Gloria Wong’s photography explores identity, the family unit and Canada’s Asian diasporas

Every image in the Vancouver-born photographer’s portfolio displays an extraordinary level of care and consideration.

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Date
17 August 2020
Reading Time
8 minute read

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Gloria Wong’s first encounter with photography came at the age of 12, when she inherited her aunt’s “old point-and-shoot”. From that point onwards, “there was something about having a camera in my hand that felt very natural to me”, she says, recalling that she would at that age take photos of everything and anything. While her interest in photography continued throughout high school, Gloria didn’t start taking the discipline seriously until she did a summer-long arts course at Emily Carr University, where she would eventually go on to study for her BFA.

Born and raised in Vancouver, Gloria is the daughter of two immigrants to Canada from Hong Kong; her parents migrated shortly before the handover of the city in 1997. Much of her work explores themes of identity, family history, diaspora, and migration. Indeed it was her project sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”) that really stood out in her portfolio – for the exquisite detail picked up by the large-format camera, the soft and delicate tone of the images, and the careful and considered composition of the portraits.

One of Gloria’s many skills is finding something that seems ordinary or mundane on the surface, and then imbuing that object or place or scene with a far deeper meaning, whether that be through the context of the images it sits alongside, or through some hidden detail that is only revealed slowly or obliquely. On top of this, the thought that has gone into every frame is abundantly clear. That’s why, in a highly competitive year for photography graduates, we felt Gloria deserved a spot on the final list.

GalleryGloria Wong: sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”)

“I’m trying to hold on to a relationship with both the cultures I’ve grown up in.”

Gloria Wong

It’s Nice That: What's the most valuable lesson you learned during your time at university?

Gloria Wong: One of the most valuable things I learned during my time at university is how to appreciate critique and feedback, but also to know when to trust my own instincts. I’m grateful to have been part of a small and supportive photography cohort and the critiques that were given often came from a place of care and really wanting to see each others’ work develop further. In the four years that we were at school together, our familiarity with each others’ practices also allowed for a lot of honest conversations that were instrumental in developing my practice. Constantly seeing my work in dialogue with others also frequently pushed me to consider my images in another way. While feedback is incredibly valuable, it is also important to know how to filter it and when to trust yourself. Learning how my images are read from a different perspective is helpful but at the same time, I think it is also important to know my own voice among all of this and to balance critique with my own impulses.

GalleryGloria Wong: sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”)

GalleryGloria Wong: sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”)

INT: You say on your website that your work explores the nuances and complexities of East Asian diasporic identities. Tell us a bit more about this.

GW: I once had someone describe my work as sitting on “cultural fault lines”, a space where home and displacement meet, and where multiple cultures intersect and diverge. A lot of my practice has been informed by the experience of growing up in an Asian-Canadian household. Much of my family history has been marked by migration, with my grandmother originally coming from Macau and my parents immigrating from Hong Kong. I hesitate to only identify as Chinese-Canadian, because both Macau and Hong Kong are in the process of negotiating the consequences of their colonial histories, caught in a liminal space that isn’t fully Chinese but also not fully Portugeuse or British respectively either.

There’s a really beautiful quote by Justine Kurland in an interview I read where she refers to domestic labour as “the work it takes to stay related”. I feel like that sums up a lot of my practice too. I’m looking at family and the work it takes to maintain these familial relationships but at the same time, I’m also trying to hold on to a relationship with both of the cultures I’ve grown up in, negotiating all of this within the context of the domestic space.

GalleryGloria Wong: sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”)

With my images, I’m interested in visualising this identity through people, gestures and objects while avoiding stereotypical signifiers. A photograph of hangers and clothes drying might seem mundane but when placed in context with an image of a similar practice in Hong Kong, it speaks to how cultural nuances have been carried over and adapted in the process of migration.

I’m drawn to taking photographs of things that might seem ordinary or commonplace but can point to larger issues around identity, family and diaspora. With the images in sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”), I was specifically looking at the “in-betweens” that exist in domestic spaces, between care and neglect or belonging and alienation, and how my sense of self can often feel fractured or fragmented because of the diasporic condition.

The photographs in this work depict things that often act as protection but with a closer look, have been rendered delicate or vulnerable – from a pair of socks that has been ripped from constant wear to the frailty of my grandmother’s hands wrapped around my mother in a gesture of care.

