Interviewsand Articles


Interview with Photographer Elaine Ling: Remote Wonders

by Richard Whittaker, Jun 27, 2011



Elaine Ling was born in Hong Kong in 1946. At the age of nine, her family moved to Canada. She came to my attention when I got a note inviting me to a lecture she giving in San Francisco. Two of her  photos were attached and caught my attention immediately. A quick google search led me to her website where I was able to look at many more of her photos. No question, a portfolio would be perfect for the upcoming issue of the magazine I put together, works & conversations. Often, the pieces fall together more from serendipity, than design. Discovering Elaine Ling's photography was certainly like that. And she was coming to San Francisco, too. I wondered if she would be open to an interview. The biographical notes I'd read were fascinating. This petite woman lugged a 4 x 5 camera to remote places all over the world. 
     Long story short, all the pieces did fall together. To begin our conversation I wondered what it was like for her having lived most of her life in Canada.    [Editor's note: I was sad to learn that Ling passed away in Aug. 2016.] 
Richard Whittaker:  Do you feel more Canadian now than Chinese?
Elaine Ling:  I feel both. I feel very fortunate to be of both cultures. And in Canada we have a very strong Chinese identity.  
RW:  I understand that growing up, you became a medical doctor. 
EL:  In Hong Kong every child over the age of three plays the piano, so I was hoping to be a pianist. But I wasn't winning any competitions and after completing grade ten conservatory, I realized I better do something else. My entrance to medical school was by accident. I was in a science course and I had a classmate who told me "My course is better than yours." She told me her course offered advance entrance to second year medical school upon graduation. So I transferred into her course of 35 students, who, in exams got perfect scores-not 99%, but perfect. I thought oh, my god!
     But my first degree was in biochemistry. I got married and worked as a biochemist for one year in Cambridge, England as my husband was there doing his post doctoral at Medical Research Council. I realized that research was not for me, and I decided to study medicine. 
RW:  How long did you practice as a doctor?
EL:  I'm still practicing. 
RW:  Oh, I didn't realize that. 
EL:   Yes. I love my work. I love photography and medicine, and they tie in together a lot of times. As I did my Mongolian book, my guide was a Mongolian doctor. He took me around and everywhere we went we connected with doctors in the field. They would offer me a jeep and driver and often they would come with me, so I bombed along the steppes in a jeep full of singing doctors and mare's milk. We had a great time. 
RW:  So how did you discover photography? How did that start? 
EL:  I've always taken pictures. My father gave me a camera when I was in grade six or so.  My girlfriend and I used to photograph each other in the woods. When I first graduated I went to work in Abu Dhabi. One day I looked out into the waiting room and there was a man sitting there with a hawk on his arm and little curved knife in his belt. I came out and said, "I have to take your picture before you come in." 
     So I took pictures all the time, and I tried a lot of different things. People always told me I had a good eye. So I thought, well, let's see how good it is. I went downtown and bought a Hasselblad. So that's how I started. My first show was of color pictures from Death Valley. 
RW:  What inspired you to go to Death Valley? 
EL:  I love space and deserts. I came from Hong Kong. We didn't have space. We didn't have freedom. We didn't play outdoors. So when I came to Canada, I thought, wow! Space! Freedom! I just love it! 
RW:   You travelled out into Canada as a doctor, right?
EL:  Yes. When I started working I wanted to meet all the First Nation people. I read everything I could about them, but I'd never met one. I read everything. Then in my fourth year of medical school, we had a three-month elective. We could choose to go anywhere we wanted. There was a rotation up north. So I chose that one. It was so exciting. It changed my whole life. 
RW:  How did it change your life?
EL:  Well, I was flying up in little airplanes, landing in reserves and meeting the Cree and the Objibwa for the first times-and I was living with them, learning about them. It was fun.
RW:  What were the things you liked about it?
