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How Photography Helped Me Overcome Heartbreak

Cancer took away my mother. I was on a downward spiral until a chance encounter with nature put me on the path to recovery. I started photography as a way to extend the serenity I felt in nature.

Over time, I healed, rediscovered myself, and recalibrated the pace and direction of my life. I now shoot to celebrate and preserve memories of nature’s fleeting beauty. My first project, “Metamorphosis”, is a manifestation of the changes that have taken place in me.

I started photographing as a form of self-therapy. I mourned the loss of my mother, who had been both my confidante and my moral compass. Although I accepted his death, I ran away from grief by immersing myself in work. However, my work environment, like most, was not conducive to healing. The relationship issues further aggravated my pain and left me at the lowest point of my life.

I wallowed in this state of existence for a few years until I realized I had to do something about it. It affected my family and close friends. Enrolling in a volunteer program in Tibet turned out to be a watershed moment. Volunteers could help in an orphanage in Lhasa and also do sightseeing. One such trip took us to Lake Namtso, a lake at an elevation of 4,718 m (15,479 ft). I sat by the lake as I savored a sense of peace that had long eluded me. The vastness of the lake gave me a sense of perspective while its beauty reignited in me a sense of wonder and adventure. Nature reminded me that life is beautiful and there is so much to experience and explore. I am small in the scheme of the universe. My mind woke up. I found hope again.

One of the other volunteers on the trip had a DSLR camera. At that time, I didn’t know what a DSLR camera was, and I was perfectly happy with my compact camera, busy taking pictures. However, unbeknownst to me, a seed had been planted in my mind. When I got home, I bought my first DSLR camera and signed up for an online workshop to learn about f-stops, shutter speeds, and ISO. A few years later, while I was between jobs, I signed up for a few photography workshops at the Santa Fe studios in New Mexico. And that’s how my photographic journey began, at 33 years old.

Metamorphosis

Until then, my life had been devoted to economics and finance, strategy and negotiations. My only contact with the art world was in my freshman year of college when I bought a poster for my dorm. I fell in love with “Impression, Sunrise” by Monet without knowing who he was. The poster prompted me to read about him. One thing leading to another, the books I bought introduced me to Renoir, Degas and other Impressionists. Later, I heard about Van Gogh and fell in love with Chagall’s work. My current love is Li Huayi, a contemporary Chinese ink painting artist, and Goto Sumio, a prominent Japanese artist whose museum I visit once or twice a year for inspiration.

My first project, “Metamorphosis”, presents the landscapes of central Hokkaido, Japan. The choice was no accident. I first visited Hokkaido with my family when I was seven. My father used to take us skiing there during our end-of-year school holidays. My world was simple then: doing my homework, learning to ski and eating delicious Japanese food. It may have only been a three-day trip for a few winters, but those memories remain etched in my memory. Being there evokes nostalgia for the purity and simplicity of childhood.

Metamorphosis

Central Hokkaido is a magical place filled with mountains, forests, rolling fields, rivers and lakes. Distinct seasons and large temperature differences between night and day give rise to amazing natural phenomena such as fog, frost and diamond dust. My desire to spend more time in central Hokkaido led me to move to work in Japan, and eventually quit my job in finance.
The images for this project were, in essence, a chronicle of my healing as well as my growth as a photographer. Photographing nature distracted me from my misery and gave me purpose. Studies have shown that nature and even images of nature relieve symptoms, reduce stress levels, and reduce depression and anxiety. To this day, I get my spirits up every time the plane approaches Asahikawa Airport and I see the vast expanses of nature. I hope my images will do the same for others.

I often wonder if happiness and other emotions are normal. I experienced how negative emotions can lead to a downward spiral. Looking back, photography was the new habit, or maybe I should say addiction, that broke the spell.

Although the urge to photograph was initially born out of an almost desperate desire to prolong the serenity that nature brings, over time I began to enjoy simply being immersed in nature, marveling at her beauty and to be grateful for another chance encounter.

Metamorphosis

Photographing nature meant I had to learn more about nature. I became more knowledgeable about various natural phenomena through reading and through experience, that is, by making mistakes and learning.

Some natural phenomena like solar pillars are difficult to find because they require a confluence of several factors, for example, clear skies, extremely low temperatures, high humidity, and calm, windless conditions. As global temperatures warm and the weather becomes increasingly erratic, Solar Pillars become even rarer. I fear there will come a day when this amazing phenomenon may disappear, and that worry has driven me to photograph more seriously these days.

If I find a scene that resonates with me, I could stay there for hours, trying to exhaust all possibilities of seeing and photographing. However, many elements of nature such as fog and diamond dust are fleeting. I race against time to capture their beauty before they disappear as the fog lifts, the petals fall, the sun moves and the snow bugs die. The four-character Japanese idiom, 一期一会 (ichi-go ichi-e), best illustrates that many encounters with nature happen once in a lifetime and cannot be repeated even when the seasons repeat.

Metamorphosis

The seasons, in turn, remind me of the inevitability of death and rebirth. My mother’s death anniversary is the same day as a friend’s birthday. I don’t hold any grudges against life but just feel a simple appreciation that life is short and precious.

I am often confused when asked to explain why I photograph what I photograph. I think I end up filming everything that touches me emotionally. I may come across a scene or a detail by chance and my heart skips a beat. I photograph by following my instinct, by instinct, by impulse. It’s very different from what I used to do as an investment banker where logic and reason trumped everything else.

Two pieces of advice guided me throughout the project and I kept them close to my heart. The first is by Masumi Takahashi, a landscape photographer based in central Hokkaido. He told me to keep my objectivity and not be spellbound by the scenery. This is especially true when photographing rare and breathtaking events such as diamond dust. It’s easy to be so filled with wonder and joy that instead of calmly and creatively photographing the scene, I end up rooted to one spot and pressing the shutter button with frantic haste.

Metamorphosis

Another tip I’d like to share comes from my mentor, Nevada Wier. She reminds me to be objective when reviewing and selecting my images, not to be clouded by the backstory and experience of creating the image. For example, one image should not be deserved over another simply because I braved biting winds and freezing temperatures to create that image. She taught me not to confuse the merits of the image with the experience itself.

I hope their words of wisdom will resonate with you as they have with me.

I dedicate “Metamorphosis” to all the teachers who have touched my life in one way or another, especially my mentor, Nevada Wier, for helping me develop my voice in photography and inspiring me by the generosity of his spirit.


The article is courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. The ELEMENTS is the monthly magazine dedicated to the best landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Inside you’ll find exclusive, in-depth articles and images from the world’s top landscape photographers such as Charles Cramer, Christopher Burkett, Chuck Kimmerle, Christian Fletcher, Charlie Waite, Rachael Talibart, John Sexton and Freeman Patterson, for n to name a few. Use the code PETAPIXEL10 to benefit from a 10% discount on the annual subscription.


About the Author: Xuan-Hui Ng is an artist photographer from Singapore currently residing in Tokyo. She has been selected for juried exhibitions at the Griffin Museum, Davis Orton Gallery, Southeast Center for Photography, and A Smith Gallery, in addition to being placed in the 16th Julia Margaret Cameron Award for Women Photographers in 2021.

From the artist: “The past 11 years have been a time of transformation for me. My desire to spend more time photographing in Japan led me to settle there and eventually quit my job in finance. I rediscovered myself and recalibrated the pace and direction of my life. Spending time in nature made this possible. I bear his imprint, artistically and by temperament. My images are a manifestation of these changes. I dedicate these memories to kindred spirits, the tired, the lost and the lonely. I hope they too can feel the joy I felt when I laid eyes on these magical landscapes.