蜕(Tui) is a Shanghai-based street photographer and one of the many contributors of the Chinese street photo blog Zaijietou (在街头 or ‘in the streets’). His work, shot exclusively on film, is strongly emotive and instinctive which result in arresting, haunting and moody images. Tui talks about his relationship with Shanghai and how the city has influenced his work, his dedication to film and his views on street photography in China.
SA: Tell us a little about yourself, you say you are not from Shanghai but lived here a long time? Do you consider the city home?
跟我们简单介绍下你自己, 你说你不是上海人那呆了上海多久? 在你的心目中,你会觉得上海是你的第二故乡吗?
蜕(Tui) : 我生于重庆,六岁时随父母来到了上海,从此定居于这座城市,理论上应该就是上海人了,可是我至今仍然不能流利的说上海话,我觉得对于一个地方方言的主动学习或抗拒,代表着你内心对那个地方的接受程度有多少。所以在我心里很难用第二故乡来看待她,始终没有归属感。对于这座城市,内心的感情是复杂的,抵触和溶入的心态并存,毕竟生活了几十年,就算再没有归属感,也不可避免的在无形中被这座城市深刻影响着。对于我与这座城市的关系说那么多,是因为我觉得我这种复杂矛盾的心理,与我所拍的这座城市的照片是息息相关的。
I was born in Chongqing and was six when my parents moved to Shanghai where we’ve lived every since. I suppose I can be considered Shanghainese but till today, I still cannot speak the Shanghainese dialect fluently. I feel one’s resistance to learning the dialect reflects the extent of how accepts a city (as a home). So in my heart, it is hard to view Shanghai as my adopted home as I ultimately lack that sense of belonging. My feelings toward the city are complicated: resistant yet embracing at the same time. After all, I’ve lived here for years, even if I’ve no sense of belonging here, I cannot avoid the inevitable and profound impact the city has on me. The reason why I speak at length about my relationship with the city is because it has much to do with my photography. I feel that my state of mind impacts the way I photograph the city.
SA: What motivated you to turn to street photography and how would you describe your style?
I have to thank the Lomo (mass produced Russian film camera, see lomography), which many photographs have turned their noses at, for guiding me into the streets. Many years ago, I liked to shoot dormant and massive steel structures in abandoned factories . But one day, I suddenly decided I no longer wanted to shoot them, or at all for that matter. After I put down my digital camera, I stopped photography for two years. Until 2006, my girlfriend was shooting a Lomo film camera for fun, and I was curious enough to shoot an entire roll, using her style of shooting people or things in the streets at random. Since then, I fell in love with both street style and film.
With regards to my style, I can’t quite describe it. There is this faint silhouette in my head but I cannot express it clearly in words. I think my style is still not yet fully formed. It frustrates me that I keep thinking and refuting my ideas. And then sometimes I would think “Just go ahead and shoot, why think so much?”
Although I may not be able to answer definitively on my photographic style, I can distinguish my photos from other street photographers. I am increasingly aware that I am not recording reality but rather a fictional reality in a fictional city. I did not realize this at first but only after many photos later. Someone said to me (of my photos) one day that “this isn’t Shanghai”, making me doubt how realistic my work was, and begin to contemplate the real meaning of what I photograph. That was a puzzling period but the confusion was useful to self-reflect and better understand my work. I think this is important in helping me define my content and style.
SA: Do you feel shooting in the streets of Shanghai is different from any other Chinese city?
You solicit different reactions when photographing people in different cities in China. In large cities like Shanghai, no matter how good your intentions are, adults refuse to be photographed most of the time. To do so anyway without consent can provoke glares and even conflict. So I tend to shoot blindly in most situations. It is a bit better in small and medium-sized cities and much easier in remote towns. In places where ethnic minorities live, people will smile as you point your lens, and while some will smile shyly at you, others will approach you to photograph them. These differing responses toward a camera are interesting. Basically, the more “civilized” or economically developed the region, the more resistant to being photographed by others.
SA: You made a decision to switch completely to film at one point and also process the film yourself. There is something undeniably beautiful and raw about film, what is it that attracts you to film?
