Editor’s note: This piece is based on two sources: the 2014 joint photography exhibition Definitely Maybe, curated by Dustin Shum and featuring the works of Paul Yeung and Zheng Yaohua, and photographer Paul Yeung’s blog post published in HK01, two years after the exhibition. Perhaps not all readers have had the opportunity to visit the exhibition, but these two essays are well-worth reading for their viewpoints on how photography shapes memory, so I have combined the two here for your reading pleasure.
Curator’s Statement – Definitely Maybe – a joint exhibition by Paul YEUNG and ZHENG Yaohua
by Dustin Shum
The Travels of Marco Polo, the famous book detailed the Italian merchant traveller’s epic journey, was written by Rustichello de Pisa. Returning to Italy after his travels throughout Asia between 1276 and 1291, Polo was soon captured by enemy when he fought the war for Venice against Genoa. Imprisoned together, Polo told Pisa his fabulous stories which later became the renowned travelog. The book was sarcastically named Il Milione in Italian, meaning The Million in English, because in the words of Polo, everything in China was enormous, everywhere was flooded with people that million was the basic unit of calculation. Stories in the book were so surreal that contemporary readers found them hard to believe. Similarly, the works of Paul Yeung and Zheng Yaohua in this exhibition were also laid on the memory and experience of others. Will these works turn out to be another Il Milione?
While historians are still debating whether Polo actually visited China, depending on memory alone to depict an event is always unreliable. In a bid to assist people’s memory, note-taking, drawing and making use of machine like camera have been applied. If Polo travels to the East nowadays, he certainly will carry a camera to take pictures as evidences of his traveling. Even evidences of various kinds are produced, it is still certain that his credibility will be challenged by people with many doubts. In photography, personal experience, memory and credibility weave a tangled relation. However, since the beginning of digital imaging and the rise of social media platform, the roles and the relationships of these elements have significantly evolved.
In the era of analogue or silver halide photography, the priority usage of personal photography was as an autobiographical record of memory available in the form of family album. The function of photography as a record of memory and personal image collection has changed with the rise of social media platform and has begun to enter the public domain. Personal photography tacitly admits picture sharing with the public. The Internet witnesses the change of social structure and drives pictures inclining to serve the microculture. The function of photography as a record of memory is declining and is leaning to become a tool of identity formation.
Regarding the role of picture as memory, Roland Barthes mentioned the concept of “that-has-been” in Camera Lucida. He also pointed out the formation of our identities is closely related to memory. In pictures of our relatives and friends, while we can learn what their appearances were in the past (that-has-been), they also tell us how we want our appearances be remembered that we will shape our identities through these pictures. And since personal pictures have changed from personal experience to public sharing in social media platform, they begin to adapt to the value judgement of the observers and even their aesthetic senses. Polishing and editing photos to meet the contemporary visual narrative are now very common.
The evolution of photography from personal experience to public sharing can be seen in Zheng Yaohua’s On Their Sites, which was devised from Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site. Pictures in Sternfeld’s On This Site are places of tragedy that many of them are collective memories of the Americans. Traces of horror in these sites are hard to be found after all these years but the atmosphere of these tragedies still remains that the mysterious sense of “that-has-been” are portrayed. Living in New York, Zheng cooly scrutinized this foreign place as a foreigner. Stories unveiled in “On Their Sites” are daily trivia of ordinary people like glass beans falling off from a bracelet of a little girl, an experience of fighting with others when one was young. And all these pictures were taken in ordinary street corners where people pay little attention.
Pictures of Sternfeld’s On This Site have a feeling of nostalgia, just as stated in its subtitle – Landscape in Memoriam. In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, she wrote “Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos.” Deliberately, Zheng took these pictures during sunny days in order to reduce the melancholic elements. These plain and boring stories were not worthwhile to be “shared” and valued in public domain but then they could be important parts of one’s memory. Maybe they were “private monuments”, as Zheng wrote as the subtitle of the work.
The progress of digital technology offers the general public the power to shape their own identities or even memories. Paul Yeung felt unbelievable when he saw his own pictures in the family album taken in 1989. On one hand, he could not match the events occurred in these pictures with his fading memory, on the other hand, he also had doubts on the emotional expression of his own in front of camera. Using computer softwares, Yeung edited these personal pictures, adding in some symbols with special meaning of a distinctive epoch which were not available when these pictures were taken. It not only challenges the audience over their experiences and knowledge about Hong Kong history but also points out that the facticity and credibility of pictures are not indissoluble. Moreover, it also overturns the typical function of personal and family picture as autobiographical pictures. The year that these pictures were taken – 1989, also carry an implication that it speaks for itself. There were scientific researches indicating there is an adaptation mechanism in human body to forget in order to prevent one from becoming insane. The memory mechanism can only be efficient if we only store memory that are important to us but forget information which is unimportant and redundant. But then if such a mechanism is interrupted, mental problems will be caused. Therefore it is not surprising that Yeung forgot what he looked like in 1989 since the so-called eidetic memory is not available in human.
