In the second chapter of our conversation with Chaofan Wan, a Miki Jun award-winning photographer, our discussion predominantly centred on the subject of photography, Wan shares with us his perspective on why he believes this is the best era for photography.
Through the Lens of Life
Have you been back to Jialing River (By the Water) ever since for another shoot?
Nope, after I graduated from Southwest University I came straight to Japan and haven’t been back to Chongqing ever since. It’s pretty far from my hometown, and there’s no reason for me to go back really, I don’t like living in the past, nor do I anticipate the future.
Martin Parr said that all photographers carry a sense of nostalgia. How I understand that is, the second you release the camera shutter, the subject before your eyes transforms into a slice of the past, forever frozen in time.
What you see will eventually become the bygones.
To a degree, photographers are always dealing with the past.
Well if you must analyse it that’s not too widely off the mark, but this kind of thought would rarely cross anyone’s mind when they are photographing don’t you think? I mean, yes while you are lying on the bed after a day’s work and you would perhaps ponder on these types of philosophical questions, but not while you are in action, there’s never enough time, energy and space in the head.
It sounded like you are not a nostalgic person at all.
Honestly I don’t really mind, it would be nice to return to Jialing or Chongqing, but not necessarily for anything photography-related. I would prefer to go for a round of feasting first, like the restaurants I used to love when I was in university, if there’s still time then let’s see. The project of Jialing lasted for an entire year, I used to go there every single day because my uni was extremely close. If I go back now I simply would not be able to create any serious work out of a 2-day trip. Taking some random snaps would just be so banal wouldn’t it, it’s just an act of self-indulgence in a moment of nostalgia. Not for me really.
“…in my opinion, this is now the best era for photography.”
Steve McCurry used to say that his work contains a certain ambiguity but sometimes there’s utterly no meaning at all, he prefers to leave the interpretations to the audience. Is there a message that you are sending to audience via your work?
Intrinsically yes, as I mentioned earlier — my work essentially embodies my values. However, to what extent viewers can resonate with them, I can’t really tell. Comparing the three photographers that you spoke of, and our generation of photographers, the biggest difference perhaps lies in the fact that, they lived in an era when mass media was flourishing, they photographed with the objective of selling their photos to newspapers or magazines, for instance. Since their works were meant to be sold, significant narratives were essential — stories, historical value and so on. Therefore when they were making a living from photography, without a shadow of a doubt, this would impact their value judgments and their choices of subject to capture.
I think the time we are living in is somewhat disparate. In a nutshell, no newspapers would pay a staggering price for our photographs anymore, and the old-school typical channels like magazine publications don’t exactly work these days. Hence, in many ways, this is a truly liberating era for photography, offering tons of freedom. Whatever you want to shoot, it’s all up to the individual.
Photography to me right now, is completely free from any conventional norms and financial constraints. There’s no longer the need to photograph purely just to make a living. Those who lack passion for photography or merely use it to document their everyday, have all moved on to short videos. On the contrary, those who carry on to pursue photography or are beginning to explore it, are the ones who wholeheartedly love the art. Everything they capture through photography is exclusively for their own satisfaction and self-expression.
I’m referring to non-professionals like myself obviously, the professional fashion photographers on the other hand for example, or the ones who work for magazines or undertake commercial projects are a different case, amateur photographers have zero limitation and complete freedom, in my opinion, this is now the best era for photography.
Nowadays if someone wishes to live on photography, it’s apparently quite hard to sustain is it not?
I have not once thought about making a living out of photography though, I’m fine being a non-professional, funding photography from other jobs and whatnot. But then I guess it’s not totally impossible, if someone reaches out for a commercial project I won’t just say no straight up, it’s not entirely my choosing obviously.
When you said this is probably the best era for photography, I may have a slightly different opinion to that. I’ve always felt that in the times that we are living in right now, photography as a creative medium has been severely diluted, by social media, smartphones or the Internet etc., the rate at which photos are being produced is unprecedented, we encounter way too many photographs than we should these days.
Many people have moved on to short videos now no? Although we see many photographs or images every day, how many of them are actually good?
I guess it’s because of the sheer quantity, as a viewer, for me to encounter so many photographs on a daily basis, I felt like in many ways we may have lost the ability to be critical of a photograph, to be able to differentiate, and to tell whether the work is good or not.
