Shot in almost full length, we see a portrait of an unidentified middle-aged man standing in front of a field of flowers. He is crossing his arms and looking at the viewer with a subtle smile upon his face. This very portrait has then been covered with inscriptions in different languages. The variety of handwriting reveals several persons have scribbled the enigmatic sentences such as, “A man missing his wife,” “It looks Photoshopped,” or “Under Mao’s leadership, he was perhaps a qualified worker.” At this point, an immediate question comes to mind: are we looking at a historical photograph or a contemporary work? Such a contradictory impression is triggered by He Bo’s images from his series The Extending Punctums. Created between 2013 and 2015, the series consists of 11 triptychs, blending an archival approach with an artistic sensibility to reveal the conflation of image and text.
What is poignant about this series is not the photos themselves but rather the process through which they have been conceived. “I want to emphasize that viewers are so important to complete one photo,“ explains He Bo. The process is threefold. First, he selects a picture from his own collection of so-called “vernacular photos,” the types of domestic and utilitarian records made or bought by everyday folk. Each picture for him triggers what the French philosopher Roland Barthes called a “punctum,” the detail in a photo that immediately catches our attention. Second, he asks his friends to write their own views of the photos, which are then directly added onto the picture’s surface. Third, he compiles a mosaic of images. This is based on the visual content of the original image as well as his friends’ thoughts and words. It results in compelling triptychs in which images come alive through words, and vice versa. Going beyond mere contemplation, He Bo’s approach reflects an analytic attitude towards the photographic image by “showing the effect that the punctums put on the viewer.”
Photography Friday is a regular feature from Shanghaiist in association with Photography of China, Marine Cabos’s fantastic platform about photography and photographers in China.