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Interview with Yangkun Shi, Photographer/Visual Artist

Interview originally done for Young China Watchers on 6 July, 2022.

Yangkun Shi is a young Chinese photographer who uses photography to explore the uncertainty of China’s rapidly changing social and economic landscape. He has received awards including the PHMuseum Photography Grant, PDN Emerging Photographer, TOP20 Chinese Contemporary Photographer and the First Prize of UrbanPhotoFest Open. Yangkun has a master’s degree in photography from the University of the Arts London. As a cinematographer, Yangkun participated in the filming of Ascension, a documentary nominated for best documentary feature at the 2022 Oscars.

[Late Spring I (2020), Yangkun Shi]

This interview was originally conducted in Mandarin. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Young China Watchers (YCW): Can you tell me how you came to develop an interest in photography?

Yangkun Shi (YS): I officially considered photography as a career when I was in university majoring in journalism, where I devoted my free time to volunteering as a student reporter. It was around that time that I gradually became obsessed with photography. Inspired by a respectable teacher of mine, during my freshman and sophomore summers, I interned at Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou as well as some newspapers in Beijing and Hangzhou. At that time, I kept a close eye on the developments in society and was constantly on the lookout for good stories for producing photo essays.

Later, I discovered that I am more interested in photography than journalism, so I decided to pursue a graduate degree in photography at the University of the Arts London. That meant a lot of changes for me because the University of the Arts London is essentially an art school. Transitioning from a humanities student in journalism to an art student undoubtedly meant I would have a hard time immersing myself in an art environment. During the time I was studying in London, there were also the European refugee crisis, terrorist attacks and Brexit. At that critical moment, I knew it was a turning point for the world. I could see a division between those ready to live with the changes and those willing to confront them. That has made me think what additional questions I could ask the world with my photography.

YCW: You were in Wuhan during the first lockdown in 2020 to take photos for Sixth Tone and are now in Shanghai living through the lockdown. Can you tell me what you captured and what messages you try to convey through your images? How have the lockdowns changed or enhanced your understanding of China?

YS: I went there to report on the lifting of the lockdown. To people in Wuhan, I was a complete outsider. I was free to move around and enter different premises to shoot. I visited Leishenshan Hospital (an emergency specialty field hospital built in response to the COVID-19 pandemic), Wuhan Central Hospital, Union Hospital and several other communities.

I have a series called “Late Spring” that I did outside of work in Wuhan. The reason for creating this personal project was that I felt there was a contradiction between how, as a photojournalist, I told stories using my photos and how close my photos were to reality. Generally speaking, when we talk about photojournalism, we trust that they bring a kind of objective truth. But when I was there at the scene, I felt that photojournalism is far from the reality. So I questioned myself: are these photos deceiving? How much do they reflect reality? To bring clarity to the work I did, I went to Wuhan Park, among many other parks, alone with my film camera, taking black and white photos of the empty park that was once a thriving public space popular with families and children. I displayed the negative film in a lightbox, much like what doctors do with CT scan. I hoped to use this series to remind people that there is always deviation between the reality that we see and the objective reality, much like we do not always see films in our daily life.

This time in Shanghai is different; I am no longer a bystander. I have been grounded in my house for more than 60 days. I barely take any photos because I do not feel I can accurately express my feelings. I believe for many people living in Shanghai, this lockdown has turned their world upside down. But for me, it does not have such a revolutionary impact, primarily because I have always been living through anxiety and powerlessness throughout my whole life since I began treating photography as a vocation. I have always had this kind of anxiety because as a reporter, I constantly had to face different scenes, whether it was a disaster or an accident. I might feel more anxious now due to the lockdown, but this anxiety is not new to me.

“The reason for creating this personal project was that I felt there was a contradiction between how, as a photojournalist, I told stories using my photos and how close my photos were to reality.”

YCW: How would you describe your photography to someone who is not familiar with it? Do you think your photography can make a difference to how people view their lives and surroundings?

YS: What I have been pursuing is photography that is connected with reality and can give people a sense of authenticity.

