Eric Peris has spent a lifetime preserving everything – from abandoned buildings to hauntingly beautiful landscapes and delicate flowers blooming in his garden – using nothing but a camera and his own innate creativity. Renowned for his unique photographic aesthetics, his forthcoming exhibition, NAMO, which opens this month, will feature a selection of snapshots meant to transport viewers back to the age when he first decided to pursue photography full-time.
The exhibition’s title, the staunch Buddhist explains, stems from a Pāli term that means ‘homage’. He chose this title also as a tribute to his late parents, whom he considers as his biggest mentors to this day. “My parents raised me to become an independent thinker. They never pushed me to become a lawyer, engineer or doctor. All they wanted for me was to carry on with my studies before figuring out what I wanted to do in life. They would guide me, not through lectures, but through example. If not for them, I don’t think I would have become the photographer that I am today. So, if I had succeeded in anything, it is all because of them.”
A passion for the arts has always run strong within Peris’ family. His mother was a painter while his father, O Don Peris, was an accomplished artist-sculptor who had served as a royal artist in Johor during the 1920s. “I remember showing my father some of my pictures and he said, ‘Who did you shoot this for? Because if was for me, you would have just wasted your time.’ So, I asked him, ‘But what if someone doesn’t like my work?’, to which he simply replied, ‘Then that’s your problem, not mine’.”
When his father passed away in 1975, Peris had been working as a journalist with the New Straits Times for four years. “When I first joined the publication, his only words of advice were, ‘Don’t forget that you will one day retire, so don’t wait until then to start thinking of a trade that will take you at least 10 years to master. While you still have job security, use this time to develop the skills that you really want’.”
As a way of commemorating all the knowledge that his father had imparted on him, Peris decided he would spend the next five years exploring the vast Malaysian landscape while also developing his photography skills on his own terms. ”During that time, I was entirely on my own. Nobody could tell me what was right or wrong – I decided that for myself. So, I consider those years to be my training ground.”
The resulting images from this personal quest would later be published into the book Tin Mine Landscapes. The startling monochrome photos found within are still regarded today as a significant contribution to the history of Malaysian photography. Since then, Peris’ continuous passion for photography and dedication towards mastering his craft has led to many exhibitions – held both locally and internationally – with NAMO being his 36th. “Although these pictures were shot 35 to 40 years ago, I managed to salvage some of the negatives. I also revisited the areas where the pictures were originally taken to remember what I felt back then when I shot them. Of course, many of these places have since changed – houses have been developed, hills cleared and the environment is now completely different.”
Another great influence that has enabled Peris to continue his passion would have to be his Buddhist beliefs. Many of his stills often capture aspects of his faith – that nothing is permanent and never accept things at face value. “As a Buddhist, you are not supposed to form any attachments. When you become attached, you don’t see. For example, you go to a garden filled with beautiful red roses and get engrossed by the colour. This prevents you from actually seeing the entire rose. By being detached, you see so much more than just the flower itself. When applying this to photography, you get to see so much more of the subject you are shooting.”
“In many ways, photography has been like a religion to me, as it gives me something to at least fall back on. But religion alone cannot solve your problems. As my guru used to say, ‘You make your heavens, you make your hells’.”
Peris also believes that it takes at least a decade to establish oneself in any line of work. “People want to know what you do, why you do it, what are your subject materials and if you are consistent. If you are going to sit and wait for someone to recognise your talents, then you have lost everything as your ego has come into the picture, which is the greatest enemy for any creative work. Some people might not agree with me on this, but I find that ego is a dangerous thing. Otherwise, when people start criticising your work, you end up taking things too personally and forget that they are not you.”
To this, he adds: “You must ask yourself if you want to take pictures to please others or for yourself. My belief is that if you have your own value, you won’t be bothered by what everyone else has to say. Once you start doing it for the approval of others, it no longer becomes your own work. Only if you believe in yourself will others be able to appreciate your work for what it is. The only thing to remember is that this is not something that you can achieve in a day or two. It takes time.”
Based on his impressive repertoire of work, it is evident that patience has always been a virtue for Peris. “Every day, I spend at least half an hour to 40 minutes just taking pictures, as it helps me to understand what I did differently yesterday from today. I remember once I was feeling frustrated because I was not getting the pictures that I wanted. I went home to where my late sister had prepared my favourite tea. When she asked me how my session went, I told her there was nothing, to which she replied ‘Etana Tiyeneva’, which is Sinhalese for ‘It is there’.”
As he explains: “Since that day, it has served as a guideline for when I take my pictures. The image is always there, but you need to have the patience to study and reflect in order to see it. Each one of us sees things differently. When your brain is trained to analyse what is missing, only then will you start to see many more things clearly. While shooting blindly might get you the pictures that you need, you could just end up missing out on the one that says it all.”
NAMO opens on 25 April 2015 at Sutra Gallery, Kuala Lumpur and will run until 24 May 2015.