Interview on December 21 at Dandelion Café, Gulou
KL: So your plan is to create a series on reflections?
SEW: Yes, I’ve been working on my “reflecting China series” for a while now. I have both photos and videos in the meanwhile.
KL: Do you always use the same bodies of water or do they differ?
SEW: No. I go and see them everywhere. When it’s raining, I see them everywhere and this the best time [laughs]. There is a huge pond on a particular cross and I always find really good reflections and the water stays for a long time. Even after days it will still be there.
KL: Is the plan to put it together as an exhibition?
SEW: Yes, I want to put it together for an exhibition one day. I just need to bring them in order and find the right place to exhibit them.
KL: Some artists have a strong artistic statement or mission statement before they begin a work and others wait for a concept to organically grow out of the process. Which order do you work in?
SEW: I usually think conceptually, but this series started by accident. I was working on my kaleidoscope series, where I was capturing different places in Beijing through my kaleidoscope. And as I was working on that and was turning my images in different angles to see how to hang them, so I did that also with a reflection I took before and suddenly I realized this reflection turned into a mystical world that captured me.
KL: Do you have a preference for water or window reflections?
SEW: I have no preference on surfaces as long as they reflect. I prefer clear days though, then the reflections are more vivid and show more contrasts.
KL: What’s your artistic background? Has it always been photography?
SEW: No, I’m a fashion designer specialized in handcrafts and I’ve been working in a small couture studio here in Beijing for the last four years. Now I quit my job and I'm excited about new challenges that will come this year.
KL: So that’s what brought you to China?
KL: And that’s the job you’ve just quit?
KL: Do you feel like you’ve come to the end of that chapter or is it just the end of that job and you’ll still be doing fashion design?
SEW: Now I want to explore myself. During my work in the studio, I realized that I’m a very visual person. Of course you have to be when you are working in fashion or generally in any artistic field. I never knew that I could capture pictures but as we didn’t have the possibility to involve photographers for our shoots, I started to try it out myself. So this is how I got more and more into photography.
KL: Do you think that your background in fashion influences the way that you see the world visually and therefore has an impact on the photographs you take?
SEW: Yes. When working in fashion you learn to develop a sense for proportions, textures, colors and forms... So in photography it works the same for me. A picture is like a piece of clothing that is sewn by my eye.
KL: Do you think that you’ll pursue any formal training in photography or any other creative arts or are you happy to feel your way through as it comes instinctively?
SEW: Hmmm. I understand the light, I understand the image but I'm training myself to understand the “camera- machine” better. Photography is similar to the way I'm studying a dance: I can feel the rhythm, I just need to learn the foot-work and let the music lead me.
KL: How important do you think that sense of community is in your work?
SEW: The creative community here in Beijing?
KL: Yeah, the photographers you know, the fashion designers and I’m sure you know other artists. How does interacting with that community affect your experience as an artist?
SEW: Hmmm. It took me a while to go out and join the community. I was hiding till I realized that everyone is just doing what they love to do.
KL: So you think this is a better environment for expressing yourself in this way?
SEW: Yes, in Germany you have a saying 'everyone cooks with hot water'. So I got more confident concerning my work in certain ways. And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter where you're from, what you have done so far or how well you use your tools, it's the picture that counts and the emotions you bring up in people.
KL: As far as getting to know all the ins and outs of the tool, is that something that you enjoy, the technical aspect of it?
SEW: Yeah. Because now that I understand it better I’ve started analogue photography some months ago and it definitely peaked my interest.
KL: When you’re shooting on film do you find that to be a completely different process?
SEW: Totally. We all know how it was back then when we didn’t see the result right away and we couldn't wait to see it, right? Nowadays people are not interested in traditional film developing anymore, but for me waiting for the film and seeing it for the very first time after a while is really exciting.
KL: Do you do your own processing?
SEW: No, maybe some day.
KL: Do you put a lot of consideration into film stock?
SEW: I bought some that were five years expired and I figured that the colors are much nicer and the result more surprising. And also I’m working with different formats. So I have one camera that is small and doesn’t have a battery and it shoots 72 pictures so one picture is half-size. I’m just playing around now with formats. And you wind it, like a clock.
KL: Does the tactile difference of carrying a big cumbersome DSLR compared to a little camera like that affect the experience?
SEW: The feeling is a little different. You hold an analogue camera and it feels like every picture you take is very precious. Knowing about digital photography is very important because it's contemporary but I've been always more drawn to handmade things and since my fashion design work was out of any industrial or commercial line, I feel like I found a home in analogue photography that I'm starting to decorate it now.
KL: Are you interested in digitally processing your digital images using Photoshop or other software?
SEW: I don’t do that normally. Because whenever I shoot a picture, I have to like it as it is otherwise I'm not very motivated to continue with it.
KL: You were talking earlier about creating an installation with the photos and videos, are you willing to give me more detail?
SEW: I want to create a live installation but I need to work on it before I reveal too much.
KL: How long have you been working on the series?
SEW: I started these images two years ago. You can never really say when it’s going to rain or when you’re going to see a good reflection. You cannot influence that. And also, this is why almost all of the images I’ve taken of reflections were taken on my phone, these are always captured spontaneously. So there is no camera involved in that series.
