By Krista Thom
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It is a story told in photos, of a childhood growing up in the ghetto of San Francisco’s Chinatown district. Because of a father who was largely absent from the family members’ lives, Foo’s mother worked 10 to 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, in a sweatshop to support Foo and her five sisters. “Earth Passages: Journey Through Childhood” doubles as an autobiography and collection of nature photographs by author, attorney and activist Lora Jo Foo.
Starting at age 9, Foo worked to help pay off the family’s debts. By age 11, she was working in the sweatshop alongside her mother.
The text itself is broken into short sections, each of which gives a piece of her childhood years. Alongside the text runs 53 nature photographs taken by Foo in locations around the world. In the preface, Foo writes, “After studying and restudying these pictures, I realized that I was photographing my early childhood.” Many of the photographs — a tree growing alone in the middle of a canyon, or a fern being crushed under a rock — are visual depictions, which serve to underscore the grim realities she tells of.
Although there are no great surprises from a technical or literary point of view, Foo’s straightforward and honest style makes this book an engaging and interesting read. The 28 vignettes touch on subjects ranging from racism to poor working conditions to sexual abuse. Like a cubist painting, the book is made up of short, self-contained sections that combine to give us — if not a complete, then at least a satisfactory — picture of the whole.
It’s a credit to Foo that she can make her point in a few paragraphs without meditating on the importance of each scene.
I must confess that, while I’m not an expert on nature photography, I was often at a loss at how explain why each photograph was included. Foo gives a cursory explanation in the beginning about how her photography reflected her childhood, but in most cases, the pictures of waterfalls and moss-covered trees seemed an odd counterpoint to the tales of urban squalor she was sharing. With a few exceptions, I couldn’t see any symbolic harmony between the text and the photos, the two almost seeming to belong to different books.
The photographs themselves were lovely, but they never really seemed to go beyond that. Each of them was visually attractive, but there were none worth remembering.
Overall, this can be a touching and satisfactory read, but the reader must be careful not to come in with preconceived ideas of what it’s supposed to be about. ♦
“Earth Passages: Journeys Through Childhood,” by Lora Jo Foo. Published by Lara Jo Foo, 2008.
Krista Thom can be reached at email@example.com.