Pengkuei Ben Huang: Soul Calling
Combining written language with imagery can create an extremely powerful and useful artefact which, in some cases as exemplified here, can help us combat loss.
Pengkuei Ben Huang’s body of work Soul Calling is a profound testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
Writing letters to one’s most dearly beloved relatives and friends who are no longer around requires deep emotional intelligence as it’s the first step on the path to acceptance and healing. Grief is a complex, multi-faceted process that takes the person on a journey that is far from a linear path. The words accompanying the pictures are deeply meaningful, written in a diaristic manner as although the intended recipient is clear, they will never read those words. It’s a cathartic process that shows human nature in its rawest, most vulnerable form - suffering the untimely death of someone close to one’s heart who was taken prematurely by a brutal natural disaster.
The theme and sense of repair and recovering manifests itself throughout the project. The region in North East Japan appears to have rebuilt and the photographs show almost no trace of that rueful day in 2011. Moreover, there is no trace of anger in the letters, perhaps because enough time has passed, but nevertheless a commendable feat of human fortitude. As they say, time is the most effective healer, although no amount of time would make one forget the death of their son, father, or friend; it’s commendable how these people have embraced life as it is and are doing their ultimate best to move on. A friend of mine who lost her father recently told me that grief and sorrow don’t go away with the years - they simply become a part of who you are and you either learn to live with and accept them or you don’t, there is no other option. There is a slight mystery over when the letters were written - whether it was directly after the tsunami or after many years, but does it really matter? I also wonder if they were composed specifically for the project, which I doubt, or they were a personal project undertaken by the survivors as a coping mechanism.
The photographs range from serene landscape scenes in muted tones to harsh, high-contrast black and white images demonstrating the dynamic atmosphere of the place, symbolising that life carries on. The combination of language and imagery is profoundly powerful and it exemplifies the strength and ability of documentary photography to tell a story that is nuanced and multi-layered, one which would be insufficiently rich in detail if either the letters or pictures were not part of it.
— foreword by Zak R. Dimitrov
Pengkuei Ben Huang is a Taiwanese/Canadian photographer
based in Toronto, Canada. His early interest in history and geopolitics inspired him to undertake international politics studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California in the US.
Upon discovering photography as his passion, he relocated to San Francisco and earned his BFA at Academy of Art University. He was selected as one of the finalists for The Scotiabank Prize in 2007 at Magnum Workshop Toronto under the mentorship of the renowned photographer Larry Towell. Since then he has taken an interest in utilizing photography as a medium to form a visual narrative that explores the relationship between humans and their surrounding environments.
Soul Calling is a collection of photographs taken between 2016 and 2019 along the coast of Northeast Japan.
It documents the environment years after the 2011 tsunamy on the southern coast of Iwate prefecture. Intertwined with a series of emotionally profound letters written to loved ones who have passed away from the disaster, the project forms a narrative of grieving survivors and their personal journey of healing as the region itself gradually recovers.
The enclosed letters are translated by Pengkuei Ben Huang.
Photozine "Soul Calling" is available at The Phooks
Self-published limited edition of 200 copies.
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