Podcast: Proving movie stars are just ordinary people
"Ordinary" is how Liu Heung Shing, founder of the Shanghai Center of Photography, described the photographic project he initiated with Chinese actress Zhou Xun. Titled "Good Vibrations," it features photos by nine renowned Chinese actors and directors who turn their lens to important people in their lives.
"The most important thing in my view is how ordinary this project is, how ordinary images can touch people, communicate something... Sometimes, not every image has to be very dramatic," Liu said during a Zoom interview. "I feel this is going to be something very different."
So what's the vibration to explore?
"We're always influenced by friends and people we respect. They also inspire us to do the things we do," he continued, adding that the power of images can "take us back to our daily life, (to) the people who bring you up, who you love, who influence you."
A selection of some 90 photos is now on display at SCoP.
Q: What prompted you into the project?
A: I've known Zhou Xun for a very long time, but we'd never really worked on anything together or anything like that.
During a dinner with Zhou, I thought it was odd that she would bring up out of nowhere that she felt all the movies and television and commercial activities she had engaged in in the past make her feel like she's under cinema lights all the time. She has this urge to reconnect... and, not in her exact words, to chill and decompress, and know what life is really like.
I kinda picked up on this and said maybe you ought to use your camera to photograph people who influence you and inspire you. And she felt immediately connected with this idea and she asked someone at the dinner table for a piece of paper. She started writing the names of actors who like photography. So the list began to grow... up to 20 some names. We... went back and forth for almost a year before we actually ended up with nine people.
I've always felt, when I was overseas, that Taiwan or Hong Kong entertainment world has an oversized influence on the mainland, with gossip and movie stars and all this stuff... which I am not always comfortable with.
So this project, in my view, gives me an opportunity to photograph them in the way they want. And this is an opportunity for me to say, "well, these movie stars are just like you and me, in that they've photographed life, they value their friends, their parents." The project enables me to remove this veneer of stars. This form of me and through the exhibition, connecting with the audience, brings something subliminal to the viewers.
And I have heard, a week after the opening, something quite positive.
Q: What's the good vibration here?
A: Good vibrations mean what these people have with the people they photograph, between them they have this vibration. For example, one of the photos that Zhou really likes – beside her childhood friends who don't see her as a star... just as their primary school mate. And she approached them the same way – is the photograph (she) grew up watching. "It's always my dad washing the dishes," (she said.) I was blown away by something so trivial. This is the heart of daily life.
By laying out those kinds of photographs together, they show how I see them, how they see their friends and how their friends respond to them.
Here are nine people, by accident, who cut across different age groups. For example, Jiang Wen showed up with his wife Zhou Yun. Just a few days ago, they were working with me on what to wear. I even Googled some clothes for them. And then to my surprise, they both showed up plain. She's completely without makeup, wearing a normal cotton dress. He's in a T-shirt and jeans. I looked at them, they looked at me, and I said, "Well, good enough for me. Let's go."
Q: What did you see unfolding from their inner world through their cameras and their photographs?
A: I think in front of me sometimes, they felt a little bit shy.
Like Dou Jingtong, she preferred to have less of me photographing images in the exhibition of her developing a roll of color negative film right in front of my camera... I even reminded her I used to do that every day, over the toilet in the war zone, in the hotel. And I said "you better warm it up to 37.8 degrees (Celsius), that's for color negatives." She much preferred to show the pictures she took. In Dou's portion of the exhibition, you see more of her works.
For film director Bi Gan, you saw one picture. Discussions with Bi Gan went on for more than six months. Finally, my friend said, "HS, do you mind talking to him?" I think he's a very interesting film director. There's a lot of conversation behind the camera, behind the scenes, behind the exhibition. I sent him a photograph or two of Alfred Hitchcock filming birds, with a big cigar and a bird sitting on the cigar to get him energized. And partly to make him feel like, "oh HS think I could be Hitchcock." Kind of getting him closer on board. Then finally I suggested that "maybe choose one or two scenes to film that you find most challenging for a director to handle that scene." And then project that scene overhead, and do a self-portrait. I think for me, I want also something congenial coming out in how he sees a scene, how he sees himself.
He didn't let out anything to me. Then 10 days went by, and he said, "Finally I know what I want to do." I showed up in Beijing and went to his studio. Because he was a young film director, when he made films he had very small budgets. So his mother always appears in his films as a free extra. He went out and bought a chair that costs 10,000 yuan (US$1,566), put the chair there, and his mother sat on the chair. And then he put the lights in the back and projected his mother's shadow onto the wall. Then he took out this 4-by-5 view camera, which scared the living daylights out of me because I hadn't seen a view camera in a long time. He'd like to photograph his mother's shadow because he believes the shadow of his mother is much more enduring than an actual photograph. That turned out to be a brilliant frame, big size, black and white. And then I photographed him while I turned around with the camera, and his mother's shadow is behind him.
When Zhou Xun and (actor) Liu Haoran sat down and talked about why he wanted to photograph her (Zhou), I didn't realize that he went out and made a meticulous plan to choose Liuyin Park in Beijing to shoot there. When we showed up, it was pouring rain, almost typhoon rain. We looked at each other and said maybe we shouldn't do it. And then, the journalistic side of me dealing with difficulties just came out very naturally. I said, "no, no, after we've gone through all these things, we're going to do this." My mind was really spinning, and I remembered a place, Song Art Museum. Because you can duck in the museum to get out of the rain, and then you can go out. I don't know what we can get from there, but we'll get something from there.
