On the eighth day of Gao Shan’s life he was adopted.
The formative event became the premise for the Henan province-based photographer’s 2019 award-winning breakout work, The Eighth Day. The book started as a mother’s simple request to be photographed and eventually blossomed into an intimate, existential exploration of what it means to see and, more importantly, what it means to be seen.
The result is a compelling visual dialogue that wrestles with loss, pain and regret, as much as it embraces love, compassion and, ultimately, reconciliation.
Originally a self-taught painter, the 32-year-old Gao Shan took up photography in 2007. It was initially as a street photographer that he gained his interest in the nuances of human behaviour, on both a societal and more personal level.
The Eighth Day came about unexpectedly. Initially, Gao Shan set out to photograph a portrait series of his mother. After shooting the first round of photographs in 2013, he felt they carried a feeling of detachment that seemed, “familiar yet unfamiliar. [As a result] a sense of loss welled up inside of me.” This feeling led to the realization that Gao Shan didn’t actually know his mother on a personal level. “To me, [my mother’s] existence was merely as a ‘mother’ in name,” he says.
He thus began to confront the idea of who he assumed his mother was with the reality of the woman he saw through his lens, marking a turning point not just in this particular body of work, but in his life. “In the process of shooting, I learned the story of my mother’s youth, and learned about her view on things, saw her understanding of the beauty in doing manual work. I realized this was [an area of] huge neglect for me.”
The desire to visually convey this feeling of neglect inspired Gao Shan to shift his focus from being a passive observer to an active participant. In one image, mother and son sit solemnly, almost tearfully, on the couch, shoulders touching, wearing only their underwear. The intimate conversations and stirring embraces of Gao Shan and his mother are so gripping and honest that it gives the viewer the impression that the photograph is a mere afterthought of the embrace.
Gao Shan expertly takes a style rooted in documentary photography, and layers it with an abstract flair. In one of the most stirring images in the series, a tightly framed shot shows a small portion of Gao Shan and his mother’s naked bodies locked together, limbs intertwined in an intense embrace. The photo artistically captures the intimacy of the physical embrace while conceptually capturing the tenderness of a mother and child revealing the most vulnerable parts of their souls for the first time. The photo carries a touching emotional quality to it.
As an audience, the intimacy is such that we feel invited into the room to eavesdrop on the conversation between mother and child. Gao Shan’s close ups of objects and of body parts, as well as his candid portraits, combine to capture in incredibly honest relief the raw essence of one woman’s lived experience.
See, for example, how he focuses on a hand with cracked and dirtied fingernails, or the image of a naked woman hunched over in the shower. These photos all feel like they have been captured by a magnifying glass that is being held over his mother’s life for the first time. The entire work feels as much an apology as it does a love letter.
There is also a sense of loss — lost time, unknown memories, missed connections, overlooked relationships — that pulsates throughout the book. “I grew up in a family that was not good at communicating or expressing emotion,” he says. “Questions, such as my mother’s experiences or my own are hazy for one another. I feel a sense of loss from this.”
The feeling is personalized in a striking image of Gao Shan dancing with his mother while wearing a suit belonging to his father — a figure, who, due to long-distance work commitments, has largely been absent from their lives.
Throughout The Eighth Day, Gao Shan extensively utilizes the “everyday” object as a thematic device to further contextualize the lived experience of his mother. “These everyday objects set out together look very ordinary, but showing ‘the everyday’ congealed together, it has a strong power,” he says. By gelling together these seemingly banal and mundane everyday items they become abstractions which symbolize a mother’s daily routine — the complexities of which have been overlooked by her family. This, in turn, emphasizes the work’s main theme: the concept of neglect.
This idea of neglect is also imbued in Gao Shan’s use of repetition. Recurring objects and repeated portraits of his mother in very similar poses imply the human tendency to become numb to the importance of an object, or in this case, a person. Familiarity can breed neglect.
“In addition to the reality of loss, I also felt the loss of ‘meaning,'” the photographer tell us. “When an everyday thing is repeated thousands of times, it loses its sense of ritual.”
So refined is the storytelling of The Eighth Day, that Gao Shan intertwines nuanced themes that seem to be conversing with each other. One such theme that almost runs counter to the underlying sense of loss and neglect, is an equally palpable feeling of resolution. The intimate embraces that are full of emotional intensity, burst with a sense of reconciliation and the renewal of appreciation and love. As Gao Shan has stated in previous interviews, his adoption on the eighth day of his life was the end of one life cycle, and the beginning of another.
Although it embodies elements of a “coming of age” tale, it would be almost dismissive to label it as just that. Rather than being a search for identity, The Eighth Day is an intense act of introspection. The book is as much an ode to motherhood as it is a deep contemplation of the idiosyncrasies of being imperfect. While being a revealing visual dialogue between mother and son, Gao Shan’s stand-out body of work is also a compelling display of how the act of re-examining emotional blind spots can produce a sense of reconciliation with the past, allowing him to see the present more clearly.
When asked about how this work has changed his perception of the world around him, Gao Shan replies that it has taught him to “be more sensitive to the changes in one’s life. And when you discover these changes, to think about their energy, frequency, and impact.”
This fascinating work thus acts as a prompt — that we too have a choice in life: to be passive observers or active participants in the world.
** This article first appeared on Radii. Check out radiichina.com for my articles and videos documenting China's young and talented artists.