“你的 hometown 没有在 outside, 只有在 inside. 如果你 inside 里面找到你的 hometown, 你在哪里都是你的 hometown.”
I took a photo of this phrase when I visited Da Pi Yuan exhibition. I remember my friend’s translation lingered in my mind as I continued walking through the exhibition. Your hometown is not outside, but inside yourself. If you find your hometown inside, you will feel at home wherever you are. The intimate documentation of Lucy’s journey of revisiting her childhood home in Xi’an carries a weight that offers questions and ponderings that many people of the diaspora can understand and experience.
The subtlety within Lucy’s exhibition where liminal culture is implicated and physically present, particularly through bilingual text, was what drew me into her work. I always felt photography has a way of telling more of the subject’s story than it carries – whether the subject is a man lying in bed, a flower pot standing on concrete floor, or plants running along a building wall.
Read below as Lucy shares why she believes photography is a powerful storytelling tool, the challenges of creating a personal project and then into an exhibition, and what she learned from freelancing. Plus, she talks about the Asian. Canadian artist she’s inspired by! – Mirae.
Mirae: Tell us a bit about your creative practice. How did you get into photography? What is the first photo you took that you were the most proud of?
Lucy: I am an artist and photographer working in Toronto. I’ve been doing art for almost my entire life. I started with drawing and painting when I was about four or five years old. I discovered my love for photography in high school, when I took a darkroom photography class. I loved that people can see the world through my eyes with the medium, and I loved the slow, meticulous process of shooting and developing your own film.
My first roll of film was shot while we were on a field trip to the Toronto Zoo. There was an image of a bee on a flower that I was so proud of, mostly because I was amazed that there was an image at all, as many of my classmates’ first rolls came out all black. And I was able to freeze a moment that was so fleeting. That really made me fall in love with photography.
What do you find most challenging about portrait photography? Do you carry certain intentions when approaching the subject?
I think the most challenging part of portrait photography is working with people. It’s the most challenging, the most engaging, and the most fun. Most people are uncomfortable in front of the camera, myself included, so it’s up to the photographer to get them to a place where they can deliver what the photographer needs.
A more established and wiser photographer once told me that every portrait you make is more a portrait of yourself than the person you’re shooting. They are always a reflection of your interpretation of them. I keep that in mind whenever I make a portrait, and how much power I have as the photographer. I usually think about what the image is for, how I want the person to come across, how they themselves would like to be represented, and whether that is authentic to who I think they are. I usually try to really connect and communicate with my subject, in order to get them feeling more comfortable, and also for me to get to know them better.
Your first solo exhibition, Da Pi Yuan, was an intimate documentation of remembering your childhood—the place where everything started and your grandparents who still live there. Alongside the photos, you included snippets from conversations with your grandparents in a bilingual back-and-forth. With the topic and content being so personal, what was the process like in putting together the exhibition, especially with its bilingual content?
Projects about personal history and family are always difficult since you are so close to the subject matter, and it’s difficult to draw out what means a lot to you and what will mean a lot to your audience on a universal level. It was definitely a challenging project for me to realize, as a lot of it went along with my personal growth, which is slow and meandering, and didn’t always deliver the results I wanted. It was hard to determine what exactly I was doing while shooting. In the shooting process I found myself relying a lot on intuition. Much of the project started to emerge and come together during the editing process. It was also then that I was back in Canada and had a little more space to reflect on my questions of culture and identity.
The bilingual aspect was also challenging, since even though I can speak and understand mandarin, I can’t read or write. I had to get a lot of help from friends and family in order to transcribe and translate my material. Although frustrating at times, I think through asking family and friends to participate in helping me translate actually made me feel closer to the culture and to them, by having that interaction. I chose to not have translations for my Chinese text so viewers will experience that language barrier I had to contend with in this project and in my life.
Why do you think photography is a powerful storytelling tool?
Photography is unique from other mediums because it offers the most realistic depiction of reality, although I would say photographs are far from objective. So I think people have very visceral reactions to seeing a photographic image. Real world changes have happened because of photographs. Certain photographs have become symbols of events in history, and the emotions associated with them. Photography is a powerful storytelling tool because it is immediate, real, and versatile. It can communicate and reflect, it can tell the truth, and it can lie.
How do you think you have evolved as a photographer since you began freelancing?
I’ve definitely learned that being a freelance photographer also means being a business person. I’ve learned the importance of building relationships, keeping your finances in check, and advocating for your own work. I’ve learned that my best work is always projects that I’m truly curious and passionate about, and it’s worth putting in that extra work to make something you’re truly proud of. I also think failure is inevitable and that it’s a gateway to getting better at what you do. I think before I was so much more afraid of failure that it would paralyze me, or I wouldn’t try at all. I’m still afraid of failure, but now I know that the feeling of fear is something I just need to push through.
What are some questions or themes you have been thinking about recently?
I’ve been thinking a lot about where I want to go next with my work, now that I’ve “finished” a major project. For my next project I’ve been thinking about food and culture. Related to the theme of culture and memory, I have a deep connection to the food from my hometown. I’m hoping to investigate people’s relationship to food in connection to their home and heritage. As well as the ways food, especially in Chinese culture, serve as a way to form connections, community, and a bridge to being accepted.
What’s coming up next for you in your creative career?
I’d like to really hone in on what kind of photography I want to do, what kind of projects I am passionate about creating, and how to make that sustainable as a career. I think naturally I am more interested in doing documentary-based work, and work rooted in storytelling. So I hope to focus more time on that. I would like to make more works involving writing, and expand perhaps into video and audio storytelling. Next year I’m aiming to create a photobook with the images I have from the Da Pi Yuan project, and hopefully publish my project on food and culture.
Lastly, what does being a “Canadian artist” mean to you?
Being a Canadian artist, to me, is being really fortunate to be surrounded by so many different cultures, voices, and stories; by such a vast and beautiful land, full of history and legends. There’s a deep well of inspiration, from all over the world, that’s just waiting to be explored.
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