Notes From An Accidental Photographer


Featured Writer


Shanyn Fiske

Photography was a part of my life before I knew what a camera was. My mother and father met in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution and fell in love through their mutual love of photography.

Cameras were hard to come by at the time, but my father was a film actor and managed to get hold of a Kiev Rangefinder from a Russian colleague.

After he and my mother were married, they sectioned off a corner of their bedroom in my grandparents’ house to make a darkroom.

Conceived and raised in that small, partitioned space during a time of political turmoil,

I absorbed the smell of developer into my DNA.

Years later, stepping into a darkroom for the first time felt like a


I was born in Beijing in 1974 and emigrated with my mother to the US in 1980.

By that time, she was divorced and on a scholarship to Wellesley College as part of Deng Xioaping’s new Open Door Policy, which reconnected China with the West after over a decade of political and cultural isolation. It was an era of possibility and reawakening.

At six years old, I didn’t speak a word of English.

I’m sure that this momentary loss of language at a formative age increased my visual sensitivity as I spent at least the first year of my life in America making sense of the world through images.

My mother and I lived in a dorm called Grey House, which was just that – a small grey house at the edge of a massive parking lot near the college observatory.

We were the only residents of the dorm.When my mother went off to classes during the day, I crawled around the floor of the house, afraid that someone would see me through the windows, break in, and kidnap me.

Occasionally, I ventured to peer out the window and watch the people going by on the road and in the parking lot, always poised to hit the floor again should someone glance my way.

Now, nearly four decades later, the images that passed by the window of my childhood remain frozen as silent still frames in my mind – mental relics to turn over again and again as I reinvent the story of my past in order to reinvent myself for the present and future.

Being the child of a tiger mother from a family of academics, it was inevitable that I would eventually not only overcome my linguistic challenges but learn to make a living from words. I have spent the last two decades of my life as a writer and literature scholar, achieving a moderate amount of success as a specialist in Victorian and ancient Greek literature.

But even in my scholarship and teaching, I was drawn repeatedly to photography.

In my study of the nineteenth century, I was fascinated by the development of the daguerreotype and by the challenges that the evolution of visual technology posed to concepts of realism and to artists’ capacity to interpret the world around them.

I was particularly drawn to the photographs of Charles Dodgson and Julia Margaret Cameron, whose images of Alice Liddell as a child (Dodgson) and then as a young woman (Cameron) seemed to pose such stark contrasts to the chatty, cheerful Alice of Wonderland.

I developed an appreciation for the way visual narratives were able to gain access to a different level of meaning, telling a shadow story as it were to the accounts I was reading in


I have spent decades training with dedication and deliberation to write as a career. Becoming a photographer was accidental.

In my late 30s, after my academic position was secure, I decided to give modelling a try.

To this day, I can not explain the reasoning behind this except that I was going through some version of a mid-life crisis, or perhaps I wanted to walk through the world more physically aware of myself after two decades of being completely absorbed in mental pursuits.

In any case, I learned that I hated being in front of the camera, and after a year of forcing myself to be photographed (I’m nothing if not tenacious),

I thankfully stashed my modelling bag and makeup kit.

But my brief experiments in front of the camera ignited my interest in visual narratives on a practical level, and when my mother – now an accomplished wildlife photographer – gave me her old DSLR,

I embarked on my own photography career.

I am much more at home behind the lens than in front of it.

Being a bit of a fatalist, I’m convinced the entire purpose of my modelling experience was to develop understanding, empathy, and appreciation for the young women (and men) who find themselves in front of my camera.

I’ve been told I have a knack for helping new models feel comfortable, but if that’s the case, it’s owing not so much to any conscious effort as to an understanding of photography as a process of collaborative storytelling.

I am always looking for the narrative in every shot, whether it be for a fashion editorial or a portrait session. I am also conscious that the narrative being told at any given moment builds on the frameworks of narratives told before and by other characters, and increasingly, I find myself drawn to creating images that resonate with the works of photographers I’ve studied and admired –

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sally Mann, Herb Ritts, Helmut Newton.

This, I think, is what draws me to photography most passionately as an artform, a practice, and a study: its ability to manipulate time and in so doing continually challenge us to reframe our experience of reality.

I am still at the beginning of my journey with photography.

I hope, in these writings, to share with readers of this magazine as well as document for myself,

an evolution – of skill, of subject, and of self.


Editorial exclusively written for @emotemag

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