The Nature of the conversation

I recently had the chance to pick up Alec Soth’s I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating at the Moom Bookshop off Zhongxiao East Road in Taipei. They were having a small show based on color photographers such as Shore, Gruyaert and Eggleston, so naturally I had to go. I spent hours just looking through the books on display there, especially my favorite from Shore, Uncommon Places. This time around I particularly noticed the apparent care shown in the editing and sequencing of the book. Shore’s later works haven’t resonated with me as much, a phenomenon I’ve observed with many well-known photographers.

As for Soth’s latest book, whose title comes from a line in the Wallace Stevens poem Gray Room, the work conveys connection and empathy in a way I haven’t felt since his first book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, which I’ve always loved. There is one portrait in his new book that doesn’t have the same power as the rest. It is of a woman seen in the gap between bookshelves. All of the other photos in the book resonate and inspire a wealth of stories, but this one feels…out of place. After I’d finished looking at the photographs, I read the text, and this turned out to include a fascinating interview with Soth on how the book came to be. The interview was conducted by Hanya Yanagihara, whom I recognized as being the woman in the incongruous photo.

Interested, I asked Alec about it on IG, trying to be as diplomatic as possible: “The photo of Hanya didn’t seem to belong, and then I realized she was the one you talked with.” I wondered if there was connection between the two. “Am I imagining things?”

“Not at all,” he wrote back. We then went on to discuss the content of the book, specifically the part about connection. Soth, who is about my age, approaching 50, had a moment of clarity a few years ago in Finland, a sudden realization that “everything is connected” and subsequently reevaluated his approach not just to photography, but to dealing with people. He has said that one of the main challenges he faced as he began to engage in photography was his innate shyness, effectively equalizing or even giving more power to those he was photographing than he felt he had in the exchange. Over the years, as his fame grew, the nature of the relationship with his subjects changed; he was an internationally renowned artist, successful author and exhibitionist, a member of Magnum, the world’s most prestigious photography agency. But as his status was changing, so did the work he was doing. His “Ah-ha!” moment redefined his connection with people, his respect for his subjects, and it has seemingly made a real difference.

I’ve long wondered how so many famous photographers start out strong, with real, emotive work, and then lose that in the latter stages of their careers. The prevailing wisdom has simply been that people lose the creative spark as they get older, but reading about Soth’s experience and seeing the resulting work following his revelation makes me think something else is at play, mainly, the nature of the connection between the photographer and the subject. Soth compares it to that of two people on a seesaw.

In some circles, such as street photography, many -too many- photographers seem to assume a posture of domination and even objectification of their subjects, eagerly grabbing as much power in the relationship as they can. The reason for this might lie in the toxic mixture of social media and gadget worship that has infected the genre, which I’ve written about elsewhere, and might go a long way to explaining the spiritual paucity of much of this kind of photography. Ego, it seems, is the enemy of sensitivity, of pathos, of connection. It places blinkers on us, blinding us to all of the potential of being open to the world on an equal basis, substituting our vanity instead.

The photographers I most admire, however, tend to take a more respectful and curious approach to the subjects of their work, at least in making the work that brought them to my attention. Respect for the subjects of one’s work is also something I try to instill in my own students.

These changes in the nature of the connection with the subject might be why some photographers’ work changes as they gain fame and influence. The very nature of the relationship with subjects changes, the balance shifts, and the connection is fundamentally altered. Take an open-minded, curious photographer and stick them in a famous agency, give them interviews and assignments and minders and entourages and fans dogging their every step, looking to see what wondrous magical composition they’re going to create next, and that connection become all the more tenuous. Be they a failed art student wandering the streets of Paris, or shy man in his 30’s following the path of the river that flows through his country, the lifeblood of their work is intense observation free of the pollution of ego that so often comes to obscures our vision. Judgement threatens observation, and the whole thing can break down. For some, the only way to deal with such developments may be to abandon photography in favor of another art form. Others may move to more abstract work. And some may be hit, perhaps while on a flight to Helsinki, by the realization that they cannot relinquish the very essence of their work…the knowledge that everyone is connected.

“Your thoughts have made me see things in a different light, thank you,” I wrote Soth following our exchange.

He responded: “You’ve also given me something to reflect on. Thank you.”

by TC Lin

TC Lin talks with Teresa Chang

BME Interview series: TC Lin talks with Teresa Chang. This interview was conducted in Chinese and translated to English.

