Liu Heung Shing (born in 1951, Hong Kong) is an accomplished photojournalist, Pulitzer-prize winning photographer and the founder of SCôP (Shanghai Center of Photography). He has also edited of a number of books on Chinese photography, being possessed of a wealth of knowledge about both Chinese and Western photography. In 1992, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News for the coverage of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Liu’ s publications offer an authoritative voice on photography in China, including “China, Portrait of a Country” (Taschen, 2008), “Shanghai, A History in Photographs 1842-Today” (English version) (Penguin Viking, 2010), and “China in Revolution, The Road to 1911” (Hong Kong University Press, 2011). Volumes of his own works include “USSR, Collapse of an Empire” (Associated Press, 1993) and “China After Mao” (Penguin, 1983). In recognition of “China After Mao”, Newsweek magazine called Liu Heung Shing ‘The Cartier-Bresson of China.’
The following interview was conducted in November 2017.
Marine Cabos: Tells us more about SCôP (Shanghai Center of Photography).
Liu Heung Shing: We founded SCôP in May 2015. It took around ten month to get the building ready as it was already built. In fact the edifice was completed a year before by Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, an architectural firm based in California. It was originally not made for me but for the Shanghai Architecture Design Biennial. So it was only a year after the end of this biennale that they invited me to use this space. Several buildings were designed on this occasion, they were a sort of homework assignment.
When we obtained this building we had to install everything in ten months, we scrapped our knees, get the curve walls ready, the air conditioning, the floor heating and so forth. It’s a peculiar space, as it comprises six inward and outward curved walls.
We usually plan four exhibitions a year. Thus far the only one with which we experienced a little bit of an unstated issue involved the Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov. Because his works touched on the former Soviet Union and because this year 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. But aside from this one, I would say we don’t have any problem.
M.C.: Who would you say were the major Chinese photographers in the twentieth century?
L.H.S.: For a very long time Chinese photographers were selected, handpicked by government agencies and institutions, it wasn’t a natural choice. As such it resulted in some sort of constraints on what they could do and what they couldn’t chose to do. They were selected not necessarily for their intellect but rather for their loyalty to the party. This tradition is still going on now to some extent because the structures of the China Photographers Association, but also of the magazines, newspapers, news agencies are all owned by the government. I was perhaps the only one coming from the outside in the late 1970s. In truth my childhood years in Fuzhou - from primary school to the 60s when my family moved back to Hong Kong - impacted on my understanding of China. I received early in my life an education from Mainland China and then a Western one [Liu graduated from Hunter College at the City University of New York in 1975].
M.C.: Where did Chinese photographers receive formal training in the 60s-70s? How about today?
L.H.S.: A fair number of them graduated from Beijing Film Academy, Changchun Film Academy, Xi’an Film Academy, in other words film schools. This was the case of some authors, such as Li Zhensheng and Jiang Shaowu whose works on the Cultural Revolution are very important.
Formal training outside from film schools came relatively recently. Today there are many journalism departments or photography departments from which you can learn the medium.
As for me, I chiefly learnt from my job at Life magazine in 1976 when I served an apprenticeship with Gjon Mili [an Albanian-American photographer who had earlier taught him at Hunter College]. I hadn’t been taught how to use an aperture, a shutter speed, or a camera but I learnt to scrutinize Life magazine’s pictures, such as Cartier-Bresson’s prints amongst many others. Before I came back to China for my first assignment [in 1976 to covered Mao Zedong’s funeral], I was invited to look at all the contact sheets taken by these major photographers. In that sense Gjon Mili never taught me how to use a camera, instead he focused attention on the eyes and the aesthetic.
M.C.: What makes a strong photo?
L.H.S.: I think last year people took in total 68 billion images. Time has changed compared to the old days. What changed notably is the traditional way to choose a photograph. When you look at Paris Match, at The Times, at Time Magazine, at Newsweek, at LIFE you wonder why photo editors would pick the same pictures, in many cases they do. This way of presenting a work of photography is very different today.
Today you mainly look at photographs through your smartphone or Internet. But sometimes images are not quiet in the same way, not intense in a same way. Thanks to digital technology artists can engage more with photography, so lines has blurred significantly. But if you go to Paris Photo today, you still look at 50% documentary/humanism and 50% artistic/conceptual. So it’s still 50/50.
I think documentary works stay powerful because they reflect something photography does exclusively well, other medium like painting cannot give you the same spontaneity. Nowadays a lot of works are becoming a lot more trendy, a lot more stylish. But I think a strong photography should evoke a sort of mutual intellectual reckoning, while triggering emotional responses from the viewers.
M.C.: Do you have any advice for young photographers?
L.H.S.: I would still recommend what I used to say to my students twenty years ago: keep reading. Whatever photography one does or practices, it’s the idea that remains powerful. And you don’t get ideas by sitting by the sun and think, you generate ideas because someone else’s ideas attract you. It’s always a process of interaction.
M.C.: What’s next for you?
L.H.S.: I’m doing my own personal work. I’m notably working with a German publisher to prepare a monograph on my works that will be published in 2019.