Notes on Photography

Cameras on smart phones are pulled out and scenes snapped as breathlessly as pointing a finger at something and saying, “Check that out!” Photography is a global transmittable form, unlimited in its immateriality and able to effortlessly bear the burden of truth.

My parent’s photos from China, Hong Kong and our early days in America are kept in photo albums which are stored underneath a counter in their kitchen. My dad was and is obsessed with picture-taking. He planned annual trips to the photo studio at the mall to get a proper family portrait behind a dull, splotchy blue background. My sister and I, dressed awkwardly in formal clothes, smiled uncomfortably when the bored teenage valley girl demanded. We didn’t get it then, but this ritual, these photographs were a big deal to my dad, and to a lesser extent, my mom. We seemed to go on holiday trips to Yosemite, Disneyland, or the Russian River just for the photo op. In middle school, when my basketball team had our team picture taken and I was the only kid who wore a t-shirt underneath my jersey, he scolded me for looking different than anyone else.

The function of photography today is a dense subject and one I’ll return to frequently, but I believe Chinese families like mine, newly settled in America, use photography to sort out their own figure/ground relationship in a new land. It’s a way to locate themselves in a foreign landscape and to picture themselves as ‘normal’ within it.

A few years ago, as part of her residency at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, artist Xaviera Simmons set up a make-shift photo studio on Jamaica Avenue, shooting free portraits of passersby in front of patterned fabric backgrounds. Etched on the faces of most of the people she photographed was the duality of New York: hard-headed resilience and open-hearted vulnerability. Many of her photographs are just straight-up beautiful in their frankness and it’s heartening to know that they’ll only look better as they get farther and farther away from their moment.

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