1. Hello. Could you please introduce yourself?

My name is Teresa Chang. I have been shooting in the streets for more than three years. My day job as a secretary is quite stressful, so to relax I took advantage of an opportunity to meet with some friends who are into street photography, and whenever I had the time, I would go out shooting with them. I never expected that I’d becomeso addicted to it. Now, if I don’t take photos, something just doesn’t feel right; it seems I’ve fallen in love with it.

2. How did you come to take up a camera and start shooting?

I was following my group of street-shooting friends in Taichung. I didn’t pay much attention to the specific equipment because the main thing is to be willing to go out and try to connect and interact with people. The camera is really secondary to that. I’ve been using the same camera and lenses from the beginning, and I’ve become used to using two fixed-focal-length lenses for everything. At first I just observed from behind my friends, just to see how they shot. I didn’t think I’d get so intoit, but I did. In the course of shooting street, you can discover all kinds of places, fascinating places you would normally not give a second glance to, just on your way to or from work.

3. What do you hope to convey through your photography?

I don't know what most people think about the environment here in Taiwan; many might see it as very messy and lacking the kind of beautiful scenery you see abroad. But in my eyes, Taiwan is quite unique, and I feel my work reflects a unique Taiwanese flavor. Some pictures might seem quite conflicting, but that is one of the characteristics of Taiwan. One of the reasons I’ve sought to participate in some international competitions over the past three or four years is that I hope people from other countries can see and appreciate the street scene in Taiwan, not just the usual scenic and portraits. What are the defining characteristics of Taiwan? What are our streetscapes like? I really want people from other countries to see it all.

4. What exactly do you mean by “conflicting” work?

For example, some back alleyways and barred-up windows…many people think that such sights are ugly, as well as the old vegetable markets. In fact, these kinds of enviroments have been created over time by the daily habits of Taiwanese people. What I am recording is not a matter of beauty or ugliness; authenticity is large part of what attracts me, but also a sense of the’s hard to describe.

5. How has your attitude towards photography changed in the past three years?

The camera is a tool;street shooting is a method. I was shooting aimlessly in the beginning, and after meeting with my friends and also seeing a great deal of work from around the world, I began to come up with my own ideas and organizing series. Street photography for me can't just be a simple, aimless pursuit, so I worked towards making series, as I think this is very important.Simply shooting single street images, I feel, doesn’t let me speak my own truth, and the final work won’t be complete; it will always just be about the single image. If it is only a street scene, it won’t be accepted by most of the art circles in Taiwan. If your photo is good, but there is nothing behind it, it is still just a general street view and cannot attain the status of top-notch work here. You’ll just be stuck, and if you are stuck at that stage for three or four years, there is nowhere to go, no way to improve, so you should try to break through that, think about what is going on around you, what the series you want to create is, and then organize and edit it. It’s much better to have parameters.

6. Regarding the series you just mentioned, do you plan a series of photos first and then shoot it, or do you come up with the series from photos you’ve already shot?

I think that both approaches can be done at the same time. The first thing is to shoot broadly. Whatever you see is related to your life, so you can try a wide range of shots, and then edit the photos. There will be sufficient context, and you will know generally what kind of shots you’re most interested in getting.

7. Does a series have to tell a story? Do you need to plan it first? What advice would you give to people who are starting out?

It can be a story or a description of one thing. You can shoot with or without a plan, or take a subject and either narrow it down or extend it. In fact, none of this is set in stone. Some people may be more suited to working in a certain way, while others are not, and this of course applies to everyone. Alec Soth’s book Sleeping by the Mississippi is not just recording the places he visited on his trip, but it’s also telling the stories of the people he encountered along the way. He planned the shooting in order to successfully complete the book. Alex Webb, on the other hand, shoots street scenes, just shooting where he goes without a solid, deliberate plan, but he is very good at shooting and has his own personal characteristics. So I feel one shouldn’t limit oneself too much;just be willing to go out and shoot a lot, and you’ll discover the right direction for yourself. Although I’ve only been shooting for a little more than three years, during this time I have gotten to know many friends who practice many different types of photography.So I think I have grown a lot in this respect.

