“Your photos are dead.”
This was the opening line in Sky Zhuang’s personal statement. Sky shared his understanding of photography in his personal statement, and also looked back on his high school years.
You can always see Sky during school events—basketball match, soccer game, New Year Gala, etc., hiding behind the camera, never letting go of any worthy moments. Just a month ago, Sky won the global second prize of 2021 JOY (Annual Journalist Scholarship Appraisal) for his documentary works. His mentor, Donna, thinks of Sky as a reserved, earnest, and slightly “shy” boy. But when he talks about photography, he would turn into a different, lively person. In addition to photography, he likes wood art, and has often spent lengthy hours in the woodwork studio. Passion and concentration are the key characteristics of this VMA student, and they give him important energy for his journey forward.
From Chance to Inevitable
For Sky, the most important thing in his three years of high school is not only to have discovered his passion. At first, he had a dream of working with cars, but he gradually found out that he was not good at engineering. On a trip to Taiwan, Sky became fascinated by photography. When he came back to school, he joined the photography club, and made a group of like-minded friends.
Pick up the camera and learn from the world. For Sky, the camera is a tool for self-expression. When talking about cameras, the first word crossing in Sky’s mind is “memory”. Cameras record things and keep him company.
“I have used it to take tens of thousands of photos. Only a small percent of the photos were up to standard and used, but it does not mean that the rest are worthless. Each time I look back on the photos, I am reminded of memories of a certain time, place, event, or person. Now I have so many memories embodied in the photos.”
The work that won the JOY International Scholarship is a documentary of families with disabled members in Huizhou. It began with an opportunity to follow the staff of the Huizhou Disabled Persons’ Federation to investigate the needs of newly registered disabled persons in villages and towns near that city. During this visit, the living conditions of these elderly people greatly touched him and triggered his desire to photograph and record.
It was also an important decision for Sky to treat photography as a professional pursuit. Sky’s parents once expressed their concerns that photography should be just a hobby instead of profession because it is not very helpful for college applications. In just several years, Sky turned from a complete beginner to having his own portfolio, team, awards, and even exhibitions, and had received some recognition. He became more and more confident in the process.
From Pretty to Reality
Sky’s earliest “viewfinder” was just a smartphone. He thinks he has taken a lot of detours with regard to learning photography: “I learned from tutorials on the internet, and was obsessed with technical parameters such as apertures, shutters, and post-production. At that time, what I pursued in photography was good-looking; I was merely thinking how to take photos that look “beautiful” at first glance.”
Lavita, the teacher of the course “Photo and Film Studio”, influenced Sky’s view of photography. She recommended two books: “Ways of Seeing” and “On Photography” to her students. After reading them, Sky discussed with Lavita whether beautiful photos are necessarily good photos. From the pursuit of light, composition, and beauty, to the pursuit of showing reality, Sky has come to understand that beautiful photos which fail to express the artist’s views, thinking, or world outlook are only knock-offs of the world; there is no art in them.
“Later, I gradually changed my photographic style to documentary photography, hoping that my photos can convey more information to their audience, and let their stories ‘be seen.’”
Sky once served as a photographer in the Sports Leadership course, and presented his goals during the Reflection session in this way:“I hope to pass on the passion, strength and sports spirit through photography. I hope that through the photos, everyone can feel the emotions of the athletes, the tension of the game as well as the joy and the frustration that come along the way.”
In the Art Foundation course, taking photos for Mr. Xu’s engraving works was a brand-new task for him, and how to produce a print was an even bigger challenge. The adjustment of light, the layout of the engraving, how to avoid loss: all these details are hidden in the “decisive” moment.
“Photography seems to be just a matter of pressing the shutter, but in fact, both before and after you press the shutter, you must do your best not to make mistakes, so that you can get a picture that meets your expectations.”
Record the Unseen
“I think the purpose of documentary photography is to convey specific events, groups, phenomena, an essence, and the spirit of a certain era to the society, to arouse people’s attention and resonance, and to keep the special memory of that time.”
