Richard Murai: Worlds Apart and Within

Words: David Best

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Murai grew up in the 1960s, a time of social and political turmoil in our country. Berkeley was ground zero for the nascent Cultural Revolution, and Murai began photographing antiwar demonstrations while he was in high school, trying to emulate other street photographers of the time. He became aware that his camera could be a magical passport for exploring other people and other points of view.

His interest in different cultures continued in his neighborhood, where he would hear music wafting from churches, or the sonorous voices of preachers leading revivals. “I was fascinated with the music and energy, and with the joyous singing, dancing and speaking in tongues. This led to my interest in documenting a small African-American Pentecostal church in West Oakland. I asked if I could photograph there, and was humbled by their generosity and welcoming spirit.”

John Collier was one of Murai’s teachers during the latter’s four years at San Francisco State University. Collier had been a Farm Security Administration photographer in the early 1940s, and many important photographers of the 1960s emerged from his tutelage. Murai learned how a photograph can speak to the viewer, communicating subtle information depending on the visual artifacts included within the frame. There are compositional shortcuts, tricks and devices that can be manipulated through vantage point, lens selection, selective focus and so on. Murai strives to include essential symbols, shapes and iconography in his work because it adds to the communicative power of each photograph. These lessons have been carefully passed on during his 35 years as a college professor, and to the many students he leads on photo workshops around the world.

“My influences are diverse,”says Murai. “From the West Coast landscape tradition to my appreciation of social documentarians like Sebastião Salgado. I tend to photograph in a contemplative manner, using a tripod-mounted medium-format camera, though I do not hesitate to grab a shot in a reflexive, handheld moment. I want my photographs to have a reflective quality that comes from the melding of aesthetics and the techniques that I’ve used, first in the darkroom and now on the computer.”

Murai first ventured out of the country in 1981, visiting Great Britain and Ireland, where he wanted to photograph the standing stones he had admired in the photographs of Paul Caponigro. He visited megalith stones in County Avebury, shooting these mystic monuments in the misty English atmosphere. He enjoyed the otherworldly feeling of being within those environments—the sensation of not only seeing but feeling the vibrancy and power emanating from these mystical places.

That first trip triggered a wanderlust that has led Murai to worldwide exploration, with a strong emphasis on Asia. “Documenting the manifestation of religious fervor, past and present, is what draws me there,” he says. “It’s a multi-sensory experience beyond the visual. It can be a hot, humid day, then raining torrentially very quickly, with a clearing with blue skies, all in the course of an hour. There are exotic smells and loud music, or just the hum of cicadas. I’ve traveled through Europe and visited South America many times, but Southeast Asia’s culture and people have an exotic appeal that attracts and fascinates me.”

Wherever he goes, from the sunbaked plateaus of the Andes to the snow-covered peaks of Tibet, Murai always brings along an instant camera. This used to be Polaroid’s SX-70, but he now carries a Fujifilm Instax, which allows him to immediately offer a gift to the people he photographs. He finds it to be an offering that people cherish. In many cases, in remote areas, it may be the only photograph of themselves they will ever possess.

Murai has visited and photographed numerous sacred settings around the world: in Egypt, the UK, Peru, Easter Island, Angkor Wat, Myanmar. But he is equally interested in quiet, less-famous festivals in Laos, Tibet and elsewhere in Asia, where there exists the genuine devotional fervor of real people living spiritual lives.

In Bhutan, especially, he times his visits around the celebrations known as Tsechus. There are 14 of these regional festivals, in different provinces, held throughout the year. Tsechus can be very large, as in cities like Thimphu (Bhutan’s capital) or they can occur in small and intimate villages in the countryside. It’s a joyous, festive time during which hundreds of people from miles around enjoy a week of celebration, theater and dancing. It’s also a photographer’s dream.

“Although I strive to embody such traits, I’m not preoccupied that my photographs possess a strong sense of spirit,” Murai says. “And I find it difficult to verbalize what my photographs say. I simply photograph what I see and experience, documenting people within their personal religious context, producing images as well-crafted and beautiful as possible.”

There is more to more to Murai’s travels than photography. He loves to immerse himself in each culture he visits: learning, exploring and absorbing the uniqueness of other lifestyles, customs and traditions. He seeks a connection with the people he meets.

“I almost always photograph with a wide-angle lens,” he states. “It’s confrontational, but not necessarily in a negative way. As opposed to shooting with a long lens, it allows me to identify myself, if only with a smile or a nod. I believe if you have good intentions, people immediately pick that up regardless of any kind of language barriers. If you approach people in a really friendly, human way they respond accordingly. I always identify myself and try to converse with my subjects, either through gestures or through my guide, when I have one. It’s not really the photograph I want. It’s the experience. And the photograph is simply the affirmation of the experience.”

One such encounter led to the picture included here titled “Snail Gatherer.” Murai was visiting the floating villages of Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia with a guide. They noticed a tiny figure in the water, and when they drew closer discovered it was a woman harvesting snails from the silted bottom of this neck-deep lake. Murai learned that this woman dries and salts and sells them in the village, making a few cents a day. Her family had perished during the Khmer Rouge genocide. She was 84 and all alone.

“When I asked where she lived,” says Murai, “she pointed towards the horizon and said her entire belongings were contained in the small rowboat 10 feet or so away. All of her personal belongings—a tarp, a few utensils, gas stove—were contained therein. I asked where she goes when the lake swells tenfold with the onset of the monsoon rains. She said that she retreats to the local village until the dry season and the lake level recedes again. ‘What happens if you become ill?’ I asked. Her calm, matter-of-fact reply was, “I may die.’”

This is the essence of Murai’s travels, seeking to gain a sense of how other people live their lives, to appreciate their cultural differences and, if possible, capture these insightful moments in a photograph. It isn’t the grand epiphany he seeks, but rather, a gradual exploration of an environment and evidence of the human condition, with the whole wide world as his odyssey.

“I attempt to record what resonates within me when I’m visiting these countries,” Murai says. “I may not be an outwardly spiritual person, yet I’m drawn to moments of spirituality in others’ lives. Art-making is basically an extension of one’s soul and spirit; of what one perceives and holds dear. It broadens my awareness of not only the people living in distant lands, and their spiritual practices and beliefs, but more importantly, my own place in this world.”

You can see more of Murai’s spiritual and ethnographic documentation at

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Grandmother & Granddaughter. Preah Kan Temple, Angkor Thom, 2002