I’m somewhat resistant to approaching art from such a rational perspective; I prefer to experience art on an emotional level. I mean, art serves no purpose at all doesn’t it, and it can’t bring you any economic benefits or returns by viewing. Art itself doesn’t accomplish anything practical in society either; for me the primary essence of art resides in painting you an alternate realm to escape from the present reality, once your basic needs are fulfilled. So, I just think it doesn’t really matter you know, and besides, there are tons of paintings or novels out there too right, but how many of those can actually stand the test of time?
True, we see a lot of photographs every day, we also read a lot of texts every day no? It’s not like many of those are fantastic writings is it? The masterpieces, I bet not many have read them either. Despite the abundance of great photography work, for an average person who isn’t overly interested in the subject, chances are they haven’t come across that many good works I guess.
Including the photographers that we just brought up, anyone in particular inspired you the most?
CW：森山大道对我的影响很大，还有罗伯特·弗兰克（Robert Frank），约瑟夫·寇德卡（Josef Koudelka），这三位是都是在我初学摄影的时候对我影响特别大的。但当我拍照拍久了，我把自己列入跟他们是同行的情况下，我看到好的照片，会喜欢，会欣赏，但它对我的影响可能不会像以前那么大了。现在看到的一切都是竞争者，我可能拍的没他们好，但我不能怂（笑）。
Daido Moriyama influenced me immensely, as well as Robert Frank and Josef Koudelka. These three photographers were especially inspiring during my early days of photography studies. But um, by now I kind of consider myself as a peer alongside them, as I’ve been photographing for such a long time, obviously I still appreciate and admire great photos when I see them, even though they don’t have that much of an impact on me, everyone else is a competitor these days, I’m probably not as good as them, but I can’t back down either (laughs).
AW：托马斯·约书亚·库珀（Thomas Joshua Cooper）说，他去很遥远的地方拍照，他希望自己也可以学到一些东西，不管是做人，接受还是原谅。这么多年摄影拍照的过程中你有学到一些什么么？
Thomas Joshua Cooper, an American photographer once said that by going to remote places and taking pictures, he hoped that he could learn something, whether it’s to be a better human, more understanding or more forgiving. When you photograph, clearly enough image making is the top priority but outside of that, is there anything that you’ve learnt through that process?
I find it a bit curious that the four quotes you mentioned all have a somewhat utilitarian and pragmatic tone, like you pursue something only for the purpose of something, I guess I’m just not really like that as a person. When I travel to distant places to take photos, I don’t tend to think about what I want to learn, instead I would love to explore the local food or enjoy a good drink you know, these are way more appealing to be honest.
Conversely, photography as a medium, has it taught you anything?
CW：错过了就错过了，新的总会再来。刚开始的时候错过了会懊恼很久 — 来不及按下快门，实物没拍好，没带相机，之类的，现在不会了，比较淡然，因为我知道我肯定还能拍到更好的，一定可以拍到令我自己满意的，这就够了。不会再去纠结错失的那一瞬间，永远没有非拍不可的一张照片。
If I miss it, I miss it. There will always be a next one. In the beginning, I used to feel so frustrated if I missed a shot – not pressing the shutter in time, not capturing the subject well, or not having my camera with me, and so on. Now, I’m more at ease because I just know I will 100% capture even better shots, and that’s enough. I won’t dwell on the moments I miss anymore; there’s never just one photo that must be taken.
Do you not find it annoying, when you see everyone else holding up their smartphones, and be like, I’m done with this?
No never, I would always, always want to take photos. Even if many others are doing it around me, it takes no toll on me whatsoever. In my head I would just think that they all suck (laughs) and that may be the only way for me to process it. Maybe I’m the one who sucks but at that particular moment you can never think like that. They do their things and I do mine. In the end, it’s not as though I’m going to publish every single photo that I’ve taken, nor consider all of them as my work, if you know what I mean. Like my social media feeds, they are all just whimsical random snaps, I don’t even tend to update my personal website that often, maybe once every year or two.
Many people who take photos, consciously utilise social media as a means of self-promotion, but it seems like you are not really a part of that gang.
