Following interview by Sheila Zhao and Yuhui Liao-Fan.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: What does “photography” mean to you?
Sheila Zhao: Photography is a craft that belongs to its own world. Photography allows me to visually translate and share the way I see the world.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Can you write a biographical introduction?
Sheila Zhao: I was born in Beijing, China, in 1983 and spent the first part of my childhood there. At the age of 7, I followed my parents to the United States, where they have been working and trying to establish themselves. I spent the rest of my childhood and teenage years growing up and attending secondary school in New Jersey, then continued on to study at Indiana University (with frequent trips back to China in between). I graduated with a degree in journalism, concentrating in public relations, and then came back to Beijing for a three months long internship at General Motors Beijing. During those three months, I enjoyed the excitement of Beijing very much and decided to pursue a job at an international public relations agency post internship.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: What is your history as a photographer?
Sheila Zhao: After a year and a half working at the public relations agency, I realized that I was unhappy and unfulfilled working there. My mind began drifting and through a series of coincidences, I made the very impetuous decision of becoming a full time photographer.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: I think you made a courageous choice. A lot of people are scared by the incertitude of a creative profession, that is often see as difficult and precarious. How did your entourage reacted to your decision? Did they encourage you or did they tried to dissuade you?
Sheila Zhao: Thank you. Again, I would like to stress that when I decided to change profession, I was very young, inexperienced, without any proper education in photography, and without any realistic expectations. As a result, the decision I made to go into photography was, in hindsight, very impetuous and irresponsible. While I don’t have any regrets about what I did and am very grateful for everything I have learned and gained through this decision, I don’t encourage anyone to go about things the way I have. That said, I’m also very grateful for a strong support network. My parents were never, and still are not thrilled by my career choice, but I’m very grateful that at the end of the day, they are the most patient with me and the people who supports me the most.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Can you describe your work? How would you define your photographs?
Sheila Zhao: My photography is still evolving and still learning (I’m self taught, and there’s a lot to learn!). Where I started out is very different than what I do now. My current personal work is a bit hard to explain, mostly because I just began it earlier this year and I’m still trying to make sense of it myself. Very broadly, I guess you can describe it as a series of photos where I try to express a similar set of emotional commonality within a variety of different situations and settings.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Can you say a few words about your technique? Digital or film, a lot of editing or absence of manipulation, equipment used, etc..
Sheila Zhao: For my current personal work, I am shooting black and white film and do my post processing digitally.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Does the technical aspects that you mentioned are important or what really matters is only the final result?
Sheila Zhao: Personally, I think that content is always more important than what equipment you use. Of course, that’s not to say that the technical aspect is not important at all. Every decision you make, from beginning to end, all impacts how your picture will turn out. However, one shouldn’t always relay on a cool camera effect, a cool post-processing filter, or be restricted to the traditional confines of what a “good” picture is in order to create an impactful image. For me, at the end of the day, a great image should clearly show what the photographer is trying to express and if it reveals a bit of the photographer’s vulnerability.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Can you speak a little bit further about your recent personal work? Is it a precise project or it’s your everyday visual diary? What is your current theme of interest?
Sheila Zhao: I just began a new series of personal work from the beginning of this year. It’s difficult for me to make sense of it now as I am still very much in the initial phase of this new journey, much less provide an articulate explanation. I very much stumbled upon the work – I was visiting a friend in Pusan, Korea, and we went to visit Pusan’s famous fish market for fun. I shot about a roll of film there. When I developed the film, there were a few frames I liked, so I decided to continue on photographing fish and other aquatic food we eat at fish markets. By another coincidence, I happened to go to Japan a month after Pusan. I spent about 5 days in Tokyo and happened to be staying within walking distance from the Tsukiji fish market and continued photographing what I saw there. However, it was only recently that I realized the photos I have been taking are about more than just fish. The important thing was how I was interpreting the situation, the shared feeling of the images, and what the pictures said about me. Currently, I’m working on expanding the work.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: How do you approach peoples? Do you ask them if they accept to be photographed or you try not to be noticed?
Sheila Zhao: Every situation is different. Generally speaking, I don’t like being too obtusely intrusive. Plus, I have my own issue of being a big wimp and am very shy to approach strangers. I’ve gotten a little bit better over time, but it’s still very much a problem with me. Ideally, I would love if people don’t notice me or if I already have an element of trust with the people whom I am taking pictures of, but of course that is not possible all the time. I think one just has to learn how to work with each situation and what their limits are.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Do you think that in China you have the freedom to take photo of everything or some subject is off limits? I’m thinking about both people negative reaction as well as pressures from the authorities. Did you experienced anything like this?
Sheila Zhao: Like most countries in the world, China has its restrictions. How it effects a photographer depends on the intention of the photographer and how they approach the subject. Photojournalists working in China experience the brunt of this, I think, because of the nature of their work. That said, there are other photographers and artists who make their point across with photography in more subtle, creative ways. For example, Ai Weiwei had a series of photographs he made, which showed him giving the middle finger to various famous landmarks around the world, including the White House, Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: When you are working in China, do you think that being Chinese and -as a consequence- to have a certain invisibility compared to a foreign photographer, is a major advantage?
Sheila Zhao: Yes and no. Being Chinese (or looking Asian) generally makes you stick out less in a crowd. People will notice a white guy with a big camera a lot sooner than noticing me. However, the advantage of being a foreigner photographing in China is that some people are quicker to let their guard down with a foreigner because they see the foreigner as non-threatening. That, or they assume the foreigner does not speak Chinese and will not hassle the photographer too much.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Do you think that being a women modifies the reactions people have when you take their photographs? Do you think that shooting can put yourself in difficult context for a women or the danger is the same for everyone? Have you ever find your self in this kind of situations?
Sheila Zhao: I try not to think about my gender, or consequences of my gender, when I am working. It might be different if I am working on pictures addressing gender issues, but as I have not done that and am currently not doing that, I try not to think about it and try to listen to my instinct more. Again, depending on the context and the situation, one’s gender can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. To use another photojournalism example: male photographers might find it easier to work in high testosterone, mostly male dominated situation. However, the chances of them photographing in situations involving secluded, highly guarded women, is slim (such as “behind the veil” moments with certain groups of Islamic women). Women photographers are generally seen as less threatening while male photographers are generally taken more seriously by various non-photo related entities. So both have their pros and cons, one just needs to learn how to work with their own situation.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Do you think that your Chinese origins and cultural background are important in your photographic work and in your aesthetic vision?
Sheila Zhao: Not consciously. I have heard from some other non-Chinese photographer friends that one general style of Chinese photography is quiet, subtle pictures. Some of my previous work fall under that category, although it was completely coincidental. Maybe that is a result of similar cultural background? Who knows.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Do you have a wish or a photographic dream, concerning yourself as well as the contemporary Chinese photography?
Sheila Zhao: I would like to learn to lose control and let my instinct and passion guide me through my work.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Do you think is fundamental to live in a big and important city, or -for example thanks to Internet- the city in which you live is no longer a contraint?
Sheila Zhao: I think you can live anywhere you feel comfortable with, whether it’s a big city or a small town. I am personally a big city girl and won’t know what to do with myself if I’m stuck in the countryside for too long!
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Do you think it’s important to have a website or a blog? Is it is essential to have it translated into various languages? How the Internet contributes to the spread contemporary photography?
Sheila Zhao: It’s not imperative, but a website never hurts. Of course, it’s important for the language of the website to be in a widely used international language, but whatever the photographer can manage is more important. At the end of they day, whether or not a photographer needs a website depends more on his/ her intentions.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: How Chinese photography has changed over the years? How would you describe the recent history of photography in China?
Sheila Zhao: Everyone and their mother has a camera now! A lot of hobbyist photographers have nicer equipment than I do. I think very much like the west, there is a massive flood of content and China is facing the same situation as the west concerning usage, copyright, etc.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: How would you describe the artistic and photographic scene in China? Is it that there are often exhibitions, festivals, events, etc.? What about commercial photography?
Sheila Zhao: Promising and growing. While I don’t think China’s photography scene is as mature as other countries in Asia, I certainly do think that it will grow – the sky’s the limit. I’m sure there are a lot of photographers doing interesting work. And there are also photo exhibitions in Beijing and various photo festivals around China, such as Caochangdi Photo Spring, Pingyao, etc.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Which countries you are referring to? What do you think China can and should do to fill the gap and improve the situation?
Sheila Zhao: Japan has a rich photo history and has produced some of my favorite photography masters, such as Daido Moriyama, Masahisa Fukase, Shomei Tomatsu, etc. South Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh are currently also producing some very talented younger photographers. I think there are a lot of talents in China, but the general culture and awareness is not as refined. On a collective level, I think part of that is a lack of exposure to high quality work and a lack of guidance by international photo masters. Recent past history and how the country developed probably also influenced the development of photography in China. But I do think everything just takes time. International photo festivals are great opportunities for everyone involved, and I think more should be organized.
Yuhui Liao-Fan: Can you tell some names of Chinese photographers that you particularly like and why.
Sheila Zhao: A colleague recently sent me work from Chinese photographer Qiu, which I really liked. His work reminded me of the rawness of pictures produced by photographers such as Daido Moriyama, but also has a sense of subtle whimsy.