Photographer, Manager of Instagramers Beijing (#igersbeijing)
Interview on January 6 at Más in Beixinqiao
KL: This is the first interview I’ve done about a collective. Do you want to start by introducing Igersbeijing?
UP: Igers is a global community of instagramers so Igersbeijing is one of those communities that are part of the global Igers community. The community has been here for about three and a half years and was founded by a guy called Rashiq an architect who worked here. I never met him but I knew of him. He started the group because he wanted to get the photography community together. So that’s how it started. And then they had a few Instameets, people just met to socialise and have drinks and then it slowly moved on to photo walks and then after that he left and some other people took over, like Jimi Sides, Frank Yu and another called Wu Di. They all ran the group for a while. After awhile they started using a hashtag called #igersbeijing. So they encouraged people to post pictures with #igersbeijing and they selected pictures from that. Every day they had a category – Monday for food, Tuesday for street photography, Thursday for celestial photography – all different topics from Monday to Friday. They used to select the best pictures and at the end of the week put together a “best of.” Apart from that they used to do a lot of photo walks, photo events, competitions and stuff. The group was actually very active for a while but, unfortunately, Instagram got blocked and that’s where the community went silent for a bit. So people eventually lost interest because there has not been much content on Instagram lately for Beijing. The group got silent for a while in between. Then later on Frank left and Jimi got really busy with his restaurant and his other stuff. That’s when they asked me if I was interested in managing the group and I said I was because I love photography. I’m a street photographer myself. Then, ever since I took over, I’m managing the group with another Chinese guy called Lucas, so Lucas and I post some content every now and then. We’ve been trying to do it every day but things get a bit busy, we have a lot of other things to do but we try to keep the group active. Last summer we did two events that were hugely successful. One of the events, Humans of the Hutongs, was hosted here [Más]. One day, with a group of twenty photographers we went around the hutongs and we spoke to people and took their portraits and I invited them to come here. Then we gifted them with their portraits so they were really happy they got to spend some time with us. Then we did another exhibition called Beijing Belly or Beijing Bikini that was a competition. We got a lot of pictures submitted through hashtags and in the end we made an exhibition in Guanghua Lu, at Caravan. That was also a very interesting experience but, apart from that, we did three Instameets last summer. Just to get together for drinks or brunch. We also did two photo walks where you just meet up and go around and take pictures. That was what we did in summer and we haven’t done anything in winter so far. I think that as everyone is coming back from their holidays we might host an event in the next week or so before the Chinese New Year for people to get together and go take some pictures again.
KL: Does the group have an ethos or manifesto in respect to how they want to represent Beijing?
UP: On the whole, it’s about the community getting together. You meet a lot of like-minded people. You meet a lot of photographers who are really good or who are just beginners. We use our mobile phones to take pictures, beautiful pictures. So in the end it’s all about meeting some nice people and you get to learn a thing or two from them. I’ve met a lot of people. One interesting story is, Jimi, the guy I was talking about earlier, he recently got engaged and he met his fiancée at an Igersbeijing Instameet. Those are the kind of stories that we have. I did an engagement shoot for them. That’s one of the main focuses of Igersbeijing, we try to not make photography a very serious thing. When you’re meeting in a group, there are various types of people, for example, someone who takes pictures of food, someone who takes selfies, someone who likes to take pictures of people. There’re all kinds of people so we try not to make photography a very serious thing because when you get into photography some people are more creative than the others, some people are more technically sound than the other people. So when you go into techniques of photography, it’s a big group and a lot of egos, so we try to keep it low-key, try to do things as a community together. That’s the main manifesto of Igersbeijing.
KL: There is a certain stigma attached to taking photos on your phone, or so I have noticed from some artists I have interviewed, that they are less artistically valid than using traditional cameras. What’s your take on that?
UP: That’s an interesting question. I think in the present day everyone with a mobile phone is a photographer. Anyone can take photos and that doesn’t exclude them from being a photographer, they’re all photographers. There are only good photographers and bad photographers. So I guess everyone has a device in their pocket they can use to take pictures so it makes them a photographer. Maybe back in the day a photographer was only the guy with the big film lens, or film camera but now things have changed. The way I see it is that there’s only good photographers or bad photographers. There’s also an interesting discussion about what makes a professional photographer, if you call someone a “pro,” in the present day it doesn’t actually mean that they are using photography as a means of supporting their livelihood. “Pro” is also someone who has skills. Some people say, you’re really good so you’re a pro, so that’s also a kind of interesting thing. But for me, a professional photographer is someone who makes a living through photography. In the end everyone’s a photographer.
KL: Do you consider yourself a professional photographer?
UP: I do street photography. I do a lot of photography. I actually did a few paid assignments a few years ago but I didn’t really enjoy it because I enjoy photography as an art. I do a lot of street photography and travel photography but I never make any kind of income from my photography so I don’t consider myself a professional photographer. I’m more of an artist or a photography enthusiast.
KL: The group obviously operates with the sense of community at the forefront but, when you’re talking about featured content, are you looking for artistry above all else or does the community still come through? Like if someone everyone’s fond of takes a photo that is an in-joke, would that be featured?
UP: We try to select from topics but when we feature a picture we pick the pictures based on what’s happening in Beijing, for example, this winter we have been having a lot of polluted days so there’s one Chinese photographer, he’s an actual photographer as well, he took a picture on one of the bridges with huge amounts of smog and stuck his middle finger up in the middle, like saying, fuck off, smog! So we just like a very interesting picture, it doesn’t matter if it’s a good picture but normally interesting pictures are good pictures. On the other side as well, we do feature food pictures. We never feature selfies unless it’s something really, really funny, like I think we featured some selfies during Halloween because they were really interesting. We try to pick pictures based on what’s happening in Beijing.
KL: What’s the potential for Igers to make a political statement, considering pollution is such a big issue in China right now? Is there some amount of political activism through images, even without intent?
UP: I think we try to stay away from it but pollution, I think, has become a non-political thing now. Everyone speaks about it. Even the Chinese government has monitoring set up now so Chinese know all about pollution. It’s not as political as it was before and it’s not a sensitive topic. We do stay away from any kind of sensitive topics.
KL: Are there any other times when Igers has strayed into that territory? I know my photographer friends love taking pictures of the hutongs being pulled down near Qianmen. Essentially what I’m hinting at is, are you guys to blame for the blocking of Instagram in China?
UP: I don’t think so, actually. We did a project about two years back that was about the changes that were happening in the hutongs around Gulou with a hashtag back when Instagram wasn’t blocked. We displayed the pictures in A Spoonful of Sugar Café on Dashilar Hutong. There were some really cool pictures that people shot during that time. You know, those kinds of things I think still are on the borderline. We don’t really make any statements. It’s more of a visual statement. We try not to write anything negative about it just have the picture there. That’s the only situation I can think of where we came close to subjects that were a little sensitive.
KL: Do you think there’s an element of anthropology or documentary in the collected works?
UP: For sure, when we organise competitions there is definitely an element of documentary based photography like the hutong changes, when we documented the lives of the people living in the hutongs or the culture of men pulling up their shirts and showing off their bellies. I think these are all part of documentary photography. Everything that we shot made a statement. For Humans of the Hutongs it was more showing that people are happy and together in the hutongs. By the looks of it, all you see is randomness and messiness but behind that there is always people full of joy. Particularly if you consider places like these somewhere in South America people would be afraid to go alone in the night but, as foreigners, we all walk freely. There is no sense of any harm so that’s one of the things that we tried to convey through Humans of the Hutongs. The artwork wasn’t anything crazy or anything beautiful but it was showing people and what they do around here, the same thing with the belly thing as well. We hear so much negative stuff about China, and not that bad things don’t happen but I feel like it’s blown out of proportion when people write about China, particularly in the Western media. But you can see a sense of freedom in certain things like seeing some random dude with some friends sitting outside a shop having a drink and some barbecue. These are the things that you can’t really do in other places. So those are the kind of things that we try to showcase. We try to keep things pretty positive.
KL: As far as Igers creating a counter-narrative to the Western media’s take on China…
UP: I’m not denying that what Western media writes about China is true, obviously there’s a certain truth in it but they never show the opposite side of the coin. There’re always two sides to a coin so that’s what we try to show. Not necessarily trying to make a statement but, as a group, it’s nice to do things that are positive. Personally as a photographer I like taking pictures of negative subjects. I never take pictures of beggars or homeless people on the street but I think art becomes more powerful when you’re dealing with negative subjects. But as a group it doesn’t really work so when we do things together we need to keep things positive and keep up the spirit.
