Often, in the hands of a skilled photographer, static photos acquire movement, revealing much of what was hidden behind the scene or was left unspoken at all. One such photographer is Arabelle Zhuang. Having decided to focus her work on people, their stories, and diversity, she expertly turns any project into a whole film, and behind each portrait, the viewer can see the story of the person who is being photographed, yet leaving room for imagination and imagination.
In the following interview, Arabelle tells her own story, her childhood, upbringing in a traditional Chinese family, moving to England, and many other changes that she encountered on the way to finding her creative self. Revealing several details of one of her latest projects, Reverie, Arabelle mentions how topics addressed in it influenced herself, sharing the opinion on such crucial issues in the life of any individual as childhood, growing up, friendship, and much more.
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What made you move away from your hometown to the United Kingdom and study photography?
I had never been there prior to university, so while looking for where to go after my diploma, I thought, why not the UK? I was also introduced to Falmouth University as a good institution with great photography facilities, so I just took the plunge. All I knew was that it was close to the sea, and frankly, I was sold.
Even though you’re a photographer now, have you ever been interested in other forms of art?
I was always into music and dancing. I was a dancer growing up and always enjoyed expressing myself through dance. Music played a huge part in my life too – from hardcore punk to metal, to shoegaze, jazz, and funk, music has influenced me immensely both on a personal and artistic level. Songs tell stories, and that’s the same with photography – words strung together make a sentence, and sentences strung together create beautiful stories. Perhaps, that’s why I obsess over lyrics and finding out the meaning behind songs.
The emotions poured into poetry, layered with melodies, music transports you into a completely different world but, at the same time, ground you when need be. In that sense, music informs my work. To allow me to imagine these narratives, to think out of the box but at the same time, keeping it grounded in reality and remembering why I do certain things and setting my intentions clear. Other than that, I also love weaving, something that I’ve recently gotten into. And I do enjoy interior design. People like Axel Vervoordt truly inspire me, and it is something I would love to venture into in the future as well.
In your project Reverie, you talk about friendship and moving to adulthood. How did your own growing up influence your works?
Coming from a very traditional Chinese family, my parents had a firm hold on me as a child. I was not allowed to go out with my friends often, and I spent a lot of my time alone at home. I was not necessarily able to speak up. So I did grow up very unsure of myself for the longest time. Also, becoming a person whose mind is at a million places at once. I did feel very alone while growing up. I don’t feel that so much now as I have truly incredible friends.
As a result, my work forms these support systems, be it on social issues such as diversity or languages or perhaps even gender. With Reverie, it’s highlighting this formidable bond that we, as women, or even as human beings, have with one another. But that loneliness has definitely stuck with me through life. I have grown to love being by myself, this longing for the quiet. And I guess in my works, within the whimsy, there is this stillness to things. At least, that’s the way I see it; the space between breaths.
“If you have the privilege to be an artist, use it for good and what you believe in.”
In your project Searching For My Tongue, you’re talking about changes in language barriers. Did you have the same problem when you first moved to the UK? What other challenges did you have to overcome? Did they affect your works, and if yes, in which way?
Coming from Singapore, where English is our first language, I didn’t have an issue with communicating with the locals. However, I found myself slowly losing my mother tongue, Mandarin. There was just no one to converse Mandarin with. With constant migration throughout the world, people slowly lose touch of the language spoken by their parents or grandparents, the different dialects and languages. With English being the universal language spoken, we use our mother tongue less and less. This results in the loss of fluidity to speak or write in our second language, which inevitably leads to the loss of one’s roots, culture, and traditions. That was how Searching For My Tongue came about.
Diversity and the search for my own roots go on to be a huge part of my work. I did projects such as Spectrum, a portrait series of individuals, celebrating diversity. On the technical side of things, taking people’s portraits also helped me grow as a photographer and as a person. I was able to really connect with my subjects, and the importance of capturing a person’s spirit or essence was very paramount for me. And then, the simplistic idea of Searching For My Tongue alluded to A Girl Away From Home.
Let’s talk about this last one. What inspired you to create A Girl Away From Home, and why did you decide to showcase only female creatives?
Being an Asian female, I thought it was only right for me to represent Asian females, or more so just support those that are in a similar position that I was. It came out of my own personal experiences that I faced whilst moving to the UK, and I started to explore the idea that other female Asians might feel the same way too. Hence, I reached out to some friends that I had made, and with their incredible work, I was able to slowly piece things together to create the first AGAFH book – a semi-fictional diary of an anonymous Asian girl. When you open the book to its first page, it reads, “For All The Girls Far Away From Home.”
But the book isn’t all about our struggles. It’s more so about the exploration of certain thoughts and uncertainty, the enigmatic wonders of life. It is a diary. It is a space to just pour your thoughts into. And that is what it really is. It is about real experiences; it’s about reminiscing home, but at the same time, loving and appreciating where you are at the moment.
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In a previous interview, you mentioned that during your second year at Falmouth, you were exploring the theme of diversity. What is it exactly that attracts you to this topic?