I was delighted to discover the instant gratification the digital camera offered when it first came out and became a quick convert. But as time wore on, I found myself growingly impetuous, which is one of the reasons why I stopped shooting from 2004-6. This is one of the ills of modern technology, which is why many people like to talk about “a return to simpler times”. When I began using film in 2006, I noticed a simpler state of mind which is focused on shooting itself, rather than the hurried gratification of checking the images (or CHIMPing – CHeck, IMage, Preview). That part is left to when the roll is finished. Although it is not efficient as a digital camera, I find that photography is the cultivation of the mind rather than a job. A job requires efficacy, but cultivating the mind requires time. It’s like drinking tea, you can easily use a tea bag but some people enjoy the intricacies of making the tea from scratch. Simply put, the process of using film, from shooting to developing, brings me calm and warmth that the digital camera can never offer. This is the main reason why I gave up shooting digital. Of course, the unique texture of film is also an important reason.
SA: What camera and film do you carry out on a shoot?
I usually have with me a small Minolta TC-1. I’ve had this for close to 2 years and walking in the streets, it’s like part of my right hand. I don’t like to frequently change cameras because new cameras have this alien feel which makes me uneasy. It’s the same with film, I always stick to Ilford Hp5 or Lucky 400. However, I’ve recently started using Kodak DX5222 because of its “push” ability (for high grain and contrast) and its lower prices.
SA: Can you talk more about your favorite photos? How did you find them and what was going through your head as you shot them?
Often times, I don’t think too much when I am shooting. There are many fleeting images that are dictated by instinct rather than thought when I hit the shutter, and many are shot blindly rather than properly composed. For example, you mentioned liking the picture of the tattooed leg (see first photo), which is also a favourite of mine. That man was walking quickly but steadily past me. By the time I reacted, he had gone a fair distance. I chased after him, walking side by side while pressing the shutter. It’s hard to think too much under such circumstances. Of course, for other shots, I’ll quietly observe before shooting. I like shooting from above on a bridge, resulting in overhead images. There is a photo which is a blur of a water trails and a bicyclist, which I use on my namecard. I think that to be able discover the city’s extraordinary moments through the composition of trivial day to day objects, is one of the many joys of photography.
SA: You mentioned that people have actually compared your style to Moriyama Daido’s 森山大道 black-white and high contrast style with an affinity for darker subjects. Yet you say you try not to study other people’s work lest they subconsciously influence your style. How would you respond to that?
你提过有人把你的照片风格跟Moriyama Daido’s 森山大道的黑白照做比较,拍摄黑暗中的物体. 但你也说过,你正在尝试树立自己的风格,而不受他人风格的影响。对此,你怎么解释呢？
I don’t think he had properly examined Moriyama Daido’s work when he said that. Minor similarities lie in just the black and white tones and high contrast. This is a result of push (processing) film (which increases grain and contrast). With regards to the content, from the lens language, it is completely different. Isn’t’ the language of the lens most critical? I rarely look at photo books and only closely looked at Moriyama Daido’s work this year after I heard several people mention the similarity in styles. I bought his books to actually study for resemblances and of course, the conclusion is none at all (laugh). I used to be easily influenced by others so I purposely avoided looking at other people’s work. Although imitation is the shortcut to progress, I prefer to slowly find my own way. After all, photography is not a career for me, and just a hobby. Like I said before, it is just to cultivate my heart and mind. Hence, the process of finding one’s own style is something you cannot skip over.
SA: Is the genre of street photography popular in China? Where do you think it is headed, in the sense that can street photography grow to properly reflect a unique part of China’s society?
‘Popular’ isn’t really the right word to describe it. Those who like to photograph will at one point try street photography, especially if they cannot find any other subject to shoot, and will easily fall into this type of photography. But the number of people who do street photography for many years are few and far between – be it in the past, present or in the future. But street photography has its special appeal so its significance to a core group of people will not be lost. If we’re looking from a documentarian point of view, there is no doubt that a mass of street photographers can reflect an aspect of our society, but it is ultimately limited to the streets. To actually be able to really show a reflection of society requires depth which street photography can lack, hence this job should really be completed by photo documentarians or journalists. Also, I don’t feel it is a street photographer’s job is to reflect society although traditionally, street photography does fall under the category of documentary photography and a considerable number of street photographers do set out with that objective in mind when they hit the streets. But street photography does not necessarily have to be about that. If the photography can infuse his or her emotions and perspective into the photo, reality is inevitably distorted.
Visit Behind the Camera Interview Series to learn more about the work of other photographers.