EL:  They're very special people with their attachment to the land and to the old traditions. And where they live is so remote that transportation required flying in single or twin-engine planes and landing on the water or the ice. I was assigned to a little village called Pikangikum-six hundred people. That was my village so I would go there once a month and look after those people. I would walk around and visit every house. I'd buy their arts and crafts and do house calls. And anytime one of those people would come to the hospital, they would be my patients. 
RW:  I get a sense of your openness to people as you describe this. Would you agree? 
EL:  Yes. I'd say that. I had a singing group with the old women. It's a culture that's open. They're open to you. 
RW:  And, as you said, they are special. So what is that specialness?
EL:  They live a life that I've romanticized. They go trapping, hunting. They live off the land. There are good parts and bad parts. I felt I could contribute. They're a small community and they have a radio station. I could go on the radio for an hour, play my favorite songs and talk to them on health issues. They are just very approachable. 
RW:  Did you connect with any of the shamans or get into any of their own healing traditions?
EL:  Not in a big way, no
RW:  Now I'm still curious about what took you to Death Valley. Could you say more?
EL:  Maybe I saw some pictures. I love deserts. I love rocks and sand.  So my first show was in color and then someone told me my work should be in black and white. 
RW:  Well, with the rocks and sand, what is it about these that appeals to you?
EL:  I don't like all rocks. I like rocks that are smooth and round. The rocks at Joshua Tree are some of my favorites. I love the symmetry and the lines. I can lie down on a rock and feel its power.
RW:  There's something touching in a deep way about rocks. Do you like to pick up rocks and hold them? 
EL:  I often take rocks home. You know how sometimes they say, "What do you have in your luggage, rocks?" 
RW:  [laughs] Yes. So you've been to a lot of deserts. You photographed in the Namib Desert. 
EL:  I use the desert as my lead to where I'm going. That's how I started my Mongolian project. I wanted to go to the Gobi. I didn't know much about it, so I said, "Let's go to the Gobi desert and see what's there." Then the project took on a life of it's own as I was finding the deer stones and the Turkic stones and meeting the Nomads. 
     The same thing happened with my recent project of the baobab trees. I wanted to see the Sahara again and I decided to travel through Mali up to Timbucktu, and go into the Sahara. So that's when I first saw the baobab trees. That led me to other baobabs in South Africa and Madagascar.
RW:  You go looking, but then would you say that something finds you?
EL:  Oh, yes. 
RW:  What is it that happens when something finds you?
EL:  Well, in Mongolia I had no idea they had deer stones. It's not in any literature or guidebooks that I'd seen. My new book is called Mongolia, Land of the Deer Stone.
RW:  What is a deer stone?
EL:  A deer stone is three thousand years old. They were made near the Siberian border. Sometimes there are a group of standing stones that resemble a Stonehenge. They're just there. They're engraved with the motif of reindeers. On one of my trips I was invited to join with a Smithsonian expedition. 
     So what leads me to all of these things? It's amazing! I went to a museum and there was a little diorama of these stones. I asked the museum people, "What's that?" No one could tell me anything that I wanted to know. 
     So in Mongolia, I'm going home. I knew I wouldn't find the deer stones. I'm standing in line at the airport and I complained to the guy ahead of me, "I'll never find these stones. Nobody can tell me anything!" And he says, "Oh, I know a professor who is trying to make that into an Unesco World Heritage Site!" It was someone from Philadelphia! This man gave me his name and email address! So I met him in Philadelphia. He showed me pictures of the site and gave me the GPS reading. 
     So how did I come to take this picture? [Ancient Man Deer Stone] That was the year there was SARS and my friend, a doctor in infectious diseases said, "Don't come through China. We won't let you in. Come through Germany." So I travelled from Toronto to Germany, to Moscow, to Ulan Batar and took a little plane to Lake Hovsco. We got a jeep and went there without stopping. I got there at sunset with the clouds and the light, and look-I was able to take this picture! I was blessed.
RW:  Yes. The light is wonderful. 
EL:  I was so proud we found it. You know, Doctor Fitzhugh at the Smithsonian runs the Smithsonian-Mongolian Deer Stone project. So I headed off to show him. And he said, "Oh, yeah. We scanned that stone last year. In fact, we thought we'd make replicas. In fact, there's one standing over there." 
     I asked, "Can I have one?" [laughs] Doctor Fitzhugh gave me a show at the Smithsonian and invited me to go on one of the expeditions, and I was able to go. So everything leads to something. 
RW:  That's wonderful the way that all happened
EL:  You don't know. Things come to you, right?
RW:  I think they can, if you're open and you're searching. 
EL:  I was going to go to Petra. I love these ancient places. I was at a festival and this woman said, "Oh, I was just there and I know the director of antiquities. I'll tell him you're coming." 
     I had an interview once for Italian Zoom where I was asked, "How do you categorize your trips?" I told her, "Well, there are two kinds of trips, one where you bring your own toilet paper and one where you don't." [laughs]
RW:  [laughs] I suspect you like those trips where you bring your own toilet paper, right?
EL:  I like both. [laughs]
RW:  They're all good! [laughs] So you have a particular interest in the ancients?
EL:  Yes. I love ancient culture. So I photographed Persepolis, I photographed Ephesus. I photographed Cappadocia and Petra. And I love stone and pictograms and petroglyphs. 
RW:  What is it about all this that's so appealing?
EL:  It just appeals to me to know that 700, 800 years ago, people didn't have paper, so they drew on rocks all over the world. Rock drawing is universal. I found it in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, in Tibet, in Africa. 
RW:  Would you say these ancient works on stone speak to us in some deeper way? 
EL:  I think so. I never really analyzed it. If I see a beautiful rock drawing somewhere, I head for it and am usually rewarded. I saw a picture of large groups of pictograms in Baja, some depicting fish and boats, and I found a guide. We took mules and hiked down into the canyon to photograph them. 
RW:  I have a friend who found some there, in a cave I think.
EL:  Yes. Big ones-fish and other creatures of the sea.  
RW:  You were carrying your 4 x 5?
EL:  Yes.
RW:  You have to have a special kind of inclination to use a view camera. You have to be patient. 
EL:  No. You just have to learn to use your camera fast! [laughs] It's just a tool. I love the tool. And you know, in a lot of places people respond to a view camera differently. I did a big project in Cuba and the Cuban people are being photographed to death. So if you whip out a little camera and take their picture, they don't like it. So I walked around town with my big camera. I'm walking and they all call me, "China, china, come to my house. Come photograph me." So I ended up going to everybody's houses and photographing their interiors. They said, "What? You don't want a picture of me?" [laughs] 
RW:  In Mongolia, how did people respond to the view camera?
EL:  Nobody has ever objected. In Mali, when you go into town, they say "No photography"-of people, especially. So I went to the middle of the town-the houses are so beautiful there. In Mali they are mud houses-and I slowly started setting up my camera. They're all looking at me. I don't say anything. So then I said to my assistant, I need three women to stand over there. Go get me three women. He comes back with five women [laughs]. I said, "I only want three!" He said, "They all want to come! I don't know why." 
     So they stood around and two of them were outside of my focus range. I'd already focused. So I did a Polaroid, a P55 where you get a positive and a negative. And I showed the women the picture. One of them, who was not in the picture started to go funny on me. "Am I here?" She was getting very anxious. 
     So I said, "Wait a minute. You're in my camera. I'll go get you. So I went back and refocused and took another photo with her in it. Then I showed her a Polaroid and she went, "Ohhhhh.."[great relief]. So you don't know the power you have sometimes. But after that, I photographed everybody and everything. And they all welcomed it. 
RW:  Have you thought about the place of photographs in today's world? Do you think about theoretical questions in this area?
EL:  Can you tell me what theoretical questions you're thinking of? 
RW:  Well, I'm not big on this, but for instance have you heard of Ivan Illich, by chance? 
EL:  Is he connected with a book Small is Beautiful?
RW:  That's Schumacher, who probably was friends with Illich. Anyway before Illich died, he was talking about how we have entered into an age of virtuality. If you go back four or five hundred years, people thought of seeing as reaching out with the eye and literally touching things. Then Kepler came along and showed that it's the light that carries the image into our eyes. But there was still an avenue to things via seeing. 
     But now, we're so awash in images, and the images are no longer connected with the thing itself. We just have the images themselves and we're accustomed to that. It's like we're disconnected and don't even know it. I gather you don't concern yourself with any of this kind of thinking about images and photos.
EL:  I see that the question has significance. 
RW:  I get the impression that, for you, photography is a way of making a connection with things. 
EL:  Well, I think you do idealize a picture. You see a picture. When you see something, you see a picture already. Every picture is not as real in that, but I don't know how to answer your question. 
     When I have this photograph, I'm at home. I look at it. I say, "Wow! This is mine!" Somehow this ancient miracle has become mine, in my house, in my room. I think it's a weird way to think about it, but you can possess a little bit of all this magic. 
     It is taken out of context, of course. A picture you've seen of mine of the interior of a ger [yurt] is empty. There are no people in it. Well, in reality I'm taking a photo of one half while the people are over on the other half. Then I tell them to move while I take a photo of the other half. So the image is not often totally what the reality is. It is what I wanted to create.
RW:  I'd never taken photos before, but one day I was driving across the bay bridge. It was over thirty years ago. It was a beautiful day and a question suddenly occurred to me. I wondered if I could take a photograph and then later, when I looked at it, would it bring back the same feeling? So I got a camera and started taking photos to find out. I'm still doing it. 
EL:  First of all, you had a strong feeling. That says something about you as a person, that you have these feelings, that you put into that image something special from your psyche, or your past. Why is this a special moment? 
     Then to capture it-I know people get bogged down in the technical stuff, the lens, the resolution, all that. The camera is a tool. If you master it, it's going to give you that feeling that you want to capture. But if you don't have the technique, you can't do it. That's why people buy pictures. Why did you select this picture, for instance? [pointing to Deer Stone in the magazine] 
RW:  I liked the feeling of the light, the clouds and the stone, and the mystery, too. It's hard to put it in words. These decisions are made sort of...
EL:  Intuitively. 
RW:  Yes!
EL:  Not intellectually. 
RW:  That's right.
EL:   But now you're talking about the intellectual part. 
RW:  Exactly. 
EL:  So okay. After you do the intuitive part, how does the intellectual part fit in? You're the intellectual. [laughs]
RW:  I don't know how much of an intellectual I am [laughs].
EL:  But if you try to fit the philosophy or psychology to it, why do we respond to one picture and not another?
RW:  It's a difficult question. The light is certainly part of it. And in selecting your photos, there were some other things involved, too. I knew some photos were going to relate to my interview with Peter Kingsley in this issue [#22] and his theory about a connection between a Mongolian shaman and pre-Socratic Greece. 
EL:  Well, why did these sculptures of ancient people appeal to me? I just heard about them. I made a special trip to go to see them. I had to see the king and the queen [two stone figures] sitting alone in the middle of nowhere holding a silent court of the wind and the sand. 
     It's magic for me. They're just sitting there, monumental and serene. People come driving up in their jeeps. They bow down and put in a prayer flag, and then they leave. They all come to pay tribute. It's not a burial site. That kind of remote wonder attracts me. I'm just thrilled that at every remote corner of the earth there is something that is really, really beautiful. And something you might not have known about. 
RW:  You've used the word magic a number of times.
EL:  Oh, dear. That's not good. 
RW:  What's not good about it?
EL:  It is too easy a word to use.
RW:   Well, as a scientist, it's not good, right? 
EL:  Beauty and magic is not good.
RW:  Do you feel that you have to be careful, then? If one wants to be taken seriously in the artworld, you have to be careful what you say, right?
EL:  Exactly.
