Bob's your uncle agency speaks with Canadian multimedia content creator Mandy Sham, whose inspiring Instagram account @peach.punk curiously explores the peculiarities of foreign cultures, buildings and people. She has travelled extensively throughout Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa. Mandy recently collaborated with the agency in its exploration of perception and architecture within the realm of social media.
There is no wonder why you’re so successful on Instagram, your content is amazing. How much of it is planned and prepared in advance? How much is improvised? Do you have a content calendar and, if so, how important is it to follow it to the T?
I definitely curate my feed — given that my account has evolved into a landing page of my creative work, it no longer makes sense not to. I organise the images first, so it's visuals that inform my decisions (rather than any cohesive narrative tying images in relation to one another). I don't have a calendar for what day or time to post; I write an accompanying caption for the next photo in the line-up and upload it when it's ready to go. More importantly though, I take my time with it.
When it comes to storytelling, where does inspiration find its origins?
Human interactions. Passion and empathy. Mundanity is overlooked a lot, but it's super important too. Our lives are mostly super boring, but the commonality of it makes the thread universal. So how do you approach it from the vantage point of storytelling? I also think it's largely philosophical — you have to teach yourself to look around a bit more. Inspiration is a dead end if the curiosity isn't there; it's not a passive habit or a eureka moment. Imagine being in a supermarket and picking out your run-of-the-mill bread from the bakery aisle — then imagine yourself at the farmer's market, touching tomatoes, smelling them, sensing the residual earthiness. That's the difference between passive inspiration and the act of seeking it out.
Do you ever find yourself uninspired? In such cases, what do you do to resolve that almost tension-like sensation?
I've come to accept that any form of creative expression has its own necessary moments of frustration. I love to write, but it's just as soon that I begin to hate it too. Is this the best way to tell the story? How do I know if the beginning is sufficiently compelling? Procrastination is a product of being demoralised and stuck, but to be honest, it's an antidote that's helped me plenty. I practice stillness. I switch gears — consume rather than create. Books and films can be profoundly resonant.
In your personal opinion, what would you argue is essential to truly having powerful influence in the world of social media?
I think that's a very important question (definitely one that I don't have the capacity to answer, but I'll try my hand at it). In this case, I'd define influence on social media as having the ability to make people care about the things you talk about or share — from a business point of view, that obviously means getting people interested in a brand or product — from an art point of view, it could mean altering trends and spearheading a unique aesthetic that people can trace back to you. Personally, that boils down to an as-of-yet nonexistent term similar to authenticity (yet stripped of its problematic connotations) — the element of yourself in your work that people see as someone being unflinchingly true to their craft. It's influential because we all have detectors for this, and we know it when we see it.
Your photos and storytelling alongside one another are, as you may have already been told, humbly beautiful. Do you ever experience somewhat conditioned by the feedback given from viewers? If so, how do you maintain that element of self-identity so that the images still belong to you at the core?
I've made notes — my best-performing images are often blues, pinks, and purples. The best-performing themes are buildings and sunsets. But this isn't something that I try to actively implement — you'll see that my analytics fluctuate wildly because I've learned and accumulated nothing (to this day I'm surprised at which photos perform well or poorly). I don't let it actively influence how I shoot or approach creativity. I'm more concerned about how it influences what I consider to be 'good' photography — Instagram, for all its positives, can be an echo chamber of select photographic styles. I have no answer on how to counteract this, but in the meantime I'm trying to do my best.
They say that a picture speaks more than a thousand words, yet as your Instagram account has shown, there must be more than just the mere image. How would you describe the importance of written content and choice of words in this creative process?
This would really depend from person to person — I enjoy pairing my photography with written content because I've always had an affinity for writing. My way of expression can feel incomplete with photography alone. In the case of Instagram, though, my most beloved accounts are those that weave a written narrative. I want and care about your context. I want to read about the conversations you had over dinner. Intersections are important — how does this relate to that? If it's a food post, tell me the history or social implications of it. If it's a travel post, share an anecdote or paint me a scenario of non-visual sensations. Writing will bring me closer to you. Granted that this is my personal take on it, in the end I believe we're all curious to question and learn.
Could you tell us a common mistake that you have observed in storytelling or content creation? What would you argue contributes to such mistakes in social media?
It's all super contextual. I mostly bristle at how businesses are too caught up in followers and engagement — what's the point of netting audience interaction when it isn't genuine? And this happens with influencers too (mostly in the form of excessive product placement or positing questions at the end of a caption). In both cases, I think they're crossing the threshold that removes the personal edge Instagram is meant to give. It's not wrong to do any of these, but if you're not doing it from a place of care or investment in the people you're addressing, you've lost me.
In a previous interview, you mention that despite the disenchantment that surrounds social media these days, you still believe Instagram has the potential to be incredibly meaningful. How is that?
I think the power it lends is twofold — a platform for creative expression first, a mouthpiece second. The relationship people have to Instagram is bound to change in the coming years, but at this point in time it walks a wonderful grey line between personal and professional. This does wonders for anyone trying to utilise the app with that hybrid expression in mind. It can be your journal, your resume, your portfolio. I've been connected to so many artists, photographers, and writers through Instagram; I've formed now longstanding collaborations with businesses through Instagram; I even got the opportunity to spend a month in Barcelona through Instagram.
As I mentioned in that interview, Instagram isn't faultless. It can be creatively stifling and demoralising. I feel that myself every now and then, but how we handle our relationships to the online world is a matter of perception. I still believe in its ability to generate capacities. It's the platform I use to put my personality out into the world and connect with others.
As a woman who travels alone, what are the main challenges you have had to face in your journey? Have you ever done any chronicling of such?
Generally, it isn't so different from the realities of everyday life. Walking alone at night in a dodgy neighbourhood back home elicits the same amount of caution as in other countries. In certain places, of course, that anxiety can be heightened. Being a woman of colour compounds that a bit — I've lost count of the number of times people stripped me of my personhood with a simple and nonchalant, even friendly, "ni hao." And being a solo traveller means that people feel more entitled to say those things or simply stare (I was recently dining at a restaurant in Oaxaca with a local guy, and immediately felt comfort in the fact that I was now all of a sudden invisible).
I've never chronicled these experiences online, but it's something I've considered doing for a long time. It's not that I buy into the idea of a perfected online persona — there are select posts I've written that tap into an embarrassing level of vulnerability (you have to realize my dad follows me on Instagram) — but more so that I wonder what my Instagram should be a platform for. I'd love to capture those experiences (the good, bad, and ugly as it were) but I think the proper platform for it belongs elsewhere — perhaps on a website or blog, which I've been ruminating about starting for a while.
To discover more of Mandy's work: