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  • Encountering Czechia

    As a Chinese American studying in an English program in the Czech Republic, I am aware that I will never be able to communicate in the Czech language beyond kindergarten level. Photography, to a great extent, overcomes the language barrier and helps me expand my contact with the local people. In Prague I work with an 8x10 (20x25cm) view camera and directly present the resulting transparencies in homemade light boxes. The slow camera setup time is advantageous to chat with the portrait subjects. To them and sometimes the curious crowd, I am more a performing artist with a cumbersome contraption than a photographer. Although one sheet of film is both the means of image capture and the means of image presentation, it is not because I fetishize the one and only original. I enjoy mixing and matching LEDs of different luminosity and white balance, and then soldering them together to build the electronic guts for each film. Compared to my familiar hybrid workflow of shooting film, scanning it and editing the file digitally, there is this simplicity in the laborious manual manipulation which I found not only enjoyable but even therapeutical. Because of the inherent latency of film photography, my subject—having spent two to three hours for a shoot—receives no more than my promise to return in the future. In the digital era where technologies often provide us with instant gratification, this unusual wait time builds up our anticipation for the result. Once my subject sees the large format transparency in the dedicated light box, the anxious anticipation finally gets its reward. His or her extraordinary excitement is almost always guaranteed. The shared experience and deeper mutual understanding are what I am after, not only as a photographer but fundamentally as a human being.

    Europe has long had a dualistic tradition in viewing things. For example, the Enlightenment saw a North-South axis that divided the “humanist-Renaissance” South from the “barbaric” North. Since the end of WWII, it has gradually evolved into a “developed and civilized” West set against a “backward” East. Without extensive experience about a given country, we all tend to fall prey to this kind of oversimplified categorization. To rid myself of the stereotypical thinking about Czechia, I set out to identity the specific Czech cultural elements in food, clothes, tradition, history, the special sense of humor, irony, ideology and religion through talking with the local people, reading the literature and watching films. According to historian Bedřich Loewenstein, our self-image and that of the foreign are always related to each other. The concept of otherness actually shapes our own identity. Therefore the cultural competence in Czechia I hope to gain is not just for the practical reason as I live here. Any reasonable answer to “Who are the Czechs?” might also help explain “Who are the Chinese?” or “Who are Americans?” Ultimately, to "Who am I?" 

    In conclusion, whereas my need to connect with others on a person-to-person level determined the photographic project’s form to be analog from the capture to editing and to sharing, its content is populated by portraits of the people whom I have interacted with as well as what my Czech cultural exploration has taught me. Although I try to employ disparate visual strategies in different images, I hope my emotional consistency will still bind them together as a group.

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