Our experiences makes us who we are, they nourish our existences. As the world becomes increasingly multicultural those experiences represent a veritable mixing pot of cultural diversity.
What role will nationality play decades from now, as cultures continue to fuse and evolve? Is it absurd to say that as a Nigerian growing up in Lagos, the country’s most ethnically diverse city, for the longest time as a child I thought samosas, an Indian delicacy were in fact a Nigerian tradition? I only learned that the samosa was not Nigerian when I moved to Switzerland and ate at an Indian restaurant, and was stunned to see it on the menu. You can imagine the amusement on my family’s faces when they heard my astonishment.
Indians migrated to Africa in the 1960s, mostly for economic reasons, many of who have now made the continent their home and have positively contributed to different nation’s economies. All over the world cultures are influencing one another in an intimate dance where both partners take turns taking the lead.
As more and more people leave their home countries for better economic opportunities, for adventure, for love or for what seems to be the most prevalent conversation today- for survival, our cultural and national identities continue to take on a new meaning.
Generational trends as well as personal experiences have further impacted what it means to belong. Where does one belong? Is it with family members, and later with the few chosen strangers that become true friends? Is it with people of the same gender, same ethnicity or culture? Some research has shown that we are naturally drawn to people who look like us or come from the same place we do, to an extent that must be true but somehow it seems that many have evolved to be able to see past what should be familiar and what feels like home, regardless of appearances or pieces of paper. In learning from one another while exploring, preserving and celebrating one another’s cultures we organically promote cross-cultural peace and understanding.
More than ever we exist in a world where you can belong anywhere. With Google translate at your fingertips and strangers welcoming strangers thanks to digitization – Couchsurfing and Air b’n’b, cultural exchange and cultural revolution is imminent, in fact it has been happening just beneath our noses.
Global hit shows like Fresh off the Boat, Modern Family and Scandal with incredibly diverse casts as well as the increasingly international audiences watching Nollywood and Bollywood movies, musical collaborations between African and American artists like between P Square and Rick Ross for their hit song ‘Beautiful Onyinye’, means the revolution IS televised.
This poly-cultural revolution symbolises a natural order of things. Think of it in nature. Polyculture is a type of farming where many different crops are being grown in the same space at the same time, as opposed to monoculture farming often utilised by conglomerate food manufacturing companies that grow with fertilisers and pesticides. Read why this is dangerous in this article about sustainable and organic farming. Polyculture farming is a permaculture system, meaning it maintains and mimics our natural ecosystems. So perhaps in allowing ourselves to be influenced and to share our influences we are not only promoting peace and diversity but simply obeying mother nature.
We speak with Texas based photographer, Mary Kang on how she documents this continuous poly-cultural revolution. By capturing the daily life of Bhutanese immigrants who moved to the U.S. during the Bush administration, her poetic photographs precisely portray what I find defines this delicate time: they induce an infectious sense of relatability.
Her airy photographs stylistically dabble in between an intimate family photo album and a melancholy photo-journalist telling stories to impact change. In simpler words they are beautiful. Each image feels so pure, as light and shadow appear in perfect balance like when the morning light gently creeps in through a bedroom window, warming but not flooding the room with light.
Her Instagram page alone further proves that this poly-cultural revolution is in fact televised or rather digitized, as her camera captures faces of all ethnicities and people from all over the world and people from all over the world come to like, comment and appreciate her work.
How does your culture or rather cultures influence your creative work?
I consider myself to be 1.5 generation immigrant. This means that I experience both South Korean culture and American culture simultaneously, and also neither. Growing up I often felt confused, but now I have peace with it. The experience keeps me from feeling uncomfortable when immersing myself in other cultures because I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with two cultures that are sometimes in conflict with each other.
Why did your family make the transition from South Korea to the US?
For business and for a better opportunity than what we would have had in our home country.
Refugees are a recurring subject in your work, why do you keep coming back to this subject?
I am concentrating on the evolution of the Bhutanese community who arrived in the U.S. under the Bush administration. It is all very nice that the U.S. opened up its doors to this community when they were refugees in Nepal, but what happens after that? Are we doing enough to ensure that the refugees feel welcomed and are adequately cared for? They lived most of their lives without a voice, so do they finally feel heard? I want to explore the post-process of it all, their struggle to adapt as well as their resilience.
What or who would be your most sought after photography subject?
Someone who is a representative figure of a certain human condition. Additionally, someone who I can connect with and/or someone who evokes a feeling that I have never experienced.
Where do you find inspiration?
Most of the time I’m inspired by the beauty found within mundane moments and scenes.
For projects, while I am open to other subjects, my long-term goal is to focus on Asian-American stories. The lack of media attention on Asian-American communities inspires me to work harder to tell our own stories. Without media, the stories seem invisible, and that’s where I feel the need to step up and be more vocal. Even if some of our stories don’t surface onto major media platforms immediately, I believe that it is crucial to have them recorded over time for the future, especially because our population is expected to grow by 79% between 2010 and 2050 according to the US. Census Bureau. I want to work towards passing our stories of struggle and resilience to future Asian American generations.
What was the most memorable moment during your travels?
Visiting the Himalayan region felt like going into a time machine to my childhood. It felt very surreal and blissful. There was an odd innocence that circulated around the landscape and in its people. It was the kind of experience I very often yearned for, ever since moving out of my home country when I was in my early teenage years.
Also, I will never forget this quote by Imsutula Pongen, a woman who hosted me in Nagaland. On my last night there she said, “Mary I am sorry that your camera will be very heavy with all of the people you have to carry in there to your home.”
Your work varies from documentary style in series like Bhutanese refugees to more fashion editorial like in Pink Narcissus. How would you define yourself as a photographer?
I consider myself as a photographer who just likes to continue learning. I have a wide range of styles in the way that I shoot, such as using a lot of layers in some of my photos whereas having a minimalistic approach in other images. I cannot help but photograph whatever I strongly gravitate towards. I started with a more action based photographic approach, so when I use a more minimalistic style it is a way for me to slow down. When I slow down I notice more. I almost see that like a break-dancer learning ballet in order to understand a wide spectrum of techniques.
Who are some of your favourite photographers?
There are many since I like to embrace all kinds of style and authorship, but at the top of my head right now: Eli Reed, W. Eugene Smith, Sim Chi Yin, Nan Goldin, John Francis Peters, Alex Webb, Viviane Sassen, Hansol Choi, Rineke Dijkstra, Diana Markosian, and Alec Soth.
How do you think photography and visual storytelling can change the world?
I don’t know that it can really change the world, but it certainly has the power to put people into a perspective that can lead to a better decision-making process whether that would be for a big change or the small changes necessary to make this world a better place. Both are important. Or to even connect with a certain viewpoint from an image is very encouraging. It all comes down to human connection. If a photo can impact even one person then that would be a meaningful photograph worth putting effort into.