#699. Travel and Street Photography in Kuala Lumpur: be polite

By Adrian | How-To

Feb 22

Regular readers of Dear Susan may have seen previous articles I’ve written about Singapore and Penang, and finding inspiration in some of Singapore’s modern architecture. I’ve travelled in South East Asia for over a decade, and particularly enjoy visiting Asian cities for their culture clash of western modernity, Asian street culture, and alien familiarity. The population density of Asian cities can create “high density living” rarely seen in Europe, and when combined with busy lives and the relative anonymity of the city, it becomes a fertile environment for urban photography in all its forms – sightseeing, “travel”, architecture, and street photography.


This article is the first of a short series looking at different issues about street photography and giving some advice based on my own experiences. This time I talk about visiting Kuala Lumpur (“KL”), Malaysia’s capital city and conduct on the streets and the importance of being polite when photographing people.


Kuala Lumpur could probably never be recommended as a “must see” tourist destination. The city grew from a tin mining town and became the capital during British colonial rule, but since independence in 1963 it feels as if it has failed to flourish compared to its neighbours. Although the Petronas Towers made a statement of intent when it opened in 1996, the city’s ambition always seems to outstretch it’s reach. Around the towers at KL City Centre (KLCC) are a modest clutch of skyscrapers that form a business and hotel district, but the view from the top reveals a small low rise city with a population of around 1.8 million – a tiny capital by world standards.


Petronas Towers (in the rain): The cross section of the towers mirrors elements of Islamic design


I first travelled to KL almost a decade ago and found that all the places in my guidebook could be visited in only a few days, and the city seems to have changed little since then. A two-day stay is probably enough to see the main attractions. The most interesting sights include the Petronas Tower for its spectacular views across the city, the Menara Tower situated on Bukit Nanas hill, a small China Town often recommended for its few small temples, and the Batu Caves which contain one of most sacred Hindu temples in Malaysia.


View from Petronas Tower: Unfortunately the weather didn’t comply with my pre-booked ticket, so black and white suited the grey view.


Of all the south-east Asian cities I know, Kuala Lumpur was the one that at first felt the most foreign. The city’s culture is a strange mixture of British colonial heritage, local Malay culture, and the influence of middle eastern visitors who come for Malaysia’s relatively relaxed form of Islam. The result is a confusing mix of old times colonialism, shisha pipes, westernised shopping malls, and an occasionally diffident local culture. On my first visit, I found the humidity and strange cultural mixture made it feel exotic but slightly threatening, taxi drivers pulling at my arm as I came from stations, and locals asking the price of my camera. Since then I have returned several times to see friends in physique sports, and I have come to my own understanding of the place, although sometimes it still confuses and confounds me.


Paper Kimono: One of the few temples in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown


Hindu Temple: a vibrant temple in china town


With so few sight-seeing opportunities in the city, on return visits it can be difficult to find photographic subjects, but architecture can be an interesting subject as some buildings offer modern Islamic influenced styles. There are also an increasing number of office developments and condominiums being built around the suburbs of the city that are starting to show more adventurous modern architectural styles.



Kompleks Dayabumi Windows: showing influence from Islamic arches


Ilham Tower: The new Ilham Tower office building, currently third tallest in the city. Not open at the time of photographing, it will feature a public sky terrace.


Tabung Haji Tower: The cylindrical building, built in 1984, is home to the Malaysian Haji pilgrims fund.


Kompleks Dayabumi: The rather blocky shape of this 1984 building is softened by Islamic eight pointed star detail in its concrete surface


The population of Malaysia is a mixture of native Malay, Chinese and Indian. The majority Malay population are Muslim, so without a culture of alcohol the local socialising often takes place over food or at local coffee shops. Kuala Lumpur has a small number of night life areas that offer “international” entertainment for visitors, often with a culturally confusing mix of Chinese Malaysian food, shisha pipes, alcohol, and Arabic disco music. The Bukit Bintang district is well known for its shopping malls, and nearby is Jalan Alor, a locally famous street lined with restaurants on the pavement. The area was once a red-light district, and the remains of the trade still exist in nearby street lined with bars. It’s a popular area for visitors to eat and drink, but somewhat at odds with the mostly conservative culture in mainland Malaysia.


Bukit Bintang: The area is undergoing development as part of an extension to the subway system, not complete at the time of writing.


Busy nightlife areas such as Bukit Bintang are good places for street photography, as in Asia the streets are always busy with vibrant street culture, and the people are often used to welcoming visitors, which makes it easier to interact with people.


Child star: The young boy’s guardian told me that he was a Malaysian child movie star


Sitting on the steps: An impeccably dressed visitor from Pakistan


When you travel enough you start to notice patterns of population migration, as the varying visa requirements of different countries make it easy or difficult for the people from other countries to visit or work. As a solo traveler, I often strike up conversation with people I meet along the way and it’s not unusual to find that workers in hotels, restaurants and bars have come from another country to work because it offers financial advantages. People migrate up the economic scale for the better opportunities and wages it can offer them, even in low skilled jobs.


In many of the bars, cafes and restaurants of Kuala Lumpur the waiting staff are from Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar or Bangladesh. In Bukit Bintang I became intrigued because it felt as if everyone I met was from another country – many waiters in the restaurants of Jalan Alor were Burmese, whilst the staff in bars were often Bangladeshi, and I was told the area was home to a large Bangladeshi community in Kuala Lumpur. I spent some evenings exploring the small streets around the area, past the local cafes, barber shops, and down the alleys behind the apartment blocks just a few minutes from the tourist bars.


Break time: Taking a break in the backstreets behind the kitchen


Strength thru Oi!: In the grubby backstreets behind the restaurants.


When taking street photographs, my interest is to take a portrait of the everyday that is also a record of a “stolen moment” with the sitter. As a photographer, this should never be taken for granted, as when a subject allows the capture of their private moment with a stranger, it is a vicarious intrusion into their life for all to see for eternity. I dislike the contemporary style of “drive by shooting”, where secretive random snapping can create rather “random” compositions. I believe that this approach can also create an air of suspicion about the photographer’s motives, and make potential subjects feel that they are being spied or intruded upon.


Late night: Dozing kitchen worker late at night behind the restaurants.


Through a glass: Kitchen workers seen through the kitchen window, amused by having their photograph taken


Although people in many South East Asian countries are often easy going and welcoming, this should never be taken for granted. In Malaysia, local people are often gregarious, but can also be very direct and plain spoken. Secretly taking someone’s photograph or shoving an uninvited camera into someone’s face may cause bad feeling or put the photographer at risk of physical danger.


Attitudes to photography vary significantly between Malaysia’s 3 main races: Malay men often have a sense of braggadocio and may enjoy the attention of being photographed; Indians are mostly sociable and very open to photographs; whilst Chinese often decline pictures and may move away when confronted with a camera.


Massage shop: Trying to get passers by to stop


Fruit seller: Proud of a life in Malaysia


It’s always important to respect your subject, particularly when you have no prior relationship with them during an encounter on the street. Good manners, respect for others, politeness and humility are important qualities to bring to the process, and most likely to create a good impression. It’s also imperative to accept a refusal with good grace – “no” means “no” and isn’t an invitation to try some furtive snapping that you hope goes un-noticed.


Coffee shop: Late night coffee and an invitation to join


Showing interest in a subject can be flattering but also embarrassing, but being polite and friendly with a potential subject and passing the time of day with them can help to calm their nerves and make the process more relaxed and enjoyable for them. Although you may only be visiting for a few days, life on the streets of the place you visit will probably follow a reliable pattern, and people you “discover” one day may regularly be in the same spot on the same street. If you stay for a few days, you can use this to your advantage by building casual relationships with people you see regularly, helping to build familiarity and trust with you.


Looking for trade: A shy Burmese food seller; after a few days a request for a photograph was accepted


People really appreciate it if you show them their photo and ask if they like it. Sometimes they don’t, so be prepared to delete it, or to try again. Even in developing countries, many people have smart phones, and an offer to send their photo via social media is often appreciated. If I don’t get a social media contact for someone, I may get prints made locally and try to find people again so that I can return a copy of their picture as thanks.


Telephone Call: a quiet back street and a quiet call


I previously wrote an article for Dear Susan where I talked about the development of my interest in street portraits. I am often drawn to quiet private moments in busy impersonal places, and the “stolen moments” that I share with people, allowing the viewer a vicarious and prophylactic insight into another life. The Bangladeshis I met around Bukit Bintang often spoke excellent English and had no issue with a polite request to take their photograph, and rarely refused.


