This is the first of the “Behind the Camera” series. A little background here.
Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was the bureau chief of the New York Times’ Shanghai office from 2003-08, as part of a 22-year career as a foreign correspondent. His most widely exhibited work, “Disappearing Shanghai”, documents the life of neighborhoods “doomed to imminent extinction” as he describes it. French’s work is evocative in its quiet dignity and intimacy with his subjects, like one old soul talking to another.
1. You were most recently the bureau chief of the New York Times’ Shanghai office, following many years of reporting all over the world. Now you’re also increasingly known for your photography. Can you tell us how and when your interest in photography started? Did it influence the way you reported your stories?
HF: I was introduced to photography by my father and by a great uncle. Roughly around the same time, say between the ages of 10-12, the one (my Dad) taught me how to develop black and white film in a simple basement darkroom he helped my older brother and I build, and the other (my uncle) gave me a Kodak Retina camera – way prematurely. I’ve been involved with photography ever since, but became serious about it in an applied way for the first time while living in West Africa in the early 1980s. I began working as a freelance journalist there, and in addition to taking pictures for my own purposes, I started doing so to produce images to accompany my articles.
Working as a reporter with other photographers, like Stuart Isett (to name one), in Japan, influenced my photography and my journalism. I learned a lot about slowing down, about coming at a subject from multiple angles, about the importance of self-criticism, about getting closer to people.
2. When you were shooting in Shanghai, how did people react to your presence and intentions? Can you name a particular incident that left a deep impression on you?
HF: The most interesting facet for me of documentary photography has always had relatively little to do with “technique,” in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, one must have a sense of such things, but the barriers to learning the technical aspects involved in this kind of photography are not terribly high, nor for me do they hold great fascination. What most excites me about the kind of work I’ve done in Shanghai instead is rather what I’d call the personal interface between photographer and subject. Finding my style in the street and getting deeper and deeper into my subject matter was a matter of initiation in a whole new world of communication, a largely non-verbal world, that I had scarcely imagined existed beforehand. Lots of photographers, including most beginners, are seduced by longer lenses and by zooms as a way of drawing closer to their subject. I wanted to do the opposite, to restrict my lens choices to fixed optics from the other end of the spectrum, either standard lenses (50mm on SLRs and 80mm on my Rolleiflex) or wide angles. This necessitated learning how to draw closer to my subjects without alarming them, without having them pose or otherwise perform for me, and sometimes, indeed, without even alerting them. Learning to do so begins with great patience, but that only gets you so far. The next steps come by way of body language and other mostly non-verbal stuff. Sometimes it is a matter of conveying a kind of sympathy. Other times one may convey disinterest, or even boredom. Most often, though, it is a matter of giving a sense of belief in what you’re doing; not looking tentative or apologetic, frightened or unsure.
I don’t have a particular image or story to relate to you. What I can say is that my street work often involved lingering in a circumscribed area, a well-defined neighborhood, a specific block, or maybe a street corner, for hours at a time. After a while, people stop paying so much attention to you. If you visit and revisit these places over and over again, as I did, the chemistry begins to change, and all sorts of new possibilities begin opening up for you.