Interview: Sandra Dans on ‘The Art of Forgetting’

The first memory I have of Sandra involved an apology – mine, for running late. We were meeting on a Sunday morning and an apartment repair took longer than expected. I’d had to message her ahead of time to say I’ll be another 10 minutes or so.

Sandra was taking her Masters of Fine Arts in Photography at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Hong Kong. I remember running up to the corner of a block and, out of breath and embarrassed, apologizing for making her wait.

But Sandra, in her black-rimmed glasses, classy curly ‘do and feminine vintage getup was far from bothered. I received, instead, the kind of greeting you would get from a friend you hadn’t seen in a long time – never mind that it was the first time we were meeting, two strangers brought together by a common friend (and The Galvanizers co-founding editor), Isa.

Sandra and I would catch up at intervals throughout her stay, and in the time I got to know her I’d also learn more about the projects she was working on for school.

Here’s what I found: With Sandra, when it comes to photography, it’s all about the work. Our photography-related conversations typically revolved around ideas and concepts, and the rationales with which she fleshed them out. Anyone listening would sense her deft hand not only with the camera, but as well as with the subject matters she chose to photograph. Indeed, the only surprise I had in learning that she received the Excelsus Laureate – the highest honor bestowed to a graduate student of the graduating class – was that she never thought it relevant to mention.

I am honored that we get to feature Sandra’s thoughtful and compelling work in this issue of The Galvanizers. In the interest to explore the other side of remembering, we spotlight one of her projects, ‘The Art of Forgetting’, and delve into the ideas it proposes. The camera is as much a medium to illustrate the interesting process of forgetting, as it is a record-keeper. What does it mean to forget with intent? To choose against remembering? Perhaps more interestingly, what’s it like?

In words and images, Sandra lets us in on her answers.

– Johna


Tell us about yourself: What you do, where you’re from, the first time you picked up a camera.

I like to say I’m a visual artist, although I probably don’t make enough work for that to be true. I use photography. I like it, I like talking about it, I like what it can do. I’m from Manila, that’s it. The first time I literally picked up a camera was probably when I was 10; my parents gave me a small 35 automatic, but I couldn’t really figure out how to use it. It wasn’t until digital cameras came along, towards the end of high school, that I really became interested in the medium.

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Describe the moment (or the photograph?) that made you decide to become a photographer.

I don’t really think I had one. I just liked it and I kept doing it. Some of my friends online had started posting photos of their lives, and I looked at them and thought, “Hey, I could do that but with my life.” By the time I was in college, I had started a photo blog and it had gradually turned into the thing that people associated with me.

What I think was different about my intro to the medium was that I had zero interest in gear. It made it hard for me to find photographers with the same outlook because photo clubs and things like that tend to be fixated on equipment and technical perfection, and discuss little in terms of the actual implications of work.

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A lot of your photography work marries documentary elements with that of the surreal and fantastic. How would you describe your approach to taking photographs? What draws you to a particular subject or theme?

I see a lot of photography done as a reactive exercise, where photographs are a response to physical stimuli like travel, or the need to document a thing you’ve seen, or just as a way of remembering something fleeting. It’s so easy now too, especially with mobile phones. That’s perfectly fine, but in my personal practice I find it too stressful to always be “on” and looking for things to photograph. I’m even trying to stay away from event documentation professionally because photography becomes so draining to me when it is about chasing down stimuli.

In my work, I like to address the fact that I am dealing with an emotional object, something that I have infused my outlook and my perspective with, something that is unique to me. I don’t believe photographs are perfectly neutral documents that represent objective truth. I think people are starting to realize that too through this growing suspicion of too-fantastic Instagram accounts. Photographs are more like memory, which are subjective truths, than objective truth – photographs are flimsy, easily misinterpreted, subject to personality and emotions. There is a lot of opportunity, especially through digital manipulation, to express complex emotional narratives, that I feel don’t get taken advantage of because Photoshop has gotten such a bad rap for “not telling the truth.” But photography doesn’t tell the truth, at least not the entire objective truth. Photoshop is a tool just as much as a camera is, and the usage (or non-usage) is not ever as important as the intention of the user.

I gravitate towards themes that ring true to me emotionally. I like for my work to be honest because at least, even if nobody else likes it or gets it, I can still stand behind it.

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‘The Art of Forgetting’ is an interesting project in its intention to illustrate loss and forgetting. Tell us about the idea behind the work.

