Hi. I am gonna use this space to share my practice as an artist, photographer and facilitator with you. I am interested in drawing links between photography, belonging and the quality of our everyday life. In my practice I challenge the individualised notions of photographic practice, where the photographer-genius, who is however often invisible, attains the power of universal truth making through the camera technology. I do this by experimenting with how the power of constructing photographic truths can be shared and distributed through collective and intergenerational photographic processes. This piece is informed by my experience as an associate of AAA research network ( https://asia-art-activism.net/); as a co-director of the Gate Darkroom (https://www.thegatedarkroom.co.uk/); and a facilitator at Fotosynthesis (https://www.fotosynthesiscommunity.org/about-us/). Drawing specifically on my work at the Vietnamese Mental Health Services last year in London and my lockdown self-portraits “From The Floor To…”, this train of thoughts-collage reflects on the lack of community interactions in relation to the body, memory and mental health.
People died, zoom funerals happened, community spaces closed down.
How could we be together again?
Paris. March 2020. On stage. I am performing in a play about migration and support networks in a small Parisian theatre when covid19 kicks off. In my performance, I reveal and interact with images on stage. The physicality of the performance space, the rituals, the echoes, the synchronisation of bodies. The synchronisation of bodies in a space. The stories that bind them. What common circumstances drove them to be in that space together. What forces?
Some things don’t translate online.
London. March 2020. On bedroom floor. As everything around is crumbling down and covid19 symptoms are developing in us, with us, around us, I start looking for what I can hold onto, and end up spending time lying down on the bedroom floor. No tests are available. The wooden, hard and flat surface is comforting. I have always thought that floor space was underused in what I know of the Western world; relegated to children and pets. In non-eurocentric contexts, floors are sites of creation, repair, work and leisure. They are a moment of respite from the rising heat, a place to debate while sharing snacks, or to play music. At the same time, there are “things” that keep us alive: everyday we do the unpaid labour required to turn a house into a home. Everyday we wake up, observe, tidy, clean, cook, trimm, water, share food and wish sweet dreams to our loved ones. Even as people who have migrated to the UK. Even more so as people who have migrated to the UK. Keeping that sense of agency and care here makes us feel better.
I have been thinking about the domestic space in relation to movement and the body. The movements I do on stage are designed, choreographed, ethereal. The movements of domestic routine are strangely designed, choreographed, ethereal too, in their own way, with a different audience, or only with co performers, perhaps.
Here is a frame for us to meet. My attempt is to weave 3 scenes together: one night under lockdown when I flashed my feet repetitively; a photoshoot between my grandparents in Sài Gòn in 1954; a pinhole photography workshop with members of the Vietnamese Mental Health Services in London.
London. The following months. From the floor, that lower point of view, I take the liberty to bite into the night, taking self portraits when everyone else is asleep. Time is distorted. I wait for the sunrise. Strangely, it feels like an incredible privilege to be ill and stay awake at night. Have a roof above one’s head. In these photographs I reappropriate my own body parts. I use multiple and long exposures, a torch and the ready-to-hand darkness. Covid19 makes me aware again how -subtly yet violently- the environment reorganises our bodies, asking me to re-experience parts of my body anew as I create new routines in my home, as well as in public. In these photographs my limbs are disembodied, flashed, repeated, multiplied, morphed into other body parts, that they shouldn’t be directly connected to. There is a bodily syntax, the expected order of limbs. The arm leading to the hand, the lungs connected to the trachea. Which parts- invisible, internal too- are taken for granted? Which parts have been neglected in the process? Under lockdown restrictions, how does the body adapt to its new environment, to the new routines? When we are ourselves a threat to our loved ones. With no other body to resonate with, with no future prospect of encounter to reach out towards, it is atrophied, collapsed.
The French word “rabougri” comes to mind, a lack of attention that prevents the body from taking its own space, from growing. It is often used to describe the life cycle of fruits or trees. RA-BOU-GRI. Such an old-fashioned word. Who uses this word nowadays? Which part of me has stored it all this time? Saying it slowly out loud makes me feel good. Try it. RA-BOU-GRI. Google says that it translates as “stunted”. But when I click on the image tab for “stunted”, I find victimising and retraumatising imagery of children from the Global South. In and out of the frame of references, the pernicious cycle of material exploitation doubled by visual exploitation, penetrating all pores. These images are part of a system of image production that takes away power and agency from peoples who are (mis)represented in them. It is through this decontextualisation of human suffering that the Otherising machines operate, certain bodies becoming essentialised, perpetuating an unbearable social order.
So there is that lack of attention and its effects. The effects of a government that doesn’t honour its duty of care, refusing to attend to the needs of certain communities that are left to die. We commemorate the people of Grenfell, of Essex39, of Covid19. Who gets to live? What value can mourning take in a system that doesn’t value life? Has mourning become a ritual of forgetting? Under a government that chooses to wear blinkers and press red buttons and further marginalise those who are already marginalised.
And then there are the effects of unsolicited aggressive attention. The UK has become an even more hostile environment for foreigners, especially with Brexit and Covid19. In the street the anger and the tension of the people’s suffering is palpable. Racist looks in the streets that whisper or shout: suspicion, hatred. The looks that say you are unwanted, pestiferous, other. This is a moment when people seem particularly eager to find other bodies and unload their locked up emotional baggage. We are the bodies who are on the receiving end of that violence. A crowd full of victims, persecutors and saviours swapping roles incessantly.
Covid 19 has made social injustice and its foundations more visible to more people. The last few months have seen waves of deaths, disproportionately in communities that are already marginalised and precarious; the rise of anti-Asian racist attacks, the public lynching of George Floyd, anti-Muslim laws being enforced in France, to name just the few that keep on coming up on my news feed. Can we control what comes into our view without being oblivious to what is happening around us and within us? These events are opening difficult and complex but needed conversations around the model minority myth and anti-blackness in South-East Asian communities. Those conversations are global, cross-generational and bring new potential for practices of solidarity.
London. From body movement to memory. One of the images I create is of multiple disembodied feet across the floor. I feel the urge of making the body move again. In pointing the camera back at myself, I kept some sort of control. Does keeping a sense of agency make a space safe? A friend looks at the image of my feet and tells me that it looks as if the ancestors have come back to haunt me. Maybe the ancestors are coming close to me in their own way. How does body movement bring memory back? I remember an old photograph of my grandmother, my grandmother who is no longer, she’s cooking on the floor, squatting in the kitchen. If having our “feet on the ground” means keeping sane, being able to take care of oneself, could those feet be of the people who stand behind us or are by our side? Feet have a wide range of connotations across cultures. Foot binding in China started in the 13th century and was used as a proof of cultural superiority against invaders. Later on, Western discourses called the practice ‘backward’ and used it to justify a sense of superiority in saving Chinese women. The example of the Victorian “well-turned ankle” evokes promiscuity, especially for a woman who is “available”. But the feet are beginning to move, historically, in terms of all their relations. They are returning movement to a still image. The feet are starting to relate to other feet that have come before them.
London. From the floor to the print. On my computer I am looking for the photograph of my grandmother. I wish I could possess the REAL one, the printed image that’s been travelling since 1954, but no, it’s a photograph of the photograph, taken in my aunt’s kitchen with a cream table protector as background. I recognised the infinite octagonal pattern from another kitchen. The tablecloth is cushy and protective, in direct line to the domestic realm.
So I find the photograph on my computer. It is a site of struggle.
A cross generational minefield-mindfuck.
I think again about the movements I do on stage, the domestic routine and her squatting position.
The complexity of this image merges with the complexity of my own history. She was creating a dish. She was holding a gaze. She was at ease. She was wearing the clothes that she was wearing. She was using the tools she had. She was playing with the camera. Posing. She was beautiful, she was assertive, she was peaceful. She was. What am I trying to do by bringing this image here? Is there something specific that I want to make this image say? Do I have an agenda and if so, is it fair to her? He took the photo. He framed and organised the composition. He chose to pay attention to what had importance in his eyes. Was there any dialogue between them? Was he at ease? Or was he trying to keep control of something? Of someone? As a prolific photographer, my grandfather liked to capture my grandmother in various settings, sometimes the postures and backgrounds evoked domesticated gender stereotypes. Did she like those images of herself? Or did she feel misrepresented? Along with the “photographing agent” and the “photographed subject” are two bodies in a room, both passive and active in their ambivalence for each other. My gaze is biased because I am reading this image through my own experience of them. I am nonetheless incredibly grateful that those images exist, that they enable dialogue between family members and questions to be raised.
How is this image interpreted by someone who doesn’t know my grandparents or their historical context? There is a struggle here. Taken from its intimate context the image is now shared in the public sphere. Until now my grandfather has won the battle by literally writing his words on the image. At the back he wrote: “la bourgeoise fait la cuisine, 1954”. As a way to ridicule her? Maybe because she came from such a privileged background that she didn’t usually cook? In any case she is “othered” by him who came from a less privileged background. How are their class markers understood here and by who? I often hear that photography is a universal language but this is an illusion of togetherness. Because this image also speaks of class and how class markers would differ from one culture to another. Photographing so prolifically at the time is a marker of that. What questions can we ask an image?
Digging into the image, behind or underneath the interpretation, I’m not discovering THE truth, there isn’t a hierarchy of meaning, but hopefully meaning is being opened up, returning motion to the image, the cogs of my grandmother’s agency, and my grandfather’s. Complexifying a migrant family’s narrative. Complexifying the representation of bodies. And as we are exiting the stillness of this image, the maimed memory, the rigidity of gender roles and the photographer/photographed power dynamic, the oppressive patriarchal gaze starts fading.
Covid has forced me away from my usual practices of collaborative photography with people. Taking photographic practice as a social event, its rules are broken, and we can begin to address the structures “behind” representation. Who is doing it, how we are doing it and who we are doing it for. But these strange times have also revealed a new form of making images that connects experiences across generations, complex narratives often erased by mainstream history and media.
Workshop practice at the Vietnamese Mental Health Services.
Inside the cardboard box-turned camera. The pinhole camera is a DIY, cheap, fun and hands-on way of turning the power dynamic of the photographic medium upside down. Focusing on chance and basic optics allows us to reappropriate the medium. My practice tries to un-learn the expectations that we may have from images and embrace a multiplicity of points of view. I and the people I work with hypothesise about results based on the available light, the time of exposure and size of the hole, as well as welcoming chance and surprise. Photography as social space produces new realities with people rather than revealing truths.
How does creating our own tools affect our relationship to technology and the creative process? We take the time to build, by choice, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t use dslr or other types of cameras as well. When we build a reusable toy in which light and time and darkness creates memory and we enter the public space to rediscover what is our city, something happens. For those who are comfortable with it, we load the paper in the darkroom, our eyes getting to trust the darkness, as well as revealing the image in the chemicals. The only noble material we are using is fibre-based paper for the prints. This is a heavy, thick paper that weighs in your hands when you observe your freshly revealed print. It also undulates in a particular way when it is in the liquids.
Setting up the scene. Being a mixed-race French Vietnamese woman who moved to the UK in my adult years, I wonder about my position as a workshop facilitator in the Vietnamese Mental Health Services environment. The difficulties and perhaps psychological avoidance I’m facing are directly linked to my body and memory, and my own complex history. But the ruptures in transmission affecting diaspora communities is something we all have in common. We can’t always protect each other or even ourselves. The older generations want to protect their children from trauma and survive it themselves. Hence the gaps, the missing chapters, the missing languages.
My working as part of the Fotosynthesis team also affects my experience at VMHS. In Fotosynthesis’ methodology, the process is as important as the final result. It may sound like common sense but it is not always easy with the pressure of demonstrating results to funders. Fotosynthesis’ methodology “encourages experiential learning, ‘mistakes’, constructive criticism and positive discussions in order to:
– Include: make the voices of the least visible among us be heard
– Dialogue: create dialogues and community-led actions and analysis
– Reframe: explore and redefine complex identities and issues
– Ownership: take control of the narratives and identify solutions
– Transform: connect people, heal personal and collective traumas , reconcile.”
Who gets to decide what is tasteful and distasteful? A bad picture doesn’t exist. Through collective experience and the practice of photography, we question, observe, learn and constantly revisit our expression.
Autumn 2019. VMHS. I am spending several weeks working at the Vietnamese Mental Health Services near London Bridge. The charity was set up in 1989, as the result of a two-year research programme into mental needs among refugees from Vietnam who were forced to settle in London and UK wide. The organisation has developed considerably and provides a range of services to people from Vietnam with mental health difficulties as well as their families. The 12 week project is taking place indoors (darkroom processing, conversations and lunch) and outside the centre (to take the photographs we need daylight) with members who go there regularly. Every week we build a pop up darkroom in the room where classes, conversations and activities normally take place. One session will be happening at the Gate Darkroom in Woolwich. We are also building pinhole cameras made of cardboard boxes that we will carry on using for the rest of the project. This is called Light Conversations. Another part of the project is about photographing something we treasure and staging self-portraits. We are curating an exhibition of the photographs in the main space, the room where people have lunch, catch up, watch tv and play pool.
It is difficult for me to talk about my experience at VMHS. The complex relations of power that need to be negotiated, and their histories, continue to be negotiated. The relations of power in the Mental Health Service itself: bureaucracy, administration, evaluation, monitoring and surveillance. What is the charge for these ‘services’? The physical space for which rent is paid, the relationship between the state and the neurodiverse; the long history of the state’s pathologising of people. How do gender dynamics affect the history and experience of mental illness? What does it mean to be authentically Vietnamese? What is the charity’s commitment to the Vietnamese community? What is their duty of care, and how do they understand that?
My experience at VMHS highlights the lack of knowledge of people’s background and their histories in mainstream health services. The many conversations I’ve had with ‘service users’ and professionals there have exposed the many difficulties faced by people whose race gets in the way of being cared for. From my perspective as a photographer/artist/facilitator trying to challenge a “violent system of continual exposure” (Mark Sealy), this is a reminder that institutionalised approaches to mental health can have the effect of detracting from analysing and challenging the root causes of such difficulties in the environment we live in. Under these circumstances, one can complexify the narratives and compose with and through various levels of agency. Here, experimental photographic practices respond to the work of grassroots organisations.
