Interview on April 26th at Beetle in a Box, Beixinqiao
KL: Please tell us a little about yourself.
SS: My name in Tan Siok Siok and my Chinese name is Chen Xixi, I’m ethnic Chinese from Singapore so a foreigner but I’m very fluent in both languages and I write professionally in both languages. The interesting thing about me is that the combination of things I do is very unusual. I am a documentary filmmaker but I also run an internet video company start up and then the photography part really came about quite accidentally. I had quite a full slate with the filmmaking and entrepreneurship and the photography came up about, a bit like you guys - you started to do what you wanted to do, and then it started attracting a lot more attention than I thought it ever would. The beginning of the photography is a funny story. I bought an iPhone much later than most of my friends. I bought it at the end of 2012 and before that I had a very simple Nokia phone. I joke that the phone will outlast me, I’ll be dead and the phone will still be running.
KL: Like cockroaches after the apocalypse?
SS: Yeah cockroaches and Nokia phones. So I bought an iPhone and I actually wanted to learn about mobiles and how they change our lifestyle because part of running a start-up is really understanding the trends and the best way to understand it is to use the stuff yourself. So I starting taking photos and my thought was really very simple, I've always wanted to make something every day but working in video and film it's very difficult, you can't make a video every day. On top of that, I'm running a company so I can't go very far away for long periods of time so I just had this idea that I should take a photo every day and share it. The sharing part was encouraging myself to keep doing it. I just assigned myself that every day when I get off the subway I walk into work, in those eight or ten minutes I take a bunch of photos, I post one. I think what was surprising was how quickly it caught on. About two months into doing it I already had people encouraging me to publish, encouraging me to hold an exhibition, and I've never really learned photography because when I used to work as a TV producer there was always someone else filming. They wouldn’t allow me to film because I’m not a professional videographer. So that was very interesting and I also noticed that my photos had a very specific aesthetic. I don’t know where it comes from, I’m just drawn to certain things.
KL: So that was initially surprising to actually look at your work and see that there was such a strong visual style?
SS: Given that I’m not trained in the fine arts. I’m not a painter, I’ve not really properly learned photography which is why iPhone is “what you see is what you get.” I’m trying to convey what I see so it went on for a while and there were some very touching incidents. This Indian film director who I used to work with when I was working at the Discovery Channel, he literally every five or six weeks when he sees a photo he really likes, he’ll leave a message on my facebook saying, “It’s time for the book.” It would be the same message over and over and over again. I went on for awhile just taking the photos mainly because I think within the context of my creative career, I already have a body of work as a filmmaker and I'm already running a company, there was no bid rush to publish a book. It was not like I'm new to this creative process and also sometimes it's all about timing as well. You know, people approach but it has to be the right collaboration and the right partner and all of that, and also, working in documentary, I have a very different sense of time. For me to work on something for three to five to seven years is perfectly normal. A lot about photography is showing up because it’s an accumulation over time. In terms of technique, when you take a photo every day you become good very quickly. It’s amazing because it really sharpens you when you keep practising and practising and practising. Then an iconic photograph is really a confluence of light, shadow, someone in the frame and you being there when it happens. It’s not repeatable. I’ve walked down the same street every day for three years now and the combinations do vary. One of the things I’ve really learned is it’s really a meditation on time, a passing of time and how every moment is unique. Just to give an example, yesterday I took some photos in front of my office and I walked down the street to see what else is there to took and when I walked back, within 15 or 20 minutes the light had changed.
KL: Is this the series that you just posted this morning?
KL: What I’ve noticed with your work in the way you use light and shadow is that you’re much more interested in strong contrast than a lot of photographers. I’ve seen often a flare of light then dark spaces that make them quite atmospheric. In those photos are sometimes very ordinary looking people but there is this extra intensity that’s lent to the photos because of that light.
SS: I think what informs the setting is partly because I’m a documentary filmmaker so a lot of my work, people often ask, “how do you take such photos?” because I take them with a phone and I think several things. One is the use of natural light. The reason why the time of day is important is because it’s when you take it and a very simple principle with phones or cameras is under good lighting conditions there’s not much that separates a phone camera or a much better camera. A lot of my photos use natural light and what is interesting about natural light is that people don’t realise it because they’re so used to editing the photos in post, natural light is much more dramatic than anything you can stage. I think that's why many of my photos are so focused on light and shadow and a very high contrast. The best street photography we know today, the classic ones, are all in black and white so there's a purity about it, there's a use of natural light. I think the other thing is because I'm a documentary maker, there's a lot of capturing. Essentially I'm just waiting for the moment to happen. And you can see the moving images influence because every time you see a series of photos I take, I've locked the frame and essentially I know when the person will walk into frame but I know where the best light is. Roughly it's usually when the person is to the right of me, in front of me. I'll take the first two just to focus so that I don't miss the person altogether but the third one is usually the good one. I feel that my photography is informed by documentary by capturing people in dynamic motion. It’s a funny story, it’s not easy to photograph people well and to convey emotion and I think the reason why is that you feel that ordinary people seem to have this additional quality in my photos because it’s emotion. It’s either anxiety or happiness. I think capturing the emotion when people are moving is actually a very difficult thing. This whole thing about taken the photographs for me was my daily practice. It's almost like sketching something every day so the interesting thing is that I will probably never give a photography talk, I'll probably only ever give a social media talk because I think that all that happens around the photography would not have happened without social media. If I had taken these photos and kept them at home for three years or five years, they’d still be good photos but none of all that has happened would have happened for it. I think posted it on social media is an important part of that creativity, creating a community around your work.
