Behind the Camera: Katya Knyazeva on Documenting Old Town (老城厢)

Katya Knyazeva is a journalist, book designer and fine artist from Russia. Her illustrated books and graphic novel have been published in Korea, and a book about Shanghai’s Old Town is on the way. She writes about cuisine, culture and urban form, and documents Shanghai’s neighborhoods using vintage cameras. For 3.5 years, Katya has been dedicated to capturing details of the city’s historical houses and its facades, researching its history and sharing it with the public.


1. Your photostream reflects years of discovery and research of Old Shanghai architecture and way of life. When and how did you get into documenting places and their details?

KK: Nighttime photo-walks became a habit a few years ago when I lived in Korea. Superficially, Korean cities seem like an endless replication of same elements: apartment compounds, clean embankments, sodium streetlights. But I remember the first time I wandered around with a camera and stumbled on a hillside community of improvised gardens, with terraces made from old doors, discarded television sets and copper funnels. This turned my companion and me into ‘flaneurs.’ Every night, we’d bring a camera, take the subway to a different stop and go wandering around with a camera, getting entangled in a strange neighborhood. Each time we lost our way, we found surprises. When we moved to Shanghai, we just continued to do the same thing.

2. What other aspects of street photography do you focus on?

KK: Compared to Korea, Shanghai has such luscious and diverse city landscape, sometimes in a single image you can trace years of the history of a house or a street corner. Human habitation is a natural force, just like erosion, and I’m drawn towards neighborhoods and buildings that show the effects of long years of adaptation. It’s only recently that I’ve become a little more systematic, especially regarding artifacts of old Chinese culture in the former walled city.

3. How do people generally react to your presence and intentions when you’re photographing?

KK: Being able to speak some Chinese opened many doors – and closed some. Once I barged into the beautiful Writers’ Association mansion on Julu Lu (巨鹿路) just with a simple ‘hi’, and the guard had no vocabulary to stop a foreigner. A year later I spoke to him in Chinese and he refused to let us in. Frankly, the poorer or more precarious the neighborhood, the more gracious, curious and welcoming are the residents.

4. Can you share with us a memorable place or moment in the course of your photography? Do you have a favorite place to shoot?  

KK: I found an ancestral hall in a slum. It felt close to witnessing a miracle: enormous stimulus and excitement. Accidental discoveries make my blood boil, but premeditated discoveries – finding something after some research – they feel great too. One of the most inspiring photo-adventures I had last winter after an intercontinental flight back to China. At 5 a.m., jetlag drove me out of the house, so I went to photograph streets in the Old Town in the morning light. By 8 a.m. I was peering at the back gate of Shanghai’s oldest, most neglected courtyard house, Shu Yin Lou (书隐楼) in the Old Town (seen above). It appeared abandoned and very few people have been inside. That morning the owner was waiting for someone outside her gate. We chatted and she invited me in, which she never does when foreigners come snooping around with cameras. She introduced me to her mother, showed their family pictures, hinted that I should find her a foreign boyfriend — all the while giving me a vertiginous ‘house-tour’ of their incredible labyrinthine and decrepit courtyard palace. It was like Gray Gardens.

After all this emptiness and discouragement that a sentimental “preservationist” like me feels in the face of urban redevelopment, it’s a great comfort to know that there is an enchanted castle in the middle of the old town.

5. What do you find most challenging while shooting in Shanghai or China in general?

KK: Guards and walls. Everywhere you turn someone needs to decide whether to grant you access. The centuries-old tradition of keeping the proletarians outside is alive to this day — though in the provinces it’s not so strict. On the other hand, communal living in lanes and courtyards makes hallways and kitchens so open, you can come in and explore.

6. What cameras do you normally shoot with? Do you have a preference?

KK: I carry a digital point-and-shoot everywhere, a Canon G9 or a Lumix. But when I specifically go on a photo-excursion, with an itinerary in my head, I come loaded with analog cameras and film stock – and a tripod. I like my medium-format Lubitel (an analog of Chinese Seagull) for its versatility, the bulky Kiev-88 for the quality of the shots, and the little rangefinder Kiev-4 for its elegant knobs and the variety of lenses.

7.  I note that you predominantly use film with a great affection for expired film, which produces wonderful and unexpected textures. Why do you like working with such a medium and how has it impacted your photography?

KK: My transition to analog cameras was an easy one. A LOMO friend inspired me to try film, and then my family in Siberia dug out a bunch of dusty Soviet film cameras and sent them to China – together with a few expired rolls. The results were so intriguing I could not stop; now I troll for odd film stock on Taobao. I never get tired of accidents introduced by old cranky cameras in combination with strange film.

Katya Expired1

 8. Are there any photographers that have stood out or influenced your work?

KK: I am encouraged and humbled by the selfless photo-research published on flickr by Gropiusx and 周五. Recently, I was smitten by a book of photographs by Guo Bo (郭博) who took austere and simple black-and-white photographs of Shanghai’s cobblestone streets and lane houses in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Dagu Lu, Huangpi Bei Lu, Henan Nan Lu, Suzhou Creek — all those areas that became Xintiandi, high-rises, or were eradicated — twenty years ago looked like the early 20th century. It’s as if Guo Bo knew these street views would become extinct.

9. Do you have upcoming projects you want to share with us?

KK: Lately, I almost exclusively explore the old town. It’s no secret that in three years that whole area will change forever. Even without the Expo, there’s too much profit to be made. Last year, my obsession with it turned into a project, an illustrated topography of vanishing Shanghai. The book is almost finished.

Avezink Katya1

Avezink Katya2

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



  • Reply March 26, 2010

    Adam Daniel Mezei

    Katya is extraordinarily outspoken and eloquent. Keen eye as well, with a good sense for what the market wants. Always a pleasure to bump into a professional maven who relishes their craft. Thank you for interviewing her. It was stellar.

  • Reply March 26, 2010

    Expatriate Games

    “the poorer or more precarious the neighborhood, the more gracious, curious and welcoming are the residents…”

    I find the same all over China. Nice interview, a new discovery for me. Bravo!

  • Reply March 29, 2010

    Irena Spzak-Fleet

    My word! Ms. Knyazeva has taken on such an important project with dedication and artistry. China’s cultural heritage and city ecology are as endangered as her natural environment.

  • Reply April 7, 2012


    Katya is my inspiration!

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.