Some tunes

Is it already March? Time is going by so fast this year. Life has been full of daunting decisions, frustrating lulls and those sweet, temporary moments of hope and expectation. I've been working a lot and the playlists have been going on overtime. In the process I've discovered some real musical gems that have offered me a surprising sense of comfort. Sometimes I forget about how immersive music can be. Like all great art, there are those certain pieces that come to you at a specific moment in your life, at a specific time of day that just feels exactly right. And it transforms an ordinary moment into an meaningful one. Anyway. We all strive to meet that point with our art. Here's some music that I'm loving lately.

 
 
 
 

A reflection

This blog took me a long time to write and it was especially difficult to write. Every time I sat down at my computer, I found it impossible to capture all that I had experienced and learned in the last three months. I just couldn't find the right words or couldn't decide what needed to be highlighted. I had written a version meditating on notions of home, and a version more specific to the project I was there to do. None of it felt good, or right. Even still, this version that I am writing right now makes me slightly uncomfortable in how sloppy and imperfect it is. But I am accepting that I am not a perfect writer, perhaps not even a good writer, and I will just have to bite my tongue and put out there what I have.

      I wouldn't say my time in China has been life changing, at least not the spectacular type of life changing that one often fantasizes about before taking on something big and exciting. If I had to describe it as life changing, it would be the type where I perhaps don't realize or appreciate the change until years down the road. What I can say for now is that it was eye opening, educational, and at times challenging. Challenges, struggle, and failure are all good lessons in the end, but in the middle of going through them, it often just feels like repeatedly walking into a wall. I definitely walked into more walls than I had imagined I would during my trip. As much as I learned about what it was like to lead a "normal" day-to-day life in China—a thing I haven't experienced since I was seven years old—I also learned about how I handle tough situations, and my work ethic when there aren't any outside pressure. I learned that while the stimulation of new people and new places is definitely inspiring to a degree, the way you approach any project, any place, any situation, is ultimately informed by your own attitude, habits, and world view. So the excuse that you must go somewhere different to make good work is nothing but that; an excuse.

      There's no doubt that China is very different from Canada, and there is such a variety of different people, dialects, traditions, and cultures within China itself as you go from province to province, even city to city. There were many things I was not used to and didn't understand. Many cultural and political nuances that I didn’t know how to navigate. And as much as it was interesting to dig deeper into those oddities and injustices, I also saw that on an individual level, people simply wanted to be happy, to be safe, and to be accepted within their families and communities, just like anywhere else.

      I think there are many over-simplified perceptions about China and its people; it is either a high-tech, economically innovative super power, or it is an oppressive, fascist regime with many ugly secrets. In some ways, it is all of those things and much more. It is multi-dimensional, with both ugly and beautiful parts. People work very hard to strive for a fulfilling life for themselves and their families, and with China's political and social systems, it is often a struggle for the vast majority of people to fulfill both their social/societal obligations, as well as their obligations to personal principles. I realize now how easy it is for your beliefs to be shaped by the culture around you, and it makes me reflect upon the degree in which my own beliefs are shaped by growing up in Canada. Wherever you are from, it takes great courage, introspection, and discomfort to decide for yourself what your beliefs are, especially when they may differ from that of your family, peers, and/or community.

      It is a vastly complicated thing, how a society functions with the written and unwritten rules that it adopts, which leads to an even more complicated and delicate process to change those rules when they've been ingrained for decades or centuries. Being connected, yet unfamiliar with such a different society than what I'm used to has only deepened my empathy towards people of all kinds, and drives me to tell stories that truthfully represents life's complexities, with a focus on the things that are universal among us.

      I'm sure the fruits of my travels this time around will continue to prosper as time goes on, and as I start to edit the materials I've collected for my project. Sometimes when it's the "end" of anything, it's scary to sit back, take a sigh, and jump in to the next thing. My tendency is to worry that I've not done enough. I didn't take enough risks, didn't shoot enough rolls, didn't challenge myself enough. But in moments like this I remind myself to relax, enjoy the process, and that no accomplishment comes without struggle. I just need to feel that anxious, uncomfortable, constricting, and turning feeling at the pit of my stomach, and pretend that it is excitement.