KL: So the social media aspect is just the regularity of the work?
SS: I post across multiple platforms: facebook, weChat Instagram, twitter but I think the important part is, to give a sense of the magnitude of it, since January last year these other things that have happened around my photography, I have had a friend help me organise an exhibition, that’s one thing, I had limited edition postcards released in partnership with the China Postal Service – official China Postal Service postcards – I had an installation in the hutongs that got a thousand people to send postcards to themselves or their friends, and I licensed a photo to be the cover of a Chinese novel, I was signed by one of the top literary publishing agents in China, I got two book deals, and they are both coming out this year. One is a collaboration with a novelist who happened to be writing a book of essays about his memories growing up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, his name is Ning Kan [please check] and so that book I’ve finished the manuscript already. And there is my own photo book. Both are by top publishers, one is the top literary publisher in China, the equivalent of The New Yorker in China, the other is a top publisher of art, photography cinema books, also some very popular books as well and prior to this book they've only, as far as I know, published master photographers or famous directors. All that has happened because of social media. Why is that? It's because that thing about people following it every day. It becomes part of their daily routine and then out of 100 people one person will say, "This is really good. Can I help you make something happen?" And when the number of those people increase, then something big happens. One of the key things that happened was August 2014, one of the fans of the photos, there were stretches of time where he would just leave a comment every day and he'll re-post it to his weChat moments and he came to me and said, "Hey, let's do a crowd-funding campaign for your photos." So we took a couple of months with that and then we launched a crowd-funding campaign Januray last year. That was really what mobilised some of the people to hold an exhibition for me, people came the second day of the campaign, one of my friends and a fan of the photos brought her classmate and said, "I noticed in your crowd-funding campaign there was a reward that was postcards, my classmate works for China Postal Service so I think that she can help you release it with the China Postal Service." So it was all these things that when they happened it was like, Oh my God what's happening here?" All these people who have been working some of them don't even "like" your photos every day or comment, they suddenly came out of the woodwork to support it and the funny thing was that the campaign still failed. During that period was when the novelist noticed my photos and wanted to collaborate and I licensed a photo to be the cover of another novel. Despite all that the campaign failed mainly because of my inexperience. I think I didn't understand how crowd-funding worked in China where people were a lot more price conscious. I think we set too high a budget and people became wary, "Why is the budget so high?" Also, I think there were a lot of issued surrounding simple things like the mechanics of payment. It wasn't easy to pay for it. Also, people were waiting for other people to form the critical mass before jumping in. All this psychology, things that I didn't really know but by the end of that one month I was so happy because I just realised that within a month I have achieved what most photographers would take ten years to achieve. I've had an exhibition, I've got a deal with the postal service to release my postcards, I got a book deal with a novelist, I have licensed a photo to be the cover of a novel, in one month I did what most people take ten years to do. I think that is social media and the fact that essentially you’re developing community around your work and this community has varying degrees of engagement. Some people stay in the background but some people come forth and offer their resources and it’s a very powerful thing, that coming together of people.
