Beautiful Bantams: The Strutting Chickens of Malaysia
Singapore-based photographer Ernest Goh has made a name for himself shooting everything from snakes to the pet owners of Laos. But it was his shots of Malaysian Ayam Seramas, now collected in the wonderfully titled book "Cocks: The Chicken Book," that really caught our eye. These bantam chickens, known for their protruding breasts and runway-ready struts, are entered in local beauty pageants to determine the most beautiful bird.
We talked to Goh about how he found these unique birds, what drew his eye to the chicken and how shooting commonplace animals reveals details we may never notice otherwise.
Modern Farmer: How’d you first get interested in shooting chickens?
Ernest Goh: After I published my first book on fish, I decided to continue to photographing animals. So I found a farmer in Malaysia who claimed to have the largest collection of pheasants in the world, kind of like a zoo. By the time I got there, he had closed it down, but somebody pointed out to me to that he was actually in this chicken competition. It’s this thing that happens every week, where people bring their chickens. So I went there and I found him grooming his chickens, and that’s when I found out about competitions with the Ayam Serama. It’s like this ornamental beauty contests of chickens, with this breed of chicken that’s really unique to Malaysia.
MF: When you see the photos, the birds seems to be almost posing or strutting, like they’re on the runway. Is that something they naturally do?
EG: It’s something they naturally do. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw it myself, so I started interviewing these farmers and they said they don’t do anything to train them at all. It’s just the way they are. The only thing they do is groom their feathers for the competition, which is really crucial in gaining points. But yeah, in terms of their behaviors, they’re not trained in any way.
MF: Your photos are on on these beautiful black backgrounds, but what’s the actual atmosphere like at these competitions?
EG: It can be pretty chaotic. I mean, you can imagine about 100, maybe 200 people congregating in a small school or small yard or small community ground. Everybody brings their chickens in cages and baskets. It’s pretty organized, because they’ve been doing this for a long time. They line the chickens up, and there’s different categories within the competition. Every category gets their own turn to be judged. They’re put on mahjong tables — these square tables — and there’s two judges per table. The judge will gesture and the chicken will be put on the table and that’s when the chickens start strutting and prancing around. The two judges with clipboards will start taking down notes and giving it points. Each chicken is only allowed to be on the table for two minutes, and then the next chicken gets on the table for its chance to perform.
MF: What are the judges looking for? What are the points actually awarded for?
EG: Several things. There’s the quality of the feathers. The way it walks. The way it reacts to just standing there on the table. Some of the birds will voluntarily flap their wings, and that will earn them additional points because it makes the bird look really nice and really majestic. I always try to capture that moment. The way the breasts protrude out and the way the head gets pushed back — the breasts are so that big the head gets pushed back. Even the wattle and comb will get certain points. Certain designs and certain colors will get more points.
MF: You’ve photographed snakes, you’ve photographed fish, you’ve photographed pet owners and their pets. What makes the chicken unique as a photographic subject?
EG: Chickens are really common. Not being an exotic animal makes them really interesting subjects for me. I want to explore this really common animal and photograph them differently and see the interesting sides of them.
MF: When we see these common animals so much, what are the details you’re looking to find as you photograph them?
EG: I think we learn about them as kids, but maybe for somebody who doesn’t live in a rural area or doesn’t get exposed to nature much — to not actually know the animal, we read about them in books, we look at them on TV, but I think to actually look at them face to face and be in the same place as them, you have a really different sense of that animal. That’s what I tried to do. I tried to capture the differences and the unique qualities which might not otherwise show up in other places. I want to present that in my photographs.
MF: What’s your next project? Are you going to continue shooting animals?
EG: Yep. I’m actually exploring photographing cats. I’ve shot about four of them so far and going to try shoot more and explore the world of the feline in Singapore.