From Beijing

 

Images from the Family Spaces series featured in the November 2009 issue of Photoworld China magazine

(Text, English translation)

Beginnings

I grew up in Manila, Philippines where I lived in one home with my tight-knit family. We celebrated birthdays and holidays together with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. When my three siblings and I migrated to Somerville, Massachusetts in the U.S., the meaning of home and family unknowingly began to change and assimilating to the American way of life took priority. Several years later, after we had each started to move away from Somerville—me to California, one sister to New York, and my brother to Pennsylvania—we became even more disconnected from each other. The Family Spaces series has become a way for me to grapple with a new definition of family and home as it relates to my life today. It speaks of the physical absence of family in my life and my longing to be close to them.

Family Spaces did not begin as a solid idea. It evolved gradually, from a series of photographs taken years apart. It came together during a visit with my brother who had moved from the U.S. to Prague for work. While I was recovering from jet lag in his apartment, I started to think about the idea of a floor plan. What if I photographed my family members' homes in such a way that when viewed as a series, they appeared to belong in one home? I felt that I was on to something. I returned home, eagerly had the film I shot in Prague developed, then put the images together with pictures I had taken in Manila from a previous visit. It was then that the Family Spaces project was born.

Working Process

With the concept formed, I worked through the project having the diptychs in mind. When I first arrive at one of my family members' homes, I take time to observe the surroundings and mentally choose objects or locations that could possibly work for the series. I then examine the light and determine what time of day is best to make the picture. If possible, I shoot when there is no one else in the house so that I can work at my own pace.

Part of the joy of doing personal projects is the ability to try different things. For instance, I vary the depth of field in the image to see which one conveys the emotion that I want in the picture. Or, I walk around the location or object, bending down or climbing up on a chair, to study various perspectives that might be interesting. Sometimes, but not always, images end up pairing well with each other during the editing process.

As much as possible, I try to photograph objects and places as I see them, including their imperfections. I try to be as authentic as possible. I want the images to reflect an emotional honesty—I think it is that subtle tug at the soul that draws a viewer to a picture.

My tools are simple. I use a Hasselblad 503CX camera with an 80mm lens. I sometimes put a 16 or 32 extender for the macro images. For film, I work with Kodak Portra NC, both ISO speeds of 160 and 400. By accident, I trained myself to shoot without Polaroids. On one of my trips to see my family, the airline had a strict one carry-on bag per person policy. Unfortunately, the Polaroid back and the film were taking too much room on my camera bag. I had no choice but to leave them behind. Since then, I've relied on my light meter and my field experience photographing in similar lighting situations. Although I prefer to shoot with available light, I do carry an off-camera flash just in case.

Each photograph tells a story drawn from my memories and experiences. In First Lamp in Somerville, 2007, the lamp is one of a pair that was given to my mom by an elderly lady, the aunt of the real estate agent who sold her our home. She threw them in for free when my mom bought an antique dresser from her. One sat on the night table near our beds while the other was in the second bedroom. It radiated a warm, dim glow. I found it difficult to read by it at night, but it was gentle on the eyes when we woke up on those cold, dark, and snowy winter mornings. Through the years, only one survived. The fate of the lamp was uncertain when my sister decided it was time for her to get her own place in Medford. And so, I photographed the lamp because it was a remnant of our early years as immigrants in America.

The Tsinelas (Slippers) remind me of the sound of my childhood. Everyone including our household help wore them at home. The thunderous noise from four pairs of tsinelas my siblings and I dropped from the 2nd floor down to the bottom of the stairwell meant it was time for lunch or dinner. The distinct staccato of footsteps on the wooden floor conjures up memories of the constant bustle of activity inside my childhood home.

Editing and Juxtapositions

The pairings align with the original floor plan idea: two images taken from separate locations, put together as if they belonged in one home. Viewing the series as a whole, I envisioned it to metaphorically define the word home and also to show the absence of family through the empty spaces.

Some pairings present contrasting ideas such as the Electric Fan and the Heater in Somerville. In Manila, my sisters and I shared a bedroom together. The electric fan was a fixture in each room in our home. It provided much needed relief on hot, humid days. The whirling noise from the fan was a constant companion at night, together with the sound of cats fighting and chasing each other on the roof. In Massachusetts, the heater kept us warm during the long winter season. It hissed constantly. Sometimes, I would hear tapping noises coming from the pipes and it would startle me at night. We kept the temperature at 68 degrees to save on heating bills. We walked around the house in sweaters, scarves and socks yearning in silence for the warm weather back in the Philippines.

In the diptych Marina's shoes and Rainy Day in Prague, I wanted to show the views from the window of my sister's apartment in Manhattan and my brother's place in Prague. Although they were both taken on an overcast day, each image conveyed a contrast in mood. My niece's shoes were bright and colorful and she decorated her window with stickers while my brother's window suggests a more somber mood conveying loneliness while living abroad alone.

Influences

While working on this project, I fell in love with Martina Mullaney's Turn In Series which I saw at the Fraenkel Gallery in 2005 and KayLynn Devaney's The Day to Day Life of Albert Hastings. They were quiet, beautifully composed and emotionally powerful images. I wanted to have those characteristics in my own work. The other photographers who have also influenced me are Alec Soth, Matthew Monteith, Stuart O'Sullivan, Mitch Epstein, Harry Gruyaert and Dinu Li.

“Listening” to the Pictures

Family Spaces is still an ongoing project. My brother has been re-assigned to Budapest and my older sister moved out of our home in Somerville to her own place in Medford, MA. I want to include those locations in the series. I also find that with each visit to Manila or New York, I see these spaces in a new light and I continue to photograph them. Someday, I hope to see this project in book form. Magnum photographer Alex Webb once said in a workshop I attended, "the pictures will dictate when the project is done." The series began this way and I suppose it will end the same way.