Chaofan Wan, originally from Hubei, China, now based in Tokyo. He has earned a doctoral degree from Tokyo University of the Arts, with a diverse academic background that includes a bachelor’s degree from Southwest University in Chongqing, China, and a master’s degree in Political Economy from Tokyo Meiji University. Beyond his academic achievements, Wan is a co-founder of STAIRS PRESS and closely affiliated with the Totem Pole Photo Gallery in Tokyo.
Unwaveringly commits to long-term photographic projects, exemplified by Wan’s latest series, Yes, the River Knows – Arakawa River, which spanned over five years, observing life and landscape along the Arakawa River and earning him the 44th New Cosmos of Photography Excellence Award in 2021.
2023 proved to be a prolific year for the photographer, as he clinched both the Miki Jun Award and the Photo City Sagamihara Award. Wan’s work gazes at the nuances and intricacies of everyday life and society, devoid of any form of symbolisms and decorative embellishments. Steadfastly adheres to the practise of straight photography, Wan captures what he sees, free from judgment or preconceived notions.
I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting the photographer for the first time in December 2022, the rendezvous unfolded at a quaint little café tucked away in the backdrop of Shibuya, Tokyo. The morning was brisk and I arrived a tad early at the venue, shortly thereafter, Wan joined me, sporting a beanie and a Barbour jacket. Unlike the customary bowing that often accompanies first-time encounters in Japan, Wan was refreshingly no-nonsense and direct. With a simple greeting, we both took our seats. The photographer exuded an air of casual ease, our interaction was unassuming and seamless, where he swiftly agreed to participate in an interview, setting the stage for any potential collaboration. Following this initial encounter, we caught up with each other once more for the interview in Wan’s studio, conveniently nestled not too far from the heart of Shinjuku. Our topics of discussion were primarily centred around the world of photography, please find the opening segment of the transcript of our conversation below, as well the second instalment here.
Yes, the River Knows
Before our chat today Chaofan, I read some of your past interviews where you discussed many aspects of your work, I hope you don’t mind if some repetitive questions come up during our conversation.
So you were born in Gu’an, China, do you still remember much about the place?
Yes of course, if it wasn’t for the pandemic I used to go back every year. It’s been like 3 years now, I may fly back sometime in June (2023).
What about Japan, when you first arrived in Tokyo, was there anything that impressed you?
CW：也没什么太大的。就是挺好的，挺喜欢的。东京街道比较干净，当然人与人的距离会有点远。到现在来日本已经第10个年头了吧，呆久了就感觉还挺舒服的，老实说我不太在乎环境，在哪都可以。喜欢大城市的原因主要是方便 — 买东西，吃饭，看展各方面。国内的话，人跟人的交流会更多一点，但人际关系可能会稍微复杂一些，东京虽然感觉人跟人的距离比较远，但有时候这样反而能够让我更加集中注意力来做自己的事情。
Nothing of note frankly. Obviously Tokyo is nice and clean, and I enjoy living here, even though people seem to keep a larger distance away from each other. It’s been like 10 years since my first arrival in Japan, and as time goes by, I have found Tokyo to be rather comfortable. Truth be told, my surroundings do not really impact me much, I can sort of just adapt anywhere. The main reason I like metropolitan cities is mainly because of convenience – shopping, dining, checking out exhibitions and so on. There may be more interactions between individuals back in China in contrast, but interpersonal relationships can be sometimes too intimate and overly complicated for me. Tokyo, on the other hand, has fewer of these complexities. Although people tend to mind their own business, it kind of allows me to focus more on my work.
After obtaining a degree in Political Economics from Meiji University, what led you to choose photography during your doctoral studies?
Initially I imagined I could just self-study photography, since I did politics for my Master’s at Meiji and after graduation, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the relationship between politics and photography so I just thought why not, you know, studying photography for my Ph.D. It was mostly theories though, not so much about how to take a photo and so on, I kind of learnt that by myself.
The movie, The Asadas1, tells the story of a Japanese photographer, I wonder if there are any similarities between this movie and your life experiences?