KL: Does that make a difference? I hear this a lot – But I just took it with my mobile phone. Yet recently there’s been a fairly highly acclaimed film that’s come out shot purely on iPhone and we are moving towards legitimising it as a medium. Do you feel psychologically, when you are shooting on your phone, that you are doing something less artistic or creative?
SEW: I, myself, am in the process of trying to figure out how I feel about it. I would also introduce this project to other people and I would say, it’s only shot by iPhone. In the end, I think again, that it’s only the image that counts. Maybe it would help if there were more artists exploring with this digital medium and transforming it into something that has a wider acceptance in todays creative world. I guess there would not be this feeling of stigma using a phone in an artistic context.
KL: What’s more important to you, is it purely the aesthetic or, is it also what you’re trying to express through the image?
SEW: Its a combination. I am always more dragged to aesthetics and I cannot break out of that. But my images always have a thought behind it. People who see my images might not understand the meaning behind it but I leave it up to them to built their own story about it.
KL: You mentioned that you haven’t decided yet how tight the parameters of this series were going to be, whether you were going to focus on architecture or portraiture.
SEW: I would like to have more portrait pictures in the “reflecting China series” but I'll have to hope for more rain to turn Beijing into a great reflection zone. But in general I like to take portrait pictures of people in the hutongs. I am especially inspired by old people and their style, especially when the mix western elements with their traditional Chinese clothes.
KL: And there’s an element of reflection in there, too!
SEW: Yes, sometimes.
KL: Are these taken on your phone?
SEW: No, these are taken with my digital camera. It gives me the freedom to be more anonymous and hidden since I can zoom in and don't disturb the person in their actions. Also I can frame it better which completes the portrait as I believe the background is equally important to the person portrayed.
KL: Do you tend to be a stealth photographer or do you go up and speak to your subjects?
SEW: It depends. I’m more of stealth at the beginning and then when I realize they see me, I ask, but I usually don’t want to interrupt their actions because this is what makes it beautiful to me. I don’t want to have a “stood-up” photo so I usually don’t ask.
KL: You avoiding any posing?
SEW: Usually yes, but I have to say I had one woman, she was posing for me and I went to do a series with her.
KL: This is a stranger or somebody that you know?
SEW: She’s a stranger. This lady here in front of the hutongs, she was so beautiful and she would let me take her picture and as I showed it to her, she was like, No, no! Take one more because my hand is in the wrong place.
There is something beautiful in her face and I liked her reaction towards me so even though I don't understand her language I would like to see her every day and capture her mood in a series.
KL: Are there any other series that you’re working on?
SEW: Yes. The series is called My Other Self. I met Nick in summer and he was wearing a Lana Del Ray T- Shirt and at first sight I thought it was him wearing his own picture on his shirt.
KL: So he was randomly wearing this t-shirt?
SEW: I think it was one of his favorite shirts and many people were confused seeing him wearing this shirt. So this was very inspiring.
KL: There is a strange resemblance.
SEW: Yes. There is. Strangeness is always inspiring. We had to try it out so we just met and decided to transform him more into the artist on his shirt and see what evolves out of that.
KL: I love the idea.
SEW: Yes, it was very interesting to see what happened. We went out to the hutongs and after a while of discomfort and a lot of Lana music he started to feel more and more like her... His moves started to flow and he became sexier and more female with each pose. It was nice to see this transition and feel the power behind the shirt and seeing him become one with this person.
KL: Considering the fateful way in which this guy turns up looking like a doppelganger of the celebrity on his t-shirt, do you think it’s going to find other people who will work as well? Are you going to manufacture it?
SEW: I will have to manufacture that. I love the concept behind it and I think people will cross my path that inspire me with their looks. You cannot force it so there is just the chance of waiting for the next doppelgänger.
KL: What’s important to you conceptually when it comes to this series? Obviously with him, he really cares about and identifies with this celebrity, to recreate it are you purely interested in the visual effect or do you think you will try to find people who do have an affinity for a celebrity with whom they share a similar look.
SEW: I think it is interesting to see people’s looks and then get to know their characteristics... I don't mind if the person has an affinity to his doppelgänger already or not at all. In this case I think it was interesting, because the genders were mixed and you couldn't tell anymore. But in general I think each picture is an experience with the person photographed itself and you can give it a direction but it will always find its own way and feeling somehow that you cannot influence entirely.
KL: Is it important to you how you are seen as the artist behind the works you create?
SEW: I don't like to call myself an 'artist', I have too much respect of this word in an old fashioned way. I just have a certain view on things and like to capture them my way and eventually show them to the public.
Nowadays people like to call themselves 'artists' and its a very commonly used word, very commercialized. I feel as soon as you call yourself an artist there is a feeling of accomplishment. Most of the times accomplishment brings self- confidence and lack of curiosity with it... So therefore I'm missing the magic in all of it...
Sarah Euthymia Weber is a fashion designer currently based in Beijing.
After her apprenticeship in the state theater in Mainz, Germany and a fashion design diploma, she worked in Ethiopia and Shanghai before coming to Beijing in 2011.
In Beijing she is concentrating on her work as a fashion designer for an independent couture studio, collaborating with venues on creative events and their visual realization and her photography projects.