sebastião Salgado, the master Brazilian photographer who, as I’ve been told by another photographer who visited the same locations in Papua New Guinea, used to stage his shots by paying off his subjects. I ask Tan, who’s obviously a Salgado fan like many, if he thinks “cheating” is allowed to construct a sense of authenticity. “When it comes to journalism photography, I want surprise, natural life,” says Tan. “When I go for street photography, I look for things that are already happening. Salgado is one of my heroes and I can condone him if the pictures he wanted to take required something so specific to his inner vision that he needed actors, but as far as I’m concerned, I let things happen by themselves.”

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

From a Distance... Penang, 2015. 

Chan's Clan Jetty at Daybreak, Penang 2015.

 Tan’s shots, and particularly those that have won prizes – such as the Spotlight Award of the Black & White magazine and the North Valley Art League International Juried Photography Show in the US, both in 2015 – were not taken only in Malaysia, but also in China and India.

“I don’t want to restrict myself to one place,” says Tan. “I love the peoples of India, China and Italy because they have a specific history and background that resonates in their features and movements. The weight of those cultures shapes their people, and that’s what I prefer to capture in my street photography.”

Beauty lies anywhere, from fishing villages to unknown beaches. I try to use the shape of things to convey a feeling, hoping Malaysians will understand what photography as an art is all about.

Tan’s opinion prompts me to ask more about Malaysian photography, and the art world at large. “I think the general Malaysian attitude towards the arts is not very strong,” comments Tan. “Malaysians don’t appreciate it because they are not properly educated. We of course also have very good, clever and kind people, but appreciation towards all forms of art is slow. I notice it very much in KL where I live.” Tan says that even this exhibition happened by chance when he was contacted by Bryan Lewis from the Camera Museum, a place that, in Tan’s opinion, seems more attuned to arts. “In KL, there are galleries, but they are all very formal, they don’t make me feel at ease. In contrast, life in Penang feels more casual and relaxed, and I prefer that vibe to frame my exhibition,” he says.

“Beauty lies anywhere, from fishing villages to unknown beaches. I try to use the shape of things to convey a feeling, hoping Malaysians will understand what photography as an art is all about. There is more to it than sunsets, sunrises and model photography . Many Malaysian photographers lack uniqueness; they buy expensive cameras and shoot pretty models, but they don’t understand they need something much more in-depth – more characteristic – to succeed.”

Karen Lai

Spotlight Award, Black and White Single Photo Contest, 2014, the US.

Which brings me to ask if Tan manages to do photography full-time. “Yes, I do this for a living now, but it was a hard decision to make. In Malaysia, to live as a photographer is very hard. I teach photography and Photoshop-editing techniques, and take people out for field trips. Very few dare to do this in Malaysia, especially those in their early 40s as I was when I started 10 years ago. The Chinese, especially, are a very conservative bunch, but I wanted to do something I love. Most of my students are ordinary people – I have students from 15 to 60 years old – anybody is welcome.”

For more information about Adam Tan, visit www.adamtanphotography. com or adamtanphotographyacademy.

Related Articles

Mar 2016

The Evolving Life of a Librarian

Libraries have changed, and so have the duties of a librarian.

Mar 2010

Polar bears don’t lie

Cecil Rajendra shares a poem he wrote at the recent climate change summit in Copenhagen.

Jan 2012

Need Think Tanks For New Times

Outgoing Penang Institute executive director Liew Chin Tong looks back at his two-year tenure with the think tank.

Jun 2014

From cancer survivors to social champions: A relay for hope

Two cancer survivors turned their lifechanging ordeal into a beacon of hope for others.