The protagonist went through a period of, indulgence shall I say, while studying at a university in Osaka — tattoos, dying his hair blonde and etc., have you ever gone through such a rebellious phase in your life?
Not really, my life and my mental state have always been relatively stable, I guess it’s because I’ve always known what I wanted and I don’t really need external stimulation or novelty per se.
“The reason I love photography is precisely because of the fact that I would never be able to break into the fabric of the world on my own…”
Let’s have a few words about photography. Before arriving at the scene for a shoot, do you have any preconceived images in your mind, of what you want to capture?
No, the unknown is what appeals to me. If I knew what it was in advance, I might lose interest in capturing it in photos. Unless, I have a rough idea of the place and the subject, and I’m totally confident that I can grab an amazing shot, then I would definitely pay a visit. Under general circumstances I don’t conduct any research before I go and photograph.
Let’s say, you are in Kyoto now, would there be any specific scene or person that you would really want to capture?
Well yes, but not that specific. Say for instance, the entry point to Tokyo Bay2 is marked by two lighthouses, one located in Chiba city and one in Miura city. For the new series that I’m working on currently, the scenery between the two lighthouses is imperative, including the surrounding of each lighthouse, is something that I would really like to capture, but to the extent of what exactly, solely depends on the day, there exists only this fairly vague outline of an image in my head beforehand.
Instinct indeed. I try not to presume too much. I mean.. Our brains are way too small to grasp the entire world. The reason I love photography is precisely because of the fact that I would never be able to break into the fabric of the world on my own — what I would actually encounter this second and what’s going to happen next. Everything that I can see, everything that I capture, they don’t already pre-exist in me. What photography brings me, is something fresh on another spectrum.
It differs from painting, where you can’t just fire up your imagination and then draw or depict things you haven’t seen. Photography is all about that split second of encountering, especially the traditional style and straight photography. I do look at conceptual photography too, but it’s not something that I do personally.
I remember when we first met, you said you didn’t particularly enjoy travelling.
Well yes I do, but it’s not like I have an obsession with it. When I go on travelling, the destination must be somewhere I can photograph something new. If I go to Kyoto or Nara for example, I pretty much just remain as a tourist because everything I photograph there, is just way too much Kyoto or Nara.
All have been photographed a million times.
You are right. I mean, you can still photograph some odd personal things, but I just feel like that the end product is hardly up to par. Meaning that, if you are taking photos while you are travelling, it’s as if you are battling that place, it’s a process of wrestling. Kyoto or Nara, these cities are all so saturated by generations after generations, there’s no way that I can defeat them as a tourist. Unless I get to spend a stretch of time there, instead of a short trip of 3 or 4 days, only then I could figure out how to beat them.
That’s a fascinating way of putting it.
Only after you beat the shit out of them you may turn them into your own work, so that when people look at it, they would go like, ‘Ah this is your work’, instead of, ‘Oh that’s a beautiful photo of Kyoto’, you know what I mean?
You said in an earlier interview that, one of the main reasons for you to photograph Jialing River3, was because it was close.
I have no fantasies about the faraway.
I believe there are many photographers who, in order to capture something magnificent, might go to a distant, or dangerous place even, but you don’t seem to be bothered, from what I saw, your eyes are more set on the dull mundane matters.
It’s presumably not hard to tell from my work that I have absolutely no yearning for the distant lands. I just think that as long as I could take care of the reality that exists a few inches in front of me, I’d be able to create some fantastic works. I mean, I would still travel don’t get me wrong, but I’ve always felt like I would never be able to produce work series like By the Water4, or Yes, the River Knows5 when I’m on a trip, these sort of hugely time-consuming and down-to-earth projects.
BURNING IN THE STONE (2017 – ongoing) is another work series that I created back in the day, they were photos I took while I was on a trip, for me, they look nice, aesthetically they are very pleasing but when you compare it with the Arakawa6 series or the Tokyo Bay series, they are just completely different.
Different in what sense?
