I’m re-publishing here the Featured Photographer interviews I did for the Open College of the Arts, on their former page The Freeman View. Wei Wei (和平) Wei Wei is a Chinese photographer based in Hangzhou, the city not far from Shanghai that is famous for West Lake and for growing tea. A graduate of Hangzhou Zhejiang Institute of Technology, Department of Art, she began work as a freelance photographer shooting both editorial and advertising, and has become well-known for her music photography, as one of China’s top artists covering rock stars and rock bands in the country’s exploding music scene. She combines this with a longterm personal project that she has been shooting for a few years on Tibetan Buddhism. Her career offers a fascinating insight into what it takes to be an independent professional photographer in a country where the economic opportunities are large, but where the state maintains control over many aspects of society. We met when I ran her story School of the Living Buddha on the iPad magazine Photographer’s i.
MF: How did you get started?
The restricted Larung Valley college townMF: How did you get started?
WW: As I was growing up, Polaroid cameras were quite common, and travelling with my parents it was natural to have many taken. As a child, I always thought of the photographer each time as a magician. Then at school there was a singing contest, and the teacher gave me a Polaroid camera for me to shoot it, so I became a magician! I was fascinated by how it made me look at details an moments in a new, concentrated way. My first photography gained me unexpectedly high marks, and when our teacher asked us to choose what we wanted to do for our professions, I hesitated hardly a moment before saying photography. Not surprisingly, that’s what I chose for university. As a professional for a number of years now, I have numerous film and digital cameras, but my favorite is my childhood love, the Polaroid camera. The first camera I bought was a Polaroid SX-70, and it remains my most cherished.
MF: And your first job?
WW: When I graduated, a local maufacturer, Wahaha, asked the college to recommend a photography student, and the department recommended me. I think this was because I was very active shooting records of college activities, so became quite well known for that reason. I should explain that Hangzhou Wahaha Group (the name means ‘laughing child’) is both private and the largest beverage manufacturer in the whole of China. And it is largely controlled on a day to day basis by one man, the owner. A total of four candidates were competing for this post, but finally I got the job. I began by shooting children’s fashion showing Wahaha company activities. I think the reason for my success with this was that a took a simple approach that treated the children very innocently, and also because if immersed myself in every detail of preparation. For instance, the parents who accompany children to a shoot can have an influence on their mood, often causing stress, so things like that have to be anticipated and managed. But since then, I’ve photographed for Wahaha fro the last six years. And then editorially I began shooting for regional publications like Chengdu Business Daily, City Express, Young Times, Search City, and The City.
MF: Here in the West, photography has become more difficult over the last several years financially as a career, and whatever else we want to do creatively, it’s important to be able to make a living. In China, has the continued economic growth meant that photo assignments are plentiful?
WW: Yes, there are a lot of job opportunities, but it is still very competitive. As the economic conditions improve, so there are more and more photographers. Of course, it is a very popular career, but many people just see the glamorous side of it and fail to think what it takes to succeed. I’ve been fortunate, but actually there are fewer opportunties than you might think for large numbers of photographers just starting. As the market improves, there has become a clearer division of labour, just like in the West. Wedding photography is one example, and is a very big market in China because marriage is expected and is a big event in every family’s life, not just for the couple getting married. I don’t do this myself, but you see it everywhere, and competition among photographers within every speciality like this is very strong. Many who want to have a career in photography get stuck as assistants, or start undercutting on price, let alone having the opportunity to shoot their favorite things.
MF: But would you say there is plenty of work in China for photographers who are ambitious and prepared to work hard?
WW: I think in China, if you are willing to work hard, you have many opportunities. But your work needs to be sufficiently convincing, and you have to be very serious and dedicated. My clients are generally in fashion photography, in the music business, and humanistic documentary photography. After a few years, I have my own client relationships, of course. The commercial clients make it possible for me to shoot my own favourite projects that I really enjoy.
MF: Do you keep your different types of shooting separate from each other?
WW: Yes. I have my own studio in Hangzhou, because this is my home town, and I like it also. So my commercial work is mainly fashion photography of my commercial customers, basically in the studio in Hangzhou. But at the same time, I am also a rock photographer, so I need to follow rock bands and rock stars to performances, which involve multi-city tours. In addition to these two working arrangements, as long as there is enough free time I go to Ganzi County in Sichuan, to continue my project involving the Tibetan Kham peoples, shooting their lives and culture. This last is my favorite project, and I am referring to Tibetan culture as religion, which is Tibetan Buddhism. Several topics unrelated and with a great difference; commercial photography is generally done in my studio; at the same time, I’m a minority female photographer shooting rock, whether it is a small music festival or a large concert.