Barber Shop 1: Steamy windows and taking a snack


Barber Shop 2: Waiting for a turn at the barbers


Barber Shop 3: Waiting for a haircut


In the early hours one morning I stopped to ask two men drinking beer together if I could take their photograph, but it was refused. They didn’t speak English, but it turned out that one was from Thailand and the other from Myanmar. I talked with them in Thai until I was invited to join them, taking the opportunity to get a photo of them relaxing before they went home after work.


Thai Burmese: construction workers sharing a beer after work in the early hours of the morning


Bangldeshi table: Passing the night at a street cafe


I showed some of these photos to a local Chinese Malaysian friend who is a fashion photographer, and he commented that he would never be able to take the same photographs because he was a local. I have often found that as a visitor I am an “outsider” and there may be a novelty to me taking an interest in people normally invisible to tourists, or my request for a picture, and this may be amusing or flattering. One should never forget that people of different races and cultures will have different attitudes to speaking with strangers, having their photograph taken, and will react differently if you approach them. I find that being open, friendly and polite will often create a good impression with people I meet.  The Bangladeshis I photographed were friendly, polite, and very easy going. During my visits to Kuala Lumpur I have spoken with locals and visitors from many different countries – the only people I couldn’t photograph were the armed soldiers who patrol the streets because of the threat of terrorism, as photography of them is not allowed.


Telephone: A car park beside the street is the perfect spot for a phone call


Kerbside: A popular place to sit and catch up


In Malaysia I was curious that many security guards were Nepalese – every shopping mall, department store or building seemed to have them. A bit of internet research revealed that because of the colonial links with Britain, and the relationship between Britain and Nepal which gave rise to Nepalese serving in the British army (the “Gurkhas”), in Malaysia the Nepalese ex-military are recognised and respected for their courage and discipline. As a result, the local law only allows Nepalese to be private security guards.  I saw them everywhere and I developed a certain fondness for their friendly smiles and politeness, and even an occasional salute.  I didn’t try to photograph them as they work on private property and businesses, and Malaysian attitudes to photography in private places tends to be more strict than other countries, but I am considering a project in the future.


Nepalese night watchman


The photographs in this article were taken with a variety of Sony E mount cameras and lenses including the Sony Alpha A7ii, Sony Alpha A7s, Sony Alpha A7rii, Sony 35mm f1.4 ZA Zeiss Distagon, Sony 55mm f1.8 Zeiss Sonnar, Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar, and Sony 24-70mm f4 OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar.  For information about my developing interest in street photography and portraits please see my previous article Travel Portraits in Asia.


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  • philberphoto says:

    Wow, Adrian! Your post brings back many memories of KL, which speaks to how you make that city come alive. And yes, to me it felt pretty much the same as it did/does to you, a sometimes confusing and strange mix of cultures, of new and old. Though I also remember architectural remnants of times past amidst the eagerness of new contruction. Are they all gone now? (I haven’t been in 10 years).
    At any rate, thanks for this travel through time and space!

    • Adrian says:

      Firstly, thank you for the compliments.

      I can’t really comment about the remnants of past times, as the ones I saw 10 years ago didn’t seem very interesting (British built railway station, Democracy square etc) and so I’ve never gone back to them. It doesn’t change as fast as Bangkok, where every year a new mall replaces an old city block, but there are a few new skyscrapers around KLCC and new condos around the suburbs.

      The travel guide I took on my first visit revealed so little that I’ve never travelled to KL with one again, and am often visiting because of physique sports competitions or to see friends. My fondest “Old” memory in KL was the restaurant at the Coliseum hotel, built in 1921 and one of the first “international ” hotels, where politicians stayed and business was done. It’s not a flea-pit for backpackers, but the restaurant feels as if it’s never changed since Malaysian Independence day, with a curious menu of not-quite-right old fashioned British food (e.g. Lamb chops with garlic bread). I was served by a waiter who looked as if he had worked there since the 1950s, and the other staff called him “Captain” as he used to be the captain of a ship. It wasn’t a place to go for a fantastic meal, but it was very charming. “Frangipani”, a French restaurant in Bukit Bintang, was expensive but with excellent food and very gracious service.

  • pascaljappy says:

    Super post, Adrian ! Thanks.

