POLIS/ITLR Fieldwork Photography Competition 1st prize: Exterior shot of Kuala Lumpur High Court

by Nichoas Chan

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PHOTO: Exterior shot of Kuala Lumpur High Court, August 2019. © Nicholas Chan.

We are pleased to present the winners of the 2020 POLIS/ITLR Fieldwork Photography Competition. This photo by Nicholas Chan, a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, won first prize. The judges felt that the lack of 'humanity’ was particularly poignant and liked the way the picture made one look at it and the system it represents in a particular light. They also thought it was a well-composed photograph, with effective use of black and white and colour.

From the photographer:

TV shows such as Homeland and 24 have conditioned us to think that counter-terror operates with a ticking clock in the background. But counter-terrorism can also occur in places where the state enjoys all the luxury of time. One of those places is the courts, a place where the legal subject of the ‘terrorist’ is made and unmade. In Malaysia, from detention to trial and sentencing, it may take months and even years (counting appeals) before an accused gets over the entire legal process. The pre-emptive and wide-spanning nature of the terrorism laws also means that many of those arrested for ‘terrorism’ crimes in Malaysia were not masterminds or peddlers of violence but rather associates, families, enthusiasts, and small donors who may or may not have known where their funds and allegiances were going (the Malaysian government has charged close to 250 people under terrorism crimes since 2013). The timely and costly nature of the legal system, paired with the fact that all terrorism-related detainees were automatically denied bail, led to confessions in most terrorism cases in Malaysia in exchange for a shorter trial and, at least in the hopes of the accused, a lighter sentence. Yet, in public discourses, the ‘terrorist’ continues to be portrayed as this figure that is fearless, resourceful, and ‘larger-than-life’. In reality, this shot of the Kuala Lumpur High Court from the ground – stony, imposing, and intimidating – probably tells you how small and powerless those actually accused as ‘terrorists’ (and their families) feel in front of the procedural face of Justice.