March 19th 2012 by Andrew S Gibson
By the end of my six month stay in Shanghai I couldn’t think of any reason to stay longer. Yet some foreigners do. Some for the money – my local Costa was right next to Tesco head office and it was interesting to eavesdrop on conversations between English Tesco executives, who seemed to like coming into the cafe for a latte and conversations about budgets and shelving space allocation.
There are also creatives working in Shanghai, including a few photographers. Patrick Wack is one of them, and the subject of my latest interview. The interesting thing about his story is that he went to Shanghai to look for work with very little experience. And here he is, making a living and producing some quite brilliant work, in a foreign city and dealing with a new culture. That’s impressive. I’m sure you’ll like his photos too.
China portrait project
How did the “Kingdoms” China portrait project start? What’s the concept behind it and how did you choose the people to photograph?
The project is originally a commission that came directly from the CEO of Adidas China. He approached me through my gallery in Shanghai (Art Plus Shanghai gallery) after seeing some of my portrait work about the Workers of the 2010 World Expo (you can see these photos on Patrick’s website). He was at the time looking to revamp the company’s internal image database about China. He therefore commissioned me to go many places in China to shoot a wide variety of portraits of its inhabitants. A dream gig basically.
The purpose was to shoot – within a limited time frame and budget – a representative sample of old and young, urban and rural, male and female, poor and rich, Han (the dominant ethnic group in China) and ethnic minority portraits of people in their living and working environments.
The brief was originally to deliver single posed images but, as always, the brief kept evolving even after the first round of shoots. The client wanted the photos to tell more of a story than one single image could. That is why I came up with the idea of montages which allowed me to be more cinematic and create some kind of narration in moving from wide to close in the photos.
That was an interesting challenge to shoot these little stories in the five or ten minutes that the people would generally give us and I have to admit I would have preferred to allocate this time to create only one stunning image.
When choosing the people to photograph, I try and be as receptive as possible to a variety of elements that can make for a good picture. When you’re driving a car in the middle of Yunnan or walking around in downtown Shanghai, you can’t be looking for the same things. These can be a great face, an elegant silhouette, a beautiful ray of light, an inspiring background to shoot against or an intriguing dirt road in the middle of sugar cane fields on a misty morning. I just need one thing that gets my curiosity going and I start from there.
One common ground that drove all the portraits from this project – and I think my portraiture work in general – is the desire to make positive images. I photograph people because I am attracted to them. Even if I photograph a worn-out peasant, I’ll try and make him into a glorious figure of some kind. That is probably my respect for the working classes breathing through and why my images have been compared to Chinese propaganda posters.
Which Chinese towns and cities did you visit for the project?
Even though the scale of the final project outgrew by far the original commission, we still planned it from the start to fulfill the client’s requirements. These being to portray as representatively as possible today’s Chinese people.
In order to fit the project into the limited time frame that we had, I decided to split it into four distinct locations: Shanghai and Beijing – the modern and wealthy urban centres of the new China in the east; Chongqing – a major city in the belly of China trying to catch up with the leading coastal areas; and Yunnan, which I picked for the rural part of the project.
Yunnan is the Chinese province that offers the most diversity in terms of landscapes – from the tropical plains of Xishuangbana in the south to the arid plateaus of its Northern Tibetan areas and faces – Yunnan is the Chinese province with the most minorities. We basically took a two-week south to north road trip from the Laos border all the way to the border with Tibet.
What was the most interesting place you went to during the shoot?
I was totally fascinated by Chongqing. Walking around this city felt like entering another dimension. Albeit a fast growing Chinese metropolis, it gave me a permanent feeling of near apocalypse.
It pretty much matched in my imagination what a post-nuclear war Chinese metropolis would look like after one century of unbridled urban development, with its impenetrable smog and this humongous dark river flowing within. And in the middle of this dirty concrete jungle, people happily fishing, swimming and walking around as if they lived in any normal city.
What’s your favourite image from the project?