 
 Me and Dad at the Bell Tower in Xi'an, 1995

Me and Dad at the Bell Tower in Xi'an, 1995

 
 Me at the Bell Tower in Xi'an, 2017

Me at the Bell Tower in Xi'an, 2017

 

Taking time

Funny how things always seem to settle into something familiar even when you are in the most unfamiliar of places. I thought that traveling far from home and having all my time available to dedicate to my work meant ultimate productivity and a creative high point. However, I've come to discover that a lot of what stands between me and productivity is not location dependent, but has to do with me and my attitude towards my work.

In a perfect world, I'd be one of those people who gets up at 6am, goes for a run, reads the news, and tackles half their day's to-do list before noon, someone who "can't help but work too much". However, in reality, I am often lazy, I enjoy sleeping in, going off on internet tangents, and I spend a lot of time not doing the things I'm supposed to do. I'm often bitter about this part of myself, often brutal in the way I criticise my habits, but I'm slowly learning that this is just something I have to deal with and overcome, and a lack of motivation is not innately a broken part of my being.

I feel like my current project has taught me a lot about motivation, and patience. When I don't feel productive, I don't feel motivated and without motivation I tend not to be productive, and so begins the vicious cycle. But perhaps I need to redefine what it means to be "productive" when working on something that's often not advanced by what I've produced at the end of a day.

A huge part of my project is working with my grandparents. And I've slowly come to learn that even though they are family, a relationship must still be built where they are comfortable enough with me to let me photograph them, or interview them in a meaningful way. Building relationships take time, a lot of time that is chatting, going out together, just being present. Understanding and reflection also takes time, which is something I thought I could achieve within an 8 hour work week. Yes, some understanding can be gained by reading and researching for a certain amount of hours. But when contemplating questions like, what is it like to live in China as a Chinese-Canadian person? What does this place mean to me? What is the importance of my relationship to this culture? The understanding comes slow and creeping, barely noticeable. After a few months you look back and see that you understand a bit more than before. There's no telling when you'll reach the point of knowing the answers to those questions, perhaps you never will.

Grandpa pressing the shutter a bit too early while he was helping me photograph my grandmother.

Fallen leaves in my grandparent's yard.

That is the difficulty sometimes with making art that requires deep contemplation of the life you live - it takes time, and it is scary. In an age where everything happens instantly and we are constantly being fed news of the success of others around us, it's hard to feel accomplished when you don't have the product or the rewards to show for it. The more I think about it, the more I remind myself to be patient, to not be so obsessed with output, not be so obsessed with perfection. I have this opportunity (this rare, precious opportunity), to be thoughtful, meandering, and present with these experiences, without the anxiety of a deadline...at least not yet. So I should take advantage of it. Take a deep breath, and remember that good art speaks to life, a life that must be well-observed, and well-lived

Some images from the past couple of weeks:

 
 
 

Family pictures

It's been a while since I've posted. Every time I sit down to write, it seems impossible to round up all of my thoughts cohesively. I am observing, learning, and experiencing so many things daily that it's hard to talk about just one thing. It's a shitty excuse, so here I am, forcing myself to write down some thoughts.

To be honest doing a project on your own family is harder than I thought it would be. Your family is the closest people to you, the most familiar, the most forgiving. But they are also people with whom you have deep, often very specific dynamics with. And it can be uncomfortable when that dynamic shifts in any way, but especially when it shifts from family members to a photographer-subject relationship. You must work just as hard, and if not harder to gain access to the nuances and vulnerabilities of the very people who you are closest to.