    My memories of KL, now almost 10 years old, are of a vibrant but disorganised city. I loved photographing the “aerial subway” and found that the interior of the Bukit Bintang area were incredible for photography (the architecture, the visitors, the temp exhibitions, incredible cars …) But my main subject were the temples, in particular (but not limlited to) the spectacular Thean Hou temple. Those offered incredible opportunities with the very exotic people who were around. Also, the Malay district had very nice houses and river walks. Thanks for bringing back those memories and more.

    But beyond this, I think your article deserves a lot of praise for explaining so well how to take street portraits, something very few people do well. That was an enlightening read, thank you !

    • Adrian says:

      The Monorail is still running, although it looks very tired and worn, and is often unable to cope with passenger numbers as the trains are often only 2 carriages, with long waits between services. I have a fond memory of taking a photo of it at Bukit Bintang with a Ricoh GR21 on (I think) Kodak UC400 film, which somehow managed to make the place look modern, vibrant and exciting! There are small pockets of interesting architecture in the area, although I think I prefer the wide pavements there before the re-generation, as there was nice outdoor cafes under mists of cool water that are now gone – they combined outdoors with the vibrancy of the area, and were a great place to watch the world go by. They are largely gone now, replaced with indoor units. The JW Marriot and its the Star Hill Gallery Mall are worth seeing, the former like a French Chateau inside, the latter with one of the most atmospheric “food courts” in it’s basement, that genuinely recreates the feel of being in a small town at night (weird!). The restaurant court between the Federal Hotel and the Low Yat Plaza also deserves mention, if only because it was one of the first places in KL where people would go out socialising and dancing in the 1930s – although it’s all changed now, there is a large billboard that shows it’s history, and lends the place some slight reflected romance of bygone times.

      I’m glad that my article helps understand my approach to “street portraits”. Many people will tell me categorically that I should photography street without asking the subjects, but in my opinion, in doing so they fail to understand why I am taking the pictures in the first place, and my “artistic intent”. Engaging with the subject creates a quite different photograph to a candid, because I want the direct gaze of the subject into the lens, and ultimately into the eyes of anyone who views the photograph. So much street photography seems to consist of slightly “random snaps” (grab shot candids) and relies on concepts such as someone next to a billboard to make an often clumsy but ultimately unrevealing point. I prefer a direct connection with the subject, as I genuinely think it can show us more about them and their life. The “techniques” I use to achieve that aren’t cynically engineered, but reflect how I have subconsciously learnt to get the best from situations and engage with people in a friendly and respectful way. I sincerely hope that the approach is reflected in the results, as I think if I went about it with different “people skills” the photographs would look different, and perhaps not as engaging.

  • NMc says:

    Your street portrait approach is so much better than the gratuitous -shove camera in face- capture odd, disgruntled or offended facial expression- then run- style of street photography.

    If I may make one comment I think the street portraits with some human activity in the background (or reflection) generally work best in this set. I am not sure if it is simply the increase in complexity and life, or because simple portraits of people the viewers don’t know much about are very difficult to do.
    Regards Noel

    • Adrian says:

      Thank you for your compliments Noel.

      Rather obviously, I also don’t like the “gun and run” approach of some street photography, but other people will be adamant that asking and engaging with a subject is not street photography. Personally, I don’t really see very much artistic merit and storytelling in photos captured without the camera to the eye (grab shots in passing), nor showing a camera into a strangers face and pressing the shutter before they react.

      I have already discussed in this article, and the previous item linked that describes the evolution of my interest in this, that I find myself drawn to individuals and situations, often quiet or private moments in public places, where I want to capture the emotion or atmosphere that drew me to them in the first place. I appreciate your comments about preferring more “life” in the background of the shots, although ironically I am often very drawn to quite static, solitary moments, as I think it concentrates the viewer on the subject, not the environment. In the follow up article I discuss my preference for certain focal lengths, which may account for some of my style and your comments. I have previously had feedback that I should include more background and context, making the pictures more “environmental portraits”, but I sometimes find that people start to become lost in a wider scene, and whatever drew me to them – which is often their face or their expression – is much less prominent. Previously one of DS members Steffen commented on this, suggesting that if I included more of the situation it would be better, rather than “a photo of a guy in a red shirt” – but I felt his can of beer, slightly tipsy expression and a certain look about his face could have been lost. However, if those subtle aspects are not obvious to others, then the storytelling clearly needs to be improved.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Adrian, perhaps the difference between your view and some other person’s is simply a question of manners. Some people these days have a “sense of entitlement” and think they can do as they please. Personally I find that offensive. But in the end, everyone is entitled to HAVE their own opinion – just not entitled to shove it in everyone else’s face.