Western mental health concepts are difficult to translate. The focus on symptom identification and individual progress in Western therapy can preclude interconnectedness and harmony in everyday life. The article Validation of a Vietnamese Mental Health Recovery Scale for Vietnamese refugees by Matthew Sheng Mian Lim, Angela Byrne, Jack Shieh, Quang Tấn Hồ (staff at the Vietnamese Mental Health Services) & Oliver Mason, exposes recovery approaches that promote a view of health and wellness that is defined by service users’ perspectives rather than professional opinion:
“Mental health recovery, as conceived by the biomedical (disease) model, is equated with the reduction of psychiatric symptoms on diagnostic tests. Though these efforts to reduce distress and disability are worthy goals, they often discount service users’ perspectives and result in a narrowed understanding of health and wellness. The move away from privileging health professionals’ perspectives have led many to think of recovery in terms of the good life through illness rather than after illness.”
The Vietnamese Mental Health Services provide the only Vietnamese bilingual talking therapy in the UK, and are under threat of being shut down. Switching from one language to another in managing anxiety and recalling traumatic events can be both destabilising and sometimes a way to cope. Because interpreters are not trained in therapeutic methods, and that they often change from one session to the next, trust is very hard to build. A literal translation in this context is not helpful, what is needed is a better sense of the broader context. Small charities like the VMHS are grassroot organisations working for the benefit of the many families here. Some second generation Vietnamese were attracted to the service even if they could speak English because of the unique cultural understanding of the service.
If the VMHS close, all members will have to rely on mainstream mental health service providers. These mainstream mental health service providers have not been able to meet the needs of the community. In the past, these out-of-touch services have increased social isolation and contributed to a decline in well-being and a worsening of health.
Inside the time travelling darkroom. This is an enjoyable experience even for people who photograph regularly or even for those who have worked in the industry. I am thinking particularly of Bác M. As we are revealing images in the darkroom Bác M. tells me about the chemicals he used to mix when he was working in a photographic lab in the 1940s in Vietnam. Surprised, it occurs to me that he may be one of the Lai Xá villagers who worked in the photographic industry that I had read about. He was surprised I knew of the place, and he goes on to talk about his expertise. He even remembers the gestures he used to do. They make me think of the designed, choreographed, ethereal movements I did on stage. A gentle swaying with body and arms to mix the chemicals. Which part of him has stored those all this time? In 1892 Khanh Ky, the ‘founding father’ of the craft, opened his first photographic studio in Lai Xá, near Hà Nội. The industry develops until 60 percent of the villagers -mainly farmers-learnt the new trade to meet the demand in portraiture.
November 2019. From the darkroom to the exhibition space. As we are finishing to set up the exhibition and about to celebrate the 30 year anniversary of the VMHS, we are talking about having the exhibition travel, showing the work produced in contexts outside of VMHS. There is a long consent process and a consensus on the fact that the images will not be shown without the participants’ involvement in the decision making process of the organisation and the curation. What is a way to showcase this work so it is not being used to further certain agendas or ideology? How to honour this work outside of VMHS when outside is not safe? The word ‘safe’ is deceptive, it evokes a fixed state, passivity, an absence of danger and risk and harm. But through which processes do we get to feel at ease to be? A safe space is not merely a space but an environment that is in a constant process of co-creation through the attention and actions of those who interact in and care for it. The environment adapts to the people rather than the people to the environment. Who would the photographers of this exhibition like to invite, how would they like to organise it and what does that environment look like?
Under the current lockdown conditions, I have not been able to be in touch to discuss this further.
People died, zoom funerals happened, community spaces closed down.
How could we be together again?
London. November 2020. Even in moments of extreme isolation and far from our communities, we are connected. Keeping the mind in use, keeping the body in use. I think again about those night sessions and how physically demanding they were. I think of the ritual: 30 seconds to come up with several pauses: sitting and standing and turning and moving hastily. A way to keep moving when it’s not allowed. Moving the feet, flashing them, moving the feet, flashing them again. Encore et encore. Repeat. Flash. Waiting for long seconds until the image appears at the back of the digital camera. The 3 scenes will continue to haunt me. How is the body? Always active, more or less controlled, more or less with agency. The images of those 3 scenes are now moving in a particular way that I/we have to attend differently. Separation is melting.
This is pushing me to consider the conditions of my own solidarity. What kind of solidarity is possible among migrant and refugee communities past and present? As the government is cutting resources and attempting to regroup differently racialised populations within the same and homogenising framework, what interconnectedness, interdependence and creative joy can emerge in and through the differences that have shaped us?
Solidarity! VMHS are raising some money to grow and continue their work. Any contribution will make a big difference: