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.