        Since you published this article, two photographers whose work I seriously admire have been “on air” – both talking about this very subject. And BOTH of them were urging everyone to be polite enough to actually ask people, before taking their photos. One was in India – where people generally actually like having their photo taken – but they still appreciate being asked, first.

        So your view is not “out there, in the cold” or in any sense unique.

        For me, there are degrees in this one. If the “people” are far enough from the camera to be just stage props in a street scene, I wouldn’t bother asking. If they are close up, I wouldn’t point the camera in their direction without asking. I’ve had to forgo at least one truly superb photo opp. because of this – I’ve mentioned it before on DS, and I had to content myself with the fact that I (at least) was lucky enough to have scene it, even if I felt it would have been wrong to photograph it. But I’ve also found – as I think you have – that by asking, I have ended up with people happily & willingly participating in my shot, and making it less flat and dull because of this.

        • Adrian says:

          Hi Pete,

          well, I’m glad it’s not just me. So often, online comment about street photography by amateurs insists that the subject should not be engaged and that a candid is “better” (I’ve had this said of some of my pictures – I should have taken them before I asked).

          As for a “sense of entitlement”, I have certainly seen my share of travelling photographers, often from certain nations and carrying very large SLRs, who seem to come from this school of thought. I can only really comment of travelling in Asia, but most cultures I know there value being respectable, well mannered and not showing negative emotion (e.g. anger), and those things have always worked well for me. It’s not just manners, I also believe it’s the photographer’s conviviality – being welcoming and cheerful are also good qualities. I’ve never visited India, but have always found Indians and Bangladeshis in other countries have a very easy going attitude to having their photo taken.

          I would agree that it’s not always the right approach to ask. For me it depends if it is essentially a portrait, or a picture that happens to have people in it. I’ve photographed stall holders at night markets without asking, because the picture wasn’t about the individual but the more general scene and situation. Sometimes pictures just get away from us because it’s not possible to take them discretely, or we are too shy to ask. The worst that has ever happened to me is that someone says “no”, but in some cases it has led to lasting casual relationships.

          Manners can get you a long way and even get you access to things that are otherwise private or hidden – and being completely selfish, they can also mean that others are more willing to help you out when you are a long way from home and have a problem.

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            Your last paragraph delves more deeply into why we should ask. You’re absolutely correct. Sometimes the “candid” shot, without permission, would be superficial. But by engaging the subject in conversation, and exchanging information in both directions, we often find so much more that would otherwise have been hidden – and end up with a really interesting and revealing portrait. Maybe that’s not “street photography”. I’m not a pedant – so I don’t care – all I care about is whether I like the photo.

            One other thing. Last year, I set up to take a fascinating portrait of an atelier at work in his studio, in Lyons. Just as I was about to press the shutter button, one of the village idiots walked past behind me, saw what I was doing, and snapped his shot of it with a *********************** cellphone, and the flash sent the atelier skywards. He raced to the window and pulled the shutters, yelling at both of us. It was the flash that set him off, not the photo. I don’t believe he would have cared tuppence about mine, since I always shoot “available light” and went to France without even taking the flash gun. And that, I think, shows both sides of the coin.

  • Kalea Chapman says:

    Nice article. Your store is not working (at least for the Tokyo guide).

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Hi Adrian – I’ve no idea how else to send this to you, so I’m posting it here. I think this article might be of some interest to you. 🙂


    • Adrian says:

      Hi Pete,

      Thanks for the link. I suspect its my phone, but there were not any photos.

      I’m not really an “extreme” anything photographer (maybe repetitive? Predictable?), and much like landscape photography, the skill required doesn’t really seem to be with the camera as much as other things such as location and timing.

      Many natural history photo awards seem to go to photographers who, for example, take underwater pictures whilst diving. Most of us could never do that because we aren’t divers or don’t have underwater housings. It often seems the “achievement” is more recognised and rewarded than the skill or artistry of the work.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Pull it up on your computer when you get a chance – it is about a marathon, under extreme conditions – and the photographer of course had to share the conditions, to get the shots. Great sport photography, and incredibly fit competitors.

  • Kalea says:

    [clears throat discreetly]

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