As the pastor of Taiwan Chinese Rhenish Church (中华基督教礼贤会有福堂) in Taipei, Stanley Fung (冯君蓝) does not rely only on the Bible to spread the gospel. He observes and documents spiritual life, his congregation’s and his own, with a Nikon FM2 camera, which he has owned for more than three decades. His photography goes far beyond artistic depiction of ordinary people, and it would be inappropriate to conclusively consider his work only as Christian art.
In his ongoing series Dust Icons, friends and members of his church, most of whom are aboriginal Taiwanese, are transformed into revered biblical figures such as the young David, Noah, and the prophet Samuel. Less admirable characters, like the hypocritical Pharisee, are also the subject of his portraitures. In the absence of complicated backdrops and elaborate costumes, the faces in these monochrome portraits appear natural and relaxed against a concrete background. Most of the photographs are done in a rented studio space on the second floor of his church building where a few pieces of second hand furniture and a painted wall with a small window make up the room. A selection of thirteen photos from the Dust Icon series, printed in 26 x 40 inch format, are currently on view as Saint Anonymous at inCube Arts in Manhattan’s Midtown West. Knowing that the long international journey would force him to be absent from his church service, Fung chose not to attend the opening for his first solo show in New York City.
Although he has won many photography awards in Taiwan and internationally, Fung does not consider himself an artist. “Apart from my personal service to God, I have taken photography as a little hobby of mine, through which I express my religious perspective towards life and death,” Fung modestly states. Although the skill and talent are evident in these eye-catching photographs, his photographic journey is not an ordinary one.
Born into a Christian family in Hong Kong in 1961, Fung moved to Taiwan with his family at a very young age. Partially influenced by his pastor father, he decided to become a pastor too when he was fourteen. However, in 1982, he ended up working as an art designer after graduating from vocational school and three years’ military service. After he started working, a friend generously lent him a camera and several lenses for a trip to Tibet. It was not until then that Fung discovered that a camera could help him overcome his shyness and let him communicate with people and the world. He later befriended photographer Chien Yung-Pin (簡永彬), who encouraged Fung to display works from the trip in what became his first solo show, A Child and A Butterfly Named Alice. In 1990, Fung enrolled in a black and white darkroom technique workshop with Professor Juan Yi-Zhong (阮義忠). Except for this brief workshop, Fung has never studied photography systematically; when he studied fine arts in high school, he could not afford a luxurious camera nor take a photography class.
Fung’s photographic pilgrimage did not really start until he became a pastor. When he nearly forgot his resolution to become a pastor as a teenager, the pain from his broken marriage and his dying father forced him to re-evaluate his relationship with God. He finally made the decision to reclaim the faith after a long and intimate conversation before his father passed away. Fung was ordained to the priesthood in 2008, after seven years of study in Taiwan Theological Seminary and practice.
Fung began the series Dust Icons shortly after he became a pastor. Its name was inspired by a passage in the Book of Genesis that described how humans were created from dust. Noticing dust floating in the air and lit by the sun just before taking one photograph, one work in the series was given the title Tiny Dust. He explained, “When I saw them, I realized that compared to the whole universe, we are all as tiny as dust. However, even the tiniest dust can reflect light when lit by the sun, and enjoy a moment of glory. Thinking that we are just like dust lit by the sunlight, my heart feels touched and grateful.” This contemplation manifests in thoughtfully prepared text that accompanies each photograph in the series and tells the story of the biblical figure depicted, borrowing from the Bible as well as his own understanding.
Although Fung normally feels confident taking portraits of his church members, The Lord’s Handmaiden, which depicts a calming scene of one, Sister Kuo Hsiao-Wen, resting on a chair, brought the pastor a challenge. At the time, Kuo was near the end of her life. Diagnosed with cancer during her pregnancy, Kuo rejected doctor’s suggestion of abortion and experienced extreme suffering. After giving birth to a healthy baby, her cancer got much worse, and her husband asked Fung to take a portrait of her. “How could I say no? I feared that I may not be able to undertake such responsibility,” he intimated. Fung was nervous, but his nearly blind and deaf model comforted him, “Do not worry, I can do this. Let’s make sure we get this done well.” Six days later, Kuo passed away, leaving her gentle smile and strong spirit forever in the photograph.
These pictures bear a subtle resemblance to Edward S. Curtis’ photographs of North American Indians over 100 years ago which have influenced Fung and his photographic practice. However, in contrast to Curtis’ objective documentations, Fung’s portraits explore character. Standing in front of his powerful portraits, it is hard for one not to be struck by the serenity, strength, fulfillment, and hope revealed through the eyes and gestures of these humble people. They are the portraits of the souls of mankind. As an artist, Fung discovered the beauty of simplicity and modesty. As a pastor, he unveils from his flock the divinity in human nature and showed that through faith, ordinary people, as tiny as dust, can become extraordinary.
Lead image: The Virgin in Waiting, 2008. Images courtesy of the artist and inCube Arts.