Interview on February 24 at Más, Beixinqiao
KL: I’ve watched your films in the last two days, do you intend to do more filmmaking in China?
HK-H: Yeah, definitely! I’m always dreaming about it in my head. I have a good feeling about it and I don’t want to do anything commercial at all. I don’t have ambitions to become a famous director in China but I’m really interested in visuals and there are so many visuals everywhere in the streets. I just do it for myself really and now I’ve just got a new job so I will also be paid to do a part of what I want to do but, sure, in my spare time I will definitely do more experimental stuff.
KL: Looking at some of your experimental stuff it’s not so much about narrative as it is about the sense of something so when it comes to China the themes that you want to explore, are they Chinese or expat in China themes?
HK-H: No, I think they’re kind of, I don’t like the word universal because I don’t think there is such a thing, I don’t think they’d be specifically my expat viewpoint on China at all. I think anyone could do it the way I do it or similarly but… I’m honest and I know I’m a foreigner in this country, you can’t get away from that, and maybe something I shoot will unconsciously turn out to be foreign to a Chinese audience but I don’t think it will stand out as an expat video or anything like that. The thing is, when you are in a foreign country, it’s easier to notice the things that are right under your nose. My point is, I might choose a topic or theme that, through the perspective of a Chinese person, is very “everyday” and “boring,” but then again, that’s also to generalize. It might just be the case that for a Chinese person who has spent the whole life living in China, it’s more difficult to see the attraction of that everyday-ness. But for a foreigner in China, almost everything stands out as “Chinese” in a way and through that it’s easy to find charming elements simply or partly due to them being foreign. However, I’ve been around for a few years now, and to be frank I feel more at home in Beijing than say Stockholm. Neither China nor Beijing is exotic anymore. But the everyday-ness of daily scenes grows on me. That’s what attracts me now. And a hypothetical film would probably be an expression of that everyday-ness.
KL: The strong sense that I got from a lot of your work was the idea of Europe and Europeans coming together but also that diversity comes through – there are language difficulties particularly in La Macabra, in that dialogue quite often he speaks and she doesn’t know what he’s talking about or she asks him to say something in her accent. You get this really strong sense of what it means to be European. Do you think that is something that you bring to the expat experience in Beijing that idea of being foreign within your own continent?
HK-H: No I don’t think so at all. I like languages and in that specific film you mentioned La Macabra there’s my friend Boris Kanchev from Bulgaria who speaks in English, he’s fluent in English but he also has this heavy mix of accents of Bulgarian and English, it’s also a kind of British accent, and then also he can speak fluent French so he turns to French also in the film and then he also speaks quite fluent Spanish so he also speaks Spanish and we also have Georgina Román, a Mexican filmmaker who is situated in Europe who speaks great Spanish of course but she’s not so fluent in English so there is a language barrier that I find interesting. So really it’s a lot about languages and for me it’s nice to be in China because I’ve learned to speak fluent Chinese so I can interact with Chinese people without a problem but the thing in China is I look foreign and everything I do here will be foreign, you cannot get away from that and I think it’s a good thing to be aware that you don’t want to change and be a Chinese and try to make a Chinese film at all. I mean just do whatever you want. Just do it the way it comes at the moment and don’t pretend and be pretentious. Like it will never happen. It’s just languages and languages are fine but sure they are bound with cultures too and cultural backgrounds and maybe that clash of language barriers and cultures can be interesting here but I don’t intend to make a fiction film with foreigners meeting Chinese people, I’d rather make a fiction film totally with Chinese people actually. I don’t want to become a Chinese filmmaker. I’m myself. I don’t even like to consider myself Swedish. In terms of national identities, I’d much rather be without these boundaries. However, if my personal background is somehow reflected in my work, then I welcome it. I’m sure it’s unavoidable and necessary.
KL: From an English speaking background there is a certain amount of arrogance, the Chinese are forced to learn English, but with your European background there seems to be something more inherently essential in this need to find a common tongue.
HK-H: Hmmm… Yeah, I really don’t think so much about national identities but I guess it’s very natural to put films in those different categories and I agree that some great filmmakers have really strong ties to their nations and they make great films because they know their culture so well but I don’t really know what benefit I can derive from Swedish culture and bring to China. I think it’s totally weird. I wouldn’t know how I would do that.
KL: But does your weirdness give you a special insight?
