Jian Luo Interview
In Tibet, deep red is the color of robes and temples. It is the symbolic color of Tibetan Buddhism, also the sacred representation of chastity and perseverance. As Chinese authorities control over Tibet tightens, Tibetan Buddhism, once intertwined with politics, gradually grows indifferent toward politics. The monastic codes embedded in the religion: contentment, humbleness, and forbearance, are replaced by political compliance and religious repression. All the precepts of Tibetan Buddhism for monks gradually evolved into subservience to the Red regime. Nowadays the religious life covered in the double red color is peaceful yet suppressed, silent yet subservient.
Jian Luo is a Chinese documentary photographer based in Paris and Beijing. After working for a number of years as a photojournalist in the Chinese press industry, he moved to France where he began a new photography journey. His work focuses on the life of the people with a geopolitical background. He tries to find the latent relations between people and the modern society and presents them through his lenses. My work is to explore the latent relationship between people and modern society by photography, to find the contradictions and compromises between them, and to present it to the public. I tend to focus on the state of living in the areas of different developmental level during the period of historical turning point. Therefore, I always focus my lens on individuals or groups in various geopolitical, religious, racial and cultural contexts. Influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the decisive moment, I always believe that there is a certain same truth existing both inside and outside the lens, although sometimes it takes time to confirm.
“Travel more, whether for taking photographs or not. And think more, before and after shooting”
You tend to work in series. Can you explain if this is solely driven by the subjects you choose. Or if the medium of photography, in particular digital photography, is more of a driver. For example, the number of images that can be generated encourages working in series to create some order.
The expressive power through a single photograph is very limited, like a single finger; while a series of photographs can gather power, like a clenched fist hitting the chest, and the viewer can understand more clearly what you want to express. Especially in this era of information explosion, artworks with insufficient power can easily be overwhelmed by a large amount of useless information. Also, it is more creative fun to convey your ideas through the combination and ordering of images than through a single photo, which makes the photographer's job more interesting.
The development of digital photography has simplified the technical work of photographers. At the same time, it takes the photographer's attention from technical factors such as focusing and adjusting aperture and shutter combinations to thinking about the work itself. Like the invention of photography freed painting from its imitative function. Since technological progress has provided this possibility, photographers should take full advantage of this facility and let their minds do things more challenging and unattainable by technology.
You started your career in China and then moved to France. Now you are based between Paris & Beijing. You speak about starting a new photographic journey in France. What do you mean by this? What was your new photographic journey?
My previous job was as a salaried photojournalist at a newspaper. That means all photographs I took had to fit the needs of pages, meet the contents of news stories, etc. At the beginning of a career this is great because it provides more opportunities to shoot and, in the process, trains a novice to become an expert. But when technique and experience are no longer the limiting factors in a career, then the biggest limiting factor is this newspaper.
I resigned from the newspaper when I realized this. This allowed me to shoot only the projects I was interested in and to have a longer-term plan. Going to France was for getting away from the environment I was used to living in and to changing to a completely new place to work. Although I still shoot some projects about China, the experience of living and studying in France has broadened my horizons and made me rethink, with a different view, a lot of things that I was used to seeing before.
You cite Henri Cartier-Bresson as a key influence on your motivation for shooting photographs. Can you elaborate on this?
According to Henri Cartier-Bresson, there is a perfect moment when several factors are arranged in the image in the most meaningful, harmonious geometric form, and I couldn't agree more on this point. And I think that such a decisive moment is not unique. It is different for each photographer and, likewise, different for each viewer. Also, I agree with Cartier-Bresson's other point that a photographer should not intervene with the subject. This is not only one of the key principles in photojournalism, but more importantly, the photographer's intervention can disrupt the decisive moment coming, and the result will probably be a pseudo decisive moment.
“However, it's not a good idea to be blindly shooting constantly and then look for. It's like looking for a great photo from a documentary film by taking screenshots. It's occasionally surprising, but it won't sustain a photographer’s whole career. ”
In your work your ability to capture the decisive moment conveys your humility. How do you engineer such a moment? Do you follow a strategy? Or are you shooting constantly then looking for it after the event?
My years of professional experience have allowed me to anticipate what is about to happen in camera, and as mentioned above, all that I can do is to choose a suitable angle and to wait for, rather than intervene. In fact, this choice and waiting are not random, the former requires a lot of research on the subject in advance and the latter requires considerable shooting experience. Sometimes this decisive moment is not realized at the time of shooting, it takes constant looking back at the photos and thinking afterwards to realize it. Sometimes it takes years.
However, it's not a good idea to be blindly shooting constantly and then look for. It's like looking for a great photo from a documentary film by taking screenshots. It's occasionally surprising, but it won't sustain a photographer’s whole career.
“The expressive power through a single photograph is very limited, like a single finger; while a series of photographs can gather power, like a clenched fist hitting the chest, and the viewer can understand more clearly what you want to express.”
You have photographed cultural groups that are virtually unknown to those in the west. What experience during your time spent with these groups stands out as memorable?
Some people are also ignorant of the modern world. Once in Tibet, a restaurant owner heard that I came from Beijing and then asked me: Are there more Tibetans or Han Chinese in Beijing? This is like me asking a Frenchman: Are there more Chinese or French people in France?
But they are still not immune to the invasion of modern civilization and urban culture. Drinking Coca-Cola, listening to pop songs and using WeChat Pay. This is an era of globalization. But, in some remote areas, this globalization process is not as widespread.
Did you ever work in print film or only digital?
I worked with black and white film while learning photography, and with color film while just starting as a photojournalist. I used to spend a lot of time every day in dark rooms developing and printing photographs. After I started using a digital camera, I gradually stopped working with film.
How has your work evolved over the years?
Different projects evolved in different ways. The project Deep Red came into my mind since my first trip to Tibet in 2006. Every time I look back at the photos, I desired to explore the region again, so I went there almost once a year before the pandemic. This exploration is not always presented in the photos. Sometimes even if I don't take pictures, there are important things that stay in my mind.
Whereas the project Group Living started with two themes that I had been shooting for years: dense crowds and dense buildings in cities. Until eventually, I realized that both themes reflected the same thing: over-urbanization. I tried then to put them in the same project, and it turned out to be good. This might be "the decisive moment" of thinking. So, the project continued in this way.
What advice would you give to young photographers looking to make a career in the field?
Travel more, whether for taking photographs or not. And think more, before and after shooting.
Copyright for all photographs Jian Luo 2023.