It’s not that I don’t have time for social media, it’s just that I rather not spend my time on it that’s all. It would be better for me to just lie down and read a novel or do something that I enjoy. It comes back to what I talked about earlier – I don’t have such utilitarian views on photography. Of course, occasionally it bothers me a little, “Crap, my follower count is still so low,” but then I realised it’s kind of fair, I don’t even use it that often, so whatever you know.
People who put so much effort into social media end up becoming famous or something, I think they thoroughly deserve it and it’s only natural that I don’t get that much attention. Instead, if I invest a massive amount of time and effort in photography and the final result doesn’t work out, man that’s the upsetting part.
Has that ever occurred, after putting a lot of effort into creating something, the end result just didn’t turn out to be what you expected?
As long as you have a relatively solid foundation in photography and a clear goal, it’s impossible not to capture good photos. For straight photography, the reason for not getting good shots is usually not practising enough, because for me this is the purest form of photography. You must be at the scene first of all, capturing what’s in front of you truthfully, without embellishment, without fabricating something that doesn’t exist. Whatever the scene is, you photograph it as it is, with basic adjustments in exposure and tone and such.
Conceptual photography, on the other hand, becomes challenging if you lack ideas, haven’t read enough then at last, having insufficient practice. By comparison conceptual photography is indeed more demanding. I genuinely appreciate excellent conceptual photography, but honestly, there’s not much of it around. If a concept cannot withstand scrutiny, lacks allure, and fails to touch people, then the final work will without doubt, be a lousy piece.
Ever thought of dabbling in conceptual photography?
Right now, I think I’m still young, and I can still manage physically, so I would very much like to continue to apply my current approach to photography. When the time comes that I’m no longer mobile, I might then reappraise and consider trying conceptual photography. From the start, straight photography was what captivated me, and it’s something that I haven’t stopped practising to this day — taking the camera, being on the road, pointing and shooting. I walk the streets, constantly in motion, take photos for as long as I possibly can. This working method has had a profound impact on me, and all of my personal favourite photos are taken adhering to this method.
Once I get older, if, due to physical limitations or other reasons, and this approach becomes ineffective, I would potentially consider engaging in conceptual photography or whatever. It’s analogous to that of traditional cuisine and fusion, it’s not about what’s better, all up to the person isn’t it.
You’ve lived in Japan for a reasonably long time now, like you said, before the pandemic you used to visit China every now and then, but have you ever considered staying for a longer period and reacquainting yourself with your hometown?
Nope. I mean, I go back whenever I could, and I follow the news every day so I know what’s happening, I don’t think there’s anything for me to be reacquainted with.
Not long ago, I came across a Tokyo-based Chinese photographer named Wang Lu, she’s got this photography publication that zoomed in on her place of birth, and it tells a story between her and her father. The catalyst for her to create this series was because where she was born and raised, has changed so drastically from what it once was.
The situation is pretty much the same as my hometown, all the buildings I once knew were all demolished, now it’s all high-rise and most of the areas are undergoing developments, I couldn’t even find my way when I was there. But for me these changes are all superficial, the core remains virtually stagnant, same thing can be said for the people, so to me, there is no real change, or difference therefore.
From the very beginning of your photography journey until now, has there been any change at all, in terms of the scenes you like to capture, emotions, or even the equipments you use?
Yes of course! The biggest change I would say is that I bought a digital camera last year. The price of photographic film has skyrocketed recently and I just couldn’t afford it anymore. And man, the digital camera is freaking incredible. The only drawback however, is perhaps that for people who use film, they must have some kind of a fetish — after the darkroom process, you get a physical, tangible object; whereas digital photos, they are just data aren’t they, and there’s a sense of insecurity —- if the battery dies or the hard drive fails, the photos are gone. I don’t have any emotional attachment to film though, and I’m choosing digital right now for economical reasons simply put.
Does photography hold any significance for you?
There’s no significance whatsoever, it’s just a medium that allows me to self-satisfy. As long as it satisfies me while bringing something to others, it’s more than enough to be honest. But first and foremost, it has to fulfil no one else but me.
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 song by the Chairs (椅子樂團) from their 2018 album Lovely Sunday.
Editor & Design: Axel Wang
Photography: Courtesy of the photographer