MF: Tell me something about your rock photography
WW: Currently in China, rock music is on the rise. At first, we heard only foreign bands, but now there are many very good bands and performers. I also like rock personally, and it started when I went to see the concert of Xu Wei, my favorite musician, and I was shooting throughout the entire concert. From what I hear, it’s not at all easy now in the west simply to take photographs at concerts…
MF:…Right, but it used to be here like the way you describe, at least when I started photography…
WW: …OK, right, but we don’t yet have that much of a problem in China. Anyway, that’s how it began, and I’ve deliberately made it part of my work. What I love is that all the musicians are so passionate. By the end of any concert shoot, I always have severe dehydration, but that doesn’t affect my love of rock. With some of the less well-known rock bands, they can’t really afford to pay me a lot, but I’m willing to help them, and sometimes even shoot free. I was very lucky to have worked with top groups, and become friends with them, so it’s good to return the favours to up and coming bands. In a sense, I think I’ve been successful because, as a female photographer, I’m better at bringing some delicate sense and warmth to the shooting. There are only a handful of female rock photographers in China. There’s an increasing openness that music is bringing to our society, with more and more shows each year. I was just in Dali at the Labour Day holiday, shooting a big music festival held on Erhai Lake, with the country’s most famous rock star. I worked for the festival for seven days, and although the fee was not very high, I’m happy because I could combine my two greatest interests, photography and music.
MF: What first motivated you to go to Tibet and start recording Tibetan Buddhist culture?
WW: I would go to Tibet every year when I was a student in University, and live with the locals – so different from my normal modern city life – but the most important thing is, I saw a form of sincerity there, and the reason for the way they deal with life and death and the people around them comes from unreserved religious beliefs. It shocked me, so I wanted to photograph them and their beliefs, and make a record of their lives. It’s important that the Tibetans keep their faith and culture, because it is a very valuable asset that we all can learn from.
MF: Buddhism is a popular topic for Western photographers also, to the point where there seems to be a lot of similar shooting in the same places like Thailand, and now Myanmar. Do you have a specific subject?
WW: At the beginning I had a magazine assignment in Tibet, and stayed there for some time. I was surprised and moved at the depth of Buddhism in Tibetan life, and their faith, and wanted to learn more and photograph more of it. For three consecutive years now, I’ve been following one of the youngest Rinpoches, a Living Buddha, as he established a Hope Primary School near Ganzi in western Sichuan for more than 80 children from poor families, and recording the progress. This is located not far from the Serthar Institute in the Larung Valley – very remote, and the world’s largest Buddhist Institute. The Rinpoche introduced me to this college in the high grasslands. Foreigners are completely banned from entering the college, where there are more than 30,000 monks and nuns, living in tens of thousands of simple wooden cabins gathered together. In fact, earlier this year I concluded a winter shooting. I wanted to enrich the shooting with photos of winter Tibetan life, which is very tough.
MF: Is there a worthwhile magazine market in China for stories like these Buddhist ones?
WW: Chinese magazines are interested in Tibet for content, but they are less willing to cover too many things about Buddhism, which you can appreciate. The Buddhism is more of a personal project, but I can still get published landscapes of Tibet and Tibetan festivals, such as horse racing.
MF: In general, is the magazine market for photography healthy in China? Here it isn’t, and it’s difficult to get interesting assignments.
WW: There are some very good magazines in China, and they are interested in stories on culture as well as the usual fashion and lifestyle subjects that you would expect. Generally though, magazines draw up their own plans in advance and set up a special shoot when they want an in-depth story on specific cultures. Of course, there are not many such opportunities, but I certainly do what I can.
MF: In your commercial work in Hangzhou, what kind of clients do you have and what is a typical day’s assignment?
WW: I have two major commercial customers, both well-known large companies; in fact, in their respective fields, they are the best. One is Whaha, which I already mentioned, and the owner and I have maintained a very good cooperative friendship. There is also the cosmetics company Proya. I have a long-term relationship with both and have a couple of assignments a year for each. Usually with such clients the campaign will involve a well-known celebrity, for example, Lee Hom, a pop star in Asia. We’ll discuss the style of shooting, and the fashion style also, which could be sporty or elegant, depending on the product. Generally the celebrities have their own make-up artist and costume designer, so I don’t need to worry about this. After shooting, we have a photo screening with the celebrity as well as the client, and if it all looks good to everyone, we make the selection for processing and post-production. The workload is quite big, but it’s well paid. If you buy Wahaha’s bottled mineral water, you’ll be able to see my photographs.
MF: What does this year’s schedule look like for you?
WW: Very busy. Apart from my studio work, this year I need to follow China’s most famous rock star, Xu Wei, shooting concerts in many cities, from May until January next year, every month at least one concert, which means for me 10 days that each month. In addition, in order to continue shooting my Tibetan Buddhist topic.
MF: What next?
WW: I am currently putting together a book on the Buddhism project, and it will be my first book, so I’m being very careful in the selection. Of course I know there are a lot of photographic books about Buddhism, and a lot of photographers have good Buddhist imagery, but I have a different perspective. I also have that special access to the Institute in the Larung Valley. I’ve learned a little Tibetan, and I live in the homes of Tibetan people. This is my advantage. In these years of shooting, I came to understand more and more, and I became a Buddhist.