How Photography Helped Me Overcome Grief
Cancer took my mother away. I was in a downward spiral until a chance encounter with nature set me on my path to recovery. I began photography as a means of prolonging the serenity I felt when surrounded by nature.
Over time, I healed, rediscovered myself, and recalibrated the pace and direction of my life. I now photograph to celebrate and preserve the memories of nature’s ephemeral beauty. My first project, “Metamorphosis,” is a manifestation of the changes that have occurred in me.
I began photographing as a form of self-therapy. I was grieving over the loss of my mother, who had been both my confidante and my moral compass. Although I accepted her death, I ran from grief by burying myself in work. However, my work environment, like most, was not conducive to healing. Relationship issues further compounded my pain and left me at the lowest point in my life.
I wallowed in this state of existence for a few years until I realized I had to do something about it. It was affecting my family and close friends. Signing up for a volunteer program in Tibet turned out to be a defining moment. Volunteers could help out at an orphanage in Lhasa and also go on sight-seeing trips. One such trip took us to Lake Namtso, a lake at an elevation of 4,718 m (15,479 feet). I was sitting by the edge of the lake when I savored a sense of peace that had eluded me for a long time. The vastness of the lake gave me a sense of perspective while its beauty reignited in me a sense of wonder and adventure. Nature reminded me life is beautiful and there is so much to live for and to explore. I am small in the scheme of the universe. My spirit reawakened. I found hope.
One of the other volunteers on the trip had a digital SLR camera. At that time, I didn’t know what a digital SLR camera was and was perfectly happy with my point-and-shoot camera, busily snapping away. However, unknown to me, a seed had been planted in my mind. When I got home, I bought my first digital SLR camera and signed up for an online workshop to learn about f-stops, shutter speeds, and ISO. A few years later when I was in-between jobs, I registered for a couple of photography workshops at the Santa Fe Workshops in New Mexico. And this was how my photography journey began, at age 33.
My life up to that point had been all about economics and finance, strategy, and negotiations. The only brush with the art world was in my first year of college when I went shopping for a poster for my dormitory room. I fell in love with Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise,” without knowing who he was. The poster prompted me to read up about him. One thing led to another and the books I bought introduced me to Renoir, Degas, and other impressionists. I later learned about Van Gogh and fell in love with Chagall’s work. My current love is Li Huayi, a contemporary ink painting artist from China, and Goto Sumio, a prominent Japanese artist whose museum I visit once or twice a year for inspiration.
My first project, “Metamorphosis,” features the landscapes of Central Hokkaido, Japan. The choice was no accident. I had first visited Hokkaido with my family when I was seven years old. My dad took us there to ski during our year-end school vacation. My world then was simple – doing school homework, learning to ski, and eating delicious Japanese food. It might have been only a three-day trip for a few winters, but these memories remain etched in my mind. Being there conjures up nostalgia for the purity and simplicity of childhood.
Central Hokkaido is a magical place filled with mountains, forests, rolling fields, rivers, and lakes. The distinct seasons and wide temperature differences between night and day give rise to some amazing natural phenomena such as fog, frost, and diamond dust. My desire to spend more time in Central Hokkaido led me to move to work in Japan, and eventually leave my finance job.
The images in this project were, in essence, a chronicle of my healing as well as my growth as a photographer. Photographing nature distracted me from my unhappiness and gave me a sense of purpose. Studies have shown that nature and even images of nature provide symptom relief, lower stress levels, and reduce depression and anxiety. To this day, I find my spirits lifting every time the plane approaches Asahikawa Airport and I see the vast expanses of nature. I hope that my images do the same for others.
I often wonder if happiness and other emotions are habitual. I experienced how negative emotions can lead to a downward spiral. In retrospect, photography was the new habit, or perhaps I should say addiction, that broke the spell.
Although the urge to photograph had initially stemmed from an almost desperate desire to prolong the serenity that nature brought, over time I began to enjoy simply being immersed in nature, marveling at its beauty and being grateful for yet another serendipitous encounter.
