What you need to know
The world is unfair, but through the lenses of Taiwanese photographer Simon Chang, we are all just human.
We are sitting on a bench in a dim exhibition room with our backs against the wall. I scan the wall of faces in front of us, as the only Taiwanese photographer that has documented refugees in Slovenia softly speaks to me.
Simon Chang (張雍), is a freelance photographer based in Ljubljana, Slovenia. When Hungary closed its borders in late 2015, thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan started flooding into Slovenia, and Chang was in Rigonce, a small town of just 200 people, to record their stories. The series is also part of Chang’s latest exhibition, “The Left Atrium, The Right Ventricle,” at Xue Xue Institute in Taipei.
“I’m an immigrant myself. I’ve been in Slovenia for seven years, and spent another seven in Czech,” says the 38-year-old. “Most of the photographers I met at the scene were there shooting for work. Those are very distant shots to me. When I was on site, I wasn’t working for any media. I was standing in the shoes of an immigrant; I had arrived in the country earlier than these people and the way I got in was much easier.”
In Chang’s photos, the people aren’t refugees, but just “souls that need to escape from their home.” The photographer says he was shooting “a result,” and the exhibition is not a display of a news event but about seeing the subjects as human beings.
“I want the audience to come up with a story of their own. I’m not confining them to an issue. This is the situation. I want them to think about what they are seeing and feeling,” says Chang. “When it comes to discussing the value of human beings, skin color, nationality or sexuality shouldn’t matter.”
The photographer doesn’t avoid letting his subjects know that he is shooting them. Chang says he needs to let them know who he is, where he is from, and why he’s there.
“If I can’t talk to them before shooting, I look into their eyes. I can’t pretend that I’m not photographing them,” says Chang. “All this is not that far away. The least you can do is care.”
Documenting the ‘marginalized’
Prior to photographing refugees in 2015, Chang spent three years documenting patients at the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital, the largest mental institution in central Europe, in Prague.
As a child, the photographer would wait at the hospital for his mother, who was a nurse, to finish her day. Chang took his familiarity with hospitals to Bohnice, not to document madness, but to illustrate one question: these people didn’t belong here in the first place, why are they here?
“When I’m shooting those with a psychotic disorder, I’m not recording how crazy they are. I want people to see past the differences on the outside and relate to how we’re actually the same in many ways,” says Chang.
As a part of his interest in “the stories of people,” the photographer has also worked with celebrities, like A-mei (張惠妹), and has done photo shoots for Taiwanese film director Doze Niu’s (鈕承澤) movie, “LOVE” (2012).
“It’s all about photographing people. The only difference is I can work on my own projects for a lifetime,” says Chang. “But there wouldn’t be any photos without these people.”
The photographer believes the relationships he builds with the people in his photographs are more important than his work. Each photo comes out of a respect for people, and for Chang, oftentimes taking a photo is to give the subject courage.
“Many people ask me why I like photographing ‘the marginalized,’ but who are the marginalized? These people are the ones dealing with their issues, and we know nothing about their problems. Oftentimes we’re probably just making assumptions, and from this point of view, we are the ones that are marginalized,” says Chang.
Between October 2015 and January 2016, 419,000 migrants crossed through Slovenia; only about 100 applied for asylum in the country, but Chang says there is still fear among the locals and there is “a strange ambiance spreading throughout Europe.”
“No one would take being homeless as a hobby,” he says, and when asked about future plans, the photographer says he hopes to go to the homes of the refugees to see why they left.
But Chang now has a family, and it’s difficult for him to travel for long periods of time. In this case, the photographer turns his camera on his wife and two children, and his current exhibition at Xue Xue Institute also has works documenting the family’s everyday life. This also helps the photographer process his emotions and “approach the next story.”
“The world is an unfair place,” says Chang. “But when I’m out there shooting, I believe we are all the same. We all have moments of weakness and strength, and there are times when we question our lives. My photos are just evidence [of this].”
“The Left Atrium, The Right Ventricle” will run at Xue Xue Institute in Taipei until Aug. 27.
Editor: Edward White