HK-H: It might but I’ve never thought about maybe putting a Swede in a film with a Chinese in Beijing. I’m not so interested in that. I love to learn, because now I live in China and I’ve lived in China before also and there’s still a lot of things that I want to learn about social life here. I don’t want to mix it with other cultures so much. So either I stick to really visual stuff, like in my photography I also just kind of click when the moment comes, and some of my experimental films are also like that, they just happened. When I had a sudden idea I just went and realised it, so maybe I would do that in the street because I’ve also thought about maybe filming in the subway in Beijing – doing a whole full-length film just in the subway, not a fiction film, I don’t like “experimental” either as a word, just a documentary in the subway, just people, maybe in totally different areas of Beijing - a full-length film like that and maybe a voice over. So maybe I’d do that or maybe a fictional film in a more conventional way with actors and direct it but I think I’d rather do a plot with only Chinese people just to understand and learn more about their social life here and cultural backgrounds.
KL: Artists often refer to what they do as self-expression – this outward impulse to share what is inside of them - but it seems that for you there is an element of using your art form as an educational tool for yourself.
HK-H: Yes, otherwise it would be totally pointless. I wouldn’t know what to do. I would feel alienated and estranged, you know, I wouldn’t know how to do it and I wouldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it! It would just be pointless and it would not be good at all, I’m sure. It would not work. I have to feel something and I have to be inspired otherwise I can’t do it, and I know that if I forced something out it would turn to utter shit. Even if a picture comes out aesthetically appealing to someone, maybe even to someone who is a professional in the field of photography, but I happened to take that particular picture when I wasn’t inspired, I’d feel like it’s trash. Maybe a few years would go by and I pick up that picture, I might say Oh, this is nice, and I might not even remember that I wasn’t inspired. However, like anyone in this field would testify, it’s much easier to work if you feel it.
KL: We’ve spoken before because you do such beautiful portrait work in Beijing, do you find that this ability to get such great portraits comes somewhat from your proficiency in Chinese? Do you interact with your subjects?
HK-H: For sure. Sometimes I click the camera without talking to people in special locations but I think even more commonly, I feel I have to say something to them. I don’t want to be too rude a photographer especially in these times where we’re constantly being watched by surveillance cameras and stuff, I don’t want to be another surveillance camera in people’s private lives, but yes, sometimes I click when I don’t have the time to ask, I just do need to take this picture. I do like the interactions and being fluent in Chinese helps a lot. It doesn’t have to be a long deep conversation it’s just like: You look interesting, may I take your picture? You’re the nicest person I’ve seen so far today, and they are intrigued or maybe they are shy and I’m not so good at loosening them up but I can say something like, Do you mind if I take a picture of you? And they will be like, Why do you want to take a picture of me? And I’m just like, You are really are something, aren’t you? And then, maybe they’re not so confident about it, it will certainly bring out something, even that discomfort. I don’t want to be a fly on the wall, I don’t want to be a surveillance camera, I don’t want it to be objective, it’s my subjective view and if they are uncomfortable, sure it can come out of the picture, make the viewer feel uncomfortable about the discomfort in their expression. It’s very performative what we’re doing all the time, in all kinds of art and you cannot control it, and you SHOULDN’T control it, it’s just life and interactions. You know what I mean?
KL: Definitely. The interesting thing with your photography is it’s not often you do see that discomfort, often there’s a warmth there that makes your portrait work stand out, even if they’re not looking at the lens there’s a certain joy in being noticed that actually comes through. A lot of people are trying to capture “truth” but there’s something about your portraits that reflects the moment of being seen. Is that something you intend to do?
HK-H: To acknowledge them?
KL: To see that spark in your portraits where the person sees you, maybe you’ve spoken to them beforehand, and it comes through, this moment of self-acknowledgment that: I’m worthy of a camera lens.