KL: How much do you interact with your subjects? Do you try to just record what you see or do you have conversations with them?
UP: It’s both actually. I like taking pictures of people and when I talk to people I do take portraits of them. When I don’t talk to them it’s more of a scene that is happening at the particular time, something interesting or something unique or bizarre. Those are the situations I do not try to contact or talk to those people because it stops the moment and those moments are really, really difficult to capture so it’s very challenging you always have to keep looking out for things. But when I do speak to people I take mostly portraits of them. I’ve had some great experiences speaking to people. I’ve been invited to people’s houses for tea or lunch so I do both things.
KL: What do you see in store for Igersbeijing? Is there a possibility of publishing a collection of your works?
UP: Yeah. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, Jimi had the idea of doing a charity event at Café de La Poste but we couldn’t really find a suitable charity for various reasons. His idea was to publish a calendar and a book but that didn’t really work out. I’m really planning to do that this year but we all have been very busy with things other than Igers. We all have fulltime jobs and other side projects but I would love to publish something of Igersbeijing - a collection of some great pictures that people have contributed to Igersbeijing. I’ve also had the idea of doing some workshops. Basically when you see a good picture, a normal person, he’ll start to think you have a really good camera, you must have spent a lot of money but a good picture is totally possible just with your mobile phone. A lot of people are not aware of how to take good pictures with their mobile phone so I have this idea of doing a two-day workshop teaching people this. These are my two plans for this year.
KL: How do you feel about the idea that we live in a culture that now experiences life through the lens rather than using their own eyes? In this media equipped age where everyone has a camera in his or her pocket, what do think of this compulsion to record?
UP: It’s an interesting question. I often think at times rather than enjoying the moment we end up taking pictures. I normally avoid doing it, like when I’m having a good meal I normally try to avoid taking pictures of any fluffy things that are happening around me, but that’s me. You see people doing it everywhere but there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m no one to judge, if people are happy they’re happy. For me, when I normally take pictures it’s mostly that I’m documenting something interesting. I can tell you, I have about probably a million pictures on my computer now that I have to go through. I don’t have time to go through them. When I take a photograph I have a certain idea in my mind. I’ve been doing a couple of projects, one is on pollution, documenting masks of people and the other one is a very stupid idea, I’ve been documenting only heads of people with blue skies which is like a contrast. So I’ve got some interesting photos. I don’t know when I’m going to finish them because it is an on-going process. I’d love to have an exhibition when I finish them.
KL: Do you ever get hashtagged images that are insensitive, racist or offensive in any way? Are there certain things that you wouldn’t publish? I guess I’m asking if you ever censor anything?
UP: I normally don’t, actually. I think the moment you censor you do lose some important aspects of art. I think art speaks for itself. Art is more powerful. If you look at the history the most powerful images every year, the awards for the best pictures, they are all sensitive subjects. So I think I do not agree with it. That’s how I feel.
KL: Here at Loreli we’re really interested in the idea of collaboration between artists in the community and between different artistic forms, have you considered collaborations with any other forms such as writing or music?
UP: So far I haven’t but we are always open to collaboration. We’ve collaborated with Más and had a couple of exhibitions with a few other bars but if people have any ideas, we always keen to develop and execute it. We’d put our hearts into it.
KL: You’re doing a shout out right now.
UP: Yeah, sure. If you have any ideas just let us know. We have a group. We can bring people together. Just come have a drink with us next time we have an event or come take pictures with us. Do follow us #igersbeijing and do check out my stuff as well even though I never post anything online. That’s pretty much it.
Uday Phalgun is from India and has been living in Beijing for about 4 years now. He works in the Tech Industry working as an engineer for a startup IT firm. Photography (street photography in particular) is one of the things he does outside of his work and he has been working on various photography projects such as Masks, Hands of God and Into the Skies. Uday has been active in the photography community in Beijing through a couple of photography groups he started on wechat. He helps co-organise meet ups, photowalks and events with Igersbeijing.
You can find all the info about igersbeijing in this blog post below: