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Philip Lim - Nuances with tales to tell

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Passionate about photography, Philip Lim is a true citizen of the world. Of Chinese origin, he was born in Mauritius and later travelled widely before settling in Quebec. Over the years, one of his main aims in life has remained constant – to find the next story he can encapsulate in a single photographic image.
        

Looking at Philip Lim’s pictures, each with a story to tell, you start to appreciate the nuances in his use of colour and shades of grey – as in Nostalgia, a collection of photographs that was published late last year.

His own story started just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Philip’s father had settled in Mauritius only a few years earlier, having fled Japanese oppression in his native country. Soon after his arrival in Mauritius, he won Rs800 (€20) in a lottery. It may seem a trivial amount today but back then it was a tidy sum. At any rate, it was enough for the family to open a photographic studio, with the result that Philip grew up in an atmosphere of cameras, dark rooms and glass plates. But when the time came for him to take over the business, he decided he wanted to find his own way in the world instead and set off for other climes. “I don’t know if, at the time, the responsibility seemed too great, but what I wanted above all else, was to use photography to tell stories.”

As his work shows, he travelled widely, from Britain to Japan, France and Madagascar (there in the context of a UNESCO report on literacy), as well as to China (where he studied from 1957 to 1961), and to Reunion Island, next door to Mauritius. Everywhere was a source of inspiration, both for his art and for the inner man.

 

The wanderer finally settled in Quebec in 1971. It was a land full of promise – and where he met the woman who would become his wife. As a place where French predominated, it also enabled him to feel still close to his native island and to France, to which he’d thought of moving at one time. However, thirty years were to pass before he again set foot on Mauritian soil. During those years, he learnt to adapt to his new surroundings, to give something in return when he started to teach photography, and to appreciate the culture and values of his adopted land. During a recent visit to Mauritius, he was able to say, “Nowadays I feel just as Mauritian in my homeland as I feel Quebecois when I’m back there.”

In some ways, the beautiful black and white photographs in Nostalgia reflect the route Philip Lim has travelled but the book also reveals another facet of his character. Each image is accompanied by a text he has himself written, explaining the context. When he writes, he has a very light touch, a style he’s favoured for the last fifteen years – simple, sincere and unpretentious, like he is himself. His texts have an anecdotal quality, the kind of reminiscences you share with friends.

That doesn’t mean that Philip wallows in the past, the opposite in fact. His eyes are set very much towards the future and he has plenty of projects in mind. He has a similar attitude to his equipment. He may have used a Leica M3 for years, “the tyranny of being limited to 36 inches” as he refers to traditional print limitations, and he is a dab hand at manipulating filters, but he’s far from opposed to the advent of digital cameras. “The democratisation of photography, particularly as a result of smartphones, is certainly not without its dangers,” he says, but he also points out that digital saves a lot of time – for a start, there’s no need for a dark room – and makes sharing photographs a lot easier.

“Even if the challenge of photography still lies in creating the desired impact, the development of digital imagery means capturing feelings and moments of inspiration requires fewer technical skills.” And it becomes possible to share those feelings with an ever-growing number of citizens of the world.