Hin Chua's Magnetic North

Magnetic North can be considered a base camp, a general point of reference for my wanderings and ramblings.

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Reining myself in: a few unadulterated, unedited interview answers

I’ve talked in the past about speaking your mind (or not speaking your mind) in public. I know that I’ve given some polished, professional interviews when I’ve willingly reined myself in to a sometimes considerable degree; those who know me in person will appreciate the difference. On other occasions, typographical and layout constraints have forced my answers to be succinct.

When I was pondering the answers to the latest interview in front of me, I thought to myself “why not release the brakes just a bit?” People have also always been interested about my computer programming background, but I’ve never really talked about my past in any detailed manner.

I have no idea if this interview will ultimately be published or how greatly it will have to be edited, but here are some responses in their full, unadulterated form. So I take full responsibility for all the typos and the references to Jeff Goldblum, comic cosmic super-villains, cocaine and sex-changing fish!

You’ve been through street photography (They called me a corporate whore), then documentary (Avalanche, After the Fall). I know you don’t like to make categorisations like these: you once answered: “So, let’s just say that I make photographs and that I can be anything anyone wants me to be!” But I need to know your priorities: picture taking, earning money, eating, sleeping, smoking, entertaining, sex? Which comes first and last?

I’ve never considered The Avalanche or After the Fall to be documentary projects but it’s always interesting to see how others interpret them. But in any case, let’s answer this via by a process of elimination. I don’t smoke, I rarely have time to party and I definitely don’t sleep enough. I love almost any kind of food and cute, intelligent girls together with all the ancillary benefits that come along with them. And while I don’t feel the same way about money, I clearly value it. 

Actually, this may be an interesting time to discuss money. I’ve never really had to worry about it too much throughout my adult life. I’ve customarily had the ability to self-fund most of my photographic projects; while an expensive solo show or a high quality self-published book would be beyond my means, the cost of film, air travel or accommodation have never been obstacles. Because I’ve always had a decent salary, I could pay the rent and forget about credit card payments and overdraft limits.

There was indeed a briefly crazy and slightly dangerous period of my life when, having just moved to London and started a job where I was earning more than I had ever seen before, I almost forgot the value of money. Even then though, I was too much of a dork to blow it on magic white powder, fast cars and faster women. Oh no… my deliberations were more along the lines of “buy a Leica? No problem! Buy another Leica? Hell yeah! How about a Summicron lens to go with that?” I’d never ever check my bank balance, because I always knew whatever was there would grow irrespective of my actions. It’s also amazing how your perspective on purchases is skewed when your salary is in the form of a daily rate. I’d have internal conversations like “I know it’s expensive, but it’s only three days worth of work, I can afford it” or “I could take a day off, or I could go into the office and pay for a year’s worth of film”.

Of course, what I eventually realised was that there was no point in having a year’s worth of film if you aren’t going to be in a position to use it. It didn’t matter how many cameras or other trinkets I acquired if there was no real point to them. The dangerous thing with money is that in my view, you only truly have enough if it can look after you for the next few decades. Anything else is a very enjoyable interlude but a temporary shorter-term fix nonetheless. I still had to work and I still needed to figure out where I was going photographically. This unstable situation was eventually resolved. For a host of reasons, I left my job and ended up travelling for a year. I shot all of that film I had stored up, I taught myself how to “see” with my Mamiya and by the end of that time, I was working on After the Fall. I returned to London, found a new job which came with a more sedate pace and salary and tried to find a way to keep on going with the project.

Sometimes I’ll look back on that period of relative excess and wonder with hindsight if I would have done things differently, but what’s incontrovertible is that I required that year off to start thinking of myself as a serious photographer. Nonetheless, what’s always bothered me is I’ve always been so comfortable. I’ve always had options, I’ve always had something to lose. If the time ever comes, how much would I be able to sacrifice for my photography? How compromised am I by this sedentary 9-5 middle-class lifestyle and how badly has my work been affected by it? Is this all an elaborate justification? How really committed am I? Would I be a “better” photographer if I had no alternative but to commit fully to photography in order to survive? How much harder would I push myself artistically?

I can’t answer most of those questions; for the immediate future I’ll accept my circumstances and find a way to best make my work within those constraints. I don’t spend enough nights scanning, I write infrequently, I don’t hustle to get my work in front of powerful and influential people and I definitely don’t network or self-promote to my satisfaction. But I can always pay my rent, I don’t have to rely on grants or hand-outs to work on my projects and I find more time to shoot than you might imagine.

So to answer your question, money is more important than I might have initially considered when I began answering this question. I’d rather be taking photographs of course, but I also want to be able to afford my film!

You once said: “I realised that I was making photographs that were in their own small way a little different from the norm”. I love it. Now, please: what is the norm?

How do I answer this without sounding like an arrogant or malicious individual? Well, if I was talking to you in the flesh, I might sound agitated but I’d simultaneously also be laughing, joking and winking at you, conveying the point that I’m kidding (… but not really).