8. How does your work reflect your personality and ideas?

I’ve liked painting very much since I was a child, but traditional Taiwanese families always feel that painting has no future, so most of my elders did not encourage me. I felt restricted in such an environment. Later, photography helped me discover my own direction. Many people have experience in photography, and/or have taken a class on the subject. The teachers will generally teach composition, the rule of thirds, etc. I never learned those or what was supposed to be the best angle for shooting, or apertures or shutter speeds, etc. I tend to rely on my intuition, being attracted to certain images even though I may not know why at the time. I’ve tried looking at some photography books;they bored me back when I started, but after I’d been doing photography for a while, I began to realize the meaning behind the collections.

9. How did you get the idea to make a photobook?

Actually, this was the first one;there are only twenty pages. The main purpose of the photobook was to let more people see my photos. The collection was published by an independent publishing company in Taiwan. Everyone knows that photobooks are perceived by most publishers in Taiwan as not being that sellable, so most photographers here have to self-finance limited-issue photobooks. They are all working to express what they want to express.

10. How did you edit and sequence your photobook?

I actually have a lot of photos, so I asked my friends to help me edit them as they have more experience in that regard. Taiwan is more than just the usual wedding photos, studio portraits, and landscapes…with my work, I hope to gradually subvert some of the more traditional views of photography here. Street photography is quite common in other countries, and the concept is a good one.

11. What plans or developments do you have for your photography over the next decade?

I’m just going with the flow. I say this because, in Taiwan, one has to be very persistent to accomplish much in the photographic circles.This is quite difficult to do because there seem to be many unwritten “rules” in Taiwan! Ideally, I should be following my own vision step by step, not forcing it, because, after all, I am not a full-time photographer; photography is an interest of mine, letting me relax, and it’s the life I want, i.e. it’s enough for me for now. Of course, after I won the Miami Street Photography award, many people started to notice me, and this may also be a good motivation for me to speed up some of the things I’ve wanted to do.

12. What motivates you to continue to practice street shooting?

Photography is just a matter of course for me. Like you, when I see a picture, I just take it. It is a natural reaction, not something I do with any particular deliberation.

13. Which photographers/photography books have had the biggest influence on you?

I really like the Alec Soth book I mentioned above;it is very quiet and poetic. He connects the scenes together in a way I really enjoy. When I first started, I was attracted by the images of Alex Webb, as he uses so many layers of light and shadow, and I also like Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi; she tends to shoot some abstract details, but with strong emotional connections. And there are actually many others I like.

This one, which won the Miami award, is quite funny. Some netizens sent me a message describing the composition of my work like this: The character fits exactly in the block of color, the light on the neck of the main character is a nice finishing touch, and the right foot fills the composition...they told me all this very systematically. In fact, when I saw it, I just thought it was a nice scene. The colors attracted me, so I waited there for a bit. I won't wait too long…I know some people will wait for a long time to get a photo, but I won't; I just tend to wait for a bit and, if nothing seems to be happening, I just move on. I won't force myself to shoot something like that in particular. For this photo, I took about three or four shots there. When I saw the scene, I pretty much knew what composition I wanted. I knew that children would be coming down the slide, so I waited, and the appearance of a pair of feet at that time was quite fortuitous, as I didn’t have to wait that long. Without the feet, I feel that the picture would not be that interesting.

I generally prefer to take interesting, somewhat quirky pictures. I don't know if people can see the relationships and connections in this shot;many people ignore such small details; I may record things most people see as boring but which I think are interesting. I wanted to try some different things here, so I talked to them and asked if I could take a couple more shots. I told them that it was because they were quite interesting, and even though they had no idea what I meant by that, they still agreed to let me shoot them.

This one was taken in a fishing port in Keelung. The fisherman was washing next to the pier. He also asked me what I was shooting; I said I was just shooting everything. Although I took a photo in a bit of a fun-minded spirit, I never shoot with ill intent. If it will provoke people or insult them, I won’t take the photo.

This was taken at the Flower Expo in Taichung. I love the feeling of the light and shadows cooperating to give the impression of the boy being tied up in light. I didn’t wait for this scene; I just happened upon it.

The scenes I shoot are often quite ordinary. If this scene hadn’t caught my eye, I would have passed it by. The tent looks just like a house;some people’s figures are revealed by the light and shadow, but most people aren’t able to see just what is going on from just looking at the shot, and are curious about how and where I shot it.In fact, this is just the light and shadow in a tent set up in Taichung Park at night.