SS: It’s also because by sharing your work online for free, you’re generating good will. That’s a question that comes up a lot, “Aren’t you afraid that people will steal your photographs or post them without attributing to you?” It's the last thing I worry about because I have friends who are very good professionals and they will often post online about people who use their photos without attribution and all that and I notice people posted my photos and re-posting my moments without attribution and I never call people out, I think the reason is because for most independent artists the key challenge is not piracy, it's actually obscurity so if people are starting to repurpose or appropriate your work it means that you have reach. It means for every one person who does that you probably have two or three people who would support you. I was giving this example that when I was doing the crowd-funding campaign we had these sample chapters and literally the selection of the photographs, they are quite a small size and would fit onto a thumb drive, the hundred photos would fit onto a thumb drive, the designer took the thumb drive and was joking with me, “I have your whole life’s work! I’m going to post them on the bridge or something or outside the subway!” And I said, “By all means because I have the community.” The value is not in the individual photos that get pilfered, the value is the community that has built around my work that will support me now and also for all the future work that I create. I think that’s the essential insight. That’s why I don’t mind because the community will follow my work and I’ve had that experience because I’ve also made independent films and they’re literary online now. People who have followed my work across the years, you know from the first film to the second film to the photographs and all that so I think the reason why social media is important, you build community around your work and they are your most ardent fans and patrons and some of them will go to great lengths to help you succeed. I always find it interesting, in China especially, the lurking phenomenon because I find that people when they first know me, the first couple of weeks they will "like" the photos quite actively, every day, every other day, especially if they are working on a project with me but then after awhile they will stop doing it but they are still following. For example, one week ago I went to Shanghai and then they will literary just start private messaging me asking, "Are you in Shanghai? I'm working at this school now, can you come and give a talk because I've been telling everyone at our school about you and how you should be on our committee for helping Chinese kids be more creative," so I get that quite often, suddenly they'll come out as my fan. I think the value of social media or blogging is consistency, it’s goodwill, the awareness that you’re building in this community. The interesting thing is, this is probably the second time it has happened to me that, because my identity was not that of an artist or a photographer because I started as a producer for television, so for me I have never elevated myself to the level of artist, it was my job, I was good at it, I worked for a big network and all that but the first time I realised that other people would think of me as an artist was the summer of 2012 in June, I suddenly got an email. The email was from the World Economic Forum Davos office in Switzerland. It read, “Dear Siok Siok,” it was very formal, “I’m so and so from the Davos office in Switzerland we’ve been following your work for a few years and we’d like to invite you to come speak at the World Economic Forum in Dalian,” they have one in September every year, “as part of our artists programme.” So that was the first I realised that other people think of me as an artist.
KL: So you were called out as an artist by the World Economic Forum before you’d even considered yourself one?
SS: Yeah because I was just doing what I wanted. I was just creating things that I felt had a reason to exist and then two days later, to confirm that the email wasn't part of my delusion, this very handsome young fellow showed up from Davos, he is the curator of the artist programme. He took me out to dinner in Sanlitun and invited me to speak at the summit in Davos and Dalian. So that was the first time. I think the second time that this has happened to me with the photography was that people now refer to me as a photographer, it's only this year that I would mention it as a footnote. If you look at my bio it doesn't mention photography in it because I didn't set out to become one and also, I think for me it was more just my latest endeavour, my latest attempt to solve a problem, to figure out something for myself. So I don't classify it as photography or literature or whatever but lately, people have started to call me a photographer. As opportunities have come up, I take them but if all of this dried up tomorrow I would still take photos.
I was signed by this agent, she’s a very top level agent in China and she was trying to introduce me to the publisher of that first book, the top literary publisher in China, and she said, “It would be good for you to meet him because he has asked me to because another novelist has insisted on using for photo for his cover,” but my response was, “That’s very nice but I’m not in a rush.” I think that’s the thing in China that surprises people, I’m not in a rush. It’s very odd when someone is not in a rush to be mega successful or very famous. I think people don’t understand that. I think we live in an era where everybody seems to be driven to become famous for no particular reason.
KL: On Loreli will are interviewing mainly emerging artists, some of them have big dreams, some of them have small, but the idea that is constantly drilled into them is that you need to have ambition and you need to seize on opportunities when they arise. Obviously, you are in a situation where you have had all of these opportunities handed to you without you seeking them, do you think that is purely luck or do you think that's the social media connection?
SS: I think social media accelerates serendipity so that in a way creates more good luck. That’s the function of social media but we need to understand that if your work is not any good or it doesn’t create resonance, there is nothing that social media can accelerate. I think the main thing for me is that I do think of myself as ambitious because I don’t have to do all these things because I already have a body of work, I’m already running a company, I don’t have to be a photographer on top of all that. The ambition I feel for me, first comes from the conviction that whatever I’m attempting to express has a reason to exist and it gives encouragement to some people. I’m not sure how many people because they are lurking. I think that to me is the premise of the work. I think where it differs is that I have a different sense of time. The emerging artists that you meet, I always get the sense that in China they think if it doesn’t happen in one year then it’s no good. The thing is for me, in some ways I am very confident so I’m not scared that it will go unnoticed because the very encouraging thing that I heard from the publisher of the photography book, he has published all these top photographers around the world, he said that, “Although so many photographs are produced every day because of the smart phone, there are very few good photographs. Haoshi haode pianzi zhen shao. So that’s the encouraging thing. It’s easier and easier to create work but the really god work is still very rare so I think on one level it’s confidence, commitment to the work, belief that if I do good work it will be noticed. You know of course I’m skillful at relating to people on social media, it’s not contradictory to being an artist, I think. Really simply, it will come, but it will not come because you are in a hurry.
Tan Siok Siok is a filmmaker, entrepreneur and a honorary geek with a deep passion for great storytelling in the age of real time web. Siok is an entrepreneur who has built Kinetic ONE, a social video platform in China with channels focused on youth culture, fashion and lifestyle as well as parenting & pregnancy. Siok previously worked as an executive producer for Discovery Channel in Asia,. The shows she produced have clinched more than a dozen awards and nominations at the Asian TV awards and the Golden Bell Awards.
Siok holds a Bachelor of Arts degree (Honors) in Comparative Literature from Brown University, USA.