Ok, so what’s the norm? Well, there are dozens of photographic clichés ready to be discovered: the young attractive Caucasian sitting on a bed near a window with ambient light streaming in… the black and white wide-angle shot of multiple, often “ethnic” subjects with a blurred foreground object and a tilted horizon thrown in for good measure… the infamous “Oriental skyscrapers” image. But considering something closer to my current project, I’d like to avoid taking landscape photographs that are literal, matter-of-fact recordings of the scene before my eyes. I don’t want to be the guy that goes somewhere, plonks his camera down in front of a transparently obvious subject and goes ‘click’. 

I’m looking for something slightly different: scenes that are simultaneously more complex and minimalist, harder to read and mysterious. What I aspire to (but usually fail to achieve, I might add) is to make a photograph that could be considered transformative. An image whose content, though rooted in reality, appears at first glance to be completely out of context with the “normal” world. A perspective which transforms the setting into something the viewer initially couldn’t contemplate and, since we’re being ambitious here, may even provoke a reassessment of their daily viewpoint of the world. Of course I appreciate how hard this is to realise, but you’ve got to try, don’t you?

Have you had a chance to photograph in Eastern Europe and Israel (places in which you expressed an interest a few years ago)? Why are you interested in these places? What are you expecting to find?

Other than a brief and relatively unproductive time in Latvia three years ago, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Eastern Europe or the Middle East yet. That however will hopefully change in 2012, and there are definitely a few locations in Poland which are on my list. I’m hoping that these countries will present a slightly different variety of landscape to explore. Even though my work stresses the unimportance of a specific location, I treat each destination as a fresh opportunity for discovery, a new canvas from which to make work.

Using a truly nerdy analogy, there’s a comic book villain called Galactus who wanders the galaxy, continually searching for new planets to devour in order to consume their life energy and sate his boundless hunger. I often feel that I have a finite time with the environments that I photograph before I have to move on, having exhausted whatever opportunities they presented to me. So Poland’s really just a new planet… and I’m hungry.

The other significant reason is because of the challenge. I’m not a masochist, an outdoorsman or a tough guy; I’m a nerd and a coward, so the scenario of wandering around an industrial town in Silesia by myself, without knowing a single person or word of Polish, is going to be initially daunting. But what you have to remember is that it’s like jumping into a cold swimming pool: an initial shock to the system before rapid acclimatisation takes hold. That’s part of the trial and part of the satisfaction, overcoming that initial hesitancy and finding yourself strangely euphoric in a desolate wasteland in the middle of nowhere, very far from home. I’d be afraid of slipping into a comfort zone if I didn’t have to travel for After the Fall, it would all become too easy.

Regarding collecting photographs: are your works in any collections… private or corporate? How about galleries, museums or foundations? And to quote Polish artists speaking to ‘photographers-to-be’: “Do you collect? Who else is going to collect if you’re not?” So do you sell and do you buy prints?

I’m not aware of any of my photographs being actively collected, least of all by any kind of institution. Perhaps if I were smarter and more focused, and blessed with more time and a sexier education, I should be focusing more on this. But the fact is, I’m not: I’m working within constraints, and what time I have is currently dedicated to making new work. 

As for prints, I swap a few with photographers who I really respect and I sell some occasionally, but to be honest that’s not the focus at the moment. I do however collect photography books, lots and lots of photography books. I’m from the school that believes that the book is the ultimate representation of a photographer’s output: as Alec Soth puts it, I’m a “book photographer” as opposed to a “wall photographer”. 

As part of a workshop that I taught recently, I reviewed Joel Sternfeld’s classic American Prospects with the participants, page by page. Even though I’ve owned the book for years and enjoyed it on a regular and ongoing basis, I was struck by the fact that new discoveries and connections were still being made as we discussed the work. A medium which provides you the opportunity to savour this kind of experience has got to be worth something, doesn’t it? 

As an aside, I’ve always felt that my work was better suited to book form: it’s harder to represent in half a dozen images, it meanders around and like a multi-course meal, takes a while to get to the hopefully satisfying point. So if I wanted another excuse, not only is collecting books pleasurable and satisfying, it’s also valuable research. How’s that for a justification?

Would you one day like to quit programming and switch full-time to photography? Would you like take assignments?


Like many others, I’d love to be able to make the photographs I want to make without needing to worry about more mundane concerns. At least that’s what I tell myself, but who really knows the degree to which the tensions, imbalances and unfulfilled desires of my present circumstances shape my work? In any event, without literally winning the lottery this idealised situation isn’t going to eventuate in the immediate future. At a more pragmatic level, I’ve always told myself that I would re-assess my situation if I ever felt I was being prevented from making the work I needed to make. 

But a strange thing came to pass: just as some fish change their gender in the absence of members of the opposite sex, I found ways to navigate around the restrictions imposed upon me. When I was unable to spend six continuous months working in specific and exotic environments, I ended up with After the Fall: a project where individual locations are de-contextualised and the very concept of place becomes generic and universal. This in turn lent itself to a process involving shorter trips to a wider range of locations: an approach more suited to my time constraints and which also greatly increased the diversity of the landscapes I was photographing. As the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park states, “nature finds a way”.

Notes

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