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Interview with Photographer Cheng Gong

Cheng Gong is a New York-based artist and photographer. Born in Hunan, China he received a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Art of Design from Donghua University, Shanghai in 2012.

Cheng Gong received a master’s degree in Project Management from Northeastern University, Boston in 2016, and a master’s degree in Photography, video, and related media in the School of Visual Arts, New York in 2019. His works are mainly about cultural differences and some specific situations in the western world seen from an Asian perspective. His most recent series of images ” The Ten Precepts of Buddhism”, was selected by many exhibitions in the US and also in China. He gets nominee in the 6th edition of Fine Art Photography Awards, 2020.

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Cheng Gong “The Ten Precepts of Buddhism” series was showing at Barret Art Center in New York for a solo show May 16 – June 21, 2020

How and when did you get into photography? Why did you decide to choose it as your form of creative expression?

Since my major in college is environmental Art of Design, I attended a photography course when I was just a freshman, and I got my first camera in 2008, which gave me an opportunity and another way to see my life. I realized that I like taking photos so much and I would take the camera with me all the time. During the second year of my college, I became an assistant to a commercial photographer in Shanghai. I learned much more practical things about photography. For a long time, photography, for me, was a way to record my life. On the other hand, I could work as a commercial photographer to make money. I found that I was not satisfied with the way that just taking photos for my clients, and I wanted to know more about theoretical knowledge of photography. Then I applied to the Photography department of the School of Visual Arts in NYC. I want to make photography as a form to express the things I care about.

Who influenced you as a person and as a photographer?

Mr. Qian, who was my painting teacher in my college, has influenced me to be a photographer. Actually, when I got into photography, my family went against me. They wanted me to help my parents with their business, not to be a photographer. That is the reason why I had my first master’s degree as Project Management. Mr. Qian is the only one who encourages me to chase my own passion and do what I wanted to. He bought many photo albums for me to learn more about the history of photography. I still remember the first photo album he bought for me was the portraits by August Sander. It was the first time I saw an unbelievable power within photography. I began to explore the art world in photography since then. After I got my first master’s degree, I decided to learn photography and become an artist.

He received honorable mention in Fine Art Conceptual of Neutral Density Photography Awards 2019 and was runner-up in Creative Quarterly issue 59 Online Art magazine.

What are your favorite subjects when shooting photos? Do you prefer to work on photos stage or spontaneous shoots?

I like shooting still life. For a while, I was very interested in normal objects in our daily life, such as fire hydrants, water towers, and water meters, etc.. I think these objects seem ordinary and inconspicuous, but they are very important to people and they are also beautiful. I use to take photos of them as portraits, so I going out at night and light them up. They may seem all the same in our daily life, but in my eyes, they look specific individuals. I also like shooting photos of cultural differences or certain social issues. I do prefer to work in staged photos, because I can control everything, such as the objects, the time, the lighting, etc.. In such a way, I can express fully what I want to show to the audiences.

Can you share with us any story behind a photo that became special for you?

The first photo that jumps in my mind is the one called “No false Speech”, which is one of the “Ten precepts of Buddhism”. At first, I wanted to shoot this one in an American style court because it’s different from the Chinese court. I found it strange that in the US, people can go to court just for an unpaid parking ticket, or anything else even if they feel not guilty. In China, go to court is a big issue. Then I also discover that it was really hard for me, as a foreigner, to contact a court only to make a shoot set. I even tried to contact the law school to see if I could rent their mock court to shoot, but the dean just replied to me “No”. Finally, I decided to shoot this image/idea in an abandoned psychiatric center as a compromised place. I had been to this place several times before, and I found many people take pictures there since there are many beds and facilities in that building. On the shooting day, as we were moving our props and equipment into that building, we were reported by a passenger, and a policeman came then stopped us. He told us that the building was a restricted area, and we were not allowed to get in. He gave each of us a ticket and told us to go to the court the next month. And I had to shoot that one out of the building, and I put this ticket in my frame as it’s part of the photo. So we spent a whole day waiting in the court and fortunately, with no chance to say anything, the judge just dismissed us.

Attending to the court, for this “issue” seemed like a joke to the judge. And I found also that the policeman even put my first name and last name in the wrong place by mistake. Thus, I was sent to the court because of a photo that I wanted to shoot in the court. I had thought so many things after I went to court. Why so many people go to this building to take photos, where I was going to make shooting, but just us reported and got tickets? Why the policeman insisted to gave each of us a ticket? Did going to the court was necessary? Why should we wait in the court for almost a whole day, but the judge just laughed at us and dismissed us without saying anything else? It is an unforgettable experience, and it is not only about a ticket. So this is the story behind a photo I want to share.