RW:  Isn't that a shame though, that magic and wonder is suspect that way? 
EL:  Well, also there's the mythical. Like the turtle. Mythically, in many cultures the turtle is a very revered animal with mythical power. They hardly can walk; they're so slow. But they're mythically important. The First Nation believe that the world was created on the back of a turtle.
RW:  So do you want to retreat from that word now? 
EL:  [laughs] I'm going to replace it with "mythical."
RW: [laughs] Okay. That's a good word. Here's another thing. I have no real feeling that I understand Chinese culture, but I do get the feeling that Chinese people are very practical and down to earth. What do you think?
EL:  Well, they're practical, but I don't know about "down to earth." I don't know what that means. They're also very superstitious. They believe in the number 8 and don't like the number 4. They came from Buddhism and Taoism. Practically, they work, they work, they work.  They put their children through the university, and they survive. That's the practicality of survival. 
     Old cultures know how to survive and young ones don't. You know the Chinese came to Canada and the U.S. as coolies. They built the railroad. They were nobodies. They didn't speak English. They had laundries. What did they do after the Cultural Revolution? They survived it! After Mao, what did they do?  They survived it. I don't think that's "down to earth," but they know how to do what they must do. 
     So I think maybe that's the difference. I ask the First Nation youths, "Why don't you just go to high school? Go to the university? It's free for you! Then you can come back and do whatever you want." But they don't have the drive to take advantage of such a gift. 
RW:  Some of these are old cultures, too. 
EL:  But they're new in our Western ways, right? 
RW:  Right. I wonder if you'd like to say something about your book Land of the Deer Stone?
EL:  I went to Mongolia five times to do this book. Mongolia is a big country. Each time I visited a different region. But the nomads were the people who I lived with. They move around all summer to graze their herds and they move their gers [yurts] as their herds move. It's very pastoral. At the end of August when the snows are coming, they sometimes go to little villages with little dirt streets and houses, or to other protected places. But they don't live in the house. They live in the ger in back of the house. The doorways to the gers always face south. The altar is in the north. They cook in the middle, as you can see in this picture [pointing]. Sometimes 20 people will be in a ger. It's a very communal way of living. 
     So I followed them around for the summer.   
RW:  How long did you do this, again? 
EL:  I did this for five summers. In the morning, I'd say "For your most generous hospitality, I'll pay you back by taking your family portrait." Now these people are pre-Kodak-moment. They don't even have little cameras yet. So they don't know that they have to smile or pose. They're really interesting to photograph. And they were easy for me to photograph because they are not posing. 
     So I would take their family portrait and give them a Polaroid as my payment. They loved it. With some families, we would photograph all morning. So each night I would have a different family because as we traveled, we'd stay with the last family we came to. They're very hospitable. If they see you coming, they just get out the food and the drinks.
RW:  Did you also do any medical things?
EL:  No. They have lots of doctors mostly trained in Russia. Every small village has 2 doctors. 
RW:  You must have really loved doing this. 
EL:  Yes, when everything was working. I had a feeling of being connected with them. 
RW:  I understand that in Mongolia, shamanism is still a central part of their culture.
EL:  Doctor Fitzhugh describes Mongolia as "the land where stone men still walk on the land and the spirits still roam around the mountains." There are things called ovoos. An ovoo is a pile of stones that's a shamanistic marker. It marks a powerful spot. When a favorite horse dies, they take the skull and the legs and the hooves and they hang it somewhere auspicious. When you find a horse skull hanging somewhere this would be a power spot. They do have shamans. And when you come to a ovoo, there's a ritual. You have to walk around it three times clockwise. You have to throw some vodka in the air and on the earth, and drink some. Then you can go on. 
RW:  You've been in so many different places and are familiar with so many different cultures. Can you say something about the differences between, let's say, contemporary people and a nomadic Mongolian?
EL:  What does a sophisticated community or society mean to you?