Difficult question to answer as I made so many images for this project. But one image that I like a lot – and is quite a change in my way of photographing – is the far-away portrait of the lonely Beijing girl. I very seldom make images like this one, this hasn’t been my kind of distance until now as I tend to get as close as I can from the people I photograph. But I think this image works really well and, in terms of proportions, is a good symbol of the type of feeling and relationship that exists between humans and the city in modern China.
Working in China
How long have you been working in China? Why did you decide to live and work in China?
I first set foot in Shanghai in April 2006. I had graduated two years before that from business school and had been working in marketing for a couple of years in Berlin. That just wasn’t going to do it for me. The office life, the work, being part of a structure etc. All of this just depressed me and I was looking for a way out.
I was a hobby photographer at the time, had never used a digital SLR or any retouching software but there was this friend of mine – Eric Leleu, another French Shanghai-based photographer – who had settled in Shanghai the year before and was trying to make it as a freelance photographer.
That’s all I needed, that one guy shows me the light, and in the span of three months I quit my job, bought a crappy second-hand Canon EOS 10D with one lens and set sail towards fame and glory. Fame and glory haven’t quite happened yet but I’m pretty happy I made the move!
I did give it quite a thought at the time and I concluded that if I was to try and make it as a photographer, there would be no better time and place than right now in Shanghai. The demand for editorial and corporate images from China was exploding, clients were happy to find a western photographer already on site so that would be a great asset in starting to build a network, plus that would offset the fact that at the time I knew nothing about pro photography or no one in the business.
What is the photography scene like in the two cities that you work in – Beijing and Shanghai?
First, I have to say that my knowledge of Beijing is much more superficial than that of Shanghai. I have never spent any long periods of time in Beijing and I believe this is the only way to get the real feel.
That said, I think the photography scenes in those two cities are derived from the two very different characters and energies that move these cities and draw people to them.
Shanghai is a fast-moving business-oriented city and that is what most – I say most, not all – photographers based here are. They do mostly commercial and corporate work and act as much as entrepreneurs as photographers.
Beijing is the political and artistic centre of China. That is where the creative energies gather and also where most of the people who are truly interested in China are based. Fashion, art and reportage photographers are mostly based there.
What challenges do you face working as a freelance photographer in China?
I think that the biggest challenges that you face being a freelance photographer in China are pretty much the same that any type of entrepreneur trying to settle in this market has to face, i.e. all the day to day linguistic, administrative and cultural difficulties.
When I first had the project of coming here, my biggest worry was whether or not I had what it takes to be a decent photographer, but I totally underestimated the effects of the culture shock. I had lived abroad in different countries for quite a while already at the time and thought China wouldn’t be that different. That was a mistake. China is a very confusing place at first when you have no language and cultural background.
Regarding the photography and business part of working in China, that wasn’t too complicated. I think that any decent photographer who has an understanding of how to make himself visible on the internet and build a network can make it here. There’s a lot of work.
I think one major difference of the business in the West and China is that in countries like France and the United States, you need to make yourself known for one particular field. You need an edge, a style that differentiates you in a market that is very competitive. That is still not the case in China – but it is changing fast – where I do everything from editorial/corporate portraits and reportage, advertising and fashion shoots, events and fine art projects.
How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look do you try and create in your photos?
I will let you know when I find a clear answer to that question. After five years of being a photographer, I am still very much in the process of defining what is my style and what I should focus on. China is a great playground for that.
What I can say is that I don’t consider myself as an artist or a creative photographer. My photography is very much anchored in reality and I use this reality as a material to try and develop my own aesthetics. That’s how far as it goes for now.
Name three photographers you like and why.
Trent Parke has been my photo god for the past months. Unbelievable framings, intuition, use of light and a photographic vision full of poetry. I cannot stop looking at the images from his The 7th Wave book and would sell my soul to find a copy of it.
Philip Lorca diCorcia for the look of the images, again the use of light, the cinematic aspect of his work and for walking that very thin line between reality and his own universe, art and commercial photography.
Klaus Thymann for his unbelievable commercial images, the use of backlights, the crepuscular look of his images and his use of colours.
You can see Patrick’s work at his website www.patrick-wack.com and contact him by email at patwackphotos [at] gmail.com
Here are some photos from Patrick’s China Portraits project: