Interviewed by Angela Li at Más on September 27
A: You primarily work in black and white. Only about 1/3 of the photos in the exhibition are color. Do you tend to see Beijing in b+w as opposed to color?
R: I really don’t shoot color much. When I do I still see things in terms of contrast, lines, and shapes. It’s such a joy to shoot in color occasionally because you still look for the same juxtapositions that make strong black and white images, but have an extra element to accentuate things. The Mao wasn’t a colour photo in my mind but I like the contrast between his figure and the blue of the sky.
A: What’s the story behind this photo?
R: I stumbled across that doorway. What I like about it is that although it’s empty of players, it seems like they’ve only just left. The beads make you feel like you’re not invited, and I’ve always felt that way towards the mahjong rooms I’ve seen. They have an alien feel. They always seem off-limits, which makes them all the more attractive.
A: Is this a feeling common to photographing Beijing?
R: One of the most difficult things about taking photos in Beijing is the fact that even though people live in the public, they have very close-knit communities. Although they’re open and people are very welcoming, I often don’t want to violate their privacy. You want to let them be, let them exist. I think that’s probably how these new photos have developed: trying to capture Beijing moments without interrupting them. When I first started, I was very focused on candid people shots, but since returning from home after the summer I’ve felt increasingly uncomfortable with invading people’s space. Obviously I’d love to get pictures of people about their daily lives without any barrier, but that’s not the reality. You have the respect people’s space.
A: Is that why the girl at the pool table gave you a weird look in this photo?
A: Do you make a point to talk to your subjects?
R: I try, but I’m an idiot and I’m not good at talking to people. In some situations I’ve talked to and connected to subjects, which has led to some good photos. The reason some of my photos came into existence is that I made a connection. I’m not always good at this though so it doesn’t happen as often as I would like.
A: Do you think it’s imperative for photographers in a city like Beijing to communicate with their subject? Does it change your photos?
R: It helps. My favorite photos of people that I’ve taken are the ones whose subjects I’ve had at least a little bit of a connection with. Those photos are good. I’m not really fond any other photos I’ve taken of people in Beijing apart from those two situations, and the ones where people were a part of the landscape. It’s a combination of my Chinese being poor and just being too shy. It’s hard to know who would want to have their photo taken and who might tell you to fuck off… in Chinese. I’m just an amateur photographer, I’m not trying to undermine the importance of permission. I’m gonna take photos regardless, but I try to do it in a way so that I’m the only one who might feel uncomfortable. When I took photos of these workers, it felt right.
A: In your mind, when does photography move from representation to becoming a creative act?
R: I think it lies somewhat in anticipating candid moments before they appear. When you’re out it is easy to miss interesting moments just because you’re not ready. The creative aspect for me is almost in imagining what might pop up in a certain place. It helps you to be ready to get the composition you want. I respect people who take candid photos of people, but I find it difficult to find a happy place between the authentic moments, shoving a camera in someone’s face, or having people pose. I don’t like any of these options at the moment. You might take an interesting photo of someone doing something that doesn’t represent them.
A: Does it matter if a photo doesn’t represent the subject in their truest sense?
R: That depends on how you feel about strangers. I love candid photos of strangers who were unaware of their photo being taken.
I have feelings of being a foreigner and not wanting to be the weird guy. I could do that and get some good pictures but it’s not what I want to be as a foreigner living in China. I want to maintain the felling that this place is my home and that I’m not just visiting.
A: How much of what you do is waiting for something to come up?
R: I do more and more waiting. Sometimes I fall in love with a space and can’t leave until I’ve attempted to do it justice. Especially clear Beijing days with great shadows. This is why I’ve fallen in love with bridges in Beijing.
A: So it’s a mixture of waiting and being prepared.
R: Patience tends to be rewarding I find
A: I love the bridge photo.
R: That was my attempt to justify the awesome shadows. It’s also a very unique structure. That is my best attempt yet of capturing that bridge so far. When I’m on the bridge looking at the shadows, I think that if I just wait a little longer and tolerate the sun hitting my head, the people element integral to the composition will appear and then it’s done. Too often I lose patience and take a mediocre shot. Patience, patience, patience.
A: Where does the creative aspect of photography come in?
R: It’s not a creative thing. It’s about documenting. I think you need to think somewhat creatively to document well though. You need to anticipate and that’s a skill I’m not finished learning. I want the pictures to be interesting photographically as well.
A: Let’s talk about film, the medium you use. What role does it play in what you do?
R: I like the limitations that film imposes upon you. I like hunting for things with my eyes not just with the camera. Photography for me is part of the enjoyment of exploring Beijing. I like to connect with the city and photography has really helped me to do that to some degree.
A: Do you think there are things that digital photographers have which you miss out on? Like being able to immediately assess and reshoot?
R: I can’t imagine not using film but I don’t think it’s truly superior to digital photography. That’s not why I use it anyway. Some people think film is inherently superior in quality or whatever, but I use it because I like the process, and I’m addicted to the feeling you get after waiting to see the results. I like having friends who are different kinds of photographers, because every one of them can do something I can’t. It’s not a competition. And at the end of the day who really cares about photos? [laughs] What’s the point? Let it all burn. It’s a pointless endeavor in a pointless age. That’s why I do photography, because it’s better to do something with no real purpose than to do nothing. There’s no point in doing anything so let’s do something.