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Mandy Sham is the first to admit that photography wasn’t her first love. But after her father gave her a Nikon J1, her ambivalence to the medium evolved into keen interest and she found herself entranced by the camera’s ability to uncover tiny differences in the lived experience. Her most recent series looks at the ephemeral nature of East and South Africa’s borders while exploring questions of identity and nationality.

Words by ELEANOR SCOTT

Photography by Mandy Sham

Mandy Sham has always pursued creativity in some shape or form. When she was a child, her passion for the arts manifested as a fascination with the ideas behind images and figuring out how to translate those same thoughts onto paper. As a teenager, she spent most of her time watching films learning how colour and composition can enhance stories.

Comparatively, still pictures were less appealing – the purview of those aiming to fill up photo albums rather than make art, she thought. But when her father – a hobbyist photographer – gave her a Nikon J1, Mandy decided to take it with her during a summer break in Hong Kong and learn how to use it properly. That decision changed everything.

Armed with a new way of interpreting the world and faced with a place both familiar and foreign, it wasn’t long before Mandy’s love of travel became intrinsically entwined with her photography. “Travel drew me to travel photography. I grew up in Toronto, but as it usually is with places you grow up in, the city never struck me as a place that merited posterity. You accept your surroundings as yours – there’s a certain level of autopilot in the everyday,” Mandy says.

“At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, I often feel rather disembodied from this city – as if I could never call it my own. Travel may have been a response to that. It allowed me to detach myself from the strings tied to this singular concept of home.”

“Being selective trains your visual sense. Having less product as a result of that decommodifies your work. You begin to understand the value of not just what you create but the process in doing it.”

Like many photographers, initially Mandy found herself drawn to “whatever looked vaguely photogenic without really questioning why”. But time, gradual experimentation and plenty of travel through several countries and continents including Japan, South East Asia, the Balkans and India slowly taught her the importance of being discerning about what she chooses to capture.

“My journey has been guided more by incremental shifts than any sort of catalyst,” Mandy explains. “As a creative you are constantly recalibrating. The main thing I’ve noticed is that I’m simply more selective about what I decide to shoot. Being selective trains your visual sense. Having less product as a result of that decommodifies your work. You begin to understand the value of not just what you create but the process in doing it.”

The benefits of that well-developed critical eye are obvious when viewing the cinematic beauty of Mandy’s images. In Sarajevo, a happenstance encounter with a collection of buildings that, at first glance, appear “drab and completely drained of colour”, is used as an opportunity to skilfully capture the unexpected narratives hidden within the city’s “architecturally diverse pockets”. While in Paris, the bustling streets of Le Marais feel far more alive and representative of France than another snap of the Eiffel Tower ever could.

“Most of the time, people are nonchalant. You will be branded a tourist, but that’s what you are – you have to recognise your role in it.”

In fact, landmarks rarely appear in Mandy’s work – except for the Taj Mahal, but that’s because, as she says, “it’s the Taj Mahal”. Instead, the focus of her camera is aimed more towards the human experience – aesthetically intended to be impressionistic “emotional postcards” rather than true documentary. “Photography allows me to consider lived experiences differently – the beauty of that is in its performative rather than cerebral aspect,” she explains.

Of course, photographing people is never as simple as taking a picture, and the complex relationship between photographer and subject is something Mandy admits to grappling with all the time. “Using a camera is identifying and invasive – it strips the user of any anonymity and can feel quite disruptive,” she says. “People may question your motives. They might happily embrace the presence of your camera and eagerly ask for their photo to be taken. Most of the time, people are nonchalant. You will be branded a tourist, but that’s what you are – you have to recognise your role in it. In places where people are living very different experiences from yourself, you have to exercise a certain degree of caution. It’s about respect and reciprocity. A photographer cannot be overly presumptuous.”

“It feels rather monolithic and unknowable to an outsider. The dust of colonialism and inner conflict is still settling.”

Her latest series, shot over during a three-month overlanding trip through East and South Africa, is a triumphant culmination of all of her work that has come before. Sweeping sand dunes, bursts of colour and activity, coffee-covered hills, and faces that tell stories with a single glance. For Mandy, her attraction to the continent has always been difficult to expound, which only made her want to go more.

“It feels rather monolithic and unknowable to an outsider. The dust of colonialism and inner conflict is still settling. The pull of tradition and modernity, meanwhile, produces such widespread and tangible effects. Most of the allure is in this hopeful yet precarious moment – so much is changing, or nothing is changing, depending on who you ask.”

From South Africa and Namibia to Kenya and Zimbabwe, the series has an ephemeral quality to it that allows space for questions of identity and nationality to rise to the surface. “The transformations of one country to the next occurs gradually and subtly,” Mandy says. “They cross borders and languages. Moreover, cities are remarkably different from rural settlements. Driving through means you at least get to witness it firsthand.”

“You could see at a glance that everyone had a different story and a different reason for being there.”

People, whether they’re present in the image or poignantly absent, are clearly the primary consideration of her lens. The way they occupy different spaces, particularly when no one is watching, fascinates Mandy. One of her favourite pictures from the trip was taken during the last hour of an overnight train ride from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Morning light streams into a carriage with teal seats and yellow walls, while the occupants stare inquisitively outwards – ready for their journey to be over.

“Two friends and I decided to stretch our legs and walk down the carriages from the first-class sleeper cabins to the very tail end of the train,” Mandy says. “It was a fascinating experience. Each carriage felt microcosmic – populated by people of all types, colliding worlds and sometimes knees. People watched as we roamed down the aisles, occasionally saying hello. You could see at a glance that everyone had a different story and a different reason for being there.”

Another pick is a sunrise shot of a surprisingly straight line of people climbing Dune 45 in Namibia. Realising that no one was stopping for any reason other than to rest, Mandy took out her camera to document the uphill expedition. “Everyone moved in a surprisingly orderly fashion – one foot in the sandy imprint of the person directly in front of them,” she says. “It felt like an apt metaphor for how we generally approach life. We do so in a linear, goal-oriented fashion.”

Unwilling to succumb to a singular creative output, when Mandy isn’t travelling with her camera she’s showing off her journalism chops, working as an audio engineer in radio news with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or nurturing her popular Instagram account @peach.punk. Lately, she’s also been working on launching a new website and making a zine about her trip through Africa, which will feature a “combination of personal anecdotes, historical and cultural tidbits, and photos that wouldn’t typically make the social media highlight reel”.

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Mandy Sham