This one was shot at a temple fair in Lukang, in central Taiwan; it’s a bit like an Alex Webb shot. I think the main thing about this photo is the face of the auntie on the right, because her eye makes the photo. If she weren’t there, the whole picture would be too flat. This is a close shot taken with a 28mm lens. When people start shooting, they often find it difficult to start taking close-ups because they are embarrassed and afraid of others. When your behavior is strange, people will think that you are very strange. In fact, you only have to be generous and open, and act naturally. People may be curious and ask what you’re doing, but there shouldn’t be any hostility. If you really don't want to interact with people, just pretend you’re shooting something else! Once, when I was wandering around a village in Southern Taiwan, I just happened upon an indigenous wedding…so I just walked in and started taking pictures. They asked me what I was shooting, and I just told them that the wedding was fascinating to me. So they invited me to join them in their celebration, the dancing, the food…they even offered me some betel nuts! The point is to go with your feelings when interacting with people on the street.




Three Seconds of Pleasant Geometry


Back in the day, a compelling photograph could be taken in a fraction of a second and considered for years, even decades. The small world of street photography was dominated by photographers such as Henri Cartier-bresson, who said, “Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.” But today, while we may spend collectively a great deal of time taking shots, the time we take to consider their significance has been steadily whittled down, creating a vicious cycle of sorts not only in how photography is evaluated these days, but what kind of photography is made available for evaluation.

In the past, work that made it into the public consciousness came about due to the intent of a small, admittedly highly biased pool of individuals who had the opportunity and/or luck to gain access to a few select media.That state of affairs did change with the advent of the Internet, but rather than leveling the playing field as promised, it changed the channels through which this process could occur. Instead of a select few, mainly straight white men of means in Western countries who were able to forego other employment and afford the expensive equipment necessary at the time, the promise was that anyone with any camera could play, and after the wide adoption of mobile phone cameras, that future seemed to be in sight.

Except that hasn’t quite happened.To be sure, more people have access to photographic tools and the ability to make it widely viewable than ever before. The floodgates opened, but we still can only view so many images in a day. Someone, or something, had to assume the task of filtering the flood.

And someone did; you could say everyone did, in the form of pressing the “Like” or “Fav” button on their phones. But in order to translate those billions of touches into a semblance of hierarchy, something more was needed: Algorithms were employed to tell media outlets what kind of photos attracted the attention of the most people.

But the way we have been viewing these photos has resulted in a fundamental change in our tastes.

Viewing photographic prints has traditionally been seen as the best way to appreciate the full impact of a work. Then computers came into common usage, and though the first computer screens were woefully inadequate to the task, due to poor resolution, etc., they did geta great deal better. Looking at photos on a modern high-resolution, color-profiled screen became a joy, like a big, glowing print.As early as the mid-2000’s, when people mostly viewed images on large computer screens, sites like Flickr were the place to view photography.

Theoretically, this should have been the pinnacle of photographic viewing experience to this point: Large, highly detailed photographs with sumptuous colors and tones available at a touch of a button for our enjoyment. But even though it is possible to carry around a good-sized screen in the form of a tablet these days, that’s not what we’re doing.

Mobile phones have instead become the default media consumption tool; mobile sites like Instagram dominated the scene, trammeling website-based photography.As a result, most photos are viewed on small mobile phone screens in public settings. In this scenario, the details of a photo vanish into insignificance. You look down at your tiny phone screen in your hand, quickly sum up the general composition, the broad strokes of color, the heavy leading lines and general contrast, because that’s all you can see. It’s like squinting at a print hung on a wall from across the room. There’s no real way to get close; intimacy evaporates. Phone screen resolution has become exquisitely detailed in recent years, but the size is limited to one that can fit comfortably in one hand, and after having exceeded the human eye’s capabilities, resolution becomes meaningless. Likewise, strong, contrasting colors beckon from such screens far more than they do at larger sizes.

What we see is supposedly the general gestalt of an image, but what happens when something that aims to be more than the sum of its parts sacrifices those parts to emphasize the whole? Is it worth the time, effort and thought to make a photograph today that rewards the unlikely possibility of extended consideration beyond the mere facts of its geometry and colors, removing the end purpose of those factors in favor of their simple existence?

