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Tami Xiang – When Someone Says You Can’t Do It, Do It Twice and Take Pictures

Bread & Butter is a monthly dinner and storytelling event designed to make you think deeply about social issues. A new storyteller every month shares a personal story with 40 guests in the dining room at the Centre for Stories.

On the evening of 26 September 2019, Tami Xiang shared her story When Someone Says You Can’t Do It, Do It Twice and Take Pictures at the Centre’s monthly dinner and storytelling evening, Bread & Butter. Tami shares insight into her life growing up in rural China, facing supercilious characters in the big smoke, and finding confidence through her passion for contemporary art.

[Transcript]

So, what’s your response if someone tells you you can’t do something, or you don’t have talent for something? For me, I say, if someone tells me ‘no, you can’t do it’, I say, ‘I can’. And I’ll do it twice and take a picture.

So when I first came to Australia, I was working in the Chinese-Australian Times as an editor, and I had to deal with lots of pictures. And one day… I only worked there for three months, and one day I was editing the photo, it was a full-length photo, but when I edited the photo, I didn’t know how to cut it. So, I had to cut the photo to fit into that space. I should, maybe, have cut the half, the bottom, the legs off; instead I cut part of the head off.

The boss was really angry. Of course. And he talked to me seriously, and he said, ‘Oh, we cannot let you stay here. How can you not have any aesthetic taste?’. And I was really sad, so, actually, I was fired after that. But my boss actually got a PhD degree, and he’s like me, sixty years old. And that time I told, ‘oh, I am only thirty years old. I can spend ten years, come back to you, and then say I’ll be better than you, ten years later. And you will be seventy. I’ll be better than you.’ So yeah, something like that, happens actually in my whole life.

When I was little, I was born in a very small, remote village, and I was a kind of child… I would maybe say I was a child prodigy. I had three brothers and sisters, altogether I am the fourth child. After the family was fined, the financial situation got very bad and the family very poor, mum and dad are poor farmers. They were fined a lot, actually, although my dad, actually, he was amazing. He has to work for two years to pay the penalty. So, the financial situation got very bad.

So I grew up in a family that was not in a very wealthy situation, but I was always the top one student in the class. The reason why I was the top one was because I was too lazy. My mum said, ‘If you don’t want to work, if you don’t want to do any housework, you’ve got to study’, so actually, every time I got a test I got the highest score in the class, and I didn’t have to do anything. Until now, my mum hasn’t tried my cooking, she doesn’t know I know how to cook.

But you know, in that situation it was very hard. In that situation my brother, sister all dropped out of school, and our neighbour’s mother said, ‘No matter how good your daughter is, you can’t afford to get her to university’. Because in China, you cannot get any grant or anything, you have to pay upfront. So my mum said, ‘No, you can. You can do it’. I was always told like that, ‘you just focus on your study, you don’t have to worry about anything’. And I always told myself, ‘I can do it. I will do better. And I will go out of this remote place and my life will be totally different from here.’

So, I went to Uni, I did English as my major; I was an English-Chinese translator working at a mining site, and my dream, my dream actually was travelling, but people told me, ‘No you can’t do it, you’re too poor, you can’t travel anywhere’. And I said, ‘No, I will.’ And I meant it, and in two years I was travelling around the world, after I graduate. Because I got a job working as a translator, and then I got a chance to travel around the world for two years time. So, again, that kind of belief in my heart always helped me to be who I wanted to be.

So, when I came to Australia – because when I was in China, life was quite successful – but when I came to Perth, life was very different. And English was my strength, but when I came to Perth, you know, high school, middle school students spoke English better than me. I wore my pride, and everything just became my weakness. So I gave up being a translator, I went to study.

So actually, I went to study photography as my major. As we studied, we had to do a research project. Everyone was really good, and I tried to look at other person’s, what they do. And some of the students, they don’t want to show me, I think I can feel that, that distance. And one person said, ‘you are Chinese, you don’t know how to create authentic project, you only know plagiarism, and how to copy’. I said, ‘One year later, I will create something totally different from yours, and it will be much better than yours, so….’

So, I actually searched my whole life, I think, ‘if I’m going to do something about Western, maybe I don’t know Western culture that much’. So I looked through my culture and background, and I researched my background. So I did a creative piece called ‘New Reawakening’ which revealed a woman’s social position in China in Chinese society, male-dominated society, so my work was really, really different, very unique, actually, compared to everybody’s work. I thought I was going to win a prize, but I didn’t. But I always believe, ‘I could, I should!’

I thought, ‘yes, my project is so amazing, I should win that prize’, but I didn’t. I thought it was something, discrimination. I said, ‘No, I want to prove myself, I don’t upset to that, this place, this Uni, is just a small pond, I’m a big fish’… So I thought they judged based on my name or something. So I did take my husband’s surname, my husband’s surname Wilkinson, he is white. So I took his English name, I used Tami Wilkinson to apply for international and Australian photography awards. And the Australian’s most famous festival is Head-On, in Sydney. And then I got the third place, overall, for the Australian National Award, and then I was invited as the feature artist to exhibit at the photo festival, pushing me into the international stage.

So then I come back to my university, ‘See? Your judgement was not fair, I can make it, I went to a big pond and I made it’. So, yeah. Then I thought, ‘Okay, my project, my life is awesome’, I wanted to go back to China, to go to the Chinese photo festival. But then I went back to China, and they don’t know me in China, I was no-one. And then, I talked to one art critic at a gallery, and showed him my work, and he said, ‘ah, your work is true formalism. No, we don’t create works like that anymore. Your work is too symbolic, and we do contemporary art. This is not what we do now. You are such a young lady and beautiful, what we want is to talk about is sex with you, not about art.’

And he was fifty or sixty years of age! And I said, ‘No, if I am such a young lady and I’m not the same level to talk with you about contemporary art, you are not on the same level to talk about sex with me’  I seriously said that!

So, I came back to Perth. I said, ‘I’m still young, I can spend five more years thinking about what is contemporary art, I don’t have to listen to what do you tell me. I can tell myself’. So I went back to study and I did another three years at ECU for photojournalism, then two years at UWA for my masters, and then another three years for my PhD. And that actually pushed me to the stage where I am now.

And it’s funny, without those pushing moments, what they tell me, I think I wouldn’t make my road to be what I want it to be, at least, these kind of things make me think, I think my character is, if I don’t agree and you think I’m not good, I will try to make my weakness to be my strength.

So last year – how funny this – last year, that same boss, from ten years ago, come back to me, and it’s their twentieth anniversary. They recently asked me because he wants someone who has a high profile and a good reputation and who has a high taste in aesthetics to photograph their anniversary. And I say, that time, ‘No, I don’t think I can do it, I’m too busy with other more important events and exhibitions’.

And when I had exhibition in Perth, I was promoting very widely around Perth, I think I put my name widely around the community, and then their boss come to talk to me and says, ‘oh, we are the most famous Chinese newspaper in Perth, how is it we didn’t get any invite?’ And I said, ‘ah, you are too good, I think I’m too little to invite you so I’m afraid you can’t come.’ And he said, ‘You just decided for me, didn’t you? Decide that I was not coming’.

So… yes.

I think those moments in my life push me to go where I want to be now. Last week I just won the top twenty-five photographer in Amsterdam and yesterday I discovered I got into the top twenty Chinese photographers in China.

Thank you.

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