HK-H: I want that, I think that’s great and those people are really beautiful. Maybe, especially in Beijing for some reason, I feel everyone is kind of beautiful all the time so I always take too many pictures. I really want to, like I said, I don’t want to be this fly on the wall, I want them to kind of feel that I am around and they actually, as soon as I am there with my lens, are performing, They are not just walking to the school or walking to the store or walking to the hospital anymore they are actually being documented. So, yeah, if that can come out as an expression, an acknowledgment or maybe even gratefulness and warmth then I’m super happy. I think the pictures I like the most that I’ve taken are the ones when the subject is aware of my presence. Like this picture here [see below] I saw them playing badminton in a hutong and I wanted them to continue playing and I asked them, Can I take a photo of you? and then they said, Sure, and of course they stood a little bit, didn’t know what to do, almost like they joined together – two in a portrait like that – and I said, Just continue playing as you wer,e and then of course it was much more fun because it was kind of crowded in this alley and the bikes came past him all the time, there was disturbance and I think he was smiling a little bit because I was talking to him and joking with him a little bit that he was going to fall. Yeah, I’m quite satisfied with the result, actually.
KL: Looking at your photography, it’s quite personal and there are beautiful individual portraits compared to a lot of your filmmaking, which seems much more driven by the aesthetic rather than the personal. What’s the difference between what you are trying to achieve with a film compared to your photography?
HK-H: I think it’s just more difficult to work with people when there’s a movie camera. The thing about today’s digital cameras is that you can actually use them and kind of secretly – pretending you’re taking a photo when you’re actually filming – which can be a great effect and it’s super tempting to use as a tool to convey that sort of performativity, but maybe that’s also where I draw my ethical line. I feel too naughty to do that. I do it sometimes but if I’m too close to the subject and I’m filming instead I just feel too naughty, because by doing that I am truly trespassing on their privacy. I think that’s why in films it’s more about the visuals because it’s much easier to work with, you can work with objects or just scenes from a longer distance – you don’t have to be so close to the subject- and recently I’ve watched some of the films by Chantal Ackerman, she’s a documentary and fiction filmmaker from Belgium who made some great films from the seventies. She passed away last year and I’ve been totally inspired by some of her early films which are visuals of street scenes with voice overs so that’s why I was talking about that earlier - if I would do something now in Beijing I would probably do something documentary-ish - I would maybe not be too invasive and I would just make moving visuals of the street scenes which are great and they can be so beautiful in Beijing, like super Chinese style of street scenes. That’s kind of an answer to your question, I guess. Or maybe more straight to the point, I don’t think my films are less personal, it’s just that they are more saturated by the editing effects of the film medium. Somehow I find still photographs more cinematic than the 24 frames a second equivalent. The moving image is too close to what we see with our own eyes.
KL: One of your films is using audio from Delia Derbyshire [electronic music pioneer and composer of the original Doctor Who theme, check her out!] , how much do you get inspired by other mediums to do something visual? Was that a case where you heard that piece and wanted to put visuals to it or did you start filming and then thought it would be the perfect accompaniment?
HK-H: Hmmm… Maybe I was inspired by two things at that time, I was inspired by poetry but I was also inspired by early electronic music. I love that piece by Delia Derbyshire and I was in this place in Italy and I found a really huge cemetery, two cemeteries really huge, with lots of sculptures and death masks from Victorian era, I guess and they were quite expressive. I was also at the same time inspired a little bit by early Super 8 time lapse but moving time lapse not animation. When you move in 3D with your body in a setting just clicking with your camera and putting it together so it kind of moves in a dreamy way and also the piece is called The Dreams that’s also the name of the song by Delia. So those were my inspiration and yeah I do get super inspired by music. Maybe it’s a little bit paradoxical I like the old traditional soundtracks when picture and sound were really synchronised, like for example in the Czechoslovakian New Wave they have this amazing film composer called Zdeněk Liška who was a genius, he should have been more acknowledged for sure, no one knows about him either.
KL: What films was he involved with?
HK-H: He did a lot of music for an animator, stop-motion filmmaker, also from Czechoslovakia at that time who is still alive, Jan Švankmajer. He did a lot of work for Jan Švankmajer and when Zdeněk Liška passed away he wasn’t interested in hiring any other guy, he just used classical music for his pieces instead, but they had a really nice filmmaking relationship and Zdeněk was a genius – he kind of edited Švankmajer’s films himself to make the music go so well with it. I like that but I also really like the soundtracks by for instance Simon Fisher Turner for Derek Jarman’s films. They have nothing to do with the content, they don’t make sounds, sure maybe at some points, but they are much more poetic and ambient, like a voice over and really ambient sounds of nature, birds, grass. Lately I’ve been more inspired by that, I think. I’m especially inspired by music, but also other media, like paintings, I guess…
KL: What about collaboration? Have you ever considered trying to find that person who could score your films in a way… that there was a certain level of synchronicity or symbiosis were you could work together on a shared vision? Would you be interested in a relationship, do you ever seek that out?