Photography itself is a media full of defects, it is also not a reliable tool for communication. It is very risky to depend on image alone. Just like the madeleine cake in the famous French novel In Search of Time, the author Marcel Proust wanted to let us know memory is not merely about visuals. Memory is synesthesia, which cannot merely be formed or stored by simple pictures, and is a complicated sense. Photography can be an impetus to generate memory but photography is the whole of memory. The works of Zheng and Yeung were created upon the blind spots of photography mentioned above. It is not the examination of objective conditions but our wills to believe in determining the truth.
In a press conference held after the crash of two high-speed trains in China, the Ministry of Railways listed out a number of dubious facts to cover up the accident. In order to pacify the many skeptical media, Wang Yongping, the ministry’s spokesman at that time, wrapped up the conference by saying “Whether you believe it or not, I believe it anyway,”. The line immediately became the most “famous quote” at that time. It can also be applied on the attitude of the general public towards photography in a era flooded with pictures that serious examination is neglected. It does not matter whether one believes anymore.
Exhibition happened in The Salt Yard in 3 May, 2014 – 15 Jun, 2014
A family album from 1989, showing what should not be seen
by Paul Yeung
In 2012, I created a series of photos entitled The Good Old days in 1989.
I had scoured my own family album to find out what I did in 1989, when I was at the age of 11.
My memory is bad and I only have murky memories of my youth. Thus, photographs have become the basis for exploring (or reconstructing) my past.
Preserving a touching moment? The haves and have-nots of family pictures
I probably don’t need to explain why I chose 1989. That was a tumultuous year in Hong Kong. Regarding the student movement in China, I can only remember three things:
The starting point for The Good Old days in 1989 was quite simple. It was just my attempt at understanding my life in 1989. What was I doing in one of the most turbulent years in recent history? Reminded by old photos, I gradually remembered that I went to a birthday part in someone’s home, rode a bicycle and shared a soft drink with my younger brother and sister at Ping Shek Estate, and joined a boat cruise organized by my father’s company’s along with my family.
What astonished me the most is finding a solo picture of myself taken on 3 June, 1989 at the book fair held at Sha Tin Town Hall (I assume?), showing me standing in front of piles of books.
Can the most personal family album reflect the times? Can family pictures reveal history through omitting specific social events? These family photos were mostly taken by my father as an emotional gesture to preserve an instant in his family life, but at the same time, were they not an attempt to constructing family memory? Advertisements often feature such slogans as “preserving precious moments”. Do photos of people flashing V signs and striking affected poses represent acts of construction, performance, or reflexivity?
Anachronistic details are right under your nose
People say that seeing is believing , but I decided to act as a dictator and change the history of my family pictures.
Every photo in the series has been altered and I added elements that do not belong to that time period. When exhibiting these photos, I did not let the viewers in on this at first, and observed how much they can figure out on their own.
The interesting thing was that some people did not notice these changes in detail. They simply did not pay attention. This kind of viewer is representative of a portion of image consumers who let images pass in front of their eyes but do not spend the time to comprehend or appreciate their content. This kind of viewer is not whom I want to talk about.
I am more interested in viewers who did notice that the photos have been doctored. On the whole, older viewers tended to be more aware of such changes, and this was not simply due to their power of observation, but their knowledge and memory of social history and occurrences.
This makes me wonder if, twenty years from now, the young people of that generation will know when Facebook first appeared, and when mobile phones became popular, and that Hong Kong had once been a British colony. Will they have heard of the June 4th Incident?
We may not notice that history has been changed or forgotten
This series of photographs attempts to explore the relationship between family photos and society (can private pictures reflect turbulent times?), and touch on the deceptiveness of family photos (because they seem more real, people do not expect falsification.) More interestingly, the exhibition was a test on whether viewers can spot that the photos have been altered, and if so, how? If not, why not? If we altered history and pass it on to the next generation, or if certain things are forgotten and do not get passed on, we can all become victims of such deception.
The Good Old days in 1989 is about forgetfulness and history, and yet ironically, for myself, my work and history, there are people today who wants to ignore history and refuse to learn about and mourn the past.
Paul Yeung is a freelance photographic artist and a part-time university lecturer teaching photojournalism courses. His work has been acquired by the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and private collectors. He is a playful introvert who likes to photograph off-beat and secretive subjects.
Originally published in HK01 Blog Post on 3 June, 2016.
Translation: Martin Wong (Dustin Shum), Simon Chung (Paul Yeung)