Hua Jin, A Photo Was Taken for the Sake of Not Looking

[April 24, 2024]

By Hua Jin

Suspend, 2005

This photo was taken in 2005, almost twenty years ago.

Usually when looking at a picture I have taken, I am able to recall the specific moment when I clicked the shutter on my camera and what triggered me for that shot. A photograph can act as a time machine, taking me back to that split second.

But this one, oddly enough, I have no impression of why and when I took it. It is my photograph for sure. Since 2001, I have always carried a Contax T3 with me – a small 135 camera, loaded with black-and-white film. Over a few years, I cultivated a habit of shooting, making that small camera my third eye.

Memory is peculiar. I took photographs in order to remember, yet there are moments when, even as I face the one before me, I cannot recall it. I’ve forgotten what prompted me to take this picture. Nonetheless, I recognize the place.

It was a hospital located on the outskirts of Shanghai. To get there, I had to take the metro from downtown to the terminal and then switch to a bus. It was quite a journey. More precisely, it’s a cancer rehabilitation hospital. However, despite the term “rehabilitation” … or, to put it another way, the word “rehabilitation” means more of a sense of “hope” or “wish” than reality. It’s a place on which cancer patients, having undergone various treatments, pin their last hopes.

After I finished scanning this roll of film, I couldn’t recall this moment no matter how hard I tried – why and when did I click the shutter, and for what? What day was it in those days? When I think back, those days are compressed into a hazy memory of a single day – waking up, helping my mum wash her face and brush her teeth, preparing her medications, her undergoing treatments, making breakfast, her receiving IV drips, watching over her as she napped, helping her bathe in the afternoon, her taking medication again, having dinner. When she felt a little better, we would take a slow walk in the hallway, chatting about trivial things on and off.

Every day was a repetition, the same routine, yet I found gratitude in repeating those tasks. As long as I could still carry them out, the day I feared could remain at a distance. But I knew it would come. Mixed emotions were undoubtedly present – fear, sadness, anxiety, worry, helplessness, hopelessness – even as a thin slice of hope remained. Somehow, memory has filtered out those emotions, which once drowned me. It is strange how recalling those days now feels calm and uneventful. Of course, the reality was quite the opposite. After losing my father, my mum was in her final days. I was not sure if the turmoil underneath had been repressed or if my mum’s calm energy overcame it.

“The sky was clear and the wind was gentle.” These words didn’t seem fitting to describe my mum’s departure. It was not that there was no excruciating pain tearing at my heart. It was my mum; a person like her never wanted to disturb even a single ripple. She was so light and gentle, like a faint fragrance, substantial enough to settle in the depths of your heart yet light enough to be present in every breath you take.

As for this photograph, why and when did I take it? Yes, it was in that hospital, but there are no signs of that environment – no IV drips, no medicine, no mum, no trace of her fragile body. Only the blurry foreground shows a bottle of water and the shapes of lunch boxes. In the distance, the view suggests that we are far from the city centre, far from our home. A worker is suspended outside the building, painting. The picture captures a fraction of a second from those long days and nights. Almost twenty years later, how distant it feels.

I must have been preoccupied with something else while glancing out the window, and subconsciously clicked the shutter on my small camera. This photograph was taken not to remember but to forget. To forget the view that I needed to take a break from, which was behind me, inside the room. From time to time, I had to turn away from it. It was too painful to watch. I had to face the window to take a deep breath, to reorganize myself, to reset my mood, and to regather my courage. I needed those moments to be able to turn back and face her again. She was too fragile; so was I.

What we can truly see is not always through our physical eyes. I didn’t notice the worker painting the wall when I was facing the window and took the picture. My eyes were fixed in the opposite direction, where I didn’t dare to look. It was in the room, on the bed, where a beloved fragile body lay, receiving her medicines drop by drop, and her life was counted down second by second.

How could a camera take a photograph through your mind’s eyes? It could only capture what was in front of the lens instead of what lay behind. The photograph was taken for the sake of not looking.

After my parents passed away, I started to use cameras to preserve moments, as I was scared to keep losing and desperately wanted to hold onto something. After more than twenty years, the more photographs I took the more I realized that the most precious moments cannot be captured by the mechanical. They can be captured only by our minds and hearts, and I am trying to translate those images into words.

Born in China and now with homes in Montreal and Vancouver, Hua Jin is a visual artist whose practice includes photography, video, and installation. Her way of thinking is rooted in Eastern culture and philosophy and centres on nature and landscape, akin to that of an ancient Taoist, dedicated to contemplating the “way” of being. She has exhibited extensively in solo and group shows across Canada and elsewhere, including International Expo 2020 in Dubai. Her works are featured in such private and public collections as the Canada Council Art Bank, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai.