When they blur together: Photographing mixed race identity

In a fascinating interview, young photographer Hanna Stephens spoke to AYLY about her experiences as a photographer, the problems she faces herself when trying to represent her mixed English and Japanese identity and how mobile photography is challenging neocolonial representations of the world. The interview was conducted by our creative writing editor, Micha Frazer-Carroll.

When and why did you first get into photography?

I think it was around about year 10 or 11 that I became interested in photography, but art and creativity has always been something that I’ve enjoyed and something that has been prevalent at home. My mum’s really good at pottery and my dad’s into art so I’ve grown up going to art galleries and with photography books around the house and things which has been a massive privilege that has definitely influenced my interest and style. My sister and some friends at school were into photography as well so I think that helped me pursue it too.

How does your work relate to your personality, and your identity?

It hasn’t been a conscious thing but my photos are representative of my way of seeing the world and the things that I’m drawn to. I think at the moment, I like taking pictures of light and shade but when they blur together, and I’ve been thinking that maybe this on some subconscious level is reflective of my identity that doesn’t really fit neat categories, and a desire to find nuance around me to affirm it if that makes sense. I also like taking pictures of reflections maybe again playing on this duality/split kind of idea that I have with my identity.

How easy is it to accurately represent your culture through your work?

This is a tricky question and one I’m still trying to figure out. So with pictures I’ve taken in Japan, although I like to think I’ve represented Japanese culture accurately, I’m conscious that I haven’t grown up in Japan and have consumed a lot of western travel photography which are both factors that might give me a western lens through which I see what constitutes a ‘good picture’ in Japan. Looking at some photos I took when I was there on my gap year and when I visited on holidays, a lot of the photos seem to me like the perspective of an outsider looking in. I guess this reflects the feelings I have about whether I feel ‘properly’ Japanese as someone who hasn’t grown up there and as someone who is mixed-race. I’m still in two minds about whether my desire to take photos of ‘Japanese things’ and people in Japan is me trying to connect with the part of my culture that I often feel a bit distant to, or whether it’s informed by and reproduces inaccurate depictions.

I’ve also been thinking about to what extent we can take photos of cultures that aren’t our own for aesthetic purposes and where the line is between appreciation and appropriation, but it’s something that’s very confusing. I guess a more accurate depiction of my culture is that of a mixed English and Japanese experience which I would also like to present in my photography somehow.

Do you see your work as serving a purpose - perhaps political, educational, sentimental, or purely aesthetic?

I like to take pictures of things that make me feel happy when I look at them so I think it’s a way for me to capture that feeling for myself and to share with other people too. I quite like the idea of art serving a therapeutic purpose. I also like this idea bell hooks talks about of marginality opening up a space for creativity, so I guess I like to put in my feelings and confusion of mixed-ness and channel it into something creative. So in a way I guess it is political but in a subtle way.

What kind of camera and equipment do you use, and how much of your work is instinctual versus planned?

I use a mixture. But I like the quality of film though so I either use Fujifilm Superia for colour photography or Ilford HP5 for black and white. I bought my film camera (a Minolta XG-1) off ebay for about £30 but I would be careful about doing this because I had a few problems with the advance lever and with light leaks (which can be solved by taping up the back of the camera). I’ve also only very recently got a phone with a camera which has revolutionised my life! So I’m taking some photos on that now as well. And I don’t always carry around my camera so I guess there’s a level of planned-ness to it but what I do take when I have my camera it’s more instinctual, so I’ll just take pictures of what I see and like.

Photography is a medium that is becoming more and more accessible to everyone. What’s your stance on the increasing prevalence of photography as an everyday, iPhone art form?

I think it’s generally a good thing. Buying a good digital or film camera and buying film and paying for it to be developed is expensive and can be alienating for people so I don’t think it’s too helpful to determine distinctions between ‘legitimate’ photography and otherwise. I think that everyone can be a photographer and I guess everyone in many ways already is given its increased accessibility. There’s been a massive proliferation of visual culture online and the ability to consume lots of images in quick and concentrated ways with things like Instagram and iPhones, so photography is definitely changing because of this. But there’s also at the same time a shift back to “old” culture in general and a kind of re-birth of film photography and sort of a dying out of the use of digital cameras with our generation I think. So there’s an interesting mix of new and old, and I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other and they usually coexist anyway with people putting film photos on social media and things.

I think it’s also actually quite exciting that technology and social media have made photography a growing art form across the world because it changes up who is behind the lens of the camera. Instead of development photographers and journalists who can often represent places in neocolonial ways, people can take photos on their own terms and show how they want their lives to be represented, which can help us in western contexts unlearn some unchecked preconceptions we might have about places. So I think photography as an everyday art form globally can perhaps serve the purpose of meaningful cultural exchange and understanding.

Who are the photographers, artists or other creatives that particularly inspire you?

At the moment I quite like Saul Leiter, Vivienne Maier and Wolfgang Tilmans’ photos. In terms of artists, I like how Ai Wei Wei incorporates his politics into his art in such a prominent and clever way but I really love Kusama Yayoi and Yoshitomo Nara’s paintings and sculptures. I also recently came across The Singh Twins paintings which are really cool. They use the Mughal painting style which is really detailed and colorful to paint modern postcolonial British contexts in clever and entertaining ways reflective of their experiences of British identity and their Indian-Sikh family history. I do a bit of drawing and painting too so taking inspiration from the Singh Twins I’d like to do some work that incorporates Japanese styles with British ones too.

 

For more of Hanna's photography, check out her Instagram