I can’t say which came first, the chicken of small-screen viewing or the egg of shorter attention spans. In any case, the audience of these tiny images is for the most part people with a bit of spare time, perhaps on our way to work or at lunch, spending a few seconds amid our other distractions glancing at photos on our phones, making a quick judgement before perhaps pressing the “Like” button, and then scrolling to the next one. If we’re deeply impressed (or, more likely, if we want to impress the photographer) we might type a series of exclamation marks, or perhaps even a real comment. I am confident by this point that, if a user with thousands or more followers follows me, it is done, possibly by a bot, in the hope that I will automatically follow them back. The bot will then unfollow me the next day.

This explains why the parts are sacrificed for the benefit of the whole; the “whole” here is not the photography, but rather getting people to pay attention to us.Consideration and appreciation have largely been jettisoned because not only do we not have the time, they, along with their goal, i.e. deciphering the meaning of a photograph, have both become extraneous to the more desirable process of gathering attention. This is not a coincidence, for although one depends on the other, once one is removed, the other will follow.

The inevitable dismantling of the old structures of photographic appreciation left space open to whatever primal impulses drive the public narrative of the day, even if the veneer of the old structures persists in an attempt to retain their aura of legitimacy.Many photography competitions these days feature social media prizes, and even the ones that don’t are inordinately influenced by such factors. Thousands upon thousands of photographers hustle to get their shots onto various popular online platforms, in anticipation of a deluge of likes, but no thought is given to time spent considering the images in question or the results of such theoretical evaluation. The shots we see are all pleasant to look at…strong leading lines, heavy contrast, enticing colors, perhaps a funny juxtaposition, and…not much else. They’re meant to impress, but only briefly. Once the button is clicked, their job is done.

This state of affairs is not Instagram’s doing, nor Facebook’s. In fact, not much has really changed in the grand scheme of things. As I’ve written in the past, photography has never truly been the mass media phenomenon its use in service of social media made it seem. We are not drowning in a “photographic flood” because “everyone is a photographer now.” It is true that everyone has a camera now. Everyone looks at photos on their phone. Everyone has a shorter attention span. Everyone likes attention. Exposure is our currency.

Is that not the norm, however? And isn’t meaning a subject for each viewer to decide themselves? Photographs, even at their best, have never themselves told stories…rather, they inspire us to conjure up our own realizations of their meaning. But what happens to our thought processes when the majority of the images jostling for our attention have done away with need for meaning beyond well-placed arrays of elements? Like lines of well-separated people in the frame, like funny shadows, like random hands, feet, or heads in isolation from their owners, like pleasing combinations of primary colors, like, scroll, like, scroll. How many of us even bother zooming in, if the app allows it, to take in the details of a shot, the expressions of the people, the relationships and connections within that reveal a deeper context? And does that even help us appreciate the details as part of the frame seen as a whole?

“Thinking too much” (AKA thinking) is looked down on more and more this era of snap judgement. Amid national and global emergencies real and imagined, cascades of memes rising and falling each second at speeds previously unimaginable,few have time for reasoned analysis, the benefits of which are falling by the wayside in the rush to dominate the lofty peaks of comments sections. Just as social media gave a false impression of vitality to photography, so has it also created a disingenuous impression of what “good” photography is, and the flying buttresses of this construction can be seen in the contests, promotions, Internet listicles, and features of the day.

Is it not possible, even preferable, for photographs to be arranged in a pleasant geometric fashion with lovely colors AND hold deeper levels of meaning? Absolutely, as long as the former is utilized in service of the latter.But are such compositions being noticed under the current state of affairs? And if not, where is the motivation for the majority of photographers to strive for such meaning in their work?

Cartier-Βresson once said, presciently, “The intensive use of photographs by mass media lays ever fresh responsibilities upon the photographer. We have to acknowledge the existence of a chasm between the economic needs of our consumer society and the requirements of those who bear witness to this epoch. This affects us all, particularly the younger generations of photographers. We must take greater care than ever not to allow ourselves to be separated from the real world and from humanity.”

Interesting work is still being done, if you look for it. It is often found in the modern equivalent of a closet shelf or desk drawer, languishing on the individual websites nobody visits any more, or perhaps in a smattering of zines nobody paid much attention to, or a project we didn’t bother with because the shots didn’t take advantage of the incredible color gamut of our iPhone screen. The good stuff is out there, as it always has been, languishing in the musty back stacks of libraries’ photobook sections or in our grandparents’ old shoeboxes. Occasionally, even now, some of it comes to light.

For about three seconds.

by TC Lin