At the end, I think some very spontaneous photographs came out... I feel there's a range of unposed, undisguised images of movie stars living a life just like you and me.
During the media tour, you mentioned that actor Huang Jue held a wedding ceremony after taking photos of Mai Zi, his wife for 10 years. Is it something impelled him while being on this project?
A: Oh no, no, of course I remembered what I said in the press tour. But of course it was my part economy of words. It was more like when they realized they were going to do these shoots with me, and he said to her "well, we might as well get married properly." I can't believe he could spontaneously gather hundreds of guests.
It's fair to say because of this shoot they decided to make their matrimony more formal. It's kind of an impression. I found it very touching.
I always feel that photograph intransitively is a form of language by itself. All my life, I admire writers, listen to them, and read what they write, and get inspired because a good novelist can bring the characters so vividly in your imagination. And those are the power of words. And very much influenced by the power of words, which help me think, help me look. As a result, words and pictures are kind of good buddies.
Q: How much do you think one's photographs can speak for one's mind, emotions or personality?
A: I don't think a person can be judged by one photograph. In fact, my portraitures of China are very deliberate. China is a big story, a very complex story. Over 50 years, you can stagger those photographs, one on top of the other. You take a view with me, and then go together and say, "well, this is the China I have come to know."
I think sometimes a definitive portrait can say a lot about someone. That being said, in my range of works, I always believe if you can show China and show any other country, show people of different walks of life, you will have a very revealing portrait of a nation or a society. And that's what I've been trying to do, and seems like I'm still doing 50 years later.
I think the story is much more compelling. I take the approach that I sit back, let what's out there come to me, or I come to them. And then you put together a very revealing portrait. That's why I feel that in the people, what they look like, their eyes, facial movements and body language from the late 1970s to 2021, you see the transformation of China.
Q: Technology has made photography accessible to the public. How do we steer people away from torrential photo streams on social media, and back to the very essence of art, to connect with people?
A: Back in 2016, I saw a survey saying there were some 1.6 trillion images in the world, and that figure doubles every year. It's humanly impossible to absorb this volume of images.
I would say people today access pictures differently, because traditional media has migrated to digital and smaller devices, which helps people access information. If people go to a museum, the image is not going anywhere... When you look at a photograph on a wall, you are free to spend as little or as much time looking at it as you'd like. It makes the process between photographers and the public much more rich and diverse, like a relationship. I think that's great.
Technology is still moving ahead. We don't know where it will lead, but... it's always a continuing process. We learn new skills as we go. But I believe firmly and absolutely that the way you tell your story, the way you connect with your subject, the way you build this basic trust with your subject is very important. That actually cannot be influenced by a camera. It's between me and you. Technology plays no part.
Q: Is taking photos a coping mechanism or a self-indulgence for you?
A: I think my brain don't function that way. My relationship with photography, I feel very much this burden... of equipment and difficult situations, in war or in peace.
I'm not crazy about cameras, but I feel photography sometimes can tell a story so much better than me telling it to my friends. The journalist in me has a much greater influence on how I approach photography, and that's obvious if you look at my work.
The question is often asked, "do you still take pictures?" For as long I can see, I'll still take pictures with or without my camera, because it's looking at and learning from people that interests me.
I actually take pictures in my head. I need the camera to capture the light, as well as a lens. But when you look at people, suddenly you're approaching something that's fundamentally human. It's a person-to-person relationship. Internal, external, national, different societies, different cultures... That's really where my profound interest is, and without interest and empathy, you wouldn't do well.
But it's developing that skill, having faith in your empathy toward people that projects you forward. I think one of my strengths is I can put people at ease quickly, and thereby build a sense of trust. I hope that trust isn't misplaced.
Q: How do you relax people and instantly build a trust?
A: That would be the subject of another book. If you don't know who stands in front of you, how can you start with that? Different people respond to different things you say to them.
Q: You've been running SCoP for six years now, and the museum has held a variety of exhibitions to introduce all kinds of photographic works, to educate the public on the art form. Do you think that somehow, it also helps to heal, especially during the COVID-19 time?
A: At SCoP, we do things as though there's no COVID; keep going ahead. It's difficult to say if our exhibition educates anyone, but I think just like a museum, it's there for the public good. You share a good painting, a good photograph, the beautiful things about being human – it's that we have this capacity, each one of us, to be enchanted, to feel emotion in photographs and paintings.
I feel honored to be able to do this and share with the public. And exhibitions travel, so more people can see them. Photography is a medium that enables our exhibition to travel lightly. That's really wonderful.
Q: How do you relieve you stress?
A: Just before I rushed back for this Zoom call this morning, I walked, circling the Xingguo Hotel. Sometimes I swim. Normally I travel more, but now because of COVID, I can't travel much. I sometimes enjoy having my friends over. Thankfully, many people come to Shanghai. I cook for them. Cooking is my relaxing therapy. I watch what I cook very carefully, and for me, it's a wonderful exercise. At the end of it you can share with your friends.
Date: Through February 28, 2022, 10:30am-17:30pm, closed on Mondays
Admission: 60 yuan (US💲9.38)
Venue: Shanghai Center of Photography
Address: 2555-1 Longteng Ave