I’ve been pondering this image over the last few weeks, since I saw it at a symposium on Poetry and Image at the University of Canberra. The breadth of the conversation set off a thousand little shooting stars for me — quick glimmers of light that I’m hoping will enliven my writing about medieval illuminated manuscripts. This image in particular has stayed with me, stirring unformed ideas that are very slowly taking shape. What I’ve written here is the beginning of that process.
This is the work of William Yang, a photographer, who began the day of the symposium by showing a range of his black-and-white photographs, commenting briefly but mostly allowing them to speak for themselves. They were portraits, delicate and sensuous. In most of the photographs he showed us, he has written on the image itself, making use of lighter spaces, sometimes a naked arm or leg or back, sometimes clothing, sometimes carefully tracing the outline of the body with words. The narratives are short, carefully chosen and deeply moving in their simple honesty and intimacy.
The interplay of text and image was fascinating, but I gradually realised how much Yang was touching transgression, at least for me. There’s something about the old black-and-white photo from my childhood. My family couldn’t afford to take many photos, and once a film of 12 or 24 exposures was taken, we waited for them to be processed, hoping the light was right, that people weren’t squinting into the sun or there was no shadow of the photographer across it all. It was all quite clumsy and uncertain in a way, often with people too far away from the camera to see them clearly, smiling awkwardly. But the photos were precious, their shiny surface handled carefully, set into an album with black paper corners to hold it in, and tissue paper between the pages. Looking back at my parents’ photos, some are brown and tiny, softened into sepias that make each place seem a little exotic.
Photos were made for looking at, left to speak for themselves, or for each viewer to make of them what they would. They were set in time and place. A polite label underneath would give the simplest of guidance: ‘Auntie Jean and Uncle Bob at Healesville Sanctuary, Jan ‘59’, or ‘Me, 3, with my bike’. Technology has altered our relationship to photographs, but I want to stay with the materiality of the old style of photo, the one that Yang uses in his photo of himself at three: ‘Self Portrait, #2’.
A slight smile on his face, he holds the handlebar of his bike and looks just to the side of the camera. His little white suit is inscribed with the story of being teased at school in Australia as a ‘Ching chong Chinaman’. Bewildered, he had gone home and asked his mum,
‘Mum, I’m not Chinese am I?’ My mother said to me very sternly, ‘Yes you are.’ Her tone was hard and it shocked me. I knew in that moment being Chinese was like a terrible curse. I could not rely on my mother for help. Or my brother … who chimed in, ‘And you’d better get used to it.’
If you look at the photo here, the effect of image and story is visceral, almost a desecration, this moment of recognition of cruelty permanently etched across the whiteness of Yang’s little suit and his wondering face.
Visually, the usual separation of word and image are blurred, boundaries breached, but this is not a new idea, as the Book of Kells shows us. Nonetheless, the beautiful intricacy of word, letter and decoration in the ancient manuscript is different from the photograph, that single snap of time, a record of what seems to be ‘reality’.
Through the shock of defacing, Yang claims the value of his own words and his own story; the photo now speaks, argues, moves in two directions at once. The words physically and emotionally mark the world of three-year old openness with the struggles he will face. But at the same time, Yang’s bodily presence, his face and arms and legs are a defiant claim to his being, beyond racist attacks that attempt to reduce him to nicknames, rhymes and abuse. It seems that by writing across the photograph as an adult Yang claims that the moment — and perhaps any moment — apparently frozen in time, is not binding. The past is unshackled, and the present is therefore also freed.
And in this process, something interesting happens to the words themselves as they show a willingness to follow the contours of the body. At the beginning, they form into curves, follow the neckline of his shirt, and gradually straighten up in line with his belt and the shape of his shorts. Narrative adjusts its traditional lines, margins and squareness, shapes itself to physicality, and loosens its authority. In this meeting of word and image, both are changed.
There is much more to say, more glimmers of light, I’m sure, and this is just a beginning. Any thoughts?