An Orbiting Mind: Mandy Sham on Exposing the World's Unspoken Sentiments
Travel Photographer and Journalist Mandy Sham (AKA Peach Punk) stimulates the senses by capturing the essence of moments through her lens. Sham thoughtfully plays with color in her compositions to evoke a sense of nostalgia and otherworldliness--an expression of her soul and aesthetic taste.
Sham's exhibition 'Soft Focus' observes the universality of loneliness. She captures solitude as a beautiful balance between our self orbit and curiosity of others. This body of work is rooted in Sham's desire to self reflect and connect with other people from many cultures.
What is it in the name ‘Peach Punk’ that defines you / resonates with you?
I like that it’s playful and alliterative, like an alter ego who channels irreverent and whimsical. She’s all about unapologetic aesthetics with a bit of heart and substance. ‘Peach’ and ‘punk’ often conjure up different, contradictory visual ideas — a mix of rosy idealism and emotional honesty. It’s an attitude I strive to embody as a person and represent visually in my work.
What preparatory steps do you take before you shoot? What is your full creative process for photography?
Less is always more. I try to allow the scene to develop in my head before it’s captured. I often think of it in holistic terms — the overall vibe of that day, how it translates to the senses, et cetera. Photography is all about capturing the essence of a moment, so it’s important to know what to distill in the first place. It’s important to go with the flow. And sometimes you see better when the camera’s been tucked away.
How much thought do you put into color and composition?
Colour defines my work. It’s really a different medium that you work with — an expression of the emotional landscape in a photograph. It’s deconstructing and recreating the third dimension in a pure and subjective way. I find it fascinating how we all gravitate toward certain palettes, preferring not just certain colours but certain combinations of them. Colour is this instinctive, almost childlike approach to creation. It’s a product of the primitive artist in you — it’s how you express your soul.
(A photo by Sham in Tirana. "Current Albanian prime minister Edi Rama, formerly a painter of international reclaim, decided to revitalize the capital by painting over dilapidated communist-era buildings." )
The art of composition is different. I like that it’s meticulous and controlled. It’s an opportunity to distance myself and frame the work that I do. Composition is not just an in-the-moment thing. What most people don’t know is that the bulk of my travel photography considers composition after the fact. That’s not to say that I shoot Dutch angles and say to hell with the rule of thirds — just that cropping matters more than you think. It’s all a very exciting part of my whole process.
Many of your works seem to be influenced by Japanese botany. Did you grow up Japan?
I was born and raised in Toronto, and some of my early childhood years were spent in Hong Kong. But the notion that my work is influenced by principles of ikebana is absolutely true. I feel a deep synchronicity with certain philosophical and cultural elements of Japan — particularly the idea of ‘mono no aware,’ or the ephemerality of things. This concept and so many others are laced with beauty and melancholy. In a way it’s fitting — the first place I travelled to by myself is actually Okinawa. I spent a lot of time alone, listening to island folk songs on the boardwalk and petting convenience store cats. It felt great.
I do feel that my work is suggestive of ephemerality in its attempt to capture it.
How does nostalgia impact you and consequently your work?
I’m pretty glad you asked me about nostalgia, because I love that it’s this double-edged thing. The future, by definition, is not something you hold onto. As humans we’re obsessed with the past. Our experiences happen and we relive them in conversations or our various creative outlets. It’s a paradox of mummifying something and thus making it less real. My personhood as a creative is about embracing all that.
Tell me about “Beyond the Magnolias.” Why a paper print zine?
“Beyond the Magnolias” is a fun little project I undertook with Pomegranate Press while I was in Barcelona. The photographs featured are a bit worldly and surreal. Prior to completing it, I’d never considered the fact that there was no real collection of my work available outside of social media. And obviously the way we interact with online and print media are dramatically different. I wanted to create that layer of interactivity and intimacy, and as I was living in a foreign city at the time, it only felt natural for the print zine to be imbued with this sense of otherworldliness.
Your first solo exhibition, “Soft Focus”: why have this exhibition in Russia?
Space Place Gallery had reached out to me after seeing some of my work featured on booooooom. I had no idea what or where Nizhny Tagil was at the time — turns out it’s an industrial Russian city nicknamed “the city of the colourful sky”, due in part to the heavy pollution (and all-night raves hosted in old Soviet theatres). It’s known for a lot of fascinatingly weird art. It’s about 25 km from the border separating Europe and Asia. I was sold pretty much immediately.
(A photo from Sham's exhibition 'Soft Focus')
Why does this exhibition exist?
Soft Focus is inspired by the collective interiority of others. It’s the moment in which you cross paths with a stranger and can’t help but wonder what they’re thinking. Truthfully, I think we’re lost in our own worlds more than we like to admit. That’s not a cynical dig at the state of social media. That doesn’t mean we’re disconnected from society. I like contemplating the idea that there’s more of a fluid grey area between being present in the moment and being lost — between being with others and being alone. This exhibition, Soft Focus, is about portraying that vision.
How can loneliness, an undesirable feeling, exist in a utopia? Are you saying loneliness is beautiful?
There’s one scene in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise where Celine says to Jesse: “If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us. Not you or me, but just this little space in-between.”
Utopia is just that — our little space in-between. But I think it takes loneliness to understand that, to have a desire for that. And that’s just the thing, isn’t it? Loneliness is beautiful only in the acknowledgement of our own isolation, and in our lifelong attempt to remedy that.
You seem to deeply appreciate the deep history, art, and culture of the places you visit. Where have you been? Are you searching for something?
I’ve travelled around south and eastern Asia, central Europe, north Africa, and more recently the Balkans and Middle East. I couldn’t discern one particular reason for why I travel, but it’s at least partly because I believe there’s still so much to learn about ourselves and each other. I always endeavour to learn about the art and culture in a country. I am fascinated by people and I think we should all be. Travel is about challenging yourself to overcome barriers that allow you to connect with diverse groups of people, and in the process, nurture empathy and cultivate the self.
I do think traveling is commonly perceived as something you do to put your life on pause. Societal value is placed on structure in our lives to the extent of us forgetting about the exhilaration of freefall. I personally believe that curiosity drives us to be nomadic in nature. We’re always striving to make contact — to discover the world we didn’t know existed and love the strangers with whom we don’t share a common tongue. It humbles us, it inspires us, it unites us. And that is an incredibly understated, beautiful, and empowering thing.
What is next for you?
Traveling and making meaningful connections matter deeply to me, so I continue to strive for creative opportunities that allow me to share their stories and mine. I’ll be taking my photography to new heights — literally, with a trek (hopefully sometime next year) in Nepal’s Everest region. Soon, I’ll also be overlanding through East Africa and documenting the journey.
ALL PHOTOS VIA MANDY SHAM AKA PEACH PUNK