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.


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. 


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.