High up in the Michael Spano clouds, yet bursting with that in-your-face Basquiat flash-bulb vibrance: Laurent Hou. About photography, Moreau and Hirano. Focus your lenses!
“My pictures’ politics have nothing to do with China. It’s Chinese politics that wants to interfere with my art.” Ren Hang in digital magazine Dazed (2015).
A pained yet poetic agent provocateur
The world of China photography this week finds itself shaken to the core following the suicide of photographer Ren Hang. Provocative, famed yet personally pained and plagued by depression plus the globe’s doom and gloom, Hang’s work is viewed by many as a critique on the emerging and advancing sexual attitudes, as well as a push for creating free rein in creative freedom, within a conservatively contained and controlled society — i.e. China.
In a country where pornography to date remains illegal and being an artist often goes hand in hand with being subjected to state censorship and interference, Hang’s explicit works often ruffled some feathers with China’s political peacocks. Despite persistently denying his photography contained any political papers, Hang was arrested several times — and his work confiscated.
Among Hang’s final writings on his Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter) account, we find one, posted late January 2017, that would prove a pensive prophesy in the weeks to come: “Every year I always have the same wish: to die an early death.” (“每年许的愿望都一样：早点死.”)
Hang followed up his daunting death wish by adding: “Hope that it comes true this year.” And so it did… Yet never one to dwell on the past, Temper takes the new Chinese landscape portrait Hang had only started to frame and gazes at what the future might hold.
The future beckons and breaks the waves
One very important challenge as a photographer is being able to take enough time for every project you decide to undertake, which sometimes entails going back to a past project as to make some improving edits, and in the process learn you must sacrifice certain other projects and ideas in order for your lens to maintain that premium angle. It’s all about focus. Enter: Laurent Hou, a man with a plan — many plans. From France to Southeast Asia to The Jing and street photography, Hou tells his story. Stay focused!
“So many things went wrong. And the more they went wrong, the more I took pictures.” Laurent Hou
Temper: Who are you, where you from, what’s the idea here and how did you become a photographer?
Hou: “I am Laurent, from France with a rather complicated family history: My mother is French (with a bit of Belgian and Spanish blood), yet born in Tunisia, and my father was actually born in Cambodia from Chinese parents before moving to France and adopting the French nationality. I myself grew up in France speaking only French and at the age of 24, I came to Beijing. Lo ‘n behold, I’ve been here for six years now!
I was initially taking part in a PhD program that basically had nothing to do with photography, but I have been passionate about anything visual from a very early age onwards. Actually, I did not study illustration or design only because of the pressures coming from my parents who were very worried at the idea I might try to embrace a risky career in this field. At first, I wasn’t attracted by photography. I used to like painting because I felt it was a way to create directly something more personal and because I enjoyed the physical act of painting. For photography, you have to use a camera, which is a kind of cold machine compared to the gentleness of those brushes and paint. Then friends of mine picked up photography and started doing really cool stuff. I was like ‘If they can do it, I should have a go at it.’
Being in China also increased my visual curiosity for all the things happening in the streets and as a PhD student, my research about society stimulated me to document things here on a visual level too. Hence I took to street photography. Aside from the street shots, I was doing portraits and pictures of art performances. From the very beginning, I’ve always had two different directions in my photography: Street and society on the one hand, more arty pictures that mostly rely on aesthetics and/or some concept on the other.
Eventually, the PhD program collapsed completely and just so many things went wrong overall… Yet I stayed right here, in Beijing, continuously taking pictures and then I interned at the cultural department of the French Embassy. I was doing different projects for the embassy and was appointed the official photographer for the Croisements Festival 2014, the year of the anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and France. I got to shoot famous artists in great venues, as well as undertake a lot smaller and more experimental performances. This experience for me definitely was that Oprah AHA! moment which convinced me that I should do photography for a career.”
Temper: The suffering artiste or living to learn?
Hou: “Several months ago, I joined the Instagram collective ‘Eyes on China Project’ [@eyesonchinaproject], which is a cool platform to share pictures about China with a group of wonderful photographers. It is great to bounce thoughts and ideas off the other members. Furthermore, getting to the factual learning part, I now work for fashion school ESMOD [this one should ring any fashionable person’s bell], which is opening up in Beijing come September 2017! I take care of the ESMOD PR and photography.
I still do street photography when I can, but I want to take on more collaborations with artists and designers. For instance, I collaborated with Tibetan choreographer Laba Zhaxi to create a series of pictures based on the concept of his personal project ‘Jue’ (觉, which roughly translates as ‘awareness’). I have actually shot for a few fashion designers before, but now I want to do so in a more frequent and systematic way.”
“China is a fascinating country where various visual elements combine in unexpected ways: Tradition, ‘communism’ and consumerism make for one explosive creative flash.” Laurent Hou
Temper: A French (and more) photographer in China: What makes your China Fashion camera click?
Hou: “China is a fascinating country where various visual elements combine in unexpected ways: Tradition, ‘communism’ and consumerism. Their combination makes for a very cool place for street photography and documentary work.
