It seems like everything can be traced, but then when it comes to exactly when something happens, begins to evolve, and eventually results in something coherent and meaningful, it is not always possible to tell.
“Whether it is drama, photography or pottery, they are all the same to me. Self-expression is what they are.” Ever since her father gave her a Polaroid more than 20-years ago, Karena has been viewing the world through that square-shaped viewfinder. “It doesn’t have a widescreen like an anamorphic lens, but I like it just the way it is. I have to think and choose carefully what to include in the frame. When I look at things, I often look really closely.” So close, that it feels as though everything is within reach.
“It’s like a ritual of waiting. And I really like rituals. When taking pictures, I slow down, stay quiet, and then observe, focus, and gaze. For the people and things that I care about, gazing upon them is very important.”
Since childhood, Karena has noticed how she is different from the people around her — being way more sensitive and perceptive. “For a while I just wanted to shut it down.” It wasn’t until later that she realized that sensitivity varies from person to person, as if everyone has an antenna that is unique to them. “When I think about how I can pick up the very subtle things and put them into my work and daily life, I am not scared anymore, and allow myself to be vulnerable.”
After becoming a mother, Karena gets to feel the genuine existence of freedom in her daughters. The long gone curiosity and desire to probe and explore came back to Karena once again. “I feel like I am growing with my kids. I had a Polaroid that captured my eldest girl’s first trip to the beach. The sand must have given her this tingling feeling which she had never felt before. She stood still just like that.”
There are things that you want to hold onto. “Photography is something very mysterious. I don’t want to just record reality, I want to capture an impression.” Often, the photos carry no significant meaning at the time they were taken. Yet as time goes on, as things happen, and as coincidences occur, the images transform, just like how a dough ferments over time. The water stains, mildew, color-degradation, and the lapse of time brings meanings. The past becomes relevant once again.
As if taking pictures would change something. Or maybe not.
“The French photographer Bresson said that when you press to shoot, the present moment is obliterated. There were times that I couldn’t press the shutter button. Back then when my dad was sick and staying in a hospital in Canada, I brought along my film camera when I visited. We chatted, and he fell asleep. I didn’t dare to take pictures, because it looked like he had gone when he was deep asleep.”
整理二十多年的人生，排成了三本攝影集，細碎與巨大在重疊，很小卻又很大。「我覺得當照片慢慢褪到很淡，就跟一個人的生平一樣，尾聲時開始慢慢忘記，可能會一片空白。」尤其現在疫情，面對分隔兩地的媽媽漸漸老化，「聽媽媽聊他們的日常，我都會覺得，現在離我很遠。聽她說每天重複要面對的事，有時忘記了日子、住在哪、甚至忘了基本、如何刷牙。是那樣的真實。」日常和人，慢慢在褪，像回到最初。「我看媽媽男朋友的照片，他看起來好像…回到嬰兒的模樣，很白晳，眼光如同孩子，那讓我感覺到，嗯，this is life。」
Over 20 years of records condensed into three Polaroid books; a record of the fragmented as well as the unscathed parts of life. “I think the fading of colors is similar to how a human ages. At the end, everything goes blank.” The pandemic has separated Karena from her aging mother. “Listening to my mother talking about her everyday life gives me this distant feeling. She tells me her routine. Sometimes she forgets about the time of day, where she lives, and even the very basics like how to brush her teeth. It’s so real.” The everyday life and the familiar faces slowly fade, everything goes back to where it starts. “I look at the picture of my mother’s boyfriend, he looks like…he has become a baby once again. His skin is so pale, and he has eyes like a child. That makes me feel, well, this is life.”
Something new, happening for the very first time, creating sparkles in the eyes. Frozen, just like that very first encounter with the sand. She said that it takes five to eight minutes for the Polaroid to develop.
「我覺得很多東西是由self開始的。」女兒很小的時候在街上哭，她第一時間張開雙手抱她入懷由她哭。「我也很樂意讓女兒知道我很脆弱，她們很可愛，會反過來安慰我說：it’s ok mami，我們都有good day和bad day，你今天只是在經歷一個bad day，明天就會good的了。」
“It’s a mixed feeling. I don’t necessarily want others to know what I’m thinking. Photography gives me a little space.” Communication without words, maybe that can allow us to see one’s true self more clearly.
Bresson also said, “No matter what one does, there must be some kind of connection between his eyes and heart.”
“Probably due to their limited vocabulary, children are very thorough when they speak.” Their words flow into our ears, turning into sparkles, slowly dissolving all the unknowns, traumas, nightmares, anger, frustration, sadness, and things that happen over and over again. They are not a coincidence. As you grow with your children, you will eventually find the answer. “Just cry. Have a good cry. When it’s over, you’ll think, ‘It’s ok. I forgive you. I forgive myself. I forgive them. I forgive everything.’”
“I think a lot of things start with ‘self.’” There was one occasion when Karena’s daughter broke down on the street when she was still very young. Karena held her close and let her cry in her arms. “I’m happy to let my daughters know that I am fragile as well. They are cute because they’d comfort me and say, ‘It’s ok Mami. We all have good days and bad days. It just happens that you are going through a bad day. It will be good tomorrow.”
「你有看過電影《And the Ship Sails On》嗎？Pina Bausch演一個失明的公主，她可以感覺到危險的氣息，她看不見，於是六感變得更強，她可以命名每個人是屬於哪一種顏色，從人的氣味、聲線、怎樣表達自己、聲音裡面的重量。」
She found peace in pottery. The repeated movement of the spiral wedging allows her to put aside the logical way of thinking. There is rhythm in the repetition. “There is a space in there that I desperately need. A quietness.”
“Have you ever watched the movie And the Ship Sails On? Pina Bausch plays a blind princess who can sense danger. Due to her blindness, her other senses are more developed. She can tell which color a person belongs to from their smell, their voice, how they express themselves, and the weight in their voice.”
Ah Dou, who helped her with the design of the book, has been there since the first volume of Voyages was published in 2009. Karena had thought of letting Ah Dou do the books’ layout for her but in the end she just couldn’t let go. To her, there are stories and memories in every picture.
“At the end, I asked him what he felt with all the three Voyages sitting right in front of his eyes. He said, ‘So quiet.’”
“Is it because of this quietness that you falter?”
“Ah Dou, it’s okay. I belong to quietness. If it’s me, it’s fine and I am not worried. I want to be honest, not for anyone.”
前陣子她跟一位摩洛哥攝影師聊到「美是什麼」，她將一個裝了水的玻璃杯放在桌子邊緣，「To me it’s beauty。它不穩定，有些危機，令你有一種無力感，該接著它？還是不接？」看著脆弱，她這樣說。
想起了這句電影對白：「Never look away, … everything true is beautiful.」
“Being quiet doesn’t mean that it is without emotion. I think anything indiscernible is usually more powerful.”
A while ago, she had a conversation with a Moroccan photographer on “What is beauty?” She put the glass filled with water on the edge of the table and said, “To me, this is beauty. It is unstable, fragile, and makes you feel powerless. Should I catch it? Or not catch it?”
Beauty is a feeling.
I thought of this movie line, “Never look away, … everything true is beautiful.”
林嘉欣的攝影集《Voyages》一至三冊，可於TASCHEN Store Hong Kong購買。
Karena Lam’s Polaroid books, Voyages (vol i, ii, iii) are available for purchase at TASCHEN Store Hong Kong.
Venue / TASCHEN Make up / Will Wong Hair / Bart Choi Outfit / Simone Rocha, Bvlgari