China Underground > China Photo Gallery: Images and pictures of China > Exclusive Interviews with Chinese Photographers in Celebration of World Photography Day 2023

Exclusive Interviews with Chinese Photographers in Celebration of World Photography Day 2023

A journey through Chinese art and history, captured by the lenses of some of the most talented Chinese and international photographers.

Today, August 19, is World Photography Day. The 2023 theme is “LANDSCAPES”. Every year on this occasion, people take the time to reflect on the significance of photography. Photography enthusiasts with a passion for the genre come together to share their shots, methods, ideas, advice, equipment, etc … The day that celebrates innovation and nuances in photography hopes to motivate more people to pursue this art form that attracts the entire world.

We had the opportunity to interview numerous Chinese photographers as well as foreign ones who have been to China and Asia and have preserved unrepeatable and unique situations, conveyed tales, and established styles with their photographs. We want to share with our readers their remarkable photos and their words, so we can be in first person with them directly behind the lens of the camera.

Below you can find our interviews …

Interviews with some of the best photographers in China

Beginnings and Evolution of Photography

World Photography Day also aims to inspire budding photographers and honor and recognize the talent and skill of great photographers who use and have used their perception and creativity to capture moments that go beyond words. This day is an anniversary to celebrate the technological evolution of this artistic and creative medium, learn to understand the mechanisms of vintage and new cameras and discover different films, formats, and lenses. Thanks to Louis Daguerre France is the pioneering country in the world of photography. In 1824 Daguerre began to make experiments to be able to fix the image obtained through the camera obscura.

Thanks to correspondence with Joseph Niépce, six years after the latter’s death, Daguerre invented the daguerreotype: a photographic process that was formally declared to the world by the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des beaux-arts in 1839. This technique requires that a plate covered with silver is placed in front of the subject to be filmed. After being exposed to iodine vapors and left to rest in a dark room, the slab is washed with sea salt and mercury to interrupt the oxidation process.

Photography was born with the discovery of two fundamental principles: the projection of images from a darkroom and the observation that some substances are visibly altered by exposure to light. The invention of photography is among the earliest and most important inventions in which the whole process was made freely available to the world. Photographing means writing with light, in fact, the word photography derives from the Greek photos “light” and graphìa “writing”.

In 1861 Thomas Sutton worked on the development of the first color photography. Today’s anniversary was born in 2009 on the initiative of the Australian photographer Korske Ara who founded the World Photography Day Foundation in 2010 and decided to make this celebration coincide with the date of birth of the daguerreotype technique. From the birth of photography, different media and formats have followed one another up to the introduction of the Kodak camera n. 1 in 1888, invented and marketed by George Eastman, a former bank clerk from Rochester, New York. It was a simple box camera loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film. In 1975, the first digital camera developed by Steven Sasson of Kodak was born. Sasson built a prototype (US Patent 4,131,919) from a movie camera lens, a handful of Motorola parts, 16 batteries, and some newly invented Fairchild CCD electronic sensors. Thanks to this latest invention, now anyone can take a picture.

Photography in China

Photography in China begins in Macau with European photographers. There were already the first Western photographers in the coastal port cities around 1850, but they were quickly displaced by their Chinese assistants and local competition. Western and Chinese photographers have amply documented that by the end of the nineteenth century, all major cities had photographic studios and it had become normal to have family portraits taken; they also told the daily life and habits of the time with their photographs, leaving us with a vast historical legacy that documents a distant China in customs and traditions.

