In this interview, Hon Hoang talks to artistic photographer Zhou HanShun.
With the unknown, our mind fills in the information gaps while we seek out what we believe to be true. There is beauty in that mystery and need of resolution. The sensation of the unknown is familiar to photographers. The need for exploration and resolution, whether within the world on within our minds. It is a familiar feeling for photographer Zhou Hanshan. In this interview, we discuss his career, path to photography, and the frenetic unknown when compared to the stagnation of the familiar.
What were some of your early experiences with photography? Did you know in those moments that photography would be your career?
My first contact with photography was during my early teens, when I played with my father’s Minolta Super SRT. When I went onto art school, I chose to major in photography during my final year at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
I kind of knew early in life that I wanted to do something that revolves around “art”. But later on, I realised that making a decent living with fine art would be terribly difficult, especially in a tiny country like Singapore. That’s why I enrolled in the graphic design programme in art school, instead of fine arts. I took up photography “seriously” when I was in art school, while studying graphic design. Back then, photography was taught through the design programme, and not in the fine arts programme. In the 2nd year of the 3 year course, I decided that I would do photography as a major. So I guess that’s when I decided that it was something that I wanted to do. But interestingly enough, after graduation, I went to work in the advertising industry as an Art Director, instead of being a “Professional” Photographer. I guess that I would rather work on personal projects and photograph on my own terms, instead of someone else’s. Being in the creative industry also allows me to see various forms of photography. But having to work full-time means that photography actually took the backseat, until around 2010. While I was getting recognition for my advertising work, somehow, I realised that something was missing in my life. That was when I started to photograph “seriously” again, and have been working on my personal projects again and getting my work exhibited ever since.
Whether through formal education or self-taught, how did you develop your style as a photographer? Are there any photographers that influence you in particular?
There are lots of photographers whom I admire. Example: Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander, Daido Moriyama, Henri Cartier Bresson, Masahisa Fukase, Josef Koudelka, just to name a few. These are photographers who did things their own way, with their unique vision, without being influenced by what the majority of the work during their time. I think that’s important for creators. To do our own thing. Even if it might not be widely accepted. To be safe is to be boring. Although I went to art school and majored in photography, I don’t really like to restrict myself to a particular style of photographing. But I do prefer to create work in B&W though.
Please tell me more about your upcoming book Frenetic City. How did you find yourself in Hong Kong and how did you go about starting this project?
I lived in Hong Kong from 2014-2017. When I first landed in 2014, I was quite overwhelmed by the intensity of the crowded streets and the chaotic nature of it. Frenetic City was a photographic reaction to it. I wanted to create the feeling that I felt in the photographs. I am currently crowd funding on Kickstarter to publish Frenetic City into a book. My first monograph. The campaign ends on 30th May 2020.
What can you tell me about your time photographing Hong Kong? What are some things you learned about the people and the city as you worked on the project?
Hong Kong is a very dynamic and energetic city. Coming from Singapore, I must say that I do miss its energy sometimes. It’s also a very “photograph-able” city. When I first arrived, I was quite overwhelmed by the chaotic and stressful environment, especially the crowded streets. Compared to other cities, Hong Kong for me feels much more intense. While Singapore is also a busy city, the pace of life here is somewhat less “hurried.” An example would be that I can easily sit at a cafe for an hour or two, while in Hong Kong, the bill would come as soon as I was almost done with my food. In general, I think Hong Kongers are trying really hard to make ends meet (given the astronomical price of property there).
Being born and raised in Singapore, what is it like to photograph people native to your country compared to the projects you take on abroad?
Being born and having spent most of my life in Singapore, it can be quite “difficult” to find inspiration to photograph here. Having said that, I am currently working on a project that explores life and landscapes along the edge of this island-state. Somehow, I find myself much more productive when I am working on projects abroad or based on other cities. Maybe it’s the initial freshness that comes with visiting or living in a new environment.
As a creative, what is the importance of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone? Do you notice a difference in the quality of your photographs when you’re comfortable versus when pushing yourself?
I think it is very important to push myself to experiment or try new ways of photographing. I’m not exactly a fan of having a particular style of photographing. For me, it depends on the project that I am working on. Some projects that are more “documentary”, then I would employ a more documentary way of working. If it’s more “conceptual”, then I would use a more conceptual way of creating the work. So in that sense, when I look back at the resulting work, I do see a difference. Some work might look aesthetically “nicer”, while others might look more like snapshots.
If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?
If I could advise my early self, I would tell myself to start working on my personal projects much earlier on in life and not get tied down by the constant pressures or worries of making a living.
Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
Create work that is important to yourself and not get influence by style. Ultimately, photography, like all art forms, is about what you are trying to say or the work that you are portraying.