Analyzing Different Versions of Self with Teresa Eng

Over the course of several months, photographer Teresa Eng took to the streets of Chongqing, China to capture young people in their natural habitat – that is, amidst neon colored LED lights.
Self/Portrait juxtaposes soulful images of passersby with their own self portraits, illuminated by the bright white backlights of their personal smartphones. On a surface level, the project speaks to the generation’s new found sense of individualism that has resulted from the country’s rapid transition toward capitalism. However, the diptychs also speak to something much more raw – indeed, each pairing is effectively an examination of appearances versus perceptions, reality versus hopes and desires. Eng took a few moments to speak in depth about her intentions and experiences surrounding the body of work.

You’ve spoken quite a bit on ​Self/Portraits’​ focus on millennials in particular. In your opinion, what makes their perspective particularly interesting or insightful?

I approached this project as a way of understanding the generation gap. As someone who is part of Generation X, we transitioned between the analogue and digital world so we’re more aware that the impact technology has had on society. There’s a perception that older generations have of millennials, that they’re narcissistic and shallow because they’re immersed in their phone and social media.

I was interested in what their digital world looked like and they engaged with it.  

I understand that you are a Vancouver native. Were you at all apprehensive about taking on a project that involved collaborating with strangers from a vastly different country and culture? Were you able to learn anything about yourself through the brief encounters with your subjects?

I was born and raised in Vancouver, but I am also of Chinese descent. So in China, I look familiar to locals which perhaps gave me more access, but as soon as I speak they knew that I wasn’t from there.  

Did you feel any sort of connection with the individuals you photographed? Do you feel that the act of making a portrait is an intimate one?

The subjects that I tend to approach possess some form of innocence. When I look at their faces, I see that they’re still trying to figure out who they are.

Were subjects eager to participate in your project? Or were they apprehensive about being photographed?

In China, it’s not very common to approach a stranger in the street to photograph them. They probably thought I was strange for asking! Most of the subjects were surprised to be asked. Some were quite shy and couldn’t understand why I wanted to photograph them.

There is a fleeting moment of intimacy with someone who agrees to be your subject on a public street for a few minutes. Then your paths separate again.

Can you say a few words about your decision to shoot this project with a medium format camera? With so many photographers opting for digital options, I’m curious as to whether the utilization of film was a conceptual or aesthetic choice.

I work better when I have fewer options. Shooting with film forces me to slow down and think about what I’m doing.

There is something poignant about using analogue processes to capture the digital world. There isn’t that instant feedback that everyone is used to with digital photography.

Your project focuses not only on the images you created, but the carefully crafted selfies produced by each of your participants. What can you gather just by looking at a person’s self portrait?

There’s an anthropological aspect to selfies. You can see each person’s lifestyle, hobbies, sexual orientation and other things that they feel are important them.

In China, millennials are the first to live in a much more individualistic society. Previously, their parents and grandparents generation were taught under the Cultural Revolution to be a collectivist society. I’ve recently discovered that social media is also an outlet to explore their innermost thoughts and feelings as these philosophical issues are rarely discussed face to face.

There’s also the homogenisation of beauty ideas in these selfies, particularly for women. In Asian, white skin, a shapely nose and big eyes are considered beautiful so beautifying apps are popular. As a result some of the selfies don’t resemble the person in real life.

What sort of differences did you notice in the photographs that you made independently as opposed to the self portraits you were presented with?

People are much more aware of their own image as a social media. As soon as a camera comes out, so does the constructed poses and angles. I’ve spoken to some millennials about this project. They would be happy to take tons of selfies but they would be nervous if someone else photographs them. I think it’s partly about control and how their image gets edited and shared onto the wider public.

Self/Portrait will be showing at “Snapshot to Wechat: A Migration of Identity” at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, UK from April 5 – June 17 2018.

All photos and text are courtesy of Teresa Eng.

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