Though the creative juices are not always flowing for me at the moment, I have found it incredibly meaningful to just spend time with my family while having a curious mindset. There are so many things I have learned about my dad, my grandparents, and other family members that have given me a better idea of what their life is like beyond their relationship to me. The stories they tell me almost seem like ones of people I don't recognize. Stories full of hardship, rebellion, and history. Stories I didn't even know I craved and I, myself, am inevitably connected to. How strange it is that my life feels fuller after having heard them. I guess they help me realize the complexity of any individual's life, and see more grey in a world where people often espouse ideas in black and white. They help me forgive my parents for things I resented them for in childhood. I am beginning to see it isn't whether or not you will experience tragedy in life, but it's a matter of when. Although it's an unfortunate idea, the acceptance of it is actually freeing. It frees you from getting caught up in the reasons behind tragedy in which there is often not, and offers you a choice in how you want to face ugliness even when choice feels non-existent.

 

Photography for me is choosing to see life as precious and beautiful even when it isn't. It is an exercise in seeing beauty, but also in redefining beauty. When the day is gray and I've been in bed for most of the morning, not asleep but not awake, when I don't feel creativity or momentum or anticipation, when there is suffering or injustice that have no easy fix. I have the power to make pictures. Pictures that can become a story, a call-to-action, an escape, a document, a relic, evidence of time that is passing and changing, and reassurance that all is the way it's meant to be. 

On gratitude & first weeks in China

It's been two weeks since I've been in China. I was born in Xi'an and spent the first seven years of my life here. I have visited many times since. However, this is the first time that I've been able to independently conduct myself, and the first time that I've returned with the purpose of rediscovering my Chinese identity. I want to do this through a photo project about my grandparents, the house where I spent my first days, and its surrounding area that has been etched so vividly in my memories. Memories of those days don't quite feel like my own; they are snapshots, excerpts of stories, perhaps even dreams.

 

Two weeks I've been here, and it has been exciting, eyeopening, but challenging. I feel like a child again when I struggle to read maps and menus. I'm not used to carrying toilet paper with me everywhere, and dealing with the endless, chaotic traffic that most people here face on a daily basis. What I find more challenging is the vast differences in values and mindset between myself and many of my family members, and family friends. I am realizing that although I am Chinese, I am very much a foreigner here.

As I re-enter the spaces of my childhood, I start to see that along with my more fond and loving memories, there has always been ugliness, struggle, and pain that I've been protected from as a child. I see the fragility and weakness of people I'd always thought were indestructible. Perhaps this is a universal experience as children grow up.

 
 

I have a deep love and respect for my Chinese culture, it is apart of who I am and has offered me much joy, richness, and perspective. But I am now also confronted with its flaws and injustices. My critiques don't feel like ones aimed at an "other", but ones aimed at aspects of myself, my family, people who I do not want to hurt. This makes it very difficult, especially when such big part of creating art is about critique and commentary. I can tell already this process will be emotional, sometimes unsavoury, but necessary, and I'm nevertheless thankful to be here going through it.

I guess I will end on a note of being thankful while family and friends are celebrating Thanksgiving back in Canada. Above all, my experiences have reminded me of how lucky I am. My upbringing, my family, and my society affords me the opportunity to pursue a happy, purposeful, and satisfying life - on my own terms. In this big, broken world, that is hard to come by. So I am sitting here this late evening, fatigue slowly falling over my body, thinking of how very grateful I am.

 
 

Portraits and Conversations

I love taking portraits because I am fascinated by people. I know myself to be complex and full of history, so I am endlessly curious about others and their histories. So much of the specificity of every person comes from their face, their expressions, the way they hold their body, the way they express themselves. I often wonder how much you can really see, or unearth from a portrait. Different photographers have had different takes on this. Some believe that portraiture can be a window to the soul. Richard Avedon famously talked about how his photographs do not go below the surface, but rather explores the surface itself. I've also received the advice of projecting myself onto my subjects, that all photographs are a reflection of the photographer, and in most interesting portraits it is the photographer's psyche that is on display, not the subject's.

I enjoy my interactions with people when I take their picture. A unique relationship is formed between me and my subjects each time I raise the camera, the strange intimacy of a gaze towards the lenstowards posterityand the vulnerability of being looked back upon.

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What I also love are the conversations, and the connections. I've been able to have connections with people that I would've never had if it weren't for the fact that I was photographing them.