This new hobby captivated wealthy Chinese, and the dowager Empress Cixi had portraits drawn on numerous occasions. In the twentieth century, photography in China, as in the rest of the globe, was used for amusement, archiving, journalism, political propaganda, and even artistic production. The presence of Westerners and missionaries spread the knowledge and the use of photography as a tool, according to Meccarielli. Photographers were concerned not just in capturing what they observed, but also in expressing old aesthetics and poetics using modern techniques. Some of the very first photographers in China include Dr. Richard Woosnam, Major George Malcolm, Henry Collen, Jules Itier, and Zou Boqi. In the second half of the 19th century, some Chinese photographic studios arose, such as Kung Tai (公泰照相樓) and Sze Yuen Ming (上洋耀華照相) in Shanghai, and Pun Lun (繽綸) and Lai Afong (赖阿芳) in Hong Kong. Several well-known early 20th-century photographers include Liu Bannong (1891–1934, 劉半農) and Zhang Yin Quan (1900–1971, 張印泉).

Sharing a meal by Lai Afong, circa 1880s

Some photographers of this period branched out into cinema such as Ho Fan (1937–2016, 何藩) and China’s first steps in photojournalism made by Lang Jingshan (1892–1995). During the battles and instability of the warlord period, photographers such as Gao Fan (1922-2004) and Niu Weiyu (1922-) tried their hand at war photography. The latter would also shoot many images for the leaders of the Communist Party of China. Sha Fei (1912-1948) would devote a significant amount of time to the following conflict (the Second Sino-Japanese Conflict, 1937-1945). In the early years of the People’s Republic, the state organized artists and writers into official groups to direct their work. Many were the official photographers of Mao and senior Party members.

Among them were Hou Bo, Lu Houmin, and Xu Xiaobing. During the Cultural Revolution, photography in China was seen as a socialist realist propaganda tool. Li Zhensheng was one of the few photographers who managed to take pictures clearly, in fact the subjects of his photographs included in addition to “positive” moments, such as people studying Mao’s works, chanting revolutionary slogans, performing the dance of loyalty and participating in agricultural work, etc. even “negative” scenes such as public humiliations, street violence, executions, etc., The April 5 movement of 1976 marked the beginning of a new photographic vision in China. During the movement, ordinary citizens grabbed their cameras and documented people’s public mourning for Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

A couple of years later, some of these photographs were published in a book called “People’s Mourning”. Some of these photographers have founded an unofficial photography club called the “April Photo Society”. The aftermath of the Cultural Revolution led to a documentary photography movement that grew rapidly. Many photojournalists who have worked for the state do not own the copyright to their work. In 1993, an art circle was established in the East Village area of Beijing that used photography in addition to experimental performance art and conceptual art. In 1994, Rong Rong co-founded China’s first conceptual art photography magazine, New Photo. Many contemporary artist-photographers are very successful in the West since they bring into the spotlight themes or points of view that are little known to those who have never traveled to China or Asia.

Photography and AI: what changes for photographers and how could the relationship evolve?

Portraits, details, stock photography, food photography, landscapes, land photography, and aero photography, etc … Artificial Intelligence officially entered the world of photography this year with a German photographer who took first place in the creative category at the Sony World Photography Awards. Boris Eldagsen later turned down the award after revealing that the image was generated by artificial intelligence. He had submitted the photo with no expectation of winning, so he withdrew from the competition when the announcement was made.

This precedent has opened a debate on how the photorealistic image generated by A.I. should be considered. considering that it is not the result of a shot, but is at the same time close to photo collage and photo manipulation. Midjourney and OpenAI’s DALL-E have significantly improved their representation of the world over the years to become replacement tools for stock photography in the coming years since they can generate more images at a lower cost. In addition, this year there was the first real case of viral disinformation on social media due to the image generated by the A.I.

An image made with MidJourney inspired by the great Chinese photographer, Lu Guang, who is disappeared under the Chinese government

The photo in question features Pope Francis walking elegantly in a white duvet. Pablo Xavier, a 31-year-old construction worker from Chicago, told BuzzFeed News “I just thought it was funny to see the Pope in a funny jacket.” This event leads us to wonder if one day, when A.I. will have perfected their representation of reality, if humans will be able to distinguish the differences between an image generated by a prompt and a photo taken by an individual.

How has the relationship with photography changed in the era of social media?

