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South Asian Photographer Exploring Colour Discrimination In New Zealand

Blessen Tom, journalist

South Asian photographer Abhi Chinniah is turning heads in the country's fine arts scene with powerful and creative portrayals of the migrant and refugee experience.

Her curated photographic collection graced the lobbies of prominent buildings on Auckland's waterfront - including PwC Tower, HSBC Tower, Aon Centre, Jarden House and Deloitte Centre - as part of the Auckland Festival of Photography 2024, which ran through June 13.

"It's really meaningful to have all these faces in these spaces for people to see," said Chinniah, standing near her collection in the lobby of Auckland's PwC Tower. "They're more than photos to me because they're all people with incredible stories."

A self-taught portrait photographer, 32-year-old Chinniah's journey began at the age of 13.

Her father gifted her a Sony point-and-shoot camera to capture Rotary Club events in eastern Malaysia, where her parents were active members.

"That camera ended up becoming mine," she recalled. "I'd take photographs of my friends, dressing them up in whatever outfits I had at home."

Born in Christchurch to Sri Lankan Tamil Malaysian parents, Chinniah's family moved back to Malaysia in 1998 when she was six.

She grew up in eastern Malaysia before returning to New Zealand as a teenager in 2010.

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It wasn't until 2016 that Chinniah picked up a camera again.

"The company I was working for needed some product shots, and it kind of just went from there," said Chinniah, who was working in marketing at the time.

"I realized that being away from my family gave me the freedom to pursue art, without anyone telling me I had to be a lawyer or an accountant."

However, her artistic journey hasn't been without challenges.

"During Covid, I was made redundant from my job and photography costs a lot," she said. "But I always say that I made this choice because I love doing it."

Chinniah's first encounter with colourism came on a trip abroad.

"At dinner, there were comments about my skin colour," she recalled. "I was the only dark-skinned person at the table, and that comment stuck with me."

This experience inspired her first photo essay, Light Skinned, Dark Skinned.

She highlighted the pervasive influence of skin whitening products in the South Asian community, recounting how advertisements during her childhood in Christchurch made her yearn for lighter skin.

"I would watch those ads and think, 'I want to be that light-skinned person'," she said. "I genuinely believed that using those creams would make me look like the woman on the box."

Chinniah said an association of beauty with lighter skin continued to persist in the South Asian community today.

Representation was crucial, Chinniah said, particularly in New Zealand's media landscape, where she rarely saw people who looked like her.

"It has improved, but there are still large segments of media that prefer lighter-skinned individuals to represent you, but don't necessarily look like you," she said.

Her goal is for New Zealanders to connect with the cultural heritage of the individuals in her photographs.

Chinniah has also been on a personal journey to learn more about her own heritage. Her family had lived in Malaysia since 1910, and she was eager to explore its roots in Sri Lanka.

"I'm learning so much about our roots in Sri Lanka," she said. "It's an ongoing conversation with my parents and extended family."

She said she intended to visit South Asia as much as possible, even tracing to her potential roots in India.

Chinniah's latest exhibition was a collaboration with five other artists at Auckland's Strand Arcade.

Titled Why Are You Leaving?, the exhibition ended on Friday.

"The theme is 'departure' - whether it's about migration or leaving people and places behind," she said. "Each artist interprets it in their own way, and it has been incredible."

Chinniah said she had created new work for the group exhibition.

"I didn't think at the start of the year I'd have anything in me to create new work and I did for this one," she said. "I guess inspiration can be anywhere."

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