In Arakawa there’s a clear-cut message and within, layers of underlying subtexts, there’s something inherent that I wanted to express in the series. On the other hand there isn’t that much self-expression in the photos you take while travelling, in my opinion, they were mostly taken for aesthetic reasons.
According to Steve Schapiro, a photograph requires a definite degree of history to possess a long-lasting power. Take Daido Moriyama as another example, many of his themes involved going around the flip side of Tokyo back in the days, whether it’s fuzoku7, or the rainy scenes in Shinjuku, they were all inseparable from the era he was living in and the political background at the time. Although you majored in politics in university, what you photograph these days has no connections to the world of politics or history, why is that?
When it comes to politics-related themes the scope is more limited, there’s nothing I would like to address so conspicuously, otherwise it would shift into conceptual photography wouldn’t it? You know, nothing escapes politics; what can and cannot be done in a designated zone, why is it an industrial area here instead of a residential one — they are all politics. For example Arakawa, the government’s multiple dredging efforts were aimed at reducing the impact of flooding on both banks, this is by all accounts, politics, hence I just don’t see the point in talking about it in my work. if you understand where it comes from, great, but even if you don’t, it doesn’t really matter.
You had been photographing the Arakawa River persistently for 4, 5 years, and you are moving on to Tokyo Bay next, what is it that you are trying to say?
Rather than conveying a very explicit message, I wanted to explore the banks of the river and Tokyo Bay to see what they truly look like. I capture what I see, and by passing through the medium of photography, it is then shared with the audience. What matters most to me is whether a photograph can touch me emotionally, as the number of these photographs accumulates, a narrative naturally emerges. After going through the process of editing and selections, I believe the concentrated narrative of many myriad aspects would provide viewers with an intuitive understanding of what Arakawa or Tokyo Bay looks like from my perspective.
And the entire narrative just represents who I am as a person and a photographer — the reasons why I choose to photograph certain scenes and not others are reflections of my worldview, values, and human perspective, I guess this is what sets me apart. So I think viewers can get it when they look at my work, again, even if they don’t, there’s no harm right?
1. The Asadas (浅田家!) is a 2020 Japanese movie depicting the life story of Masashi Asada, the Kimura Ihei award-winning Japanese photographer and his family.
2. Tokyo Bay is a prominent natural harbour in Japan, located on the southeastern coast of Honshu island, encompassing Tokyo’s metropolitan area and serving as a crucial hub for maritime activities and coastal development.
3. The Jialing River in Chongqing, China, is a significant tributary of the Yangtze River, flowing through the urban landscape and providing a vital waterway for transportation and scenic views.
4. The Arakawa River is a major waterway in Tokyo, Japan, flowing through the city and providing scenic views and recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike.
5. By the Water「水辺にて」(2012-2013) is a work series created by Wan during his university years in Chongqing. For well over a year, he photographed the Jialing River, which serves as a backdrop where people frequent for various activities and to contemplate. These fragments captured in photographs can perhaps be seen as the true reflection of the city’s collective emotions.
6. Yes, the River Knows – Arakawa River「河はすべて知っている──荒川」(2017-2022) is another work series created by Wan. The photographer’s approach to understanding Tokyo involved tracing its contours along the river’s path, emphasising water’s role as a silent witness to urban development and the human narrative. Arakawa River serves as a canvas onto which the city’s multifaceted identity is painted, all the while showcasing how human influence shapes the natural world. The work series captures the delicate balance between human insignificance in the face of nature’s grandeur and the formidable impact of human intervention. The river, in its flowing presence, acts as a record keeper, chronicling the ebb and flow of urban society and its surrounding environment.
7. Fuzoku (風俗) here refers to the entertainment industry, particularly related to adult-oriented services or establishments.
The original interview was conducted in Mandarin Chinese by Axel Wang on 25 February 2023. The conversation has been condensed and edited. The title of the chapter is in reference to the work series Yes, the River Knows – Arakawa River created by Chaofan Wan between 2017 and 2022.
Editor & Design: Axel Wang
Photography: Courtesy of the photographer