What circumstances took you to China?
I came there in October 2006 after spending two months in India, where I became convinced that expatriation was the right thing for me. I think living abroad for a few years is an experience everyone should consider. It’s important, it’s a question of evolution.
Asia had always attracted me a lot, so after India, China struck me as a logical choice. I had always wanted to learn Chinese. When I got there, I didn’t speak a word, I didn’t understand a thing – and that’s what I was looking for. I was finally free from advertising, televised propaganda, conversations overheard on the street or metro… all of the surrounding verbal interference that always screens you from reality when you live in your own culture.
It’s often difficult to photograph your immediate surroundings, to know how to look at what habit has exhausted. Conversely, as a Westerner living in China, a land of striking contrasts, have you never felt bloated by images to the point where you wouldn’t even know where to look?
I think that living abroad makes it particularly important to master your environment, to get to know it in order to avoid the pitfalls of what I would call the initial exotic element - the temptation to take pictures because they appear unusual. We’ve all taken these kinds of shots, glossy magazines are full of them. But as you gradually blend in with your environment, you avoid falling into that trap, and your work takes on a more universal meaning and scope. I live in China, but my work is not about that country. My presence here is very much down to chance; it’s not really that important.
Your image - "The Island" - is emblematic of the visual paradoxes that abound in China. Can you tell us more about this “island” sitting awkwardly among the skyscrapers?
This photo was taken in Chongqing, a city I love because it’s very steep. It’s a good expression of what is happening today in Chinese cities where older buildings, when not simply razed, are gradually surrounded by residential bocks - ever taller and ever more massive.
The sense of insularity is strengthened by the fact that the top of the building forms a kind of garden that contrasts with the concrete block in the background.
In China, this kind of planted rooftop, where people set up makeshift garden shacks or allotments, is quite widespread. Much of China’s urban population is recent, and whenever they can, they like to grow their own vegetables around the building, or on the roof. Another interesting phenomenon is the “green roofs” trend, which has already transformed many a barren rooftop in major U.S. cities, and is also spreading to China, including Chongqing. It’s a new phenomenon that ultimately reflects something the Chinese have never really stopped doing.In your series Under The Leaves, you shot lush vegetation that seems to be hatching something in silence, and although surrounded by concrete, to exhale a kind of fierce independence. How did you choose these sites?Under The Leaves
is a series entirely shot in parks on Wuhan University campus, near which I was then living. So, geographically, it was quite limited. Shooting took place exclusively on cloudy or rainy days – these were the only times when the vegetation was bathed in a kind of dark, diffuse light: the trees and plants seemed to be really alive, with a true presence, almost ominous and threatening. The vegetation also needed to look like it was human, planted by man, so close to us that it would further accentuate the sense of strangeness and anxiety. All of this would not have been possible if I had chosen a completely natural location, say a forest. That’s why I worked in parks, and chose to include bits of concrete structures, human artefacts in some of the pictures.
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