For example, I met Alana a few months ago through a friend, and right away she emitted an uplifting energy when she spoke. She talked with a poetic canter, and was truly engaged in the conversation we were having. She told me that she was practicing to play basketball professionally in Europe. Her story intrigued me and I was admirable and curious about her endeavors. It's always nice talking with someone who is pursuing something they are passionate about, especially if that thing requires skill, dedication, and often times lots of luck. I can relate to the pursuit in that way. 

I arranged a portrait session with Alana hoping to document her practice and perhaps learn more about her budding basketball career. It was a sunny afternoon in east Toronto, and the day was temperate and nice, the sun low the sky, and the light lovely. It wasn't until half an hour past the original time we were supposed to meet that I realized I was waiting for her at the wrong location. A few calls and exasperated laughs later, we met.

We never ended up talking about basketball. The conversation naturally flowed into her love for poetry, the process of publishing her own anthology, and overcoming the many voices of self doubt she's encountered, and I'm sure we all encounter. We talked about what helped us jump that hurdle that is the destructive stories we tell ourselves. We talked about being present. And through photographing Alana I found that she was good at that, being present. Our conversation reminded me of how important that is.

There are so many nuances that come with these interactions. How do you truly capture connection? How do you capture all the feelings and thoughts that exist beyond what is visible? How do you show when something resonates, or when there is friction? When there is sadness, and when there is love? At least half of every story lies in that realm, and photographs, like poetry, are only snapshots and metaphors. But perhaps sometimes the snapshots are all you need. It is in their brevity, ambiguity, and stillness that we have space to find something beautiful, something familiar.

Portraits featuring Jing, Janet, and Alana (in chronological order).

Moments from July

Change seems to come in waves, and the wave washes over everyone around you. There has been a lot of changing, shifting, and parting around me these days. I'm getting ready to move out of my apartment, and slowly organizing everything I need for my upcoming trip to China. My childhood best friend who I by-chance reconnected with a year and a half ago, whom I had shared a place with for that time being, left for a job in Vancouver. Co-workers are jetting off to the other side of the world, and friends are separating from their partners. Change is not new to me and I like to think that I adapt well to it. Growing up, we moved around a lot, including the big move to a completely different country. I've lived in a different place every year for the past five years, and my loved ones are scattered in different towns and cities and countries. So it's not surprising that to me, leaving this place feels like following through to a logical conclusion after a year and a half. 

But seeing all this change around me, it's got me thinking about the different ways that people grieve the endings. Nothing stays the same from moment to moment, everything is fleeting, and yet as soon as we get used to something, seeing it go makes us so sad. We come to love things, places, and moments so easily. And doesn't it make sense that I love photography so much, as it allows me to capture these moments that I come to fall in love with; moments that are so ordinary, specific, and delicate. The light shifts, the clock turns, and everything changes. 

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Here are some images from the last few weeks:

From where I am standing

And so here we go again, this is maybe the tenth time I've tried to start and upkeep a blog. But this time it feels different, it feels more purposeful. I am drawn to photography because of its ability to tell stories in such an immediate and visceral way. It has the ability to expose, reflect, and transport. I want my pictures to look for the truth, and to tell authentic stories. I still have a lot to work on and I certainly haven't been doing it adequately as of late. Perhaps I am waiting to stumble upon some extraordinary narrative from people who lead interesting and vastly different lives from me. I am still always looking to foreign lands that seem to be packed full of intriguing and unfamiliar things. And yes, I am fast approaching one of those adventures to a foreign land, but I still have some time left at home.

I realize that I should take a second, and look around me. A part of being a photographer involves looking for the beauty in mundane things. I know there are stories all around me, within the people I have seen a hundred times before and places that I come across everyday.  I just haven't looked hard enough. So I will start from where I'm standing, with eyes open a little wider, and mind a little more curious. And I will practice being more open with sharing the stories I piece together from my own life.

How fitting it is that I'm writing this on a dark and stormy afternoon, the rain heavy on my windows and thunder cracking loudly and crisply. The atmospheric drama is real, and my mind, for the first time in a long time, fills with words.