Cheng Gong artworks were shown in International photography exhibitions, group exhibitions, and solo exhibitions.

Can you tell us about your photography work “The Ten Precepts Of Buddhism”? Where did the idea come from?

It’s a series of ten photos and I spent almost one year on it. In this series of images, Chinese food and objects are featured, but the backgrounds are in Western-style. For this series, I wanted to imitate the old Dutch oil painting style. However, the main subjects are Chinese, thus creating an awkward atmosphere. This series is not only about Buddhism, but more concerning the differences between the Eastern culture and the Western culture, and also the differences addressed between religions.

In terms of the inspiration for this work, first of all, I found that I have not changed my habits and concepts as a Chinese. Even though I have been in the United States for more than 5 years, Chinese cuisine is still my first choice and I only go to Chinese supermarkets to get groceries. I found that this is not just my personal habits but a social issue in Western society. I also found that there are some misunderstandings about Chinese people and culture in the western world like some Western people think Chinese food is disgusting and cheap, which I have the opposite viewpoint about. The conflicts between Chinese and Western culture greatly influence me and my work. Last but not least, since my family believes in Buddhism and I am influenced by my mother and my grandmother, I also believe in Buddhism to a certain extent. Every time I go back to China, my mom takes me to a temple which is located in a mountain near my hometown for staying there several days, I really enjoyed the peaceful and disciplinary life there. I had heard about some stories behind the precepts so I decided to make it as my project.

Your photography projects “One Child” and “One Elder” in a way can be the two faces of the same coin when thinking about “One child policy”. Are the two works connected? Can you tell us about the ideas behind them?

Actually, these two projects are independent. The “One Elder” is about a social issue in China: more and more young people from rural areas are moving to the cities to live and left their parents in their hometown. This is because the elders get used to the lives in their homes and the rural area. Even though the city has a more convenient life and better conditions, they just do not want to live in the city. On the one hand, it’s difficult for them to live in an unfamiliar environment, on the other hand, they don’t want to bother their children’s life. The elders in this series were born in the 1920s. They could have as many children as they wanted at that time, so the empty chairs represent the number of their children. As we can see from these photos, some of their children left the grandson or daughter in law at home to follow them. However, most of the elders are at home alone. I made this series because of my grandfather, he has six children, including my father, they are all living in the city now, but my grandfather prefers living in the rural area, which he feels much more comfortable to live in.

The project called “One Child” was shot after I had been in the U.S. for two years. We have a very strict policy in China that one family can only have one child. We are under the ‘protection’ of our parents, and we do not have ‘competition’ in our daily life. However, I found that most people in the US have siblings. I did not have close friends or relatives here, so I felt lonely and isolated. This series of pictures are what my imagination sees as an ideal life – living with siblings and taking care of each other. We drink, eat, and play together. The images of me in the transparency effect represent my imagination, and myself in the center is the reality. The real me is unhappy, lonely, and helpless, and these feelings are exaggerated. Since I live abroad I decided to do that project.

What are the main cultural differences that moved your creative attention when you first got from China to The States? What subjects and themes did you find that weren’t in China?

The main cultural difference, in the States, maybe the diversification. Especially living in New York City, there are different people from all over the world. There is much more freedom here, people can say anything they want to. I found that people from the same part of the world prefer to stay together. I have attended several wedding ceremonies these years, and I found that Asian people’ s weddings mostly consist of Asian people, White people’s weddings mostly consist of white people, etc.. Just like the division of different area: Asians live in some certain areas, black people live in some certain areas, Jewish live in some certain areas, etc.. Unlike that in China, we do not have certain distinctions. I can hardly make friends with foreigners, my friends are all Chinese. This is not my personal issue, but the same for most people here.

What do you wish and hope to communicate through your photos?

Most of my work is about cultural differences. I care about the understanding of some social issues. So I would like the audiences could have the same thought or they could think about themselves. I also want to let the western people know more about Eastern culture. I want to express my own feeling about some social issues and at the same time, the audiences can somehow feel the same as my though, or they can think more from my work.

Recently The States went from pandemic to protests on the death of George Floyd. Do you think the new generation will make a significant change in the themes of the struggle for rights? What do you think about this issue?

As far as I know, this kind of social issue is not an accident but a long-term problem in history. I do believe this issue will be better in the future, but I don’t know if it could totally disappear. Like I said before, I found that most of the black people are living in certain areas,which are located on the edge of the city. Each time I take the flight in the States, I can barely see black people. I remember once I attended an art show in Boston, there are only two black people among about a hundred audiences. I think the struggle for rights is necessary, but in order to change it totally, it needs time.

Photo courtesy of Cheng Gong

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