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Lightbox Photo Library: Not Just a Library

Lightbox Photo Library operates in the spirit of “free to all.” It is a non-profit library focused on photography, especially that of Taiwan, and open to the public. Photo by James LIN
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Walking along a lane of Roosevelt Road in Taipei, you will come across a library with a bright exterior. Admission is free and there is no need to make an appointment. On the slope leading to the entrance are the words “FREE TO ALL”. On a wall it is clearly stated that its focus is on the photography of Taiwan and that it is a non-profit photography library open to all. This is the Lightbox Photo Library, a venue for the long-term collection and compiling of photography publications, as well as the holding of lectures and classes. Open to the public, it brings together cultural knowledge and energy and promotes exchanges.

Origins: A Free Platform for Knowledge Sharing

The concept of Lightbox is based on the personal experience of its initiator, TSAO Liang-Pin. He was involved in a research project to survey Taiwan’s photography history. It took him much effort and time to collect historical materials on George Leslie Mackay from all around Greater Taipei. He became concerned with the scattered and incomplete state of photography resources and the lack of photography education in Taiwan. The most closely related academic department, visual communication design, often treats photography as an applied tool rather than an art genre. Schools that do offer more comprehensive courses on photography usually charge high tuition fees. Therefore, from its very beginning, Lightbox’s resources have been made available to the public. This library functions as a platform for discussion and an activity venue to build a foundation for Taiwan’s arts and culture.

The Lightbox Photo Library initiator TSAO Liang-Pin. Photo by James LIN

TSAO didn’t start out as a researcher of photography. In college, he majored in English. Then, he studied journalism in the UK. It was at that time that the US was sending troops to Iraq and anti-war protests were taking place in Trafalgar Square. He went there to interview protestors with a friend, and discovered that his friend’s photographs were much better than his, which led to his determination to study photography. After returning to Taiwan, he bought a digital single-lens reflex camera, then worked during the day and studied photography at night. He had hoped for a career in journalism but that didn’t happen. Instead, he went to the US, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. He says, “I was occupied by the thoughts of being an artist. That was a time when I worked very hard.” Later, he discovered that he was “overthinking things.” Although he continues to work on creative projects and hopes soon to publish the results of his efforts after years of exploration, his focus is now on Lightbox’s management.

“Times are changing and it is more difficult for certain things to happen. We believe that establishing a photo library would be helpful in this kind of situation,” he says. A photojournalist once told TSAO that in the era of negatives, photographers would gather at photo processing shops and exchange works and information. In this age of digital photography, when photojournalists see each other at the scenes, they only nod their heads in recognition. After taking their photos, they rush to get their articles written and published. TSAO says, “Some people have suggested that we should charge an admission fee, otherwise it would be difficult for Lightbox to survive financially. Finally, we decided to make it “free to all” for easy access to knowledge and resources. As long as this sharing platform exists, there will be various possibilities for its use and interesting things will start to happen.”

A Collection of Life Histories: People, Spaces and Stories

A volume of historical photographs, entitled Looking Back on Yangmei, in Lightbox’s collection. Photo by James LIN

Lightbox’s collection is mostly from donations, which has also brought many amazing stories. For example, the team received a book of historical photographs from the Yangmei and Zhongli areas of Taoyuan City, entitled Looking Back on Yangmei. Not long after, a designer came looking for this book as an inspiration for the creation of a picture book. TSAO says, “In this way, a connection between people and books is produced.” This incident left a deep impression on him, making him aware of the unpredictability of people’s need for books. There have been parcels filled with photography-related books left at the entrance, and once a hair stylist wanted to donate a photo collection of various hairstyles produced with the help of a professional photographer. This sparked a discussion on auteur theory and collection standards. As a home for donated books, Lightbox is responsible for the preservation of the books, even though it seems to be a negligible thing.

“When this library opened its doors in 2016, there were only about 300 books. That was my own collection built up over 10 years. Over these past few years, the collection has grown through the accumulated efforts of the public,” says TSAO. For example, KUO Li-Hsin donated more than 800 books himself as a call for donation. TSAO adds, “At that time, he was moving books out of his research room. There were 24 boxes of them. A colleague who passed by thought that he was retiring.” After that, more people were willing to contribute their books or serve as volunteers in Lightbox. To date, Lightbox has received donations from more than 300 individuals and organizations, and the collection along with the purchased rare books has reached more than 3,200 volumes, with each book given a cover to extend its lifetime. Currently, books can only be used in the library and cannot be taken out. A comprehensive search system has been developed, which provides information about a book’s status. Included in a book’s information are its “date of birth,” which refers to the date of donation, and the name of the donor.

The former space of the Lightbox Photo Library occupied an area of approximately 33 square meters. Photo provided by Lightbox Photo Library

The collection outgrew the original 33-square-meter space and requests for further donations had to be put on hold. It was decided that Lightbox had to move to a larger space. Through the g0v.tw online community, TSAO found a Website with information on public spaces and identified a suitable place, for which his application for use was accepted. Besides, governmental and non-governmental subsidies were not enough to cover the cost of the shift of the space, which led to the crowdfunding for funds. TSAO says, “This was really a learning process that started from scratch. The discussions and preparations alone have taken four or five months. We worked on the move and made adjustments along the way.” Lightbox sent out appeals to its target audience and modified its communication methods to find the most effective one. Due to a lack of funding, they also had to deal with the tasks which could not be outsourced on their own. “After we opened the current space on a trial basis, some people who came and identified with our idea were willing to donate,” says TSAO.

