When stepping into the public space,
Stepping into the public space,
Into the public space,
Shift the shame, bend the gaze, reframe the pain, reclaim the game?
When stepping into the public space, whose gaze am I walking into?
In response to the acts of racism and sexism I recently experienced when stepping into the public space, I created these images, made with a simple shoe-box camera. Creating new realities from a darkened room of my own is a way to imagine, think and push the limits of what I can do. In which areas of my life do I want to take back control and how do I want to retrain my perception? Where do I need to foster connection to reinforce my own vision?
I have been thinking about how to respond to violence: medical, financial, systemic, you name it. I would like to identify them better, to try out many strategies against them. I am inspired by the women in my life, past-present-future, in-the-flesh as well as virtual and centenarian, who I get to meet through their writing, their food, their songs. I am grateful for their creativity when it comes to redirecting, resisting, challenging, facing, responding and healing from violence. I’m impressed by their ways of sharing knowledge and initiating change. I want to orbit their gaze.
Like them, I try to feel, visualise and articulate what I need. I bring to my mind the gazes that envelop me, encircle me and challenge me in my growth with love and attention, with patience and generosity. The positive gazes that act like forces around, with which I connect from my own internal power. They may be strangers’, lovers’ or trusted friends’. There is always an intimacy in the interaction. We meet. At times I wish for a gaze that accompanies me in my fury. A caring gaze that is not one that seeks to protect but one that trusts one to trust oneself. Those gazes are listening ears and shoulders to wet with large warm tears, they make me feel heard, make me rise and move, rise and move... At their best they are liberating.
After being insulted in the street in front of Specsavers, a bit shocked, I decide to tell the optician: “It happened to me just now, before entering this place”. “I can’t believe people still say things like that”, he says, as he carries on the examination. He is a young South Asian British man. I wonder what awareness he has of my contexts and struggles, and what awareness I have of his. How could we meet? I can read the letters of the eye test: “C, D, E, F, L, N, O, P, T, Z.” “No, that lens is not better than this one for the left eye...yes, there is a slight difference between these two lenses for the right eye.” Even if he wasn’t dismissive, I couldn’t help wishing that he had stopped what he was doing for a bit longer. That we would have a chat. That he had offered me a glass of water. Shared an anecdote about something that would resonate with my hurt. Or a strategy. A joke, even. I desperately needed to exit the isolation I was in, a sense that he too, believed that it is everyone's responsibility to better be present for each other in defying racist and sexist gazes that fail us all. And that it is a priority. I ordered my prescription, paid for the test and left the shop. Outside of Specsavers and to my relief, the shouting man had gone. I walked back home, 10 minutes away.
When I step into the public space, I remind myself that this is my environment too. I remind myself of my inner power, in my body, and that I have the right to be. I share this environment with other species too. I remind myself that I am also held by the people who are making small changes in their life, everyday.
A safer space, is it that much to ask? Isn’t that everyone’s responsibility? Why is it not taught at school?
Anecdote with a photographer the other day:
He walks into the room with voluminous phallic technology around his neck, notices with excitement the view through the large window behind where I am sitting.
I could hear his brain ticking: my presence/figure happened to be there, as if I too, was part of the landscape. “Can I take a picture?” He asks, with the same excitement and already his hand is on the shutter release button. I say “no”, just in time.
He shows signs of having heard what I said but brings his phone over to me to show me his instagram page. He boasts: “I assault people all the time! This is the photography I do!”
I remember the words they said:
Are you a gold digger?
Are you Japanese?
I could have children with you, 2 or 3.
J’te bouffe la chatte.
I remember the aggressivity in their body language, their threat of rape. Their sense of entitlement. Their false belief that they can just take the whole space. The whole-bloody-public-space. Where does violence start?
I remember the environments where uninvited gazes and words have hit the side of my face:
In the corner shop
In the park
In the streets
Walking into Specsavers
At the swimming pool
In the woods
On the motorway
At the train station
On the tube
I also remember the times when people have expected me to disappear, or shrink. When an elderly couple hastily walked towards me on the narrow path through the undergrowth in the woods, the pace of their marching feet indicated that they had no intention of slowing down to acknowledge my presence. On the contrary, they expected that I would step aside and let them go through. The 2 extremes of my racialisation in the UK public space: exoticisation/sexualisation and/or erasure. I know that they are far from representing the whole spectrum of violences affecting ESEA communities, BIPOC and LGBTQI+ communities, and that my experiences reflect an infinitesimal part of the problem. I remind myself that the clock is ticking. However infinitesimal the part, this is the part I am able and willing to act on, right now. I remind myself that I do not want to become like them.
Now, what conversations need happening and by/with who? How to nurture and cultivate the positive gazes?
I remind myself that this is not just a problem at the level of the individuals who perpetrate or are on the receiving end of these violences, but that all violence is interconnected and that this hostile environment has been carefully engineered. I repeat to myself: I am here and won’t walk away from myself any more, nor will I ignore or forget about people whose complex contexts are different from mine.
Creating new realities from a darkened room of my own, I ask: what can writing/drawing with light do to shift the shame placed on women? Creating images, collectively, in the public space, by trusting our own visions is a way to experience the streets like a playground, to participate in and build our environment. We are set in motion.
Holding onto the ‘I/eye’, equipped with a darkened photographic room, now I can bend light and I can bend gazes. I seek to express in full precision and sharpness while embracing shortsightedness, movement and blur as strategies to resist violence and step into belonging.
Again, like a refrain: I try to visualise and articulate what I need. I bring to my mind the gazes that envelop me, encircle me and challenge me in my growth with love and attention, with patience and generosity. The positive gazes that act like forces around, with which I connect from my own internal power. They may be strangers’, lovers’ or trusted friends’. There is always an intimacy in the interaction. We meet. At times I wish for a gaze that accompanies me in my fury. A caring gaze that is not one that seeks to protect but one that trusts one to trust oneself. Those gazes are listening ears and shoulders to wet with large warm tears, they make me feel heard, make me rise and move, rise and move...At their best they are liberating.
Our gazes are like planets. They repel, attract, maintain distance and have potential to repair.
When stepping into the public space, what does your gaze enable you to do? And whose gaze do you want to walk into?
References: Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face) (1981)
A Room of One's Own, extended essay by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1929.
For the last 10 years I have explored photography as a performative process that produces new spaces of reflection and potential for critical action in the UK, France, Vietnam. I regularly collaborate with theatre makers, schools, universities and grassroots organisations in order to create relationships and performances where time slows down and people come together.
My practice embraces chance, abstraction and revelation as they are crucial to undoing Western photographic practice and its embedded violent visual regimes. Going through opaque layers of memories, masks, shadows, erasures and silences, I am interested in creating languages and reparative processes, developing new modes of interconnectedness where the white, male and Western monopoly on photographic practice carries on being challenged. I want to contribute to the field of anti-racist photographic practice: sparking verbal and non-verbal exchanges and collective experiences where imagination and memory are in play, people co-create new potentials for critical action and social changes. I am particularly interested in collectively reframing and responding to the ruptures in transmission affecting diaspora communities, in my case as a mixed-race woman of Vietnamese heritage.
I am a co-director at the Gate Darkroom in Woolwich, a community darkroom welcoming all who wish to engage with black & white and alternative photographic processes in a communal and supportive environment. I am a facilitator at Fotosynthesis (participatory photography) and an associate artist of Asia-Art-Activism research network.