Who would have believed a young miner would achieve international fame as a photographer? Yet this is the astonishing career of Song Chao 宋朝 (born in 1979 in Shandong province), a self-taught photographer who grown up with his uncle in the depth of mines and who became in 1997 a miner himself. His vocation started one day in 2001 when a Chinese professional photographer named Hei Ming came to the mines while being on reporting assignment. The two men met, a friendship began, as well as a vocation. Henceforth, Song Chao bought his first view camera thanks to his uncle’s financial support and tried his own best to shoot his colleagues despite the long twelve hours of daily work.
According to his words, many people think that miners are ‘black’ either in literal or figurative sense, in other words they think miners lead a dull and hard life. His portraits have nothing to do with such prejudice; instead they appear infused with humanity and humour. Song Chao’s intuitive approach attempts to convey the personality of the subject so that the viewer can guess whether he is gazing at someone serious, with a great technical knowledge, proud, anxious, and so on. It would be erroneous to say his series are mere panegyric on miners’ world. Beyond the evident aesthetic qualities of the pictures appear condemnations to Chinese harsh development and its consequences on local population.
Overall, Song Chao has been eager to photograph the world surrounding him, from near or afar, from a superficial or deep standpoint, whether it corresponds to the miner’s world or the urban environment of Beijing in which he is living currently. More than using a mixture between documentary or personal perspectives, Song Chao ascribes to his photographs a unique dimension of sincerity. Despite his growing fame, few people conducted interview or write articles about him. Hence, I promptly asked him several questions, which he kindly answered on 9th February 2012.
Why have you started to photograph miners and their environment?
The reason why I have chosen miners and their environment as my main subject matter is simply because they are closely linked to my life: since my childhood I have been living in the Shandong province with my uncle; there I started to take photographs of mines. My uncle is both an art teacher and a professional photographer in the vicinity. I was kind of his assistant during his shooting sessions. During that period, my interest for photography emerged.
Moreover, I have grown up within miners’ world, I have studied in here, until then I became myself a miner. Consequently, my photographs’ topics proceed from all these years working in mines and living in such environment. Off course the main reason remains that in 2001 I had the opportunity to meet the photographer Hei Ming; he encouraged and supported me to plunge myself into the first portraits series Miners. Thereafter, I successively created Miners’ Families, Coal-Mine Community, The Landscape of Coal- mine, among other projects related to miner’s world.
As you just said, after you met the photographer Hei Ming, it sparked your passion for photography. Do you have projects with him?
Indeed after I met him I engaged myself in photography. We can say that from the inception of the Miners project until its following exhibition, his encouragement and help were fundamental. After all these years, his photographs still have a substantial influence on me. Now I have the chance from time to time to attend some of Hei Ming’s photographic training, yet this does not correspond to collaboration per se.
What kind of camera do you use? Why?
When I started my project Miners around 2002, I bought my first view camera SINAR 4x5, which I am still using. Although this equipment possesses a certain number of inconvenient, it has already been a long time that I get used and adapted to its functioning and the particular viewpoints it permits. Using this technique allows me to realize the solemnity of the subject matter I am shooting. Besides, I fell in love with silver films and their impact, each detail appears even more powerful, rich, and deep.
Would you please explain what is the process of creating your photograph?
In my opinion, when you want to explore a theme you need first to do all the preliminary work, which is unearthing the maximum of information available. This first step determines the basics of your project, the attitude you want to adopt, the approach you will use. Then, you take the photographs according to your basic ideas, but in reality these ideas might be adjusted, even modified.
Later on, you need to develop and print the photographs, organize the elements appropriately, and depending on the publication or the exhibition’s requirements you still need to scan the pictures so that to turn them into digital photographs. Overall all of this corresponds to the process of creating a photograph.
Do you consider your photographs as documentary or narrative in nature?
The photographic medium possesses the fantastic ability to record true facts; this is its nature. However in addition to this objective dimension – which is noticeable in my previous work – it can be used as well to reveal the author’s subjectivity – which is more perceptible in my recent work.
In other words, now I constantly try to convey this subjective dimension. Needless to say that when you try to express yourself, you use a specific approach, you need to adopt a certain attitude, and this very attitude sometimes prevails over your own artwork. Your knowledge and your understanding of history and society also condition your viewpoint. This is why now I am keen to follow this path.
I have the impression that your portraits have two dimension: one seems to reveal the dignity and the humanity of the person, while at the same time it seems there is a lot of humour by using such pose of movement. What do you think about this interpretation?
I am very pleased that you understood so well this series. In fact Miners is composed of several contradictory portraits. In people’s minds miners are ‘black’ people, leading a dull, mysterious and hard life. But this has nothing to do with reality, we often go out have drinks, grab something to eat, speak about our security, about women, and so forth.
After six years of work in the mines, I spent more time with my colleagues than my family. In my mind, all their faces changed into unique characters. When I close my eyes I can perfectly imagine them in detail, I can even describe their personality, their opinion, the way they work. For me, these portraits embrace all the above-mentioned ideas.
I noticed that The Landscape of Coal-mine series involves no human figure but only landscape, which stroke me by their pictorial quality close to certain landscape painting. Did you have a reference in mind while doing this photography, for instance Chinese traditional landscape?
In truth, the images that constitute The Landscape of Coal-mine consider the gigantic holes that mining industry engenders, which then turn to artificial lakes. All photographs’ composition remains the same: the horizon line in the middle, the sky in the upper part, and water in the lower part.
Thousands of meters below the water, another universe is hidden: those of the miners and coal. Miners control the development of high- ranking equipments yet by using non-renewable natural resources (coal is unceasingly extracted and transported to the surface of the earth). Moreover, they contribute to the society’s economic development needs.
Then we can notice that the surface of the earth is utterly transformed, extraction gives shape to holes, villages and fields disappear in order to become lakes. Thus throughout these photographs I have tried to express these kind of impressions: what might evoke a traditional Chinese landscape (shanshui) at first sight actually disclose a dark omen!
What do you think about Chinese contemporary photography?
In the past, there was a great emphasis on the documentary aspect of photography. Over the past few years, the flurry of Chinese contemporary art scene enables photography to developed in two manners: on the one hand more and more artists chose photography as a new representational system, on the other a minority of documentary photographers similarly tried to use photography as a vehicle for expressing one’s individuality. I am obviously one of them. Regarding the photographic language, this paradigm shift from objectivity to subjectivity seems to have been recently introduced to the public and it still needs some time to be fully understood.
Which Chinese photographer do you prefer?
Wang Qingsong. I like his personal manner that investigates into contemporary China. Attitude and viewpoint interesting.
What are you expectations about the future?
My future project is to photograph ‘the life of today’s people regardless their social status’, their stories, their contradictions, their sexual lives, their joys, their pains, perhaps all of this will be part of my next series.
I hope I will manage to adopt an in-between approach mingling document and personal expression so that to create these portraits.
More information: Song Chao's website
More Song Chao's works: