Interview with Zhang Xiao
Zhang Xiao was born in Yantai, China in 1981. He is a graduate of Yantai University, Art Design of Architecture Department and from 2005 – 2009 worked as a photographer for the Chongqing Morning Post. He presently works as a freelance photographer in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China.
In 2009 he won the Houdengke Documentary Photography Award – China for his series of photos entitled “Coastline”, the Three Shadows Photography Award 2010 and the Southern Documentary Photography Award 2010. He was also a winner of The HSBC Photography Prize in France in 2011. Since then he has had numerous exhibitions in China, France, and the US.
It is a pleasure to meet you. I have been a fan of your work since “discovering” one of your pieces on the Internet. Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and your childhood?
I’ve been longing for the sea since my childhood, when my family lived in a village, about 40 kilometers from the nearest seaside. My family almost couldn’t afford to travel to the seaside, and for a child, 40 kilometers was far far away. I’ve only been to the beach a few times as a child, I don’t really remember anything except for a mosaic blue whale on a wall at a shore.
I liked to collect things when I was a kid, such as stamps, cigarette boxes, and so on.
My hometown is rich in apples. The fields are full of apple trees. Now there are more and more factories there. Pollution is getting worse in my hometown.
When did you first become interested in photography?
When I graduated from high school. I found an old camera in my home and then tried to take some photos. That was my first time touching a camera. I loved it!
Were there members of your family who were artists that encouraged you?
No, My family all stayed in the small village. They don’t know much about art and photography.
For about 4 years you worked for the Chongqing Morning Post as a photographer. What types of stories did you cover?
A variety of stories dealing with culture, education, emergencies, disasters, and sports.
You are best known for the series, “Coastline” which was shot around China’s coastline. How did you first come up with the idea for the series?
China has long coastline which extends from the mouth of Yalu river in Liaoning province in the north to the mouth of the Beilun river in Guangxi province in the south. In total it is continuous eighteen thousand kilometers. There have been great changes every day in China since it began opening up 30 years ago. The cities are like big construction sites speeding up their construction pace to catch up with the rest of the world. All of this appears particularly outstanding in China’s coastal areas. A multitude of countrymen leave their native place to go there. Urbanization drive continually accelerates growth while people’s spiritual life stays the same.
When I was a child, I was eager for the sea and I felt the sea was mysterious, something I can never touch. Now I also feel as before. I come here to seek strong emotional conflicts and rich image pictures, which may with some mawkishness and mood. The sea is the beginning of lives and dreams, at the same time, I am looking for a hometown in my heart.
One of the first photographs I had seen of yours was from your series “Shanxi” which shows a young girl in a jacket and makeup against a somber background of muted tones. Can you tell us a little about this haunting image?
In the past, people used to worship the gods of religious activities. Today a number of these customs has survived to remain one of the most important cultural practices in the Lunar New Year throughout most of Shanxi Province in northwest China. In my personal observation, they set themselves a drama stage, dressed in stunning costumes and have their faces painted exquisitely to represent the identity of each different Gods.
This is a little girl who wants to participate in the ceremony in the early of the morning. Her makeup just finished, not yet changed into a gorgeous dress.
What is the technical process you use? Do you use film (as opposed to digital cameras) and do you hand print your images?
Yes, I just use film and I have no digital cameras but I print images with a printer after I scan the film, not by hand.
Some have the appearance of being old and dated yet, if you look, there are reminders in the photo that date them to today.
What message do you hope a viewer will take away from your photos?
I think everyone has different feelings, I just show a real, current China.
Your series, “They” consists of some marvelous portraits of people “frozen in time”. Can you tell us about this series?
Those photos of mine were taken in Chongqing where I was working and living for 4 years. I had been asked to take photographs for a local newspaper. I usually took two cameras every day: One digital camera to take the photos of the local news, and one film camera to take photos for my own interest. As a photographer I weaved through the city everyday and that was how I locked those images into that little time machine. At first I was simply shooting the scene and the people I was interested in and never thought to make those photos into a serialized work. As time went on I’d taken a lot of pictures. After 3 years, I had taken over 1000 photos of this city, until I quit my job and left town.
Them, the citizens, the workers, Each one of them has their own ordinary life, working 9 to 5, taking vacations, feeding their kids, They’ve been watching their homeland undergo a great change in the last 30 years. Now they have to face the old traditions and customs and the effects on their lifestyles’ of the rapid development of the economy. No matter good or not there’s a struggle in their hearts between the old traditions and culture, and their life will not like before any more
Are your photos natural or are elements sometimes staged? Many have called them “surreal” or “surprising”. Would you say this is accurate?
My photos are natural and I never arrange them. Those photos unveil a fantasy world. I am so obsessed about the people in the photos who behave as if they are walking in a dream and braving out the rigors of reality. I rarely had a chance to have a conversation with them, only eye contact. More often a quick click of the shutter and a dazzling flash awoke them before they could even notice my presence. By the time they realized a photo of themselves was captured, I was somewhere else.
Are there any photographers or artists out there than you admire or inspire you?
A lot, like Diane Arbus, Boris Mikhailov, Alec Soth, Nadav Kander, and so on.
Are there any future projects you have in mind that you can share with us?
Now I just can tell you my next project is about my hometown. I left my hometown for too long a time, I would like to get back some of the things that are nearly ready to disappear.
Where can we go to find out more about you and your work?