Shen Wei 沈 玮 • Photographer, China

Chinese Sentiment

© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'Almost Naked'

Landscape Stories: Are there any photographers or movements that have influenced or inspired you? Who are your favorite artists and why?
Shen Wei: The work of Diane Arbus inspired me to become a photographer. There are numerous artists that have influenced me throughout my art study – Thomas Eakins, Donald Judd, and Vermeer, to name just a few. I also found a lot of my inspirations in my everyday life. I love classical music because it always give me sparkles of ideas.
Landscape Stories: You started out studying decorative art and design. In which way do you think these studies influenced your photography? What made you shift to photography? How did you discover photography as your favourite medium for expression?
Shen Wei: Before going to an art college in Shanghai, I had already gone through many years of art training. My early art study in China throughout my teenage years was concentrated on figure drawing and still life painting following the style of Russian social realism. I later discovered more European art as I saw bits and pieces of Picasso and Van Gogh in the art history books. In fact, before I moved to the United States in 2000, I did not know or had not seen any western masterpieces. I had never heard of Andy Warhol, Caravaggio, or Diane Arbus. I had never touched an SLR camera until my first photo class in Minneapolis. After that I completely fell in love with the medium.

© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'Chinese Sentiment'
© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'Chinese Sentiment'

Landscape Stories: Are your projects based on the locations or the people that you meet? How do you select a location or person to photograph? Please explain the concept an the themes in your artwork and your working process…
Shen Wei: I don’t think my projects are based on either just the location or the people. It really depends on the individual image. For example, location is a very important element in many of my self-portraits while at the same time I have other self-portraits that are only focused on the personal emotion. Chinese Sentiment is certainly a more location-based project, but the portraits and still life images give the project a more intimate and internal perspective. The selection process of location and people is rather spontaneous. I photograph people who I am interested in and photograph a place that is inspiring to me. Sometimes the right person just happens to be at the right place! I like to develop my project with lots of patience. I have new ideas all the time. I write them down and think about them over a period of time. I only do a project that I really feel passionate about.

© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'Chinese Sentiment'
© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'Chinese Sentiment'

Landscape Stories: The contemporary China is living a complex and fast transformation. Your images deal with the epic change in China, the gap between past and present. Could you tell us something more about the creation of your book ‘Chinese Sentiment’. How the project started? How much importance do you attach to the social and political aspects of what you exhibit?
Shen Wei: I had always wanted to make a project about China and was thinking about a way to approach the subject differently than the many photographers who had already been photographing China. It was such a popular place to be for photographers from all over the world. Most works at the time were focused on the scale and appearances of the development that was very visible everywhere in the country. China was, and still is, having an on-going massive transition and that transition is definitely something that’s very interesting to me as well. However, I was more interested in people and Chinese daily life, which not many photographers, including Chinese ones, were exploring at the time. China today is obviously very different from the one I grew up in. It actually feels strange, unfamiliar, and overwhelming when I go there. But at the same time, I feel an extremely tight connection with it. What bonds me to China is the language, the food, the landscape and the culture. What really matters to me about China is not the skyscrapers, but the culture.
I started travelling around the country in 2008, photographing places, lives, and people as I passed through city after city, town after town. After having been away from China for 8 years, I would look at China from a very new prospective, not with local eye anymore, but neither with a foreign one. Things that used to be so common in my life had become a bit more fascinating. I discovered details of everyday life that I had never paid attention to before. It was an amazing experience to more profoundly rediscover my history and culture. I was approached by Charles Lane Press for publishing a book. They were interested in my Almost Naked series, until I showed them my Chinese work from my very first couple of trips in China. After that they decided to wait for me to finish the project and then started to work on the book. The book was launched in May 2011 with a solo exhibition in New York City.

© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'Chinese Sentiment'

Landscape Stories: You work is a mix of intimate portraits, nudes, details and landscape photography. How did you come to these themes in your artistic practice? What were the reactions of the people you were photographing to you when you were in China?
Shen Wei:I like to observe people. When I was a child I always watched people who surrounded me. I would watch people on a bus reading a book, watch my parents talking, and watch my grandmother sitting in the sun and knit. So naturally I was drawn into portraiture when I started to make photographs. After I completed Almost Naked, I wanted to do something different. Chinese Sentiment gave me a good reason to travel and make new kind of images for me. I am very shy and sensitive, so photography gives me an outlet to get closely connected to people, and often that closeness turns into an intimate moment. Even when I take nude portraits of Chinese people, which is often very challenging, I always find myself calming people down and slowly building a trust with them. The communication skills come from experience but also from my instinct.

© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'Almost Naked'
© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'Almost Naked'

Landscape Stories: ‘Almost naked’ is a series of portraits exploring the identity and sexuality in America. Can you talk a bit about your project? How can we find a link between America, the area where the work was done, and its meaning? What kind of research are developing today and how this is linked to your past?
Shen Wei: I started the project in 2004 when I was still in graduate school. After completing my MFA from School of Visual Arts in 2006, I continued to work on this project until 2008. Every portrait was taken somewhere in America. I traveled to a lot of different states and I looked for people to pose for me wherever I was. Many portraits were also made in New York City where I live. Even though this project is my exploration in America, I also wanted to make portraits that expressed universal feelings. I usually took portraits of people in their own environment. My goal is to capture a moment in their life. It doesn’t have to be an important moment, but a slice of their true emotion. My sitters were from all different kinds of social backgrounds, different races, different classes, and different nationalities. They truly reflected the diversity of America that is crucial for this project. This project also helped me to really understand America and to appreciate America. I have also learned a lot about myself while making this project. This project helped me to really think freely and be truthful to myself and also pushed me to break out of my own box.

© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'Almost Naked'

Landscape Stories: How did you get those subjects posed in these photos? How did you meet them? According to your personal glance, what are the differences between Chinese and American in their desires and emotions?
Shen Wei: Most of my sitters were strangers to me. I approached them from different sources — through friends, through the internet, and on location. I prefer to photograph my sitters in various environments with an intimate atmosphere. Building trust with them is a complicated psychological process. It depends upon the personality of the sitter and the chemistry between the sitter and myself. One of the most beautiful moments of portrait making is when the sitter and I are both exploring each other. The emotional response always comes out very naturally and instinctively during that kind of exploration. Essentially all people I photograph are the same to me regardless of where they are from and where they are living. My American sitters are more open and flexible while most of my Chinese sitters are more reserved and cautious.

© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'I Miss You Already'
© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'I Miss You Already'

Landscape Stories: Referring to your work ‘I Miss You Already’, your self-portraits capturing a sense of loneliness ans apprehensible intimacy. Throughout the series a sense of isolation emerges and a personal melancholy pervades. Could you tell us a little more about this?
Shen Wei: I think isolation and intimacy are always naturally associated with each other. Intimacy is something I am very interested in exploring, but what is isolation depends on each individual’s point of view. In some of my self-portraits, I am often situated in an isolated environment but emotionally I feel very free and open.

© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'I Miss You Already'
© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'I Miss You Already'
© Shen Wei 沈 玮 from 'I Miss You Already'

Landscape Stories: What has been your favorite photo-book in the last few years?
Shen Wei: There are so many of them but I would like to mention two of my favorite book collections from and about China. Returning to Home by OfPix Foundation and Silvermine by Thomas Sauvin.
Interview curated by Gianpaolo Arena