Sometime last year Scott mentioned to me that he was working on a new and unique project for him. He was still living in China and just beginning the process of putting 100 portraits and interviews together to create We Chinese. He wasn’t quite able to explain then what you he was trying to do, or how he thought it would turn out, but I was intrigued. When earlier this year I got a chance to see the final project I was left in wonderment and very excited, and I had a lot of questions that I wanted to ask as a friend and colleague to find out how this work had come about. I thought maybe we could, in the essence of the Dvafoto project, share our personal conversation with our audience as part of our Dvafoto Interview series.
What started you on the path to making a large portrait project like this, something you haven’t worked on before?
That’s exactly the reason. It was something I hadn’t worked on before. When I meet with editors and show them my work, I often get asked, “Where are the portraits?” I’ve never been a big fan of portraiture (although, to an extent, every photo is a portrait of some sort…), but like I’ve done with genres of music or movies in the past, I decided that if so many people like portraiture, and if portraiture is such a force in contemporary visual communication, I should be able to find something I liked about it if I just really tried at it. So I did.
I also thought that the story I wanted to tell about China through this project, a documentary approach wouldn’t suffice. I wanted to present people and their ideas, the interviews, with as little mediation as possible. I wanted to remove myself from the photography.
Did you, when you were beginning the work, know you were going to be leaving China?
Yes. I’d known for quite a few months before starting the project.
The two questions you asked everyone are in essence about the uncertain, rapidly evolving future of China, it feels like a question you yourself are struggling with. Where did the questions come from?
I wanted questions that weren’t easy to answer and that would get people (both the subjects and the audience) to think about themselves and their country. I worked on these two questions for a while before I thought they were ready to begin asking.
The first, “What does China mean to you?” started off as “What is China?” which I sort of distilled from questions I was asked on visits to the US when friends and family would ask me about life in China or the people or the future of the country and how it fits into global politics and economics. All of these questions could be distilled to “What is China?” But I thought that question was a little too easy to answer by saying something like “A country.” I got those answers with the reworded question, too, but the question gave space to the subject to interpret the question and their answer in many more ways.
And I realized that the first question was mostly a reflective one, a question about personal and national history. If you think about a question like that for your own country, “What does America mean to you?” for instance, you’ll answer about what your experience of that country has been so far and what you learned in history books. The second question was a way to get a glimpse of the future of China from the ground level. We see the 5-year plans and speeches by politicians, we see numbers relating to industry and commerce, and we see a lot of speculation about the country by cable news pundits. The individuals get lost in it all.
Are these questions common in Chinese society?
I don’t quite understand the question. If you’re asking about whether they refer to common sayings or something like that, as in the case of the title of the project, the answer is no. But the questions were chosen specifically to get individual opinions about the country and the people themselves. I had many versions of the questions before settling on the final version of the questionnaire. “What do you think about China?” for instance, instead of “What does China mean to you?” The first question might lead to easy and quick answers–“I think it is good,” perhaps–whereas the final version requires a bit more commitment and thought, the consideration of the country as it relates to the subjects rather than just a feeling about the country.
Were you hoping the responses from the subjects would answer questions you had in your own mind about China?
I was hoping that the responses would help me learn about what Chinese people think about their country. Speaking with Chinese people in China, it can be difficult to get individual opinions about bigger-picture issues. My own questions about the country don’t matter for the project. It’s not my country, and I only have a passing relationship with the place. In fact, the format of the project, with basic and unstylized portraiture and repeated interviews, was designed to eliminate my own input. I’m tired of books and essays from foreigners (my own included) that purport to explain “China.”
Why structure the project in this way, with ‘typological’ portraits, questionnaires, a standalone website?
I talked about the portraits above. The questionnaires filled a similar role in eliminating unnecessary variation in the responses. I figured I’d probably introduce some chaos into the responses by botching my pronunciation of a question…
The standalone website just seemed natural. Like the portraiture, it was something I’d never done for a project. The entire project didn’t feel right getting jammed into my portfolio website. Using a standalone website felt like giving the project its own art gallery. It feels better when it is separate and contained. I also like tinkering around with web programming and enjoy making wordpress do things it shouldn’t. That sounds dirty… When it comes down to it, I thought I had a cool idea for how I wanted the website to work, and I wanted to see if I could do it.
Is this project a closure to your time and work in China? Do you plan to go back?
It could function as closure for my work in China. I’ve got so much unedited work from my time there, though, that I’ll never be done. I’d love to go back any time, but I don’t have specific plans at the moment. I’ve got friends there that don’t have the means to travel internationally, and I’d love to see them again soon. And I miss the food.
I’m not sure if the project is done, though. I’d love to include a wider range of subjects in China or expand the project to other so-called emerging economies.
What is next for you?
I’ve relocated to Boston, Massachusetts. I’m excited to dig in to some stories in the US after being abroad for so long. I’m excited to be home (meant broadly; I’d never set foot in Massachusetts before moving here) and explore the US photographically.
What would be your answer to the two questions you asked of your subjects?
Laughably, I don’t have an answer. Many people I asked about to be in the project couldn’t come up with an answer and apologized because they thought the questions were too hard to answer. I will say that, for me, the country and its people can’t be summarized in a sentence or two, or a photo essay or two. It’s a nation of seeming contradictions–communist and capitalist, rich and poor, developed and undeveloped, Westernized and very mired in its own culture, polluted and working toward forward-thinking environmental initiatives, globalized and very local, and so forth–and that makes it an endlessly fascinating place.
We Chinese is currently featured on Burn Magazine. The project has also been featured on Forbes.com, Global Voices, Prison Photography, La Pura Vida, the China Beat, China Hush, Photoshelter, MetaFilter, PhotojournalismLinks, and here on dvafoto.