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The paradox of beauty

How a camera lens informs one photographer’s theology.

Crystal Hao was a student in the United States, far away from her homeland of China, when she saw two million migrant workers vacating Beijing on the news. It was 2018, and the mass evictions were part of a crackdown on illegal housing that began the year before.

“The government thought [the migrant workers] were nothing,” says Hao. The Guardian reported at the time that rounding up street vendors, closing markets and bricking up businesses without licenses was all part of the government’s plan to “beautify” Beijing: “While the government has said it is not specifically targeting migrant workers, critics claim the reforms disproportionately affect the cities’ poorest”(“China’s radical plan to limit the populations of Beijing and Shanghai,” by Helen Roxburgh).

As Hao watched the social upheaval in her country from afar, God was reminding her through nature, “everybody is the same. We are just ordinary people.”

“Whatever our background is, it doesn’t define who we are, it is light that defines who we are.”

– Crystal Hao

‘Glory in the lowliness’

Hao is a photographer from Southwest China. I first glimpsed her work in 2018 when she presented a collection of her images taken in response to the Beijing migrant crisis.

It was one of Hao’s first themed collections. She chose subjects like dandelions because, in her words, “you don’t notice them without perspective. With the lighting behind them I started to see beauty. It’s the same in our lives. The light matters.” This collection, titled Glory in the Lowliness, not only gave Hao a way to obliquely critique the “beautification campaign” happening in Beijing, but started her on a journey towards discovering a theology of light and shadow.

“Beauty is in light and shadow. In photography both of these components have to be in balance. It’s like life. There’s a beauty of suffering in life. Suffering is a human theme in life. I see beauty as having both elements – both beauty and ugliness. It’s a paradox.”

“When you zoom in, you see a lot of intricacy and beauty of the designs and patterns. Even the colours display differently in different lighting and with different perspective.”

The light of attention

Hao’s interest in photography began in a freshman elective course. For the next 10 years, she stuck with her basic Nikon, learning skills by experimenting and honing her perspective by always seeking the light.

“Taking good photos is always about what you see and how you see,” says Hao. As Hao’s life and work changes, her photography has too. Instead of close-up nature shots, she increasingly photographs people in their cultural contexts. She upgraded to a Sony camera and is now diving into post-production editing.

There is a concept that runs long and deep within Christian faith traditions and it is this: we become what we behold. In a mysterious way, the gaze of our attention can direct the growth of our souls. Hao is well-practised in the art of beholding.

“As I explored nature I started to realize that the lens of my camera could direct me into a deep observation of an object. Through the little lens I started to see the beauty of God’s creation. My natural response to his glory was to capture that beauty. I started to hear God’s whisper and each time he would give me a theme for my works.”

In her graduate degree in Applied Arts, Hao majored in Ethno Arts, an anthropological approach to cultural arts and their place in community life. Hao says that seeing the diversity of humans is like using a camera lens to zoom past an autumnal tree and see each leaf up close; “You see intricate patterns, all the stems, each so different. You start to see diversity, each one made differently just like the uniqueness of each human being. I think through that diversity of all the little things you start to see God’s big heart for his creation and his infinite creativity in his creation.”

Starting at sunset

Hao is currently branching into videography: “I think it’s a comprehensive form that combines so many different elements of art into one.” Her current project is a short documentary on the worship music of a minority group. She hopes their music inspires other minority groups.

Over the years as a photographer, Hao’s technique has evolved while her theology deepened. Photography still teaches her to pay attention, to focus on the small things, to recognize beauty in suffering, and to find God’s glory in diversity.

“I always like to go out at sunset,” Hao said. “To us sunset is a sign of finishing a day but actually it’s the most beautiful time, it’s golden time in photography. Sometimes I think it’s like life, when we think it’s too late it’s actually the golden time to start.”

  • Maaike is a freelance writer from Ontario and raised in Africa, where her heart stayed. Her degree is in Intercultural Service and World Arts.

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