The shared lives of Malaysia’s skinheads

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For her latest project Disciples, Jess Kohl travels to Kuala Lumpur, meeting the nation’s punk subculture

Once a year, Malaysia’s skinheads meet for dinner. MASKAD, the Malaysia Skinhead Annual Dinner & Festival, unites the nation’s punk scene, bringing various political ideologies and found families together under one roof. Across the world at events such as MASKAD, punk lives on. Jess Kohl’s latest project, Disciples, documents the lives of Kuala Lumpur’s skinheads, with who she spent 10 days. 

“My work often examines youth culture and identity, as I’m interested in people who are on a journey, coming to terms with their identity in some way,” Kohl explains. Her past projects have explored queer lives along the American Bible Belt, the Philippine punk scene, and Buttmitzvah, London’s queer Jewish club night.

From the series ‘Moda Moody’, © Jess Khol.

“I read an article about the skinhead scene in Malaysia, and it explained there were two opposing factions: a very kind of strong anti-fascist movement, and then, a neo-nazi movement, ” Kohl explains. ‘Skinhead’ —as a fashion, politic, and culture — can summon differing images for different people. The iconography finds its origins in the punk music scene of the 70s. The characteristic shaved head of skinheads has become a style adopted by both sides of the political compass. For Disciples, Kohl collaborated with the anti-fascist skinhead movement, a group she had been in contact with for many years prior. 

Kohl’s compassion and friendship with the group are clear. The images depict the group as a family, united through shared beliefs and iconography. “Ultimately it is documentary, but I want my work to straddle the line between documentary and art,” she explains.” [The group’s] beliefs are very anti-fascist, and they spend time at this venue 10 floors up in this unassuming building. You go up the lift and then down a corridor into this room, which has been turned into a DIY gig space. There are signs everywhere that say ‘no homophobia, no racism.”

From the series ‘Moda Moody’, © Jess Khol.

“I have personal experience in trying to find the place where parts of my identity can coexist with my queer identity. I’ve been drawn to documenting these kinds of experiences,” Kohl continues. Malaysia is a majority Muslim nation, and faith works in tandem with the groups punk politics. Contrasting stereotypical understandings of religion as conservative, traditional, and restrictive, Disciples demonstrates the realities of contemporary religious life. 

At the centre of Disciples, Kohl proves that the spirit of punk — its image, its music, and its beliefs — live on. Across the world, messages of unity, solidarity, and a rejection of fascism are heard. The skinheads of Malaysia, and indeed skinheads across the world, exemplify the sub-culture’s relentless strive for self-expression, and the kinds of communities it can create.

From the series ‘Moda Moody’, © Jess Khol.
Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.