Regarding fashion, then… Well, I think there is a growing interest in fashion out here and that people are starting to go beyond buying something expensive with a big famous brand logo. Of course, the fashion industry here isn’t quite as mature as that of Europe yet, but there are new waves of creativity and young designers who are starting doing cool things. It’s no easy feat for them to get by on a daily basis, but I do think they will get the opportunities. Working with such people is very exciting. Usually, the photographer has the opportunity to bring his own ideas to the shoot and directly interacts with the designer. Downside? Low budget. When you work with big companies, then, there is often an artistic director, meaning the photographer is sometimes considered more of a technician than a creative person.
Before coming to Beijing, I spent six years in Paris. Overall, the people dress much better (at least for my taste) in Paris than they do in Beijing, but I think that the French are somewhat lackluster when it comes to color [says the guy who almost always wears black; oh, he knows!]. Fashion in China tends to be much more colorful than in France. Sometimes it can result in epic fails but sometimes it can be really nice and refreshing.”
Temper: China and its photography-at-large scene. Do elaborate.
Hou: “Photography in China is a jungle. The market is neither organized nor specialized, which can be confusing at times, but which also provides tons of opportunities for those who are flexible enough to grab them by the horns. I used to be a human science PhD student and I turned quickly into a semi-professional / professional photographer here, without attending any photography training besides a few workshops. That means that everything is possible for anybody I guess. Shooting for free or very low fees with small company owners, young artists or young designers was a very good way of learning by actually doing.
I always stick to one rule: If a project involves money, then that money must involve everybody. If there is no money, no one should get a dime. I think it’s a good rule to work by.”
I love playing with juxtaposition. I like street photography which can surprise people and show off a very subjective vision of a place and/or its people. Laurent Hou
Temper: Who or what is your muse?
Hou: “I don’t think I have just one muse. Lots of things can inspire me and it depends on the kind of pictures I’m taking. For every project, inspiration can come from a different source. When I’m shooting down the street, I like chasing the funny and unexpected. I love a sense of humor in street photography, playing with juxtaposition. I like street photography which can surprise people and show a very subjective vision of a place and/or its people.
Regarding aesthetics, there are many things I like and influence me. I have many ideas that are connected to a specific art movement or a certain type of popular culture. My influences can be Western or Asian. For instance, French painting of the 19th and 20th century has been an influence from a very early age given I learned painting by looking at it. I would like to create a photography project which would directly echo a particular movement or artist. For instance, I am a huge fan of the symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, who has a very unique color palette and tortured imagination. In Asia, Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy are a huge source of inspiration, so are some Japanese mangas. I particularly recommend the Tarantino-esque ‘Hellsing’ by Kota Hirano. Of course, Hayao Miyazaki and the artists he worked with are all amazing, but these are more mainstream. Regarding Western popular culture, I used to be a kind of nerd, so things like Metal Hurlant, Moebius and illustrators like Brom have long been part of my visual world.”
Temper: Any particular Chinese photographer you think is interesting/ cool/ quirky?
Hou: “Good question. Though, admittedly, I am more knowledgeable about Chinese documentary photographers than I am about Chinese art and fashion photographers. I really like the works of Zhang Lijie about disabled people, especially his ‘The innocent’ series. For street photography, I like Liu Tao’s work as it is very funny and unexpected. Speaking of whom, some people actually assumed he was my main source of inspiration which in fact isn’t true since I had already started my street photography project when I discovered his work. Either way, besides an emphasis on humor, I think we shoot, edit and post-process in very different ways.”
Temper: How do you see yourself, as a photographer, evolve in 21st Century China?
Hou: “That is a really tough question and this coin definitely has two sides: Photography as an art and photography as a business. Talking about my own projects, it is very hard to tell… Right now, I feel I start paying more attention to aesthetics for my street photography work. I was shooting in Seoul for one week and caught some very nice light hence I focused on light and color in ways I hadn’t done before. I’m pretty happy with the result. Beijing isn’t the best place for some nice and contrasting light play because of the city’s air pollution. What’s more, I do plan on upping my fashion photography game and creating pictures that will require a lot of pre-production as well as some significant post-production.
From a business point of view, I think photography in China will mature quite fast and get more specialized very soon… Under these circumstances, I would see myself doing fashion photography and high-end portrait for a living: One can make enough money while being creative. Of course I would keep on working on my personal projects. I have no idea how long I will stay in China and how long I will stay in Beijing. Sometimes I feel I would like a change, but as a photographer your network is important and the strongest part of my network resides in Beijing. I guess I will stay for a few more years before being able to move on/out!
For the foreseeable future, then, I will exhibit a short series of pictures this April. As far as collaborations are concerned, I’m sure there will be more and more of these, but it depends a lot on whom I will work with. We’ll see where they’ll take me; it’s all an unexpected adventure either way. My biggest goal for 2017 is to publish a street photography book about Beijing. And that’s all I can tell you for now!”
“In terms of fashion, things are no longer about using the most cliché elements of Chinese traditional culture in a very naive way — like printing Beijing-opera-mask patterns onto dresses. People now refer to Chinese culture in much more subtle ways and through rapidly evolving contemporary and international styles.” Hou concludes. Adding a little Temper-focused zest to the mix, one might dare say this abounding amount of talent and diversity is now spilling over onto dark room floors across the country, with a fresh outlook on everything new and unexpected the streets of China have to offer. The “China controversy” cliché will never be a thing of the past, but the creativity of the future is here. Right now.
All the images used in this feature come courtesy of Laurent Hou.
Featured image: From the “Jue” series in collaboration with Zhaxi.