HK-H: No, but I really want it. I want to be in that kind of relationship but I’m too much of a control freak, I guess, and to this point I’ve sort of made everything myself unless someone was acting for me or delivering lines for me, I did most of the filming, editing, effects myself but, sure, I’d love to find someone who I like working with but that hasn’t really happened… yet.
KL: I notice you use Boris Kanchev regularly, is he an actor that you particularly like working with?
HK-H: Yeah, he’s an amazing person. I mean totally out of control and that’s what I like about him – you cannot control him. He is delivering himself. I have a few more pieces with him that you haven’t seen but he’s an art object in himself, I don’t have to direct him, he’s just doing it. Sure, he’s a good collaborator but he’s not someone that, I don’t know…
KL: He interprets your ideas…
HK-H: He’s a great interpreter and he interprets it in a way that I never thought about that’s why he’s a true artist, I think, I haven’t really met anyone like him before. We still keep in touch and I would like to work with him again in a more controlled setting.
KL: I have to mention the film you sent me in which you’re the actor. You have incredible screen presence, have you ever considered doing more acting?
HK-H: If I get the chance, and if I like the idea. I don’t think I’m going to seek it out myself but if the opportunity comes and I like it, I would totally do it because I enjoy and I also like interpreting stuff like that.
Hannes Knutsson-Hall is a photographer and filmmaker living and working in Beijing, China. More considering himself as a documentarian, he explores through the lens the everyday scenes and the “laobaixing-ness” (老百姓 – laobaoxing is a very Chinese expression for ”common people”) in China. His European film work concerns themes like language, alienation and memory, as well as staging in documentary settings. Having now settled down long-term, he hopes to further develop his ideas in the Jing. His photography is currently being exhibited in Más.
ON Thursday Loreli will team with Borderless to host a celebration of music and art and a time when stuff was free and people had freedom. We threw out a few questions to the 2 artists who designed the posters:
LORELI: Your work features many visual references to Chinese art and culture, how important is China to who you are as an artist?
CHAIRMAN CA: China, or Beijing China, is not only my battlefield, but also my hometown. If I can’t win on this battlefield, all other victories are meaningless. Although on some level, I’m still fighting against the mainstream consciousness and the rules. These conflicts seem like obstacles but that’s exactly why it’s meaningful. However, I think I’m contributing positive achievements to my motherland, and my hometown.
LORELI: Do you get a strong sense of community from the Beijing art scene? How has that enhanced your experience as an artist?
CHAIRMAN CA: The art scene in Beijing amazing. You can see all kinds of art forms, all kinds of consciousness has grown in this environment that brings more possibilities and competition. Community is where everybody agrees with (even worships) the direction of financial development. People using the same forms or ways to create art might come from different communities but there are the same rules anywhere you go. This brutal fact makes the conflict even sharper in modern China, it even impacts on the things which should have been simple and more commercial, but at the same time, it makes it more lively in this mess.
LORELI: How often do you collaborate with artists/people working in other mediums (such as you have with Borderless)? Are there benefits to doing collaborations? Do you particularly enjoy it?
CHAIRMAN CA: There are many ways to co-operate, but I don’t co-operate with other artists that much. I prefer individual work where I can have total control.
I like to co-operate with people in different areas like music, fashion etc. The benefits of collaboration, and there are many kinds, depend on what the partner wants to pursue. Sometimes, commercial co-operation is simpler that the non-commercial ones. Yes! I do enjoy collaborating.
LORELI: How do you define yourself as an artist?
CHAIRMAN CA: Being an artist is a job. Professionally, I think it’s a job where you express possibilities and opinions about consciousness, about how to fight. Personally, for myself, I want to express wuai (living in the moment in Japanese), express love and fear towards it, to get to the eternal topics: love, sex, violence, death, this hour, this moment, this emotion, this view! That’s also what appeals to me.
LORELI: Is art a compulsion for you? What would you do if you didn’t paint?
CHAIRMAN CA: I just want to do what I want to do. You may say my job is to be an artist but I think my creation is more that just the paintings. In fact, no matter what I create, in my opinion, I’ve just made the decision to choose the ultimate way to express my attitude towards life and the world. I might sacrifice some sensitivity to strengthen my point, to make a rule. It has nothing to do with the profession. It’s just that, people who do different jobs give up different things and gain different things in their lives.
LORELI: Your work features lots of visual references to Chinese art and culture, how important is China to who you are as an artist?
XIAO FENG LUO: China, to me, is home where there are lots of things I’m familiar with and used to, which I can’t get enough of. But when I’m working on my art, I like to look at things with an outsider’s glasses on.
LORELI: Do you get a strong sense of community from the Hangzhou art scene? How has that enhanced your experience as an artist?
XIAO FENG LUO: I’m not sure because I think in fact I’m not really part of the community. I socialise with several close friends of mine. I don’t think it enhances my experience as an artist much but in the future I hope I can communicate more.
LORELI: How often do you collaborate with artists/people in other mediums (for example this collaboration with Borderless)? Are there any benefits to collaborating? Do you particularly enjoy it?
XIAO FENG LUO: I don’t collaborate much so I couldn’t really comment on the benefits but I do have a positive attitude toward it. I will collaborate with artists and others under the condition it doesn’t impact on my own artworks.
LORELI: How do you define yourself as an artist?
XIAO FENG LUO: I’m an artist who is still hibernating. I don’t want to be effected by society. I want to remain independent and pure. This provides me with uncertainties and surprises.
LORELI: Is art a compulsion for you? What would you do if you didn’t paint?
XIAO FENG LUO: I think art is an attitude, a posture, a pursuit of perfection – not wanting to be ordinary so having to be “artistic.” Painting is just a way to express art. You can do food, do love in that way as well. I’m willing to do anything but people have limited time and energy so focusing on one thing is t so easy.
Borderless Music is run by the energetic and brilliant Alice Yuan Ting. They have organised countless band shows and tours in Beijing and around China. All translation for this interview was completed by Alice Yuan Ting.
Scan the QR Code to try to keep up with her.
Interview on January 7 at Cheeese Café, Zhangzizhonglu
KL: You mentioned last time we spoke about a documentary. How is that going?
GN: I’m still involved in that. We've been doing it for about sixteen months now. It’s the first time I've worked on a feature-length documentary. There are three of us directing and filming, plus another two producers. It’s going under the working title of “The New Masters”, and its about M.M.A.[mixed martial arts] in China, tracing the paths of several people who are involved in that world, a Shaolin kungfu disciple training MMA for the first time, a Chinese U.F.C. fighter, young fighters breaking through, and foreigners hoping to establish themselves on the China fight circuit.
KL: So how did that come about?
GN: It was through people I knew, a guy I knew called Chris Cherry, another Scotsman in China. Maybe six or seven years ago he was putting his photos up on Flickr and so was I. I knew him from that and then we both happened to relocate to Beijing around the same time.
KL: How do you find someone in a community so vast as Flickr?
GN: I think because if you are uploading photos of China, there are various groups you can post to based on topic, based on location, and you see other people's photos there, and add them as contacts if you like their work. Also, for a while I was also curating a group comprised of photos from China, a kind of online gallery, so I was searching around for people uploading stuff from China. I guess at one point in 2007 or so I knew just about everyone who was taking good photos of China and uploading them to Flickr. On Flickr there’s a lot of rubbish but there’s a lot of good stuff as well if you sift through it. So I guess that’s how you find people.
KL: So you met him online and got to know him here in Beijing?
GN: I got to know him, then he and another Scotsman Dave Dempsey started doing this documentary project on MMA and they asked me to provide camera expertise. I knew nothing about the subject at the time but as time has gone on, I’ve also become involved with the directing, dealing with characters, subject matter, shaping the narrative. I’ve also found myself becoming a real fan of MMA, which is something completely new for me.
KL: When you make a documentary is it difficult to distance yourself from your subjects and not cross over onto the wrong side of the camera?
GN: It’s a balancing act really. Especially in China, when dealing with Chinese people who don’t necessarily have the same culture of documentary making as in the West, so you’re expected to be friends with the people you’re filming to some degree or do favours for them, things you shouldn't ideally be doing when your making a documentary but you can’t really get round that, I think, if you’re in China. I mean, there should still be some kind of barrier, so it’s knowing where to draw the line.
KL: What’s the end date? Are you working to a deadline or are you waiting for the story to feel it has concluded?
GN: Yeah that’s exactly what we’re doing, waiting for the point where we feel its concluded. We’re not putting a date on it. We’ve thought we were about 70% finished for almost a year now, I think, but story evolves in new ways, and we always find something else to include and realise we still have a lot to do to finish it. I think we’ve found all the characters we need now, though we’re not sure how much we’ll use of each character. It’s a case of weaving them into a narrative and finding an end point.
KL: How much footage have you got at the moment?
G: At least six terabytes but I don’t know how much that is in terms of hours. Days probably.
KL: What do you have to do at the post-production stage? Will you need to go through and index that all to know what you’ll use and chronology?
GN: We’ve started doing that already, making logs of what footage we’ll use from different shoots. We’re also writing treatments. so we’ve got pages and pages of that. So we’re starting some of the post-production already, I suppose. We’ve tried to edit some of the material together in Final Cut and see how its fits. But we’ve not got any buyer for it yet and there wasn’t anybody who commissioned it. It was all sort of a DIY project and we raised funds for it on Kickstarter to pay for equipment. So as long as we can come away with a film at the end of it to show toKickstarter backers, there are really no other constraints on the film. If we find a buyer for it they might want it to be edited to a certain length, six episodes or to fit within 90 minutes or whatever but at the moment there are no constraints like that.
KL: Who is your audience? Have you considered that?
GN: I think probably more of a foreign audience more than Chinese just because the outlet in China is going to be Chinese television and it’s not really done in the style that Chinese TV would be used to. I guess the producer would know a lot more about that stuff than me.
KL: Has it been a rewarding task thus far?
GN: Yeah, I think as rewarding as anything I’ve done with photography. I hope after this I can go on and do more documentary work and do it full-time ideally because at the moment I’m juggling it with other work just to keep things going.
KL: Tell me a bit about your photography. What style are you shooting?
GN: I started off doing street photography. That’s when I was uploading stuff to flickr in 2006-2007.
KL: Digital or…?
GN: Digital at the time, yeah. Older photographers sometimes complain about those who came into photography in the digital era because it’s easier than it was and the barriers to entry into the field are lower but I can’t really complain about that because it’s the DSLR revolution that brought me into photography, the prices of these cameras coming down and becoming more accessible. I'd also say that digital photography is a great way to learn composition and light and the technical aspects, because you can experiment and make as many mistakes as you want, and you see the results there and then. Looking at the LCD screen and getting that instant feedback can be a great thing, at least in the early stages of learning photography.
KL: So you were doing street photography as a hobby?
GN: Yeah, just from moving to China in 2004, living in Dalian at that time, and watching things around me change so quickly, whole neighbourhoods disappearing, I felt that I had to document this just for my own sake because I knew it wouldn’t necessarily be there in six months time. That’s something that I’d never felt before. Back home in Scotland things change fairly slowly. I guess that’s why I started going out with a camera and within a couple of months I'd found it was a creative outlet as well as just documentation.
KL: Where did it progress from there?
GN: I studied a Masters in photojournalism in Dalian in 2008. It was a co-operation between a British university and a Chinese university. They were running courses there. I hadn’t studied any photography before, but I got onto the course, partly because of my street photography portfolio, and also because by that time I'd been living in China for 3 years and I'd already started following the various journalistic and social issues here. They’re still running the course, but it’s moved to Beijing and more multimedia based now. So we had to shoot a project in the final term, and I chose to document the African Community trading in Guangzhou. I went there for six weeks and found my way into the community, made some nice portraits, put together a photo essay, and I ended up coming back and making a photo book of that. I then took that round various newspapers and sent it away to editors and I managed to get it published in a few places, the local Guangzhou paper Nanfang Daily, South China Morning Post etc. So I guess from there I started considering myself a professional, got some more assignments here and there, though to be honest, looking back, my workflow back then wasn’t really professional, nor was my camera equipment.
KL: Are you working in photojournalism now?
GN: Occasionally, I've had two assignments published in the last year, one was a portrait project in Beijing for Wall Street Journal and another a shoot for The Financial Times where I went to photograph a migrant worker going back to their family for Chinese New Year. I followed them from Beijing back to Hubei, into the mountains of Shennongjia. But good photojournalism assignment work doesn’t come up very often, at least not for me. With hindsight, it was the wrong time to go and study photojournalism as a career. The market for buying images collapsed because of digital photography, and magazine and newspaper sales and advertising revenues also went off a cliff, so staff photographers were getting laid off all over. Whether photography has a viable future as a career, I don’t know, so I knew I had to add some more skills, learn video, learn filmmaking. Basically, the way to make sure you have work is to develop projects of your own, assign yourself, which I guess is what we are doing with this MMA documentary film.