We live in an age of enormous technological changes, but also of the accumulation and overabundance of images. Digital and cell phones that have a camera by default have made it easy to access photography. Once the purchase of a camera, the various lenses, the films, and the cost of developing the images seemed a demanding path, from the economic, time, meticulousness, and constancy point of view. To see satisfactory results, one had to wait and be patient.

Those who shot in analog were very strict with themselves and the number of rejects was conspicuous therefore some people were discouraged instead of feeling motivated to improve, as opposed to what happens with digital where the ease of discarding and re-snapping a photo doesn’t sabotage self-esteem. Only those who had a darkroom at their disposal could immediately realize whether they had to redo all the photos from scratch. When laboratories that developed films in half an hour were introduced many photography lovers felt encouraged by the possibility of being able to understand more quickly if there had been any improvements compared to the last section of previous shots. The selected shots were considered precious and if you weren’t a professional photographer they were also few. The portraits were containers of happy moments.

Analog memories were important, they were kept in family albums or frames, even grouped in altars or entire walls. Nowadays, where there is an incalculable number of digital photos and images, it is often cell phones that remind you to look at the photos or invite you to delete them to create space for taking new ones. In the past, it was unthinkable to throw away a photo album, only separations or quarrels led to the destruction of such a precious asset. It seems that some who would have benefited more from photography, thanks to the digital tool have instead lost interest in photos. It also happens that social networks re-propose some photos and surprisingly there are messages of amazement at the fact of not remembering that shot or thanks for having brought back a precious forgotten photo. It seems that for some people, more than a pleasure, it has become an obligation to keep up with social media, and portray carefree moments of life to show others, rather than live them totally.

The day of photography therefore assumes a very important role, in which we can ask ourselves if the photos we take really represent what our narrative desire is. If there is truly something of ours in the photos, the point of view, the style, etc. Today is an opportunity to also take an introspective journey and understand the importance of the images of our lives, of selecting our memories, to understand if they are just images that will fade over time or if they represent indelible memories.

Benefits of photography in everyone life

World Photography Day is an important occasion to encourage people to take an interest in this art, which can also be a therapeutic tool. Photography stimulates creativity, and ingenuity, as it generates continuous inputs into our mind and which wakes up the brain, creating a continuous flow of exercise. Taking photos increases the spirit of initiative, offers the opportunity to see new points of view, and therefore makes people reflect and/or even change ideas and/or opinions.

Photography requires concentration, and patience and therefore offers the possibility to become more resilient and to interpret situations with a greater positive spirit. Photographing promotes the organizational and planning spirit and increases spatial and temporal perception. Dedicating yourself to photography is good for your health and is an excellent stress reliever, it allows you to reach a state of well-being, because it removes worries, improving your mental health. Taking photos is a very pleasant and engaging activity, it allows you to live in the present and forget about problems. Photographing leads to pushing themself and putting themself to the test.

Furthermore, for some, taking pictures becomes an opportunity to get moving and therefore keep fit, while looking for a subject for the shot. In some cases, photography increases sociality, when you decide to do street photography it becomes a moment of meeting people, or when you decide to photograph in a group to get to know other people with the same passion. Furthermore, by spending time outdoors, in the city, or nature, one benefits from the beauties of the architectural world, history, or the environment. Photographing improves visual memory.

Photographing also becomes a challenge to improve oneself, where one learns to take a position on one’s focal points and therefore also to express oneself, the moment one takes a photo tells, informs, and documents events and also the story and therefore one discovers but it is also shared, taught and educated through the sharing of knowledge. Being subjective photography, it brings benefits in the introspective field by promoting a more inner vision of oneself.


Featured photograph: Guangzhou, Chinese boats by Lai Afong, circa 1880.

Topics: Top Chinese photographers, World Photography Day 2023, Famous Chinese photographers, Evolution of photography in China, Icons of Chinese photography, Masters of photography in Asia

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