Yan Preston talks to us about photographing Chinese students in local landscapes to explore past and present mythologies, in a new commission by Open Eye Gallery for LOOK/17
In a nutshell, the aim is to provide an update of the image of contemporary Chinese residents in Liverpool. But that’s easily said.
Liverpool has the oldest Chinese community in Europe, but China is changing very fast, so the existing photographic archive of Chinese people in Liverpool is still based in the Chinatown culture. Its quite enclosed, they work in their takeaways, in the laundries, so it’s a public impression we have in this country of the Chinese community but mainland China is very different now from what we think of Chinese here.
On my first visit to Open Eye we talked about this gap. They said ‘we find that contemporary Chinese people are very futuristic, global citizens’. We decided not to work with the existing Chinese community in Liverpool to start with. Instead we found some overseas Chinese students who have only just arrived in the city for a few months, and the theory was that they are the representation of contemporary Chinese from mainland China. So that’s how we started it.
The interesting thing is that as soon as I started talking to the first the very first Chinese student, I said to her ‘look this is what we see of contemporary Chinese what do you think’, and she said ‘yeh, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
I don’t have a personal connection with Liverpool, but I do have a lot of experience as a Chinese immigrant. At that level I am connected so far to the Chinese students extremely well. Because we all went through the process of trying to find a foot in the new country. I almost felt this project is like a research project, because you always, you have to get into the community – if you’re working with a community you have to get into it – to find out what they are like, and then you try to talk about that with pictures. And pictures are something else. They have to work on their own.
I met with four students and they’re all trying very hard to integrate themselves with the new life with Liverpool. So when we started taking pictures of the students, I followed my unwritten brief and took them out to the chosen Liverpool landscapes, all four of them. The problem is, I felt that they don’t have a feel connection to the landscape yet, this just serves as a background, like a colour, a mood, but no more than that. For me that’s not enough, somehow?
So, you know, with Rui, we were at Anthony Gormley’s place, and she was playing, she became quite playful and put her scarf around the sculpture, and it was like ‘yes, that’s quite nice,’ so again, that, I didn’t predict that, she just became like a little girl, playing about. So you know, we started from her just messing about with the sculpture, and there was a pose where she stood there, and had her hands, her little fists in her pockets. I saw her doing that because it was a little bit cold. It was quite an intense, self defence pose, so I told her, ok, get your fists up, so we did it like that. So overall, I feel like, as a photographer you can talk about the content, about political context, but in the end it’s the light it’s the aesthetics, it’s everything that has to work together to make a good picture. That’s why I felt like I haven’t got it yet.
When you work with people its always a two way process. For example, the footballer, the first two pictures I took of him were in his bedroom, or his dormitory in his bed, fully kitted up. That was just me, I had that image in mind, because I had already talked to him before I did the photo shoot, I had realized that for him, although its very nice to be part of the team, he’s not the main player – he’s mostly the substitute sitting there waiting. So I felt, there is a tension between his passion, his dream, and the reality – that ‘s why I took that picture of him being confined. Its slightly odd while he was playing at a football match – you know the picture of him standing by the side, that was a moment – you can’t plan scenes like that. The success was that we went to watch him, he was actually doing something, not just posing for me. And that way I felt that there’s a real connection between him, me and the landscape, what he was doing.
I work primarily as a landscape photographer, but with this project I did suggest that it would be a portrait project, due to the nature of the commission but also I feel like, I always like portraits, but I think I’m not very good – It’s a little challenge for me. So, you know, I spent one day at the beginning of the project walking around Liverpool, just getting a feel for the landscape, but at this stage I’m thinking that the landscape is secondary, its more about these people and what they do. In that way they will come into the landscape anyway, so I’m just going to relax on that and follow them – ‘you’re going to the hospital? Let’s go together. Going to the gym – lets go together”
It’s quite difficult because when you are paying attention to people, they’re generally quite big in the pictures, and the landscape becomes secondary.
Part way through the project we decided that it’s not enough just to work with students. Yes, they are contemporary Chinese, but they are very transient within Liverpool and actually Liverpool has a vast Chinese culture there, by themselves. Immediately you really see some vast variety in how they are part of the real Liverpool. While in comparison, the four students that I worked on, their stories are very similar, they have only just arrived, and at this age, they’re each trying to find their own direction in life.
All the people’s stories are there, and then as a photographer, I want to say what I want to say with pictures. For me I want to have the picture, as something that can’t be said with words, that’s magic – that’s our moment when it arrives, I just need to keep looking.
Words: Yan Preston
All images courtesy the artist, 2017 .