The work is about the violence of loss. I think a lot of the conceptualization that surrounds loss is that it is a slow, melancholic process that we watch ourselves wistfully go through, but it seems we only realize we’re going to have to go through it once it’s too late to get something back. Even in cases of long, drawn-out illness, when we go through the stages of loss with the person right there, to a point where we’re already too far gone to go back and say, I Don’t Want To Do This.

The Spot Healing Tool in Photoshop is something that is commonly used for quick fixes – little spots here and there, cleaning up dust specks, clearing a few freckles. The algorithm it uses takes a sample patch from a nearby area and deduces how to clear the spot. But as any seasoned Photoshop user will tell you, when used on a bigger object, the Spot Healing Tool actually becomes destructive. As if in a panic, its algorithm takes seemingly random patches from the surrounding area and “heals over” the selected obstruction in a completely unnatural way. The result can be anywhere from uncanny to totally absurd, but either way the image looks manipulated.

Deliberately inducing this uncomfortable effect in photographs, intentionally defacing them in this way is emotionally cathartic, like smashing plates. Especially in an atmosphere of “perfection,” in a society that wants to believe that everything a photograph tells them is the truth, drawing attention to digital manipulation is actually considered taboo.

The work to me looks the way some losses feel. There’s a ghostly form, there’s a yearning to “see the original,” there’s traces of a thing gone, but because of the process, you can’t really see what that was. I’ve included some self-portraits here because the process is not just external but internal, changing not just my social infrastructure, but even my emotional infrastructure as well.

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What inspired the thinking behind this project? How connected is/was it to your own experiences and journey at the time?

I was going through a forced separation from one of my closest friends, and I was preparing myself to leave Manila for an undetermined amount of time.

In an earlier exchange we had, you mentioned the ‘role of intentionality in letting go’ and how this is a deliberate process. In an age of constant documentation, deliberately letting go sounds counterintuitive. How do you think this is necessary, on a personal level? On a conceptual level, what was your creative process like, in fleshing this out?

I feel like a lot of people subscribe to the idea that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is an effective emotional tool in dealing with difficult things, but I’ve found in my experience that that’s only half the story. Suck the poison out of your life, yes, but demons need to be confronted in order to be exorcised. Confrontation is deliberate, troublesome and so painful. Whether they are the demons of your ego, of your past, of your present, whatever they are – living in bitter denial of the fact that things happen beyond our control can have a lot of long-term consequences.

On a conceptual level, I looked at the base photographs I had collected for this project (which is significantly more than what is showcased) and decided they weren’t “done.” That as is, they didn’t really tell a complete story yet. I attempted the process on a number of different images, some much more visually dissonant than this selection, and edited them down til I felt I had a set that made a complete emotional arc.

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Do you think loss – of memory, of people – is violent because of what it takes away from us, or because of the process in which it does so – slow, incremental, and therefore barely noticeable (which you address in your photographs)?

I think it’s both those things and a whole lot of other things. Loss is never just about the thing you lose I think; loss takes parts of you with it like a red hot Balrog of Morgoth. And it’s not slow or wistful or pretty at all, because after that there is a heck of a lot of cleanup necessary.

There’s also no preparing for it. Even if you understand what a terminal illness is and does, and you know it’s coming, you’ll never truly understand what it means for someone to never come back until they never come back, and it is only then that the healing can really begin.

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Given our culture of ubiquitous documentation, what are your views on memory and the act of remembering? How do you think the constant taking of pictures is affecting the way we remember?

Personally I have a terrible memory, so I want to believe that photography has somehow helped enhance my long-term memory. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s also spoiled us to the point that we don’t even try to remember by ourselves anymore. We trust that images, especially digital ones which are physically nothing more than magnetic pulses between microchips, accurately represent events, and will be accessible to us forever. They’re probably just as ephemeral as our brains. A friend of mine calls it prosthetic memory.

I guess I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, it’s just a new step in the evolution of human memory. But there’s something romantic about carrying something around with you that I don’t think machines can replace. One of the strongest insights of the film Inside Out is that memories make you who you are. If you keep that separate from your person, what’s left?


About Sandra:

Sandra Dans is a photographer, visual artist and podcaster living and working in Southeast Asia. She lives with two dogs, five humans and innumerable fish.

See more of Sandra’s photography over at www.sandradans.com.

Image Attribution: All photographs featured in this interview were taken and have been reposted with permission by Sandra Dans.