After nearly six months of renovation work, a former labor department dormitory became the new Lightbox Photo Library, which opened its doors in May 2019. The current space is around three times larger than that of the original. It is expected to house a collection of 10,000 books, with increased flexibility in terms of use. To create a barrier-free environment, a slope replaced the stairs at the entryway, and doorways and aisles were made wide enough for wheelchairs, which also create safe access for the elderly and small children. The spot that is first seen upon entering is reserved for selected books from Taiwan that deal with specific social issues. As an example, Lightbox has collected and exhibited books on transitional justice to respond to the 228 Incident, which attracted some users to donate related books, providing reference materials with multiple perspectives. In October, in recognition of the positive influence of this bright and simple space on its surroundings, Lightbox received the Old Building New Life Award in the community space category from the Taipei City Government, along with NT$120,000 in prize money.

Following renovation, the former labor department dormitory became a new home for the Lightbox Photo Library. Pictured here are Lightbox team members in front of the space prior to its renovation. Photo provided by Lightbox Photo Library

Exchanges: Creation, Experience and Issues

In addition to a static library space, Lightbox serves as an exchange platform for photography culture. It receives around 3,000 visits each year, including photography enthusiasts, artists and curators from Taiwan and abroad, as well as readers and activity participants. For its regular Photo Talks sessions, three Taiwanese creators—especially the young creators with less resources—are invited to introduce their works each time as a venue for them to show their works and receive feedback. From time to time, senior photographers or other speakers are also invited to share their professional experience, such as LEE Wei-I, editor-in-chief of Voices of Photography, and Ann WANG, an independent photojournalist who spent time in Myanmar. Moreover, Fubon Cultural & Educational Foundation, a major Lightbox sponsor, organizes youth arts educational programs, which make use of Lightbox’s space and resources.

The Lightbox Photo Library regularly organizes “Photo Talks,” contemporary photography forums which provide a platform for young creators to present their works. Photo provided by Lightbox Photo Library

In addition to a static library space, Lightbox serves as an exchange platform for photography culture. It receives around 3,000 visits each year, including photography enthusiasts, artists and curators from Taiwan and abroad, as well as readers and activity participants.

In April 2018, as the #MeToo Movement was spreading across the globe, KaoRi, a model who had a long-term collaboration with famed Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi ARAKI, wrote an article describing her harrowing experience. It was at this time that TSAO encountered a curator in Japan who was distressed about this and didn’t know how to handle it in terms of exhibition practices. Moreover, in arts circles, this was something difficult to talk about. To TSAO, this represented a starting point for discussion. The Lightbox team reached a consensus to plan an event focused on this issue in Taiwan. Artist SU Hui-Yu, image researcher HOU Peng-Hui, lawyer LIN Shih-Fang and model Youzi were thus invited to provide their perspectives and initiate discussion on the topic of “the #MeToo Movement and Contemporary Photography” in the spirit of freedom of knowledge. After each event, a report that includes written abstract and videos is prepared. The 50,000 words from its past lectures have been compiled in a way that makes them easy to read and to search for the rundown, name of the speaker and summary of the talk.

Also, Lightbox insists on the spirit of resources sharing. In this aspect, its team has devoted itself to producing “photography maps.” Taking Greater Taipei as an example, the map shows the locations of photography-related bookstores and arts and cultural spaces, as well as businesses providing image output, scanning, mounting and darkroom services. In this way, users can quickly find needed resources. These maps are available in digital form online and in printed form. The contents have been expanded to include the resources in Japan and Holland. Although the maps of these two countries are not as detailed as those of Taiwan, they provide a starting point.

Lightbox: Not just a library

TSAO says, “Some people have asked if we are an organization or an artists’ collective. I think the answer lies somewhere in between. All our members are equal, and we divide up work in the same field like  friends. The decision-making process may be slower due to differences in backgrounds and thinking. However, there will be a more even distribution of opinions.” TSAO adds that due to the lack of people they can consult, they must do most things on their own and help one another to complete important tasks. “The experiences in Lightbox are an amazing journey. In terms of age, there are people of different generations carrying out exchanges. I am grateful to the young people for accepting my old-fashioned thoughts!” In addition to those who receive a salary, including four full-time and two part-time members, there are several ambassadors who reside abroad. Their reward is the two-way exchange of resources. These international exchange facilitators recommend people and provide their contact information, building bridges of knowledge across Taiwan, Holland, Japan, the US and China.

Lightbox Photo Library’s new venue is bright and spacious, with more possibilities for its use. Photo by James LIN
The Lightbox Photo Library seeks donations of books. It has received such support from more than 300 individuals and organizations. With the addition of books that have been purchased, the library’s total collection has reached 3,200 volumes. Each is given a cover to extend its lifetime. Photo by James LIN

Lightbox now has a new home and is expanding the possibilities for its use. It is working to provide book lists and classifications based on subject to help users navigate the vast sea of books and create a friendlier environment. As “white box” becomes dominant in contemporary museums’ interior design and performance art venues have “black box” theaters, TSAO believes that there is a connection between photography and these two and, thus, he chose the name Lightbox. Lightboxes were a tool for viewing negatives and still serve as a medium for exhibiting photographs. This complements Lightbox’s functions as a place for collecting books and carrying out cultural activities. Lightbox’s new environment is full of light and vitality. This is not an ordinary library but, rather, a bright venue for building a photography culture.

(Lightbox’s fundraising project was launched online in February 2019. As of August 18, support had been received from 698 people online and on site with more than NT$3.19 million raised.)

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HO Bo-YenHO is a writer and film worker, studying for a master's degree of Department of Motion Picture at NTUA, and runs the Facebook fanpage "Finding Neverpath."
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