Organised by the Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Malaysia and produced by INXO Arts & Culture (L) Foundation, Tea Philo is a series of sharing sessions revolving around the discussion of philosophies and humanities. Luminaries from Taiwan are invited to share their experiences and engage with the Malaysian audience to encourage exchanges of ideas and experience. The latest Tea Philo E-Talk session titled “Co-Creating an Open Photography Culture: the Mission and Purpose of Lightbox Photo Library” featured guest speaker Liang-Pin TSAO, Taiwanese artist and the founder of Lightbox Photo Library. The talk was held in English and was moderated by Jeffrey Lim, Malaysian photography and cultural artist. The E-talk was broadcast via Zoom Meeting and Facebook Live on July 30th, 2022 and is available for rewatch on Tea Philo’s Facebook Page.
Upon the entrance of the Lightbox Photo Library, one might immediately notice the phrase “FREE TO ALL” painted in large white letters directly onto the wheelchair-accessible, concrete front porch. Founded in 2016, Lightbox Photo Library is a non-profit photography library based in Taipei, Taiwan that is free and open to all. Lightbox believes that apart from a competitive, flourishing book market, a society also requires alternative, non-profit ways of encouraging knowledge dissemination so that cultural equity can be advanced. According to its mission statement, Lightbox is dedicated to the preservation, dissemination and advancement of local perspectives and creative practices in photography, as well as advocating intellectual freedom, cultural equity, inclusiveness and accessibility. Lightbox has organised a variety of workshops and talks, inviting photographers and video artists to share their knowledge and experiences in creating. It has also organised international forums and conferences to foster collaborations and exchanges between local and foreign artists.
Liang-Pin Tsao is a Taiwanese cultural worker who devotes himself to photographic art, public services and open culture. Apart from managing the Lightbox Photo Library and spending time on his personal artistic, publication, and curatorial projects, he often works with museums, institutions, and organisations to create collaborative works, exhibitions and programmes as well. He is also currently an adjunct assistant professor at the National Chengchi University. Tsao calls himself a cultural worker and comments on his observation of how Taiwanese cultural workers today have to “wear many hats”: “You are a curator, you teach, you do public and community services, all kinds of things at once. It feels like a journey of life-long learning, but also runs the risk of making someone a jack of all trades (and master of none).” He added, “So the important question to ask ourselves is: what drives you, or what is the most important thing in your life that you want to pursue? Instead of just proceeding with day-to-day tasks and looking at what is happening outside, you have to take time to reflect inwardly and try to understand your feelings and motivation to know where you are heading towards.”
Tsao mentioned that before the establishment of Lightbox, he had recognised that the local community of photographic artists and researchers in Taiwan had been facing a number of issues, including scattered and incomplete archive materials, expensive and insufficient learning resources, and inadequate infrastructure support for the community. These are the main reasons Tsao and his team decided to establish Lightbox as a library instead of a gallery, in hopes of creating a sustainable space for book collection, communal exchanges, and a welcoming place where the public can enjoy reading for free, and in turn help vitalise the photography scene and culture in Taiwan.
Lightbox insists on operating on a non-profit basis of “Free to All”, as they firmly believe that access to knowledge should not be restricted to specific groups with privileges, and that regardless of race, social class or status, all human beings should have the right and opportunity to learn and pursue knowledge. A vision as big as this can sound purely idealistic without a sensible operating system. Tsao explained that Lightbox thrived mainly with the support and contribution of its community, in ways of book and fund donation.
“Lightbox has a really humble beginning, starting off with only 400 books in 2016. The library grew so rapidly that in less than two years, it was running out of shelf space. We are really grateful that people have been responding to our mission positively and enthusiastically.” Over the years, the library’s collection has expanded to more than 5,000 volumes.
As a non-profit organisation, it is a challenging task to find a suitable site and pay for the high rental and renovation costs if expansion is required. Fortunately, in 2018, Lightbox managed to apply for and successfully secure a vacant public space from the Taipei City Government, saving on the expensive rent. In 2019, to turn the abandoned space into their new home, Lightbox launched a crowdfunding campaign which turned out to be a huge success, raising over 3.2 million NTD from more than 700 donors.
The new Lightbox Photo Library is a home for Taiwan photography, built with the efforts of many people and with inclusiveness in mind. It becomes a barrier-free space designed for the physically challenged, the elderly, and children. During events, sign language interpreters are available so that more people can participate and have the chance to acquire knowledge as well as learn about Taiwanese society, history and culture through photography.
Tsao added that since Lightbox’s establishment, it has been faced with a number of dilemmas, one of which is: What are the principles and criteria behind the decision of accepting donations from corporations and the general public? For instance, when a corporate donor represents something that contradicts Lightbox’s values and beliefs, or when a donated book contains highly controversial content, should a library maintain a neutral stance, accepting all narratives as is, or be selective but risk unintentionally imposing censorship? Tsao often asks himself that as a non-profit library in pursuit of the values of diversity, equity, and inclusiveness, how should Lightbox find balance between professionalism and social responsibility in managing its collection and activities.
Although the team has yet to find answers to all questions, Lightbox is an organisation that emphasises consensus within the team, and always tries to discuss and ponder each case in depth when faced with different situations, never settling with the easy way out, as it continues to provide an open learning platform and live out the values of knowledge sharing and culture building in their daily work, taking one step at a time to develop a photographic culture that is unique and relevant to Taiwan.