KL: Getting into photojournalism where you are doing a documentary narrative style, do you find that you still search for your own aesthetic or is it simply displaying the story?
GN: I think if you can do a little bit of both, that’s better. Your work is going to stand out a little more from people who are just plainly documenting it without much thought to the aesthetics, yet at the same time if you aestheticise it too much then it can be a barrier for people connecting with the content of your work. They might connect with the aesthetics more than the subject matter. It’s something you’ve got to balance.
KL: So what’s your plan as far as China is concerned? Is this where you’re going to stay?
GN: I don’t really know. Obviously I'll stay until the MMA documentary is done, plus my girlfriend is here. The other thing that links me to China creatively is the personal photo projects I've been working on, I’ve been photographing things in China for ten years now, street photography style, documentary style. I actually haven’t really published any of that work yet, it’s all just sitting on my hard-drive trying to decide what to do with it, and its also up on Flickr. The current plan is to edit it into two or three photobooks. I found my motivation to go out and take photographs really dropped a couple of years ago though, I felt that I was getting a bit stale, and video and film seemed more appealing to me, and it was only really cameraphone photography that brought me back into photography. By accident I've found myself building up another collection of images, maybe another small photobook's worth, and they’re slightly different to what I was doing before. You’re limited with a cameraphone, but that’s a challenge in itself. It slows down the way you try to work.
KL: So you noticed there was a change in the way the photographs turned out?
GN: Yeah, different cameras will change your process of visualising and composing an image, and you’ll end up with different images as a result. After getting into photography shooting DSLR stuff I’d got a bit bored with that method of shooting so I went back to using film, using a medium format camera around 2008, shooting on big 120 negatives, which need more cumbersome, slower to use cameras. It becomes much more deliberate when you’re taking photos with a medium format camera, whereas with a DSLR you can spray and pray, as they say, often just fire the shutter as quick as you want and one of them might turn out better than others. It can be a bit trial and error at times, whereas when you’re using film you tend not to work like that so much.
KL: Every frame counts.
GN: Yeah, and I think with a cameraphone although you can shoot as much as you want, the technical limitations mean quick street moments where you freeze time are hard to catch, and the phone's light weight makes it more difficult to hold steady than a DSLR, so you have to be a bit more deliberate, as with medium format.
KL: Are you ever a purist about it?
GN: A purist in what way?
KL: In what makes a photographer a photographer? What makes a good photo? When you look at pictures, everybody’s a photographer now, as far as having a camera in their pocket that they use all the time, and people often say, look at this, it’s a great shot or whatever, do you find with your training that you can’t help but pick it apart a little bit?
GN: I think that my own criteria for what makes a good image is more about what’s memorable rather than compositional rules. I mean, if I tried to analyse my images that I’ve taken, probably a lot of them will follow some kind of compositional rules but I don’t think that’s necessarily the most important factor. So if a person shows me a photo they've taken and asks what I think of it, I'll usually be curious to look, as there's always a chance it'll be a great photo. That's the nature of the medium. Anyone can take a great photo. However, I don’t necessarily think people always know it when they’ve taken one. Someone might take one great photo, through luck perhaps, and then several which aren't much good, and then not be able to tell the difference between them. This is my own experience anyway. I've looked through my early photos from nine years ago and it’s the same, many of them are rubbish. The few good ones stand out quite clearly now, yet back then when I was first editing them all, I used to spend hours agonising over how I cropped and post-processed photos that were never going to be good, no matter what I did to them. The difference between an amatuer and a professional photographer is I guess related to this learning process, not just being able to take a good photo, but also having a trained eye in terms of knowing what you have taken, and of course knowing how to pre-plan your luck, to some degree.
KL: I’m so interested by the way people react to photography. People love photographs and everyone has something different that will draw their eye.
GN: The range of different tastes in photography is as wide as in music. On one hand, some people like wildlife photo or a sports action photos where you are stopping something in time for the greatest visual impact, and its more about being able to use the technical aspects of the camera, of course it does involve the process of seeing as well but it’s more about being in the right place at the right time, knowing where to stand, knowing the light, that kind of stuff. So some people are really into that, whereas, I think with something like street photography or portraiture it’s different. Street photography is more about observation, and how you interpret your environment. Portraiture is about how you work with your portrait subject to bring a certain essence out of them, so there’s all different skills within photography, and they're not necessarily transferable. Some photographers have very strong skills in one area but areaverage in others, for example in studio photography you might have almost complete control over the image whereas in street photography or photojournalism its more instinctive.
KL: Because you’re from a photojournalism background which is much more functional art, or at least more functional than art or abstract photography, do you see yourself as an artist or do you see yourself as a photojournalist?
GN: I'd say I was a documentary photographer really. For documentary photography I think the craft is in making nice images, but the art comes in putting these images in a sequence rather than the aesthetic value of any particular picture. It’s how the images relate to one another, and through choosing what images to put together, you sort of create this parallel vision of the world and that’s your expression. There are famous photographers in that realm, people like Robert Frank or Stephen Shore or Alex Webb. I’d say they were artists as well as documentary photographers because they all had their interpretation of reality, and that vision is contained within the pages of their classic photobooks. I mean in each frame, they were collecting pure documents that had identifiable subject matter, but when it was all put together in series of 50 or 150 images in a photobook it starts to become a much more idiosyncratic vision of the world. So, in that way a documentary photographer can be an artist.
KL: How much do you allow your idiosyncrasies to leach into your work?
GN: I think if it’s personal work you allow your own personality to go into it but if it’s an assignment, if you’re working for a newspaper or especially in an event shoot for a conference or something, you’ve got to be a lot more disciplined to give people what they’re looking for. A photographer in Beijing, a guy called Sean Gallagher gave me some good advice once about this, he said you have to learn to compartmentalise what you do. By that I think he meant that some photographers become too attached to their photos, they see every single photo they shoot as extensions of themselves. Which might be a nice sentiment, but if you want to actually get work as a photographer, there will likely be times when you have to switch off and see them not as your photos but as belonging to an audience or a client, and then if it’s personal projects that's when you can be as idiosyncratic as you want.
KL: And are you when you’re doing personal stuff?
GN: Subtly, probably. I don’t know, I mean over the course of looking through hundreds of images you get a certain sense, some people will say, that looks like a Graeme Nicol photo. In fact another photographer pointed something out to me today actually – there was a rickety wooden chair and a satellite dish sitting on top of it, but resting on a pile of bricks to get a better signal, an unlikely arrangement of objects, a kind of vernacular “still life”, and he said, oh look it’s a Graeme Nicol photo, but I don’t really know what that means. We were looking at it from a high building and it didn't make a good composition from that angle, but if I had been looking at it down beside it, would I have photographed it ? I'm not sure. And anyway, they noticed it and saw its potential as a photo, even if it was a Graeme Nicol photo, so maybe it's part of their idiosyncratic vision rather than mine.
KL: If people are attributing a certain style to you, is that flattering?
GN: I guess it can be flattering but it could also be a little frustrating because Iwouldn't want to be limited to take one kind of photo. Also, there are so many different people and different aesthetics throughout the history of photography, so even though other people might think you’ve stumbled on an aesthetic or subject matter that is unique to you, there's a good chance someone else has done it before. I would want to wear my influences openly rather than claim to be innovating something I hadn't.
KL: I get the impression that if you discovered you had a particular aesthetic you’d be bored by it immediately.
GN: Kind of, I know some photographers who do have a certain aesthetic and I know what you mean, looking through their photos, though I might like a few, I can get bored by them quite quickly. You start to spot certain formulas or visual gimmicks going on. Some photographers seem to be happy to take the same kind of photos over and over, and some photo enthusiasts seem happy to look at the same kind of photos over and over, but I’m a bit more restless which is partly why I’ve never committed to a firm, definable aesthetic apart from one that’s a non-aesthetic, more just kind of erratic or random. But then, hopefully over the course of a large body of work there's a certain something which seeps out of the work...
Graeme Nicol is a photographer and documentary maker from Scotland, born in 1979. Originally graduating in Chemistry, he arrived in China in 2004 and found a path into photography and then documentary filmmaking. He's lived in Beijing for the past five years.