Shanghainese model Zhang Wen for H&M.
I first met Kyle (Feng Jiaqi) in 2005, shortly after I'd arrived in Chengdu. There were a few local rock bands playing at the Shamrock, and being in my early 20s and fancying going out to a rock show as an opportunity to dress up, I was wearing my finest torn fishnet stockings and leather and lip ring, and he tapped me on the shoulder and complimented my clothes.
I would find out that he was an English major at the Chengdu University of Information Technology who happened to be really into music and clothes, at the time and on the weekends he would come over and try on my black eyeliner and we would take snapshots in the mirror, and then he would wash it all off before going to eat dinner with what he describes as his "very normal, average family."
In his senior year, he went to Beijing for an internship and said he didn't like the way people talked and that he missed Sichuan. So I was surprised when not long after he announced that he was moving to Shanghai. We mostly fell out of contact over the years, but once he mentioned he was taking photos and did we want to publish any in the magazine? "This is CHENGDOO magazine," I replied. "What do we want with Shanghai party photos? Contact the Shanghai magazines." Another few years passed and I heard from him again. "I'm in Chengdu. Let's meet at the Europe House."
Not exactly my cup of tea, but it's conveniently located, so I went upstairs and took a seat on the rococo-inspired sofa chair while a white-gloved waitress poured me some hot water, and I ordered the most expensive coffee I've ever had in my life. Kyle arrived—he had ditched his plastic-framed glasses for a lip ring and he had a more worldly, confident air about him, but otherwise he looked more or less like the same kid I knew all those years ago.
He ordered green tea ("Too cool for coffee, Mr. Shanghai?" I asked. "No, it's my stomach. I had spicy food last night") before filling me in on how he's become a big-shot photographer.
The photographer in Berlin.
So how did you get started in photography?
I got interested because I always liked rock 'n' roll—it had been always part of my life. In university every week, I'd go to see what new CDs from Western rock 'n' roll bands the sellers had, and also to Little Bar. At that time I couldn't afford an expensive camera, so I just used a digital [snapshot] camera.
Then in Shanghai, I contacted the expat magazine City Weekend. By then I had bought an SLR and was always going to take pictures of some underground rock shows. The third time I sent photos in, they were published, and every issue since then they send me to take photos of shows. I've been shooting for this magazine for almost 20 issues. I think that [gave me confidence] to try to work as a photographer. So then I went to the attached photography institute of Fudan University and studied for a year.
At that time I did a lot of events, parties, birthday parties, corporate events, expos, some food exhibitions. So that's how I made money for a few years, and after that I started shooting models because I wanted to be in the fashion industry as a photographer. I love fashion—it's connected with rock 'n' roll as well, and now it's been two years since I started to do fashion.
Now I do a lot of portraits for magazine editorials, maybe because that's what I'm good at and most of the magazines want that. I shot Guo Jingming, the writer, and the most famous Chinese football star and some CEOs for Harper's Bazaar and Numéro. I've also done some work for Elle Men, and a couple weeks ago for Men's Health I shot a photo of a renowned blood-transfusion specialist in his surgery room. It was very exciting for me. I love portraits—they can show the expression or the moment of the person's sense.
How do you find work?
Weibo helps, and if the editor likes your work they might introduce you to others from the same industry. One time I shot the singer from Massive Attack performing, and I put it on Weibo, and the editor [of Numéro] found it and sent me a message asking if they could buy the picture from me. So then they called me another time and I worked with them to shoot a filmmaker from Paris who worked with [Beijing Bicycle] director Wang Xiaoshuai, and then she e-mailed me again a few months ago because she wanted to use another photo for a French film magazine.
Do you think being able to speak English well helps?
I didn't take this as an advantage, I'm just thinking this is my tool for use. Most of the time, for the editorials, you speak Chinese, but if it's a Westerner, if you take photos of them you have to speak English with them.
Your work has also taken you abroad now.
Yes, I shot the New York Fashion Week. Yahoo! China needed a photographer to cover the shows so I flew there with two writers. Shooting backstage was interesting—you can see a lot of very famous models, doing hair and makeup, and it's not like Shanghai's fashion week. I think the models in New York, why are they international famous top models? They must have something the other models don't have. They are more experienced and more professional; they know how to pose for pictures. Whenever you raise your camera, they look at you and smile even if they are super busy. So this shows me what professionalism is about. I think that was one of the most unforgettable trips.
Did you feel you had accomplished your dream when you were there?
Oh yeah. [Laughs.] I always wanted to go to New York, and I didn't know when I could go. And suddenly this chance fell on me, unexpected, and I felt like, oh my God, it's really happened to me. And when we landed there and then we were in the taxi on the way to Manhattan, I was still like, "Am I really in New York?" But it's really different—New York and what your idea of New York is, it's really different.
What was the most interesting part of shooting there?
I took pictures of the Chinese top models, like Xi Mengyao (aka Ming Xi) and Liu Wen, walking down the street and after the show we interviewed them about their lifestyle and working as a Chinese model in New York. And Ju Xiaowen who worked with [London-based fashion photographer] Tim Walker and modeled for Prada, we shot a video of her in the taxi and some photos of what she puts in her bag. So that's what I did, both photo shoot and video shoot. We interviewed a lot of fashion designers, Diane von Furstenberg and the designer of Calvin Klein.
Did you feel like a fan when you were talking to some of these big names?
I feel more like a busy worker. You don't have any time to think about you're a fan. I even saw Sarah Jessica Parker walking past me, and she stopped for me to take a photo of her standing in front of me. It's such a mess, there's a lot of photographers, they want to catch what they need so the situation is kind of crazy. You have to just take your camera and press the shutter and do it. Some celebrities are coming backstage and you have to take this moment.
How did people react to your Chinese team?
Once they know you are from Yahoo! China they know you are doing the promotion and they are very accepting. China is very important in the international fashion industry—most of the sales and top luxury brands are here in China, and the manufacturing is here. And Chinese models are more successful internationally because of this—they work with more and more famous designers and photographers.
Which city has the best street fashion?
I think London. Also, surprisingly, I found that Melbourne is a fashionable city—a lot of skinny jeans with T-shirts and rocker style or alternative or hipster, it's really the kind of style I like a lot, and there are a lot of independent designers. Of course, Paris. Paris is just very beautiful. It looks like surreal, I felt like I was in a dream when I was there. And you can see some very stylish people dressing in a very high-fashion style. But I personally more prefer the independent and more rock 'n' roll, hipster style.
What about Shanghai fashion?
Shanghai women love style and high fashion. So they love to have a bag like LV bag or Gucci bag. It's a bit different, their taste is more about they want something expensive and looks good from the outside, looks very luxurious.
Do you think you would have had these opportunities if you hadn't moved to Shanghai?
I really appreciate that I moved to Shanghai. I think that if I didn't, maybe I'd just be working for some normal company daily from 8 to 5. I feel very lucky that I jumped out from this city and got to see more of the world. In Chengdu there are some chances for English majors, but I think Shanghai is a more open city and there are many more opportunities for me.
What do you think about Chengdu when you're back?
The biggest change for me is there's a lot of construction, and the air is a mess. I feel I don't want to breathe the air anymore. Everybody needs to wear a mask. I miss the Chengdu from before I went to Shanghai. It was more clean and quiet. But maybe this is something the city needs to develop and they need to build these things. But I'm thinking do they have to do this? I don't know. Why not keep the city [as it was]?
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 63 ("people").
Photos by Kyle Fong.