The project of photographing Baishizhou and OCT (Overseas Chinese Town) originated from a real estate advertisement he saw during shopping that read “a new chapter of your life”. But can urban renewal really start a new chapter in people’s lives? Baishizhou is the largest urban village in Shenzhen, and the urban renewal project carried out there is also known as the “aircraft carrier project,” because it would brought changes to the lives of more than 100,000 residents. At the beginning of August 2020, Sky and his project partners began to visit the tenants of local shops, with whom they shared small talk about everyday life. They tried to understand and record the real living conditions in the urban villages. In the end, these photos were assembled into exhibitions, which were set in taverns on the roadside, shopping centers in the downtown area, tearooms on the hillside, and even on the streets.
“We hope that more people can see and remember those who were left behind or unseen amidst the booming of Shenzhen.”
The photographing of families with disabled members in Huizhou was also driven by the urgency of “not having enough time”. With the rapid development of the Huicheng District, a new urban area in the city of Huizhou, over the past decade, more and more people have left the countryside to live and work in the city. The migration of the young also means that the staying behind of those who are old, weak, sick, and disabled. As of December 31, 2020, there were 60,979 registered disabled persons in Huizhou, for whom physical disabilities accounted for up to 42%. Many people who registered for assistive devices passed away even before they got them. In the first household Sky visited a 90-year-old woman who could barely take care of herself and was restricted to a wheelchair. During the day, her children went to work, leaving her alone at home. She was thrilled to talk with the coming visitors. “She was old and spoke with a lisp, so we didn’t quite understand all that she said. After a brief chat with her son, we were about to leave, but at that moment, the old lady picked up a tissue to wipe tears from the corners of her eyes. There was nothing I could do.” We discussed whether photographing people with disabilities might trigger controversy—some people believe that it is an act of exploiting the disadvantaged as “consumer subjects”. About this, Sky believes that it is important to keep the original intention of photography.
“As more and more young people move into the city, the old people become more silent, lonely, and helpless. They are nearly forgotten. The only thing I can do is to pick up my camera and record all this. I want them to be seen.”
Sky’s favorite photographer is Lyu Nan, who once photographed the herdsmen in Tibet, as well as mental hospitals. Many walls are built by prejudice, and showing reality is the only way to break them.
Understanding Freedom in Self-Discipline
Looking back on his three years’ campus life at VMA, Sky feels that no matter it’s the course selection system or extracurricular activities, a high level of self-management is required in order to feel “free”. “VMA does not impose many limitations to the students, and that means more possibilities, and greater responsibilities on everyone.”
Students also have the freedom to express themselves. Being able to share opinions with each other in class is also what impressed him the most. “Many thoughts and opinions are allowed instead of straight out right or wrong”. It was the brainstorming, discussion, and exchange of ideas that led everyone to understand the world from different angles. In addition, he was very delighted that the teacher-student relationship was not confined to the classroom. “Teachers and students can discuss a topic very seriously in class, and also chat like friends outside it.”
When the application season came, Sky received more than ten offers from Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers, Emerson College, UCI, UCD, UCR, UCSC, Northeastern, and Syracuse University. Finally, he decided to go to the Newhouse School at Syracuse, which is one of the best journalism and media schools in the United States. It has a strong professorial team and alumni network. Many well-known media professionals have graduated from the Newhouse School. Moreover, he was admitted by Newhouse for a major in photography. This program provides two tracks, one for commercial photography and another for editorial photography. Sky will have more opportunities at Newhouse to learn more about the subject of photography. Even so, Sky has made the decision take a gap year, because he wants to explore more extensively, to record more before going to the school.
In his three years at VMA, Sky not only brought his photos back to life, but also got admitted to his dream school. More importantly, he found the shelter in his heart and the power to light up tomorrow. As his favorite photographer Lyu Nan firmly believes, good things are done in silence. We hope photography will always be his shelter and haven, where he can express freely as his wishes.