Searching For My Mother in Far-Off Countries (A Photographer's Journey Through Grief)

Photography by Georgianna Chang. 

Photography by Georgianna Chang. 

I left for my first real international adventure when I was six years old. My mother was doing a month-long Law program in Paris, and she wanted her young hybrid Taiwanese-American girl to be French cultured. She insisted that this was the trip when she first noticed my "keen eye for photography." I was the designated documenter of our food, museum, and street excursions. The luxurious words "travel, food, and art" encapsulate what it was like to grow up with my single mother. The two of us ate and walked through Rome, Paris, Venice, Cinque Terre, and I photographed it all before the age of seven years old.

As I grew older, the American school system limited our adventures to summer and winter breaks. My little brother was born 10 years after me, and the three of us would plan for a new country and culture every chance we could.

At first I pledged devotion and loyalty to film photography. I had gone to various camps and photography courses in Los Angeles, where the darkroom was the epicenter of magic. I adored the long hours in the dark followed by the surprising reward of an emerging image under chemical water. I wouldn't eat. I'd get cranky. But there was nothing more satisfying than a collection of darkroom prints after long days without sunlight.

Now, at 23, I can't remain indoors for longer than two hours, and I chase the sun constantly.

During my last year at UCLA, when I was about to receive my Bachelor of Fine Arts with a focus in Photography, my mother was diagnosed with Cirrhosis of the liver. Partnered with the Cirrhosis, her breast cancer had returned and spread to her bones. She passed away within four months, just before my graduation. Up until that point, I hadn't realized that everything I defined my life around (travel, adventure, photography, creativity, etc.) had been cultivated and inspired by my mother's dreams for me as an artist, a woman, and an individual.  

I dealt with my grief in the best way I could. I pushed and made it through graduation, and then I left Los Angeles.

Some family wanted me to stay, there were legal and administrative issues to tend to, but there was not a single authority who could prevent me from leaving. At that point in my life there was but one strong-forced individual who could always will her way upon me, and that was my mother.

I was soon headed for India, where I began my hunt for my mother’s spirit in Ayurvedic lodges, Kali temples, Ashrams, and elsewhere.

My boyfriend and I planned a three-week-long road trip that began with hikes and camps throughout California. We drove through Oregon, Washington, and up to Canada. We made our way back down into Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was always searching for my mother during my travels. I searched for her in my photographs, in the Hoh Rain Forest, in the Sequoias, in the Mountains of Yosemite, and so on...

After we returned, my family was surprised to discover that I was soon planning to leave for Thailand and Nepal. There was business to take care of, clothes to sort through, rooms to pack up, but I stood my ground and ensured that no one would touch my mother's items until I finally decided to pause long enough from traveling.

After Nepal, I returned home for a short period to visit my brother, but I was soon headed for India, where I began my hunt for my mother's spirit in Ayurvedic lodges, Kali temples, Ashrams, and elsewhere. My next destination was Japan and Taiwan to reconvene with my grandfather and capture images of my heritage roots. After Asia, I wandered back through Europe before finally returning to L.A. All the while, I had my camera. I photographed digitally for the first time because lugging pounds of used and unused film around the world was not sustainable.

I went on like this for a year and two months after my mother’s death.

I never did fully feel, hear, or see my mother's spirit. But I recognize that my pictures tend to capture a sense of familiarity, a feeling of home in a stranger's smile, warmth in a Japanese Zen Garden. I have transferred my search and love for my mother onto images. My entire journey around Asia and Europe was really a journey home. Photography is a return to myself, my roots, and my upbringing. It is what my mother destined for me. Therefore, the images I capture feel personal and intimately narrative. My photographs are where I meet my mother and return to a sense of "home."

Photography by Georgianna Chang. 

Photography by Georgianna Chang.