Howard French

Howard French – former foreign correspondent in Shanghai and photographer – portraits in his new book Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life – the characters he met in Shanghai between 2002 and 2008. The Asia Society interviewed him about his approach.

Asia Society:

How did you find your characters in China, and how were you able to get such intimate photos of them?

My approach to this kind of documentary photography developed gradually over time. Working in China, I had to overcome a number of obstacles, in that being a rather tall foreigner, I was very obvious and my mere presence could easily disrupt a scene. This required me to slow down a great deal, and to linger in interesting places until people stopped paying so much notice to my presence and to the presence of a camera. The choice of equipment was important. I worked with cameras like Leicas, which are small and unobtrusive, or with a Rolleiflex, which though larger, is funky and old-fashioned, and doesn’t look “professional,” or threatening.

Finally, I had learn to come to terms with, and master, inhibition. No telephotos or zooms were used at any time, so this meant closing the distance with my subjects, getting very close and learning how to communicate in largely silent ways that there was nothing to be threatened about.

As for finding characters, almost all of my work is people-centered, and wherever I go, from the moment I pick up a camera, a large part of my mental energy is devoted to watching people, to reading faces, and to looking for people with something particular about them.

More text and pictures at the Asia Society

Howard French is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

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