As for whether my photos can change how people see their lives, my honest answer is I don’t know, and I don’t expect this. Changing others’ opinions is not the original intent of my photos. Maybe if I were still working in the media industry, I might have such a motivation to change society and change the views of others. This is indeed what a reporter can do. But I do not believe photography can do this – it might provide a different perspective of seeing things, but it does not make any difference by itself. If my photos could change other people’s perceptions, then they would be something akin to propaganda or commercial advertisements, which I always try to avoid. How others judge an issue or incident is not something I can control as a photographer or a content creator, nor something I want to.

“If my photos could change other people’s perceptions, then they would be something akin to propaganda or commercial advertisements, which I always try to avoid.”

YCW: Your series “Retrotopia” seeks to explore the paradox between China’s pursuit of capitalism and three small, isolated villages that still cling to an earlier collectivist dream. Can you walk us through this series?

YS: “Retrotopia” is a series I have been working on for the last few years, in an attempt to understand the connection between the China I live in now and the China my parents had lived decades ago. I did not live in the collective economy and planned economy era, but I always feel connected to that era because my parents used to work in a supply and marketing cooperative (供销社 Gōngxiāo shè), a type of organization that was created in the planned economy era and still exists after the Reform and Opening Up. During my childhood I spent a lot of time playing there while my parents worked. Later, when I became a reporter, I did an interview in Huaxi Village in Jiangsu Province, during which I discovered that, even after market economy reforms, many rural or grass-roots institutions actually still follow collective economic models.

In the past, Huaxi Village and Dazhai Village were a model and a benchmark for the communist ideology. Referencing the “Learn from Dazhai in Agriculture” and “Learn from Daqing in Industry” campaigns launched by Mao Zedong in the 1960s, I used three small villages – Huaxi Village in Jiangsu Province, Nanjie Village in Henan Province, and Dazhai Village in Shanxi Province – as visual samples to conduct a field research. One thing the three villages have in common is they still retain the patterns of a collectivist economy to this day. Some people I met in the villages actually reminisced about the Mao era, as they thought even though life back then was difficult, everyone was equal and happy. What interests me is this lingering nostalgia from the socialist period. In particular, I wonder how this nostalgia is manifested among the locals nowadays, especially among young people, who have never lived in that era but are constantly exposed to a socialist way of life where they live.

Young people do not have a sense of nostalgia similar to their older peers because they have never lived in that era, so they feel a big gap between their ambition and reality. For example, I met a young man in his twenties when I was in Nanjie Village. He would have a stable job, stable income and stable source of food from the village every month if he chose to stay in Nanjie Village, although his salary would only be around 2,000 yuan ($300). But when young people like him go shopping in a nearby city, they feel desperate due to the stark contrast and often want to leave their hometowns. The young man I interviewed left Nanjie Village to work in Guangzhou and Beijing; however, he could not get a foothold in either city. He was lost and returned to Nanjie Village, not long after which he ran away again, and ended up swaying back and forth. I totally feel the desperation and pressure faced by young people like him but understand that this is not uncommon at all in China.

YCW: I see you had participated in the filming of the documentary Ascension (登楼叹), which was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature of the 94th Academy Awards in 2022. Can you share with me what this documentary talks about and what it tries to accomplish?

YS: In late 2019, Jessica Kingdon, the director of Ascension, sent me an email asking if I wanted to be a cameraman for her during her shooting in China, to which I happily agreed. The hour-and-a-half documentary follows the Chinese dream through the social classes, prioritizing productivity and innovation. During the few days I was on the set, I helped her shoot two or three scenes. One was an annual meeting of a cosmetics company in a hotel in the suburbs of Shanghai, and the other was a scene where factory workers did morning exercises and raised the national flag. There was also a scene where workers produced cosmetics on an assembly line in a factory.

I was absolutely inspired by Jessica because she was able to tell stories without giving her own judgement. The scenes that she shot were some of the places I was very familiar with as a reporter, but I never wondered how these scenes could have been communicated in a different way other than photography or two-minute news. Jessica was able to make a documentary of it that has no voiceover and is completely value-free. So I was truly impressed.

— Interview by Greta Lai

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