Read this captivating story about BJ Yang, 1x photographer of the week, with one foot in each of two completely different worlds, Germany and China. Enjoy more extraordinary photos by BJ at the end of the interview. Big thanks to Yvette Depaepe for doing this interview. We will start featuring one fantastic 1x photographer every week.
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Tell us about yourself your hobbies and other jobs.
Several years ago I left my hometown Beijing and followed my German husband to Europe. I am now living between China and Germany. The change of environment liberated me from the tension born of the breakneck pace of life and work in China, and I was finally able to slow things down.
My unaccustomed leisure gave me an opportunity to take up my hobbies again. With camera and pen in hand, I began to do what I had always enjoyed – taking photos, writing and travelling.
I had travelled widely throughout the world, but I had never truly investigated my own homeland – China. My first target became China’s west, a land that I had always hankered after but never spared the time to visit. And thus my determination to get to know my own country took root.
After a few years, I humbly present what I saw and what I gained from my travels, my first documentary book “Somewhere Far Away” was published in Chinese, English and German three languages by Foreign Languages Press of Beijing, China in 2013. This book is dedicated to my husband, without his love, support and understanding, it would not be possible. And all the incomes of the book sales have been donated and used to help the poor kids in the west of China. The people and that piece of land have inspired me, all the benefits and the credits shall belong to them and return to them.
How has your history and life experiences affected your photography? Which are your most important experiences that has influenced your art?
Before I became a photographer, I was a dedicated businesswoman who rushed between big cities, surrounded by concrete forest and indulged by modern comforts. Once I started my photo travels, stepped into wild nature and built contacts to ordinary mountain people and farmers, I realized happiness and success have not much to do with material. I used to think I knew the world, yet this different world totally wake me up, like a cocoon tuning into a butterfly, I feel the freedom, the passion and the most important, the sincerity of the life. The models in my captures always enlighten me and touch me with their integrity, which is exactly what I want to express in my work.
I can’t give one specific instance that has influenced me, it is the general experience of my photo travelling that keep me solid, keep me a humble yet strong heart, I try my best to convey that message into my art work.
Describe your overall photographic vision.
To me, photography is art, is not about copying the world. Art comes from life and goes beyond life.
As a photographer, my eyes are the filters to the real world. I capture it, transform it with my own mind, and present it in my own style.
What first attracted you to photography?
My father was a lover of literature and photography. When I was a little girl, my elder brother was my idol. I found inspiration in watching him develop photos in the darkroom in my childhood, and my obsession with photography grew until it became my lifelong pursuit.
Why are you so drawn to documentary photography?
In fact, I don’t limit myself to any genres of photography. I take everything that touches me, from landscape shots to street shots. When I face the great nature, the boundless skyline and the mountains make me realized the tiny worth of all my gains and losses. When I meet the heart-felt smiles of strangers on the road bring the simplest happiness and peace to my restless soul. Every shutter click reaches out to the bottom of my heart. I feel very much alive.
What is more important to you the story behind an image or technical perfection?
I believe there shall be a story first. Only attracted and moved by that story I start to focus on the subject, and then afterwards, of course, a technical perfection is the second step that is as important as the first one. A well-experienced photographer usually has a picture in mind before the shooting, or, during the shooting. I have a perfect to be picture in mind and try my best to achieve it accordingly.
What generally is your relationship to your subject matter beyond being an observer?
Many people ask me how I dealt with people that they always smiled to my camera, although sometimes I would rather they don’t, so to show a stronger character. I don’t really know how to put this into words. I guess it might be because of my open character and friendly approach to them.
Additionally, I do a lot of research before my photo journey. My researches include weather, geography, people, culture, language, history, traffic, food, custom, religion etc. I carry the most important notes in my photo bag all the way during my journey. Reading these notes in the night before a day is another good method to prepare for my next shooting theme, beyond checking through what I have already shot. Being well prepared makes it easier to build contacts with local people, get help easily, and search for the topic items easier under the local people’s guide. Can avoid being offensive to any unknown ethnic custom as well.
Who are your favourite photographers and more importantly how has your appreciation of their work affected your own photography? Is there any particular photo that has inspired you a big deal?
Oh, there are many! At the moment, I am very fascinated by the works of Sebastiao Salgado. His “Genesis” is another masterpiece that is breathtaking whenever I read it. Studying the towering figure’s trip preparation, POV and post processing, learning from those endless details is absolutely inspiring!
Michael Kenna’s B/W landscapes create minimalist compositions resolved within a square format, leave space for viewers to sense, to imagine… I love that freedom feeling when I watch his works.
Of course, not to forget Henri Cartier-Bresson and many other great photographers at that time, their precious photographic reportage and daily life images encourage me to continue my work that I believe some decades later they would be part of the records during this fast reforming time in China.
There are so many outstanding photographers here in 1X as well. Their master works at various genres are extremely inspiring. The portraits from Norbert Becke are one of my favourites. His eye-catching portraits are more than just human faces. The striking details reveal the characters of a unique individual person and the depths of his emotions. I believe Norbert successfully fulfilled the goal of his works:„ They are insights into the souls of the people and moments of great dignity.“
Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
As I said, after joined 1X, I have met so many outstanding photographers here. It is very inspiring and encouraging. Being surrounded by a group of outstanding artists, I learnt new method of post processing, different POV, most importantly, see my own work from a different perspective that will help me in my second album book which I plan to emphasis on a daily life documentary. I don’t know how long it will take. The first album took me seven years, I am not in a hurry for the second one. There is still so much for me to learn.
Describe your favourite photograph which you have taken yourself and why it is special and important to you?
This was taken in Ngari, Tibet, which lies at an average altitude of 4,500 meters on the borders of India, Nepal and the Kashmir region, have the lowest population density in the world.
That day I drove passed a village and saw a boy learning to ride a bike. It was not an ordinary scene at that remote area. I stopped and wanted to take a close look. Then I found out the bike had no brakes or inner tubes, it most probably was deserted by a cycler, however, became this boy’s precious toy. When I asked him whether he could ride it, he nodded proudly and jumped onto the bike.
This was an unforgettable scene for me. Against a background of snow-capped mountains in the distance, a boy was cycling an old bike, still his starry eyes shined bright. “Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul.”
This photo is not my best work, yet always warm my heart and remind me of that touching moment.
It is a great honour that 1X gives me this opportunity to share my mind. I am very grateful of this artistic environment that a group of outstanding photographers can learn and improve together.
I also hope to see more Chinese photographers join in, as China has so much photography resources and we have so many marvellous photographers, it would be great to see your works here. I understand that language might be a barrier, but don’t stop there, get the help of Google translate, so do the photographers from other countries. Let your work speak for you. Art knows no boundary!