Coastline: Interview with Zhang Xiao

Interviewer: Akira Higashikata (Nitesha)

Exhibition: Zhang Xiao "Coastline"
Period: September 24 - October 18, 2014

Courtesy of Zhang Xiao, Zen Foto Gallery

When I was a child, I was eager for the sea and I felt the sea to be mysterious. I could never touch it. Now, I still feel as I did. I come here to seek strong emotional conflicts and rich images, which may bear deep sorrow and a sense of loss. The sea is the beginning of lives and dreams. At the same time, I am looking for a hometown in my heart.

Q: You have accomplished “Coastline” series in 2013. How do you feel now for this project which you spent four years to accomplish?
Z: I'm satisfied. Despite the fact that I spent four years taking photos of this series, I was already satisfied in the first three years. I had chances to exhibit the works and publish photobooks, and I was about to finish working on this series upon reaching the third year. But I ended up continuing shooting since there still were places that I haven’t visited. I spent one more year visiting these areas, not only to take photos but also because those are the places where I had always wanted to go.
Q: Do you always walk along the coastline?

Z: I went there by using transportation networks such as bus or railway. After arriving in the area, I just walked around. I have almost been to every city along the coast. At the beginning I planned to visit cities from the south up to the north, but I decided to not necessarily follow the rule, there was no need to set up such a rule. For example, when I had an exhibition in Shanghai, I spent few days walking around the coastline, just like that. It has nothing to do with the order. Whether heading north or south depends, not even the season is fixed in particular.

Q: Coastline published from Jiazazhi Press doesn't layout your photos in a sequence following the order from the south to the north.

Z: There is no particular meaning with the sequence, but if you try drawing a line from spot to spot where I had been, it will look like this (image on the left: the back cover of the photo book).

Q: In terms of the feeling of Japanese people, when we see your photos, we feel like these scenes are unlikely to be ordinary. Are these photos really what you saw when you were there?
Z: It’s the third time today (laugh). Someone just asked me the same question.

Q: You are not giving any instructions to the people in your photos?

Z:People often ask me this question. But, no. They were absolutely what I saw and not set-up photographs. When I had an exhibition in Europe, no one believed me about it. Sometimes people even questioned me, “you have a lot of money, don't you? Weren’t you paying someone to pose and then took these photos?” (laugh). Actually I don’t know any of the persons in my photographs. I don’t usually interact with the local people.
Q: So, these are all by chances?
Z: Whenever I walk around I bump into those sceneries and people. I would use the words “bump into” rather than “see”.

Courtesy of Zhang Xiao, Zen Foto Gallery

Q: You never spend time waiting?

Z: Spending time waiting is a waste of time, so I never wait. If I could spend more than one month in the same place, I would be able to take plenty of photos. Yet, I usually stay in the same place less than a week. Even if I have the chance to spend a long time taking photographs of the same place, it means nothing special to me. I want to take as many photographs as possible in a wide range of fields from time to time.
Q: When you show your photographs to Chinese people, don’t they find them strange?

Z: Most of my Chinese friends feel normal, but my wife feels some photos do look strange for her. Perhaps, it might be because most of my friends are art-related professionals, so they don’t see my photos as strange. For people in other fields, some of the images are queer. For Japanese people, these are certainly quirky.
Q: What do you think about the difference between a photography exhibition and a photography book?
Z: I think the photography book is a conclusion of a series. If the photo book is appropriately edited and produced, then it could be viewed as a whole complete series. As for photography exhibition, there is usually a variety of elements involved, such as location, lighting, the way of displaying and so forth. We could show the artworks from numerous angles respectively. Therefore, I think photo books and photo exhibitions are in a complementary relationship.

Courtesy of Zhang Xiao, Zen Foto Gallery

There have been great changes every day in China since the country began opening up thirty years ago. The cities are like big construction sites, accelerating to catch up with the rest of the world. These trends are particularly true of China’s coastal areas. A multitude leaves their home towns in the countryside to go to the coastal regions. The drive for urbanization and economic growth continues while the spiritual life of the people stagnates.

Q: You mentioned in a past interview, “I am simply recording the changes of China. However, I am not sure if those changes are good things or bad things for the country”. Are there any changes in the state of your mind since then?
Z: I would say the bad influences are more than the good ones.
Q: Have you ever thought of changing the society as a photographer?

Z: I'm simply recording. In general, I don’t think of myself being able to make a difference that  changes something, even if I try. What I can do is to record “now” through my photographs. I am not changing the society through my photographs but simply keeping a record of “now” by taking photographs.
Q: As for the previously debated point of your photos being difficult to understand in terms of reality and fiction, it might feel like you are not taking photos of “now”, I wondered.
Z: Diversity might be a key to think about this question. Some photographers focus on portraits, while others document the destruction of nature. I think each photographer takes photographs from different angles and positions, and I have my own standpoint: I record the “now” of China, which I see from my angle. Although the development of economy in China grows with an uncanny vigor, the mentality of the Chinese has not caught up with such a progression at all. The surrounding environment and the spirit of people are incompatible. Today’s China is such an odd place. It’s conflicting.
Q: What are the reasons in your perspective?

Z: Money. To tell the truth, China is changing and its economic development grows rapidly, while the spirit and soul are not progressing at all. The development of spirit comes much later than the economic growth.
Q: Are you planning to take photographs focusing on the mainland China hereafter?

Z:  The new project which I am working on now is about my hometown in Yāntái. It’s a rather small village. Comparing to my other series “They”, “Coastline” and “Shanxi” which are “the world of the outside seen from me” as mainstream, this on-going project would be “me seeing the inside of myself”, by going back to my birthplace. It will be more personal, but I believe that I could probably inspect and discover the present China through the new project.

Courtesy of Zhang Xiao, Zen Foto Gallery




Zhang Xiao was born in November 23rd, 1981, in Yantai, Shandong Province, China. After graduating from Art Design of Architecture Department, Yantai University, in 2005, he worked as a photographer for Chongqing Morning Post. He is currently working as a freelance photographer based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. 

Akira Higashikata is the owner of the online bookstore "Nitesha" and the web magazine "The pencil of Photograph".


Translators and Editors:
Amanda Lo, Lin Yichen, Federica Sala, and Ayako Koide.