Photographing nature meant I had to learn more about nature. I became more knowledgeable about various natural phenomena by reading and through experience, that is, making mistakes and learning from them.
Some natural phenomena like sun pillars are difficult to come by as they demand a confluence of multiple factors, e.g., clear sky, extremely low temperatures, high humidity, and calm, windless conditions. As global temperatures warm and the weather becomes increasingly erratic, sun pillars are becoming even rarer. I fear that there will come a day when this amazing phenomenon may become extinct, and this concern has driven me to photograph in greater earnest these days.
If I find a scene that resonates with me, I could be there for hours, trying to exhaust every possibility of seeing and photographing. However, many elements of nature such as fog and diamond dust are ephemeral. I am racing against time to capture their beauty before they disappear when the fog lifts, the petals fall, the sun shifts, and snow bugs die. The four-character Japanese idiom, 一期一会 (ichi-go ichi-e), best illustrates the fact that many encounters with nature occur once in a lifetime and cannot be replicated even when the seasons repeat.
The seasons, in turn, remind me of the inevitability of death and rebirth. The anniversary of my mother’s death is the same day as a friend’s birthday. I bear no grudge against life but feel just a simple appreciation of the fact that life is short and precious.
I am often at a loss when asked to explain why I photograph what I photograph. I think I just end up shooting whatever moves me emotionally. I might chance upon a scene or a detail and find my heart skipping a beat. I photograph by following my gut, by instinct, on impulse. It’s very different from what I used to do as an investment banker where logic and reason trumped everything else.
Two pieces of advice have guided me through the project and I’ve kept them close to my heart. The first is from Masumi Takahashi, a landscape photographer based in Central Hokkaido. He told me to maintain my objectivity and not be spellbound by the scenery. This is especially true when photographing rare and breathtaking occurrences such as diamond dust. It is easy to be so filled with awe and joy that instead of calmly and creatively photographing the scene, I end up staying rooted in one spot and hitting the shutter in a frenzied hurry.
Another piece of advice that I’d like to share is from my mentor, Nevada Wier. She reminds me to be objective when reviewing and selecting my images, not to be clouded by the backstory and the experience of making the image. For example, an image should not be given merit over another just because I had braved biting winds and bone-chilling temperatures to make that image. She taught me not to confuse the merits of the image with the experience itself.
I hope their words of wisdom will echo with you as they have with me.
I dedicate “Metamorphosis” to all the teachers who have touched my life in one way or another, in particular my mentor, Nevada Wier, for helping me develop my voice in photography and inspiring me with the generosity of her spirit.
The article courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. The ELEMENTS is the monthly magazine dedicated to the finest landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Inside you will find an exclusive and in-depth articles and imagery by the best landscape photographers in the world such as Charles Cramer, Christopher Burkett, Chuck Kimmerle, Christian Fletcher, Charlie Waite, Rachael Talibart, John Sexton and Freeman Patterson, to name a few. Use the PETAPIXEL10 code for a 10% discount off the annual subscription.
About the author: Xuan-Hui Ng is a photographic artist from Singapore who currently resides in Tokyo. She has been selected for juried exhibitions at the Griffin Museum, Davis Orton Gallery, Southeast Center for Photography, and A Smith Gallery, in addition to placing at the 16th Julia Margaret Cameron Award for Women Photographers in 2021.
From the artist: “The past 11 years have been a period of transformation for me. My desire to spend more time photographing in Japan led me to move there and eventually to leave my finance job. I have been rediscovering myself and recalibrating the pace and direction of my life. Spending time in nature has made it possible. I bear its imprint, artistically and temperamentally. My images are a manifestation of these changes. I dedicate these tokens of memories to kindred spirits, the weary, the lost and the lonesome. I hope that they too can experience the joy I felt when I laid my eyes on these magical landscapes.”