RW:  [pauses] Well, I've absorbed an entire background about how to regard the world through a western education. One thing that kind of sophistication means is that I'm not as close to my body and its instinctive and feeling functions. I process the world through these sophisticated lenses of ideas and understandings. 
EL:  Okay. So when you meet somebody you say, "Oh, she's very sophisticated. Or "She's not very sophisticated." So what's the difference? Is it the knowledge you're talking about, or is it something else?
RW:  Well, one thing sophisticated people are always aware of is something I'd call fashion. 
EL:  Yes. 
RW:  And maybe unsophisticated people are not so concerned with fashion. Every culture will have its norms, but norms are not the same thing as fashion. What do you think?
EL:  Well sophisticated means you know the restaurants, you know the maitre'd. You go to concerts, and so on. If you show up with a Leica somebody will say, "Oh, he has a Leica. These people are not that. You ask me what's the difference between contemporary people and these people? Well, they're salt of the earth. These people work the land. They live on the land, and they're not concerned with some of these things we're concerned about. 
RW:  I would be tempted to say there's something closer to an essence there where sophisticated people are more removed from that. 
EL:  We have an artificial standard of what we want to be. You wouldn't want to be unsophisticated living in San Francisco or New York. But you can be a herdsman living in a desert and you just tend your animals, feed your family, and ensure a happy life in your ger. So that's a very big difference. 
     Being photographed, they didn't know to pose. I said, "Don't move, everybody. This camera is very slow. Don't move for ten seconds. And they patiently sit and wait, without protest. Sometimes you can see the horse move. See, the horse is moving [pointing to the blur of the tail in photo] 
     That's the refreshing thing. I learned from them. I learned to be more aware of their traditions. With their fires, the fuel is made from dung. Once I blew my nose and put the Kleenex in the fire because I didn't want to leave any garbage. They were abhorred that I would put some garbage into the cooking fire! 
RW:  Yes. I wonder if there's anything you want to say about what you hope for with your work?
EL:  I feel very fortunate that I have a chance to go out to these wilderness places and photograph. I know these places will change and these cultures will disappear. The young men can work in the mines and make a lot more money than herding their cattle. As ways of life are transient, photography has the role and privilege of capturing something that's disappearing. How long are the nomads going to consider that their horses are their most valuable possessions? 
RW:  Yesterday I was at my printer in King City. That town is mostly agricultural and mostly Hispanic. One of the pressmen is shy and a man of few words. He pointed to a press sheet where he could see your photo of a baobab tree and asked me, very quietly, "Where is that? I said, "It's in South Africa." He just looked at it and shook his head. Then he turned and said, again very quietly, "If I had a tree like that, I wouldn't cut it down. People would say, 'Cut it down. It's too big! But I would never cut it down." [laughs] It really touched him. There's just something wonderful about that. 
EL:  [laughs] I took these with me [pulls out more photos of baobab trees] We made a poster out of one of them. One of the curators at the museum in Santa Barbara put it up on her door. She said "Everybody stopped to tell me what they thought of it, even the guy who was manning the parking lot!" [laughs] 
RW:  Well, I'm fascinated by your work and your sense of adventure. You're not too afraid of things, it seems.
EL:  Well, I've been lucky so far. Nothing bad has ever happened to me yet. I always involve the local people and the village knows that they have my respect. I know that I have their blessing. They see I'm not just walking in and taking advantage. 
RW:  Well, there's something about showing respect. I interviewed a young woman, Denise Zabalaga, who traveled to several places in the Middle East alone. She even got arrested a number of times, but always got through every difficult situation unharmed. Her lack of fear is a gift, but I certainly don't have it.
EL:  You can't be foolish, because at any time something could go wrong. In Mongolia we came the Chinese border. There was a guardhouse with a guard and his wife and child. My guide went in and came out and said, "You have to go in." I said, "Why?" He said, "He wants to eat and drink with you." [laughs] We went in and ate and drank with him. So there are these surprises. 
To learn more visit Ling's web site:

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.


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