At that time, I didn’t know many international students at Falmouth, so I pushed myself to reach out to strangers around campus and asked for their portrait. It was just about practising my portraiture and studio lighting skills, but it blossomed and amassed into something bigger. I met beautiful people with whom I’ve become very good friends with.
Do you think that it’s an artist’s duty to push important sociological issues in their works to raise awareness of the masses?
A hundred per cent! I believe that as an artist, you have to have a voice; you got to want to speak up and stand for something. That’s why we make art; be it subconsciously or consciously, we as artists always have something to say. Art is able to transcend the masses and speak to people from all walks of life. It is able to influence society by changing opinions and translates experiences across space and time. It’s communication through imagery, sound, and stories. And if you have the privilege to be an artist, use it for good and what you believe in.
Artists often express themselves in the works, hiding a part of their identity behind every creation. Which part of your own character can be traced in your photographs? In which project or portrait can it be seen the most?
I’ve never thought about it in this way before, but now that you’ve mentioned it, there are so many parts of myself as an individual that I project into my photographs. The whimsical nature of my series Reverie and Everything Went Quiet shows that I have a very playful, almost childlike character. I don’t take myself too seriously. I’m always on my own adventures, be it in real life or in my imagination. I’m always seeking out something peculiar or something beautiful in the mundane.
I also love a romantic take on things, the gentle side of things, the vulnerable. Being able to bare one’s soul or to be able to capture that through a lens, that is something that my work incorporates. I also do a lot of planning and love drafting storyboards, and along the way, slowly layering the pieces together to create the full narrative. I try to incorporate individuality and character development into my subjects, which I do hope comes across in my series.
I don't know which project describes me the most, probably Reverie, as it also shows my love for styling, fashion, and set design. I was able to take full control, working on my own, conceptualizing everything from scratch, and I really just had fun with it. With that freedom, I think it showcased who I am – not only as a photographer/artist but also as a person.
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Some of your projects have strong storytelling behind them. Have you ever thought about becoming a film director to have a more extensive space for creating a narrative?
I have chanced upon this question quite a few times now, and my answer is always: it is a possibility. But I don’t think I have enough film knowledge at this point to become a film director. I directed the film that accompanied Reverie, working with my partner in crime, Isaiah Cheng, who is an incredible cinematographer. He guided me through the day of the shoot, bouncing back and forth with ideas. I had what I wanted in mind and drafted storyboards, but when it came down to shooting it, I went with my intuition and connected more with the surroundings to inform my decisions.
I will be sticking to photography as my main medium for the moment, only making a film if I see fit. The way I see it, when it comes to moving imagery/film and telling a narrative, the viewer does not get to decide what happens throughout the story. It is already laid out in front of them. With photography, however, the viewer is able to fill in the missing pieces on their own, almost creating their own narrative within mine. The nuances that they can derive from my work, from there, creating their very own version of the story. And that’s something very special. Nonetheless, that is not to say that I won’t be venturing into film as it is something I would love to do.
In the era of Internet and social media, we got access to unlimited free content, including artworks, music, and above all, photos. You, as a photographer, perceive it as a win or loss? Don’t you hold that it devalues the creative work?
With the Internet and social media, there definitely is image and market saturation. The information has always been gathered in different mediums: books, articles, journals, etc. Just so that now, it is with the Internet. It is just a faster medium to retrieve information, knowledge, and imagery. Everything is at your fingertips. I grew up with the Internet and social media, and I wouldn’t know it any other way. Hence I can’t really compare it to anything else. It is such a powerful tool that has allowed me to get my work out there.
But it is also the paradox of the medium. It is an instant, fast, democratic, free way of spreading and gaining information. But that contributes to the saturation. We spend so much more time uncovering and picking out things we want to see. The work has become incredibly time-sensitive, and perhaps people do not take the time to truly consider and uncover one’s work because they are just scanning through the mass.
Your works have been exhibited in so many places, which I imagine is a great success. Is there any in particular that you remember or hold dear for some reason?
It definitely has been an honour to have my work exhibited in various places, and I am incredibly grateful for the people that have believed in my work. I think there are two that come to mind. First, the Open Eye Gallery, where I was able to give a talk about my work and dive deeper to uncover Reverie. Sharing about it was a lovely experience. And the one I hold dearest is the Reverie exhibition I held in Falmouth. Just being around the amazing people I’d met in the past three years that came to support me and my work was an incredible feeling of gratitude and love. It was the best way to finish that chapter of life.
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And in the upcoming months, do you have any exhibitions planned/scheduled?
I’m currently in talks with a gallery for a group show in the United States, somewhere I have not exhibited before, so I am very excited to see how that materializes.
2019 was a big year for you: you published so many new incredible projects and shot numerous breath-taking portraits with what I sincerely congratulate you! What can we expect from you in the upcoming months? Are you already working on something new, and, if yes, can you give our readers some exclusive insights?
Thank you so much! It was definitely an incredible year, and I am so thankful for the amazing opportunities. I don’t even know if I can top it. This year is definitely focusing on creating work that delves deeper into research and histories, incorporating more discourse into my practice. I’m working on a project that combines my weaving work and photography. I’m very excited to share that in the coming months. I am also really pushing to do the next AGAFH book. I have so many things I want to do!
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