LOOK17: Sian Bonnell / Beyond the Camera

Since 2014, photographer and curator Sian Bonnell has taken ‘Beyond the Camera’, an annual show of UK graduate work to Pingyao International Photography Festival (PIP) – China’s oldest and largest photography festival. Last year she showed the work of 86 young photographers and is currently planning the fourth year. She talks to us about her experience of taking UK work to China.

We should begin by talking about Pingyao itself, the location for China’s oldest and largest photography festival.

It’s the oldest city in China – around 2700 years old. It’s a cultural place that Chinese people aspire to go to at least once in their lives. The city has some ancient architecture (and ancient plumbing!) and is constantly being restored – it’s a big tourist attraction. The festival has been running since about 2000 and is really highly regarded; I think it’s quite unique – somewhat rough around the edges but it is really important in China as an iconic festival. The opening and closing ceremonies are big production numbers, which are broadcast on both local and national TV to enormous audiences. The first year that I was there, in 2014, I was invited to give a speech at the opening ceremony as the first European curator to bring British graduate photography there.


How did you come to be involved?

I was invited to exhibit work at the biennial festival Fotográfica Bogotá, in Columbia, where I met Alasdair Foster the highly respected curator based in Australia. He is Ambassador for the Asia-Pacific PhotoForum a big photo network of festivals surrounding the Pacific basin, including Australasia, all of the countries that border the Pacific, India, China, Singapore, South America plus North America as well. They are all invited to show work at PIP. PIP 2014 was the 14th Anniversary – and because it had been such a success they decided to feature British work in their student/new graduate section of the festival, so they asked Alistair if he knew anybody, and he suggested me.

Tell us about the nuance and perhaps, the challenges of being in this ancient location, representing contemporary photography from the UK?

It is a massive honour. Pingyao is a landmark city – a very revered place. And it is significant not just for myself but for the young artists that I show. What I’m excited about, is that often it’s a first showing for these young graduates – sometimes its their first ever exhibition and for others, their first international one. For me, it is a huge opportunity to really go to town in showing a range of photography in literally enormous and extremely challenging spaces – and making it work.

There are some restrictions, we can’t show any electronic or video work because electricity is extremely limited and more often non-existent in the spaces, because of the ancient infrastructure. The ancient city is so protected that no cars are allowed inside the city walls, only electric vehicles and bicycles.

The exhibiting spaces are often in barely finished buildings – and many are just in the open air. The International exhibits are all housed in redundant factories; an old cotton mill, a diesel factory… this is the Cotton Factory – this is part of the space we showed in last year:


This was the space in 2014 in the Student section. The images are always sent over as digital files beforehand and printed onsite. We bring all our tools and everything with us that is needed for an exhibition – spirit levels, screws, nails and a variety of different fixings. It’s a huge challenge. Hanging these shows is like a great big problem solving exercise, especially in those spaces and no electricity!


This was 2015 – we were given an enormous space in the diesel factory, which was in the internationally curated section, which was quite an honour. We started laying the work out when we arrived; once again it had been printed there – this time I showed something like 75 students around 175 pieces of work – quite a lot! We don’t have ladders


This is hanging at night with head torches, we work all through the night!


All the areas are themed but this is only really worked out at the time of hanging in order to allow some kind of dialogue to occur between the images…


When it comes to representing UK work in China, do you select work that you feel audiences will respond to well there, or are you being very objective and creating a snapshot of what’s happening now in the UK?

Yes that’s what I’m doing – I’m trying to do that more than anything. What I’m aiming to do is to provide a glimpse of what is happening at the grass roots of photography education in the UK right now rather than concentrating on showing the stars – obviously there will be stars but it’s not the sole aim. In every university all over the UK there are universal themes that students will work with. There’s always going to be something around the family album, identity, outer space, always something questioning the nature of the process and always something about digital imagery. Each institution will have the same kind of work on show – very few are doing anything particularly new – but each year there is a different iteration of the same themes. What I am doing is showcasing these themes and picking the best examples of them. So it’s not necessarily the work that I like or that I’m affected by – I am quite objective. I will just show the best examples of key themes happening in UK photography education at the moment.

Working across China and the UK in that way, what connections have you identified in work from UK photography students and graduates and those studying in China – is that something that you might bring to the UK in the future?

Yes and I’m hoping to do something in 2019. This idea came up because I make sure I show as many Chinese students who are studying here as possible. They are always delighted to be selected – it is important for them to be able to show in their home country and especially at a prestigious festival such as PIP. I was discussing the PIP shows with two colleagues who work at LCC and we came up with the idea of an exchange, so instead of taking new British work to China, we bring new Chinese work to Britain – so this is the next plan. The idea is to involve lecturers that I have met at PIP as well as all the alumni from the UK Universities who have now returned to China, to each suggest graduate work in China that will then be curated and shown in the UK.

Have you found that there have been compromises that you’ve had to make when showing work in China? How do you work around the restrictions?

Now this is interesting. Because I cannot show naked bodies or anything overtly political. Last year, images in at least two of the international shows were removed by the police.


This was a compromise, because he was talking about identity. He was showing himself naked and he had Chinese characters written on his thighs –I couldn’t tell what they were saying and I didn’t want to take that risk. I did ask him and he said actually they are saying ‘right’ and ‘left’ but there was a penis in between so I couldn’t show it! I thought I’ll show these instead and he was fine because he knew I couldn’t do anything else.

How do you find it working as a curator and as a photographer? Does one inform the other?

I find it really fascinating. I find I use the same means – my methodological approach is the same for curating as my photography practice – as a curator and as a photographer I’m pulling disparate elements together and allowing them to talk to each other.



Sian Bonnell will be presenting more on the project and exchange programmes for taking UK work to China at Beyond The Camera: Exploring Models for Exchange Exhibitions In China, Monday 8th May, 2.00 – 3.30pm, Tate Exchange at Tate Liverpool.

Book tickets via Tate Liverpool 

In 2014, Sian Bonnell selected and curated a series of exhibitions showcasing UK graduate photography at Pingyao International Photography Festival. This talk looks at setting up a Higher Education discussion group to share and explore methods and models of exchange programmes from taking work to China to developing routes for showing work from China in the UK.


Interview by Anna Taylor www.anna-taylor.net

Images courtesy Sian Bonnell




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