Interview on 30th June 2015 at Beiluo Bread Bar, Gulou
KL: Most of your commercial work has been for the fashion industry and there is a great diversity of style. You have smoky black and white double exposures, others are casual Nan Goldin style pieces and then you have the super slick commercial fashion shots.
JY: It's funny because people don't even really separate that because they think my slick stuff is not that slick – professional people. And I think it's really your perception because if you look at the stuff with my friends it's really quite different but just the execution is different and how it looks, but the feeling is more or less the same. It's really just a different outlook or aesthetic and that's what it really comes down to. I don't want to make it too one-dimensional, I love Nan Goldin's stuff and I don't want to ignore that just to get more commercial work. I hope that it could be somehow mutually translatable. Because I think her stuff is full of energy and life and that's what drew me into photography in the first place. I didn't know what it meant when I saw it but I just felt something.
KL: There's definitely a documentary element to her work. Is that an important part of what you do as well?
JY: Definitely. Because I didn't study photography, I found it, almost accidentally, as a profession. I decided to go backpacking after I graduated because I'd never visited Europe. I started off in London and kind of just bounced around on my own. My mum gave me her little pocket camera that I took with me for the whole trip. By the time I got to Berlin I had a bunch of pictures and I met a photographer there. He encouraged me to take more pictures and taught me the basics about how to change your camera settings, control the lens and stuff like that. So I got a bit more interested in how you can make the pictures look different intentionally, not just point and shoot. Which is what I thought photography was all about – just capturing a shot as you see it.
KL: So how did it move from taking pictures of your friends and enjoying yourself to getting commercial work?
JY: It took awhile. Just over time I guess I got more and more into it. I quit working full-time in advertising after two years because I didn't enjoy what I was doing and I went to Thailand for a month to clear my head and see where I was at. I told my manager, I don't think I want to do this full-time any more because I don't think it's challenging me anymore. So I just went freelance and starting working with people I knew from accounts I'd had and developed my photography on the side. That's how it started commercially. I could work on my pictures and develop the ideas a bit more.
JY: By the time I decided to quit advertising I already had a bunch of pictures from music, portraits of bands that I knew, and people saw those and thought they were really good and they were like, 'you should show these pictures to more people and you might get some jobs.' They said just talk to some photo agencies and maybe you can get something out of it and I contacted them and showed them what I'd done. They [the agencies] said, 'they're really nice but we don't really work with those kinds of images,' so they suggested I should assist some photographers. And I didn't understand what that meant. I had another friend who was assisting and he was like, 'yeah, it's pretty easy, you've just gotta get used to the whole lighting idea.' And I was like, 'I have no idea what that means.' I spoke to a couple of photographers and had a trial and they thought I was okay. I didn't really understand the whole job nature of it but they said I could learn. So that's how I got into studio photography and fashion from working with those guys and then I started doing my own stuff.
KL: So you mastered lighting and...
JY: No, not until I left Australia. In Australia I never felt like I needed to go into the studio because the weather was always so nice. Especially in Sydney where there were beaches and there were a lot of locations outside that were quite good. I just prefer going out than being indoors. Yeah, I didn't really know much about lighting and I wasn’t really that interested in lighting at that point. I felt you should just work with whatever you've got from the documentary stuff that I'd done.
KL: Is narrative ever important?
JY: I think so. Well, if not a narrative, it is a dialogue with what you're shooting. It's not like creating a still life image. The narrative I'm looking for – its based from a sense of memory infused with the feelings of a dream. I try to recreate that idea from connecting to the people I work with and see how we can create the narrative that is on my mind together. If the feeling is there, the shoots can happen really fast since I know what I want to do and see already.
KL: So what was your journey from doing that stuff in Sydney to being here right now?
JY: I went to the UK when I was twenty-five. I wanted to leave Sydney because I felt like I'd kind of hit a peak with what I knew and what I liked to do photographically speaking. I went to New York first because I wanted to move there and I spent three months there in 2009. I just partied too much. I didn't realise what I wanted to do and it all felt like it was a bit of a blur. I decided to move to London in 2010 because New York wasn't the experience I wanted to further develop my photography. A lot of the things I liked about New York City I could do in Sydney. I found a UK visa where I could work for two years. I just wanted to go and see what I could learn from people who'd been a photographer longer than me. It was pretty sketchy and I didn't have any work connections. Luckily my old boss was English, he had an old colleague who's husband was a photographer, Roger Deckker. I looked at his stuff online and thought that his portraits were really good. He done some fashion stuff too but I really liked his portraits. He photographed a lot of personalities – musicians and designers and stuff and I always thought that he had a really good passion for it. So that was the first real contact I had. And he said I could assist for him and that's how I got started. I met a lot of people along the way but he was the first guy that really gave me a break.
KL: Having spent time in New York and London, these great creative arts hubs, how does that compare to being in Beijing? How fully-fledged do you think the art scene is here?
JY: I think it's really fledged. I mean I think the art scene and the commercial fashion industry are really different. I don't think I could really compare anyway because I've mean the cultural and the historical context is pretty short here. I think the fashion industry is really new still compared to New York and London and even Australia, actually. In addition to digital technology, I think it's constantly expanding. Whereas London and New York, they have a history of photography and art. It's been there for a long time and there was no historical disruption since World War II. There's always been fashion in a European context so you just can't compare. It's a much longer timeline. And I don't think you really need to compare because, I think, people here they don't really want to compare. They just want to make their own ideas come together.
KL: It seems obvious that China, particularly Beijing is having a huge influence on what your doing now. What is it that you want to show an international audience?
JY: I don't know because people, both Chinese and foreign, that I've met in Beijing, always ask me why I moved here and I don't really have a clear answer apart from the fact that, when I was in London, my grandpa was not well and I went to Hong Kong to see him. In a couple of days he was gone. He past while I was there. When I went back to London I wasn't sure what I was going to do and I almost didn't want to finish my visa because I was confused by the state of my family. I told my mum that I felt messed up for awhile. If my grandma was not doing well I just can't imagine not having her in my life so when I finish my visa I have to think about where I want to go next. All my friends said I should just go to New York. You can continue to assist and probably make more money because there are more commercial jobs there. But I didn't want to just keep on assisting for the sake of making more money. Also, New York was too far away from my grandma so I thought, maybe I should just come closer to Hong Kong. I'd never lived in Beijing and, as the capital of China, it must have some historical and cultural significance. So I came to visit, just to see it for a couple of weeks and met a couple of people and found a flat. I was just trying to take another gamble really.
KL: And it paid off.
JY: Over some time. I guess, what I want to show of Beijing is the stuff that I want to see myself. Hopefully I can show people what I'm trying to find myself. It's not like a subject matter, it's more just a feeling of the city and the things that people are doing that I find interesting. So, it's an extension of documentation, I guess. Whether it's art or fashion or music, it doesn't really matter. They're things that I enjoy myself so I can explore that deeper.
KL: Tell me a little more about this stuff.
JY: I'm really interested in damaged images. Just like old skate boarding videos. They're always one hour tapes and they always break visually and I never knew what they were called. I stumbled across an internet post by a San Francisco art collective called Paper Rad and they made this video for Chairlift. It was all done by datamoshing which is when you break up the pixels intentionally and I was amazed. And Kanye did it as well shortly after that. I thought it was really cool and wondered how you do it and I just looked up what datamoshing was and it goes way back through different techniques. By the time they did it with digital video I just figured I could find a way to do it, very laboriously and I kind of just experimented. I just play with the textures, even the stills, I just break up the image and make something different. It's normal video footage that you can process to explore what you can do to break it up. It's kind of like happy accidents as well.
KL: Is this something you'd consider using in your commercial work?
JY: A lot of people are really uncomfortable with not showing the product in the best possible light but I think the product is only as interesting as your idea. People are going to see the product when they go to a store to buy it. What your presenting is a concept. Whether it's a celebrity wearing it in a video or at a concert, it's still just an idea that may be attractive to someone who's interested in that idea.
KL: Considering the diversity of your work, is there a particular style that you enjoy more than others?
JY: Aesthetically, I can do a lot now because I had been assisting so many great teams, I can understand how you can do different lighting and work with different hair and makeup people to transform the look but, for me, I don't really want to have those constraints to make the picture come alive. I like working on pictures that are just me and a person. I don't really want hair and makeup only if I feel I need it to enhance a feeling of the image. I like having that intimacy and if it's for music or lifestyle related projects, I want to know that I belong in that world. I don't want to just photograph to be like, this is cool, or whatever. I'd like to spend some time with the people involved and understand what they do and why, before I start to document. That's why I do a lot of things with my friends. I like what they do and that's why I want to be involved. It's not really about how much commercial work I can get. I think a lot of the projects I do for myself in China, they're really not really commercial work. I'm not going to be making more money but I feel like they are really fun things to do and I hope I don't lose that drive. They're the things that make me want to do more pictures.
KL: Do you find it easy to build a rapport with your subjects when you don't know them?
JY: I'm always open but it really depends how they are on the day. Sometimes they could be exhausted from doing a whole day of media rounds and dress-ups. By the time they get to me it might be really late so I can't help but feel the exhaustion. I'm really empathetic but at the same time I'm trying to do the best picture for them and they really understand that need. But I always say, don't feel the need to over pose because I'm not really trying to get that. I think with celebrities it's a little different because there is a certain sense of caution for them. They need to keep a certain image in the public eye so they can't give too much away, especially when I only have ten minutes with them. They can't physically do that. But I just try to make them feel comfortable.
KL: Have you ever felt compromised?
JY: Sure. But that's a choice. I feel like you wouldn't ever compromise unless you feel like that is something that you want to do anyway. I think if you want to do something with someone you have to compromise to some level because it's not your own show. If I worked for a magazine, I'd have to respect their standards. I'm not going to do something just because they ask me to. There always has to be a compromise if you work in a commercial or editorial context. It's not a compromise when you're doing work for yourself so, of course, you have to listen to what they have to say and if you don't feel like you want to do that then you can't really work together.
KL: Looking at your fashion work, there are some really strong portraits of women, how do you think gender comes through in your work? These portraits show women as people not objects.
JY: Of course. They should always be people. Women should never be objects. I never really like the pictures where women are too overtly sexual. I mean, first of all, I don't find that to be really sexy. I know it's meant to be but I just don't feel that way personally. You kind of lose the mystery and the allure. It's too obvious because they are being an object in front of the lens. So, literally there is no emotion there. Reading feminism books can give you a wider perspective too. Also, maybe I was programmed differently when I was growing up as a teenage boy. You might be drawn to that kind of image but you don't understand why. When you read those books you think, oh actually that's really not right. I was never really drawn to those pictures from my own personal tastes anyway. I think it's quite common for people not to understand why they are drawn to it. Also, I don't really feel the need to overly alter my images and I like to create images that look like you can relate to them. You're more drawn to it because you think, who is this person? It's the girl or boy next door rather than someone who's on a billboard. Although, I've done pictures for singers and actors, sometimes they will be on billboards and other advertising material but I still don't want to change their identity to some unrealistic ideal.
Jeff Yiu is a photographer from Hong Kong via Australia. His fashion and portrait work has been published in Vogue China and has done commissions for Adidas, Nike, Levis, Men's Uno and Anchoret BEIJING. To see more visit http://cargocollective.com/jefske