Run a google search for “Street Photography Shanghai” and Sue Anne Tay is likely to be the first to appear. Originally from Singapore, Sue Anne has lived in Shanghai now for over five years and has been documenting the city, both its modernization and its vanishing neighbourhoods on her site ever since. Alongside these images she adds her stories, which gracefully meld anecdote and history. Being fluent in Chinese, she’s able to enter into meaningful dialogue with local communities to gain a deeper understanding of the city.
I was lucky to get a chance to meet with Sue Anne as she spoke to me about the workings behind her blog.
EC: Why do you love Shanghai so much?
SA: I think simply it’s just the draw of China. I really enjoy the pace of living here. Being from Singapore and speaking Chinese, you’re supposed to get the city, but most of the time you don’t so there’s always this slight chaos and energy, this constant state of change and action, which is very exciting; frustrating and exciting at the same time.
EC: Who do you look to for inspiration?
SA: In terms of style, many people like to cite Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of street photography, but I would say Elliot Erwitt and Matt Stuart. I think they both shoot with incredible wit and humour.
In terms of content, such as what kind of buildings to photograph in Shanghai, I turn to a small circle of photographers who also document heritage architecture in Shanghai.
EC: Where did the idea to start a blog originate?
SA: I would say it was a very incubated process. In the beginning, I just did a bit of street photography. I started putting my photographs on Flickr and I studied what other people were doing and experimented to improve myself. Since I’m really more of a writer than I am a photographer, I started accompanying my photos on Flickr with some observations and stories, condensing a lot into descriptive moments, and it seemed to get a lot of attention. So by the time I had a bit of a following, I had sufficient content that I thought I could turn it into a blog. By the time the blog was launched, it was quite fully-formed.
EC: What is the importance of having text supplement the images?
SA: I think I do it to connect better with the audience. Because I write in English, the blog attracts more non-Chinese audience, so it becomes important to provide context. Perhaps I could get away with just a caption, but most of the time I think the text nicely fills the gaps. It’s a great way for me to describe everything happening at the moment. When you are shooting, you’re talking to people, and observing all these other things that are also unfolding around you simultaneously.
EC: Do you always research before you go shooting?
SA: Yes and no. Sometimes I have a specific place to visit after receiving tips from photographer friends or having seen it online. But everything else is unplanned, and that’s usually more interesting. Most of the time I get lost, and that’s how I discover new places. So even if there’s no beautiful architecture to document, there are always stories, and sometimes I will run into people that will take me to other places or point me in different directions. You just have to put yourself out there and as long as you’re talking to people, the stories just fall into place. And sometimes the stories don’t have to be interesting. You can write an entire post on what you think is a very mundane thing, and that can be a story in itself – laundry for instance. I once photographed shadows of laundry against the wall, and I added a few lines about a friend who said he hated shooting on weekends because laundry gets in the way.
EC: You shoot a lot of B&W, don’t you?
SA: I do both colour and B&W, though I think B&W resonates better with readers. It has something to do with people’s preconceptions, because they feel it’s more timeless, you know? B&W can also really focus the details and context. It’s not easy to perfectly capture action and context together in a really good photograph. That’s why I admire people who can stir your emotions in a single photograph. I don’t know if I’m quite there yet.
EC: Lastly, you focus on the urban development of the city, but do you have any strong feelings against it?
SA: I don’t have a strong opposition to urbanization per se. We can’t deny enjoying the benefits of good transportation and modern facilities. But I do have a problem with blind urbanization that plagues many cities across China. Shanghai has an incredible array of heritage architecture and it will be a giant shame if the government allows them all to be wiped out and be left with a homogenous feel that is indistinguishable from another city. I don’t believe that preservation has to be conducted at the cost of urban development and vice versa.
The good news is that the Shanghai government is more aware of the importance of preservation, but the results are often mixed. The biggest tragedy is the loss of the beautiful shikumen architecture, which has fallen to such a state of disarray due to overcrowding and neglect, I personally wouldn’t want to live in some of these places. I realize as outsiders we have a tendency to over romanticize them, so I’m not suggesting to preserve all shikumen, but to listen to the growing voices of local academics and grassroots that have been campaigning to keep the most significant ones.
For Sue Anne’s street stories, visit shanghaistreetstories.com