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Friday, November 14, 2014, 09:42

What lies beneath

By Chitralekha Basu

Whether it’s a human being or a house he’s shooting, Dustin Shum’s aim is to get under the skin and look for the essence. Chitralekha Basu meets the curator-photographer.

What lies beneath

My first brush with Dustin Shum’s work was at a show hosted by Society for Community Organization in October. They had just published a photo book, Life and Times, featuring 11 stories about people with psychiatric problems, illustrated with photos by Shum, which were on display. The first thing that struck me about his subjects — some of whom were present at the event, studying and talking to their own image intently, as if they were someone else’s — was how similar they were in fact to people like us, the so-called “normal” human beings, lucky enough to have been spared such a debilitating condition.

Shum had shot the people as well as the paraphernalia that made up their world —nicotine-stained dentures, a naked nylon doll, a rain-drenched Hong Kong skyline as seen through a crack in the window pane, a b/w photo of the long-deceased mother of one of the subjects hung from the wall, with an ungainly tilt to the left.

"I didn’t have an agenda in mind when I started photographing people with psychiatric problems,” said Shum, who, nonetheless, has displayed a sustained engagement with the theme. Life and Times is a follow-up of the earlier Live Alone a Life (2007). Although he insists he would like to maintain a certain distance from his subjects for the sake of honesty and artistic integrity, Shum’s journey — on both professional and personal levels — is now indelibly linked to that of these mentally-unstable people, often lonely, miserable and living on the fringes of society.

"The government policy regarding mental patients is more about curing the disease rather than integrating them with the mainstream of society,” says Shum. If only his sympathetic and regardful documentation of the private worlds of these people could ensure they had “access to new, improved medicines and more medical facilities”, Shum would consider it a tremendous reward. “The social stigma, of course, won’t be that easy to erase.”

I met Shum again, almost a month later, at The Salt Yard —a gallery dedicated to showcasing some of the most avant-garde works in photography from across the world. Shum is the resident curator of this space, tucked away discreetly in an industrial building in one of the most-congested areas of Ngau Tau Kok. For a while he had been curating shows of outstanding works by mid-career photographers in international reckoning — Patrick Nagatani’s portrayal of atomic waste, and Shen Chaoling’s gleeful, celebratory performance trucks from Taiwan among them. Now Shum was ready to show some of his own — the second phase of his photographs based on public housing in Hong Kong, somewhat literally called Blocks.

When I told him that there was perhaps a similarity between Shum’s work on the mentally-challenged and public spaces — that he was perhaps trying to humanize both – Shum, the soft-spoken, self-effacing man that he is, looked visibly thrilled.

"I treat buildings as organic entities and not as typical architectural studies,” he said. “That’s why most of my pictures are shot under an overcast sky, and never with artificial light. Like buildings on which several coats of paints would have been applied, human beings too have lots of layers to themselves. I want to see what’s underneath those layers rather than the coat itself.”

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