Her photographs smell like skin. Balmy, cozy and comforting. It’s a scent thats close to our hearts, but can’t quite put a finger on - awfully familiar and somewhat ethereal.
Shina is charming, witty and endearingly chill. Most recognizable for her portraiture on film, she admits to leaning towards photographing people because it enables her to connect with the human on the other end of the camera. Her lighthearted banter makes space to bring out the best in the models; ‘best’ in this context, referring to a character trait Shina admires most about the person. She confesses, “I just like connecting to people, and thats the bottom line”.
A lot of her work shares creamy hues, mellow contrasts and rosy skies. She admits to gravitating towards pastel backdrops unconsciously. However, upon reflecting on her own work she wonders if it’s because its representative of a shift in time - caught hovering between day and night. The forlornness of bidding farewell to the day melding with the undercurrent of excitement for tomorrow. The dichotomous grey-ness in the pink sky ties into some of the prominent themes in her work. Shina has always felt close to this sense of complexity and grey-ness and it has a lot to do with her process in navigating her own identity.
Shina is ethnically Taiwanese, born and raised in Japan, and holds an American passport. Naturally, she had a lot of questions on her own identity growing up - “I’m ethnically fully Taiwanese, but I’ve only been in Taiwan for a total of 10 months or so, and at that point I had never lived in the states.” she continues, “there were all these rules that I unconsciously put on myself based on outsiders telling me where I do and do not belong. Doing projects on third culture kids and halfies, I think was me trying to figure out what I felt I was.”
Through these projects, she has come to a “conclusion” - conclusion, loosely in air quotes. She now feels more affirmative about being American, and recognizes her privilege, especially given the social climate. Her sense of belonging has become more fluid, and has evolved to embrace drifting between different identities. A conversation in a recent interview for her haafu project, touches upon the complexity of this sense of ‘responsibility’ for the political issues that derive from all of the countries that we are tied to, and owning up to them. Striving to be the best of three worlds, and owning up to the ‘worst’ of three worlds - a life long voyage.
She started fiddling with DSLRs in middle school - she chuckles as she recalls being shocked by the deceptive weightiness of the plastic-y white pentax. Now she stomps around the busiest corners of New York in her chunky Docs and over filled camera bag slugged over her shoulder; oh, have the times changed. Ever since, she clearly hasn’t been able to put the camera down - “It just morphed into something that I never stopped doing.”
A serial future planner - she had her 2020 planned since 2017. “I can’t do this (photography) without having these plans. It's also partial to the fact that man, I really want this *knocks wooden floor*. Currently, she is locked out of New York and cannot pursue her original plans to job hunt in the city. It’s a weird time for all of us, but she has been piloting it with patience - “obviously plan Z is to let life take its course and that, I always will understand.. but if I can mitigate the possibility of not being able to pursue photography by having solid plans A through Y, thats what I’m going to be doing.”
On pursuing a career in art, Shina was no exception to receiving unwarranted comments on how “it's so mottainai (it's such a shame) you’re pursuing photography when you’re so bright”. In actuality, her intelligence extends itself way past academics, and it most certainly is an asset to her in the field of photography. A certain stereotype…stigma, whichever way you choose to see it, exists around people in the artistic field regarding their supposed impulsive nature, floating sense of responsibility and ‘eccentric’ world views. Artists can be pigeon-holed into this persona, that they are so different from the rest of us.
There's a sense of “if you choose to go to art school, there's no going back” in the so called ‘non artist world’, but just as much as a history student can end up in finances, art kids can switch gears as they please. Freelancing is most definitely not the end-all of art school. You can juggle a nine-to-five and freelance offers, move onto other areas in the creative field such as creative directing or even choose to go back to school for an Art History degree. An art kid has just as much career fluidity as the next kid in Econ.
On the topic of photographers that she looks up to, she answered, “Richard Avedon, Arnold Newman, and Shigeo Gocho.” She adds, “I make it a point to get to know East Asian photographers, particularly Japanese photographers because it feels close to home.” Shigeo Gocho was active during the 70’s and early 80’s. He posed many questions on society through seemingly mundane scenes on the streets. One of her favorite collection is titled 'Minareta machi no nakade' or Familiar Street Scenes. Due to Potts disease, a rare degenerative vertebral tuberculosis, Gocho always knew he would not live past his middle age. Furthermore, as a result of his disease, his height was stunted at under 5foot. As a result of his height, nobody in the street shots make eye contact with him, except for the children. This characterizes his feeling of isolation from the world. Shina comments on how his camera angle highlights the outsider-insider perspective, and was moved by how much his earnest desire to belong in the society spilled through his photographs.
She reflects on her beloved Grandfather, and how supportive he was of her when she needed it the most. Dementia is like losing some one twice - she still remembers the weight on her gut when she realized he no longer recognized her. His funeral, she recounts as bitter sweet - it was the first time her family was together in a couple years, and they were happy to be together, but crushed by why they were able to come together. Emotion almost always seeps from one category to another, whether we are aware or not. Our initial reaction to an event shifts and stirs over time. A little bit of sad and happy within ‘bitter sweet’, a little bit of worry and disappointment behind ‘anger’, a mix of happiness, loneliness and desolation in nostalgia.
The moments captured in her photographs feel eternal yet short lived - perhaps the emotion for this is close to melancholy. It’s similar to driving across your old home to see another family living in it. You smile at the memories, but feel wistful that it’s a time lost. A lot of her work aims to encapsulate not necessarily the duality and contrast of emotions in a single shot, but rather, the way in which our emotions shift over time. The swelling feeling of desolation and loneliness recalling a sweeter time, or the bubbly surge of energy when you realize an old wound no longer aches. Her photographs creates a small moment in time when your past and present self touch one another.
Her work is compassionate, even whilst raising its voice to ask important questions. It asks questions in a non aggressive tone, in a way that does not make the perceiver feel ashamed and protective. It simply serves as a shelter where the perceiver can spend time with themselves and reflect - “Why do I feel uncomfortable looking at this?” and “Why is this important to me?”. She makes it a point to raise questions as opposed to shoot out answers because “people don’t listen when you tell them what to think or what to do.”
"I think happiness and sadness are interrelated” - life is about the shiawase (the happiness), the not so much, and all the in-betweens. 「泣きたければ、泣けばええねん」“If you want to cry, just cry!” She takes the days as they are, and appreciate them for what they are. Shina smiles at the confusion, and embraces the spectrum for what it is. 11 year old Shina would have said her goal in life is to be happy - 21 year old Shina responds, “I would say you can’t always be happy. I don’t know the right word for it yet, but I’m not striving for happiness as much as fulfillment? Yarigai. To not feel like I ever have to repeat a day. ” Perhaps her answer will shift as time moves forward.