Colour, Magic, and Storytelling – Interview with Mandy Sham

I love how utterly subjective travel can be — your experience is yours alone. It is genuine and true. It will never unfold again in the way that it did, and I think it’s valuable to make of that what you will — dissect, in a world apart from your own, the creative manifestations of your singular and otherwise abstract experience.

– Mandy Sham

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In a few words, who is Mandy Sham?
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I’m a multimedia storyteller. I have an artistic vocabulary intent on nurturing the essence of things both idiosyncratic and commonplace. I draw great fulfillment from the intersection of food, film, and culture. I travel fairly often. When I do, I like to map the emotional landscape, seek local experiences, and find one or more ingenious ways to nap.
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What sparked your interest in photography?
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Photography was anathema for a very long time, actually. My dad was an avid photographer, and what that meant for my childhood (and the many kitschy dresses it entailed) was a big smorgasbord of photoshoots. That’s still true in some respects — you’ll scarcely find me on the receiving end of a camera. All this to say there wasn’t really a spark. Throughout my life, I was deeply involved in different applications of art. I wanted to be a graphic designer for over ten years. Then, disillusioned with solitary confinement in studios (drawing, aptly, still life) — I pivoted to cinema, the medium belonging to auteurs like Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kubrick, a month before university applications were due. (What’s worthy of note is I am now in radio, a different medium entirely.)
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A year or two into university, my dad gave me my first camera for an upcoming three-month stint in Hong Kong. The rest is easy to imagine. In a place so famously known for its sensory overload, I loved seeking dualities: family and deference with a neon backdrop, mountains looming over skyscrapers. I’m a first generation Canadian with one foot out and the other in, so naturally, my camera became a prosthetic third leg. I didn’t know or feel it then, but it really has been ever since.
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Who or what are your creative inspirations?
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I think it’s the places I visit, and I don’t have much doubt about that. I love how utterly subjective travel can be — your experience is yours alone. It is genuine and true. It will never unfold again in the way that it did, and I think it’s valuable to make of that what you will — dissect, in a world apart from your own, the creative manifestations of your singular and otherwise abstract experience. Whether it’s in the Sahara Desert or in Tiananmen Square, you’re compelled to rewire a very real part of you. And you naturally react very differently to the new wave of sensations or lack thereof. How does that change feel — and what does it look like?
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I’ve also really enjoyed pooling inspiration from Instagram and its far-reaching photography community. It’s not just about aggregating content — it’s seeing what others outside of conformity are creating. It’s seeing what others outside the continent are creating, too, and how they approach the same things differently: portraits, shop interiors, the ubiquitous flat lay. Instagram marries that passive creativity with a strong social element, and it’s amazing to see how people explore that multi-faceted avenue of storytelling. 
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Your photography is quite vivid and colourful- what is it about colours that influences your work?
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Colours and combinations of them invoke a whole range of subtler emotions that, in my view, remain largely undefined. So much of photography is about distilling a moment in the world. Whether candid or planned, purposeful or accidental, the sentiment carries. I like to think that colour adds a certain emotional texture that bleeds into the physical space. It’s interpreted and transformed very subjectively, and that’s where the magic happens.
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As someone who has travelled a great deal, how do you approach depicting different locations, people, and landscapes?
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Nguan, one of my favourite photographers from Singapore, has said that it’s helpful for artists to “look at Earth as if it were the moon.” On a similar wavelength, Henri Matisse was credited with saying “you study, you learn, but you guard the original naivete. It has to be within you, as desire for drink is within the drunkard or love is within the lover.” (When travelling, my own take of the latter quote is to wander like a drunkard and shoot like a lover.) Creative banality is easy, even natural, in a place that’s so immortalized in the way it’s expected to look. It’s the artistic equivalent of “Paris syndrome,” the term coined to describe Japanese travellers disillusioned with the ‘real’ Paris. I try to see fringe neighbourhoods first, walking from residential areas to places of touristic interest. I walk for several miles, between neighbourhoods and the occasional non-pedestrian road, picking up on the scent of how a place vibes and looks. It’ll show in the photographs.
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What has been your favourite place that you have travelled to, and why?
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There are two, and each for vastly different reasons. The first is Marsalforn, a small port village on the northern tip of Gozo. From Il-Pergla, where I was staying, it was a twenty minute downhill stroll along a wide road designated for cars. I found it endearing pretty much immediately — dusty and antiquated, smelling of grilled seafood, tucked away at the edge of the Mediterranean with no one noticing. In fact, most of Malta felt like the quintessentially lonely place, where happiness comes from being. I’m a speck, the world goes on, and the gelato shop is open.
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Then there are the few days I spent in Pyongyang, North Korea, which really poked at the core of my being. We often think of Pyongyang as a parallel universe, and it is — infrastructure is trapped in the Soviet era, and portraits of the Kims are everywhere. But there are kind and diligent people, too, with aspirations they are cautious to voice, favourite dishes they like to cook, and children they care for. I won’t talk at length about it, but it’s something that really turned me to the intensity of the world.
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Name three places you wish to travel to that you haven’t already.
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Antarctica is at the top of my list — I’m hoping to make that a reality within the next five years. I’d love to visit Bhutan, the last Himalayan kingdom, known for pioneering the concept of a gross national happiness. And although it’s not exactly a place, I’d like to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway, from Beijing through the Gobi Desert, all the way until Moscow.
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As photographs help in remembering special moments, do you have any particular photographs that mean the most to you?
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No, not particularly. I’m very nostalgic for the places I visited in the past, and any photo of that time period, including the ones that look like afterthoughts, elicit the same sort of sentimental yearning (yes, even the ones with accidental Dutch angles). Honestly, I really think I neglected to capture the truly wonderful moments of my life, and I intend to keep it that way.
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Do you have any ongoing or upcoming projects that we can look forward to?
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I’m currently working on Kitchen Stories — a love child born out of my travels and experiences with mothers I met along the way. The photo collection will contain recipes, taught orally to me by mothers in different parts of the world, to be updated on an ongoing basis and available online.
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The other is Hanami, a photo album about women who descend upon Earth for a picnic. It’s a whimsical little project that explores themes of transience, womanhood, and emotional nostalgia.
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Mandy is a Canadian multimedia content creator with a vested interest in collective identity, emotional idiosyncrasy, and cultural diaspora as they translate to both visual and auditory landscapes. She specializes primarily in radio, writing, and photography. In the past, she produced and hosted Octopus, a podcast profiling the artistic lives of eight entrepreneurial individuals in Hong Kong. Mandy has travelled extensively to parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa. Presently, she works as an associate producer and broadcast technician at CBC Radio in Toronto.
See more of her work