the compassionate lens: fish at handshake 302

Since the invention of cell phone cameras, most of us take more pictures in a day than we used to in a week or sometimes even a month. We take pictures of ourselves, we take pictures of landscapes, we take pictures of friends, and we take pictures of cats. Many, many pictures of cats. The question, of course, is what are we doing? What desires do these pictures represent? What is the story behind a selfie or the truth capture in a photography of a sleeping kitten?

When we start thinking about these questions, we beginning examine the philosophical debates about documentary photography and film—what can be known or “captured” in the shutter click of a lens?

On Saturday afternoon, April 13, we had a chance to discuss these questions with Fish, the April “Natural Village” artist at Handshake 302. By any definition fish is an “organic” documentary photographer and filmmaker. Seven years ago, she migrated to Shenzhen, finding an apartment in Xinzhou, one of the Futian urban villages. It was in Xinzhou that Fish first picked up a camera and it was in Xinzhou that she cultivated her gentle curiosity about and began documenting the lives of those around her.

Not unexpectedly, salon participants discovered traces of Fish’s relationships with her subjects in many of the photographs. Was the shopkeeper smiling because she had just remembered a happy occasion or was she smiling shyly because Fish was photographing her? Did the customers realize Fish was in the shop taking pictures or were they so used to her presence that the camera itself was already part of the environment? As we tried to figure out the true story behind each image, our questions became a kind of collaborative detective work; what had Fish actually photographed?

Fish herself explained that she understood her work to be one interpretation of many possible interpretations of that place and moment, neither definitive nor completely random. To the extent that the image was one possible documentation of that moment, no photograph revealed definitive truths about the residents of Xinzhou, Dafen, or Baishizhou. However, to the extent that the portraits had been taken in a particular moment and place, we did learn something about Fish’s subjects. But what? We kept pressing for answers, what truths did we learn from Fish’s photographs?

In fact, Fish has ten rules for photographing strangers and all of those rules—from being polite and always keeping her camera visible, to accepting the fact that a subject can change their mind about being photographed at any point in the process—allow her to transform strangers into acquaintances. Consequently, in many of her photographs we see the gentle unfolding of a relationship and the possibility of human connection. And maybe the truth of Fish’s photography isn’t something we can know about the residents of Shenzhen’s urban villages. Maybe the truth of Fish’s photography is our response to the invitation in these photographs to make a human connection.

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