Behind the Camera: Anton Hazewinkel on “Beijing Walks of Life”

Anton Hazenwinkle profileAnton Hazewinkel’s dedication in depicting the wide spectrum of Beijing’s society is impressive. Be it the art collector next door, the punk rock band member or the frustrated unemployed, Hazewinkel portrays his subjects with great care and technique. He adopts various mediums which lends breadth and depth to the stories but it is his patience that illicits remarkable honesty from his subjects. Here, he shares with us about telling the tales of Beijing’s remarkable residents, his portraiture work and panoramic sweeps.

Website: Portfolio and blog “Chinesense”

SA: Share a little about yourself, Anton and your journey to Beijing.

AH: I’m Dutch. I started my career as an artist after graduating in Audio Visual Arts (video and photography) in the 80s. In those days the economic climate was not so good and when I was offered a chance to make a career in IT, I took it. For over 20 years I worked in a business environment; first as a manager in the airline industry and later with my own company as an interim manager and as an investor in ICT and call centre ventures. In 2005 I ended up in Beijing for an IT project. I enjoyed the environment and energy a lot and at that time I was ready for a change. I sold my house in the Netherlands and moved to Beijing. With the Olympics upcoming, I founded a company, together with a partner, that provided call centre and concierge services for sponsors of the Olympics and other expats. After the Olympics we closed the business and I started a photo retouching company that I am still running today. It was the start of using my skills in photography as a professional. Ever since I arrived in Beijing I have been using my spare time to make photos on the streets, but I never had the time to focus on projects. In the summer of 2010 I decided to give it a try and dedicate most of my time on developing myself as a photographer.

Beijing, Mr. Zhang

Mr. Zhang, who is unemployed, smokes a cigarette.

SA: How would you describe your style of photography? 

AH: I like to work in different styles and there is a lot I’d like to try in the future, but my main focus is currently on social documentary. Within this focus I divide my time between street photography and making portraits.

Contrary to some street photography where high contrast and dark tones add to a dramatic presentation, I like to process my photos with as many tones as possible. I like the “dark” processing of some street photographers a lot, but for some reason I can’t process my photos like that. I always feel that I should present my subjects in a favourable way, to the extent that I sometimes retouch irregularities in faces. Maybe it is because I often talk with the people I portray, which creates a kind of attachment to them, not only during the encounter but also when post processing the photos and interviews.

SA: I would like to focus on two of your existing works that struck a chord in me. One of which is your panoramic series. Can you describe it briefly, how do you select your subjects, engage them in such a manner that they are willing to let you into their personal space?

AH: I met most of the people I portray in the panoramic series “Beijing Walks of Life” on the street. The very first portrait was the portrait of Mr. Zhang. My assistant and I met Mr. Zhang while he was playing at a Mah Jiang (mahjong) table in a courtyard far away from the centre of Beijing. We asked permission to shoot while they were playing, but soon we ended up in a lively conversation. After a while Mr. Zhang invited us to his home.

At that time I already designed the layout of the series. We had the interview questions, we always walked with a tripod and it was just a matter of meeting someone with an interesting story willing to cooperate.

The idea behind the series is to present Beijing from the perspective of the hearts and minds of individual citizens. We ask questions about their daily life; trivial ones about what they eat, their daily routines; factual ones about how much money they spend; and personal ones about what they feel is important in their lives, what values they live up to and how they see their future.

The 360 degree panoramic photo is always made in a room that is related to their private life or work. It is as if the 360 degree background embraces the portrayed person with his or her personal living space. The photos have a high level of detail; usually they are around 70 megapixels. I print them on a format of 3 meters wide. It allows you to see all details, such as the titles of the books on a bookshelf or a family portrait on the wall.

As for the willingness of people to cooperate: we always take a lot of time. Sometimes we talk for half an hour with someone, just to conclude that we should not make the portrait because the person does not feel comfortable. But usually people agree and then we have a session of 2 or 3 hours to conduct the interview and make the photos. The 2 or 3 hours is enough to create a relaxed atmosphere for making the photos and doing the interview.

Beijing, Mr. Yuan's Meeting Room

(first) Mr. Yuan is the abbot of the Taoist DongYue temple in Beijing. His favorite activities are reading, writing and thinking. He thinks young people are too self-centered these days. People should try to strengthen social values by contributing to society. ~ AH 

(second) Mr. Zhang is an art collector. He used to make money with antique restorations and sales, with singing, cooking and many other jobs. The past two decades, he has been collecting the kind of art that was part of the family heritage in the late 40s of the last century. His new collection compensates for the loss of the old family possessions. ~ AH

SA: In relation to the panoramic series, what do you hope to convey with this kind of perspective?

AH: What I hope to convey to audiences outside China is that China and Chinese are not abstractions, but that (one side of) China is the sum of the hopes, beliefs, virtues and desires of individuals. Individuals who think and feel different about their lives and their environment. Because we ask everybody the same questions, the similarities and differences in the answers give a good indication of the diversity in the hearts and minds of Beijing citizens.

At the opening of my exhibition in the Netherlands earlier this month, I gave a presentation highlighting these differences between the interview people along dimensions such as: traditional Chinese values v.s. modern and Western values, material v.s. immaterial values, emancipation (of women), individualism, career, family heritage, religion, friendship, competition and outlook on the future.

Dong Nan (22) plays guitar in a street punk band.  At the moment every aspect of his life feels bad, but he hopes to become wealthy and be able to do the things he wants to do in the future. ~ AH

SA: Share with us a particular story that you thought best reflected your panoramic series, and why it is particularly special.

AH: To be honest, almost all portraits feel special to me and I still maintain contact with several people I portrayed. Here I like to highlight the story of Mrs. Zhang (below) who grew up in the late 40s, early 50s in a rural area of Sha’anxi province. She was denied primary school education because there was only enough money to send her brother to school (a boys’ education was more important). She somehow managed to attend classes secretly and when she was 12 she started a job while studying in the evening.  After that she escaped the “backward” environment and took a job in Beijing while studying in the evening for her university degree. She made a good career as a state cadre and ended her career as an accountant in the Ministry of Education. Now, as a pensioner, she dedicates her time to taking care of 30 stray cats in a park every day. Besides that, she is still interested in starting small businesses on the side. Her main motive is that she is taking care of her son and his family financially, as he hardly makes any money. What I liked most about Mrs. Zhang is that she made her own future and that she is very down to earth, while being open minded and interested in new developments at the same time.

Beijing, Mrs. Zhang's living room

SA: Another aspect of your work which I also greatly enjoy are the intimate portraits you have taken of your subjects. Do you ever feel you capture them in a uniform manner or do different personalities entail a different way of capturing them?

AH: From a photographic point of view, circumstances like the environment (light, space, etc.) may differ. In my approach I want to be consistent. I try to record without making personal comments. Also in my blog, I try to avoid becoming a subject myself. I want the people I portray to be the subjects, not my life as an expat or my opinion.

The way or style in which I capture is of course personal. For me the photos should be a visual answer to questions like “who are you?”, “how are you doing in your life?”. In a way, the making of the portraits and interviews stems from my curiosity in how other people deal with their lives and how I can use these insights for myself.

Beijing. California dreaming

SA: In addition to your photography, you pose a lengthy interview through your assistant/translator to your subjects and ask revealing questions ranging from their day-to-day standard of living, outlook in life etc. How has the responses been and do you feel you have collected enough stories for them to properly reflect Beijing society?

AH: With the small audience I have, the response has been rewarding. People feel they get a very personal view on the lives of individuals in the far-away China.

The response from the photographic community has also been good with awards and nominations in international competitions and exhibitions in festivals and an art gallery.

I still want to make a few more portraits to make the whole series better reflect Beijing society. Among the portraits I still want to make are: a party executive, a migrant worker, a business man and a business woman.

SA: Last we spoke over Skype, you’re incredibly busy with an exhibit, new photo book and even more projects. Why don’t you share a little about each of them and what else will we be expecting of you in the near future?

AH: I just came back from the Netherlands where I attended the opening of my exhibition in Photo Gallery Objektief (Enschede). Before that I was in PingYao to make an exhibition at the yearly festival. Just in time I finished my book on the “Beijing Walks of Life” project in both English and Dutch.

One of the new projects I am working on is another portrait series. The portraits are of people who live a life that is different from what mainstream society expects them to live. I’m still in the orientation phase, but this time I will use lightning equipment and a studio-like setup to capture the past, the present and future expectations of the portrayed people in one image.

Like the “Beijing Walks of Life” series, this may well take a year before its completion.

And finally, something I tend to ignore too often, I will spend some time on the commercial side: look for an agent and a gallery to represent me and find a publisher for my book (which is currently self-published via Blurb).

Visit Behind the Camera Interview Series to learn more about the work of other photographers.



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