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Gloria Wong: sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”)

“The margin of error in every shot is so big that it forces you to slow down and really consider every part of the frame.”

Gloria Wong

INT: Your photographs often have such a delicate, considered and tranquil atmosphere. How did you develop that style, and in what ways do you feel that aesthetic suits your subject matter?

GW: When I first started taking photos, I didn’t really have any access to lighting equipment and so I became very familiar with natural light. Vancouver is usually quite grey most of the year and so I learned to make the most of the light that was available, teaching myself how to adapt to a number of different lighting situations under these conditions. While I’m more comfortable with using studio lights now, I still prefer to use softer, diffused natural light and I think that is something that has become an important marker of my aesthetic now.

A lot of my visual language has also been influenced by the work of the faculty I studied under. I was very lucky to have been taught by Birthe Piontek and her work has had a big influence on me. She was always open to having conversations and discussions with us and she often helped me work through things that I was struggling with. Although her classes were very technical, she taught me to consider the poetic quality of objects and how they can act as stand-ins for ideas that I’m interested in exploring.

GalleryGloria Wong: sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”)

Towards the end of my second year, I picked up the 4x5 large-format camera and it completely changed the way I make images. The process of this medium in itself feels very delicate to me. The margin of error in every shot is so big that it forces you to slow down and really consider every part of the frame. Because of this process, I began to really notice the details and beauty of everyday mundane spaces.

As much of my work deals with issues around identity and family, I feel a responsibility to have a certain level of care and sensitivity towards my subjects in making my images. I try to approach photographing still lifes with the same consideration that I would portraits and I think that an image of a messy bed or a pair of socks has the potential to say just as much about a person.

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Above

Gloria Wong: sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”)

“Research is necessary with the subject matter I’m dealing with so that I’m not contributing to harmful representations.”

Gloria Wong

INT: Tell us about your creative process. How do you go about making images, from start to finish?

GW: My creative process often starts with a good amount of research and reading before I actually take any photos. The photography programme at Emily Carr also places a lot of emphasis on understanding the history and contexts that your work exists in and that has become an important part of my process now. While I get a lot of ideas just from having conversations with family and friends with similar diasporic experiences, I feel that research is also necessary with the subject matter I’m dealing with so that I’m not contributing to harmful representations.

The actual making of an image probably takes the least amount of time in my process as shooting large format requires a lot of preparation before actually setting up the camera and taking the photo. The film backs have to be cleaned and negatives have to be loaded in a very specific direction in the darkroom before you can make any images. All of this makes me very intentional about the images that I’m making. By the time I pull out the camera, I usually already have a subject or image in my head and all that’s left for me to do is compose and frame the shot. I try to only take one or two shots on the large format but if I’m shooting in an environment that isn’t as easily accessible again to reshoot in, I’ll also do an exposure on medium format just in case. After this, the negatives are unloaded into a light-tight box and sent to the lab to develop. I often prefer to scan my own negatives as opposed to having a lab scan for me as it allows me to pull colours and tones out of my images and fine-tune the scans to my own aesthetic, making editing a lot easier.

GalleryGloria Wong: sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”)

GalleryGloria Wong: sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”)

INT: What are your future plans? Are there any projects you're really looking to get into in the coming months? Any challenges you're looking forward to tackling?

GW: I’m looking forward to finishing a series in Hong Kong when travel restrictions lift. The work looks at the transitional nature of spaces during the process of migration – as the last of my family in Hong Kong is moving to Vancouver against the backdrop of the current political situation there – placing images of their apartments in juxtaposition with the homes of my family in Canada. I hope to be able to make this series into a photo book once it is fully realised. Apart from this project, I’m also in the early stages of developing a project about Asian-Canadian diasporic experiences outside of the home and looking at the more communal elements of this. Although I know a number of photographers started making work about home during quarantine, I find that I’m now desperate to make images outside of this space. I’ll be having my first post-grad show this winter too so that’s something else I’m excited about!

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Gloria Wong: sik teng mm sik gong (“pardon my Chinese”)

The Graduates 2020 continued!

This year, we were so overwhelmed by the quality of work submitted by graduates,
we decided to showcase another 24 of the next generation’s top talent.

Click here to meet them!

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About the Author

Matt Alagiah

Matt joined It’s Nice That as editor in October 2018. He was previously executive editor at Monocle magazine. Drop him a line with ideas and suggestions, or simply to say hello.

ma@itsnicethat.com

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