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Beijing: A city of nearly 25 million where it’s easy to get lost in the crowd and overwhelmed by the traffic and pollution. But it’s also a city rich in history and culture that takes food seriously as well as its burgeoning art scene. We talked to two photographers living in Beijing—Jasper James, who hails from London, and Yifei Fang, who was born and raised in China’s capital—to see what it means to be a photographer in China today.
First up: Jasper James. His photography ranges from portrait, travel, and interiors to concept-driven assignments; His clients include Ferrari, British Airways, Wrigley’s, Volvo, Bosch, China Mobile, Mandarin Oriental, Travel + Leisure and Vanity Fair. His philosophy on life: “I think what I do now in my life and in my photography directly relates to my initial feelings as a child — of not wanting to get stuck in a mundane job or life routine that I found dull.” His life is anything but dull.
How did you first discover photography?
My background in photography comes from growing up in London in the 1970s and the music, design, and fashion world of that time—especially the imagery that came out of the punk scene. I dabbled in the music world for a number of years and was in a few bands that played in the U.K. in the early 80s. I realized I wasn’t as talented as the other band members, who went on to play with Big Audio Dynamite and The Cult. So, after facing the fact that I wasn’t going to cut it as a musician I drifted to photography around 23 and quickly realized that I had always been more of a visual person. I felt at home making images.
So how did you end up in Beijing?
I first moved to Beijing because of work offers (from another image licensing company). But within six months of moving the company had sold out to their Chinese co-owner, so I was left on my own in Beijing. With no understanding of Chinese and no contacts in China of my own I was thinking it was obvious that I should return to London, but jobs began to come through from Western clients via my website, and I quickly realized that I could still keep working in China independently. I don’t really plan much beyond next week, so I’m unsure about how long my stay in China will be — I’m happy to drift from week to week.
What are the primary differences you’ve experienced working in China versus working in London?
The most important difference between working as a photographer in Beijing as opposed to London or New York is the fact that the local competition is a lot less, so it’s easier to stand out in the marketplace. I think the market for photographers today is just so over-saturated, so having less competition is a real bonus. As for challenges, the internet here can be a real problem and using a functioning VPN is a must. That can get pretty trying, especially if you need to send large files on a deadline.
Do you think there are career advantages to being a photographer living in China?
I think the photographic community here is a smaller pond and one that constantly has departures and new arrivals. It’s a mixture of Chinese and outside/foreign participants, and it seems to be a growing community both in the art and commercial worlds.
How would you characterize your work philosophy?
My work philosophy is the same as when I started, which is to try to keep interested in what’s going on around me in the moment and then make images that reflect those experiences. When I was about 10, I realized that the adults, teachers, and parents didn’t really have a clue as to the answers about life or death. From that age on I just wanted life to be interesting, changing, and adventurous. I think what I do now in my life and in my photography directly relates to those initial feelings as a child—of not wanting to get stuck in a mundane job or life routine that I found dull. As a child, I was always taking buses or trains or hitchhiking to explore first London, then the rest of the U.K. and now in my life I feel it’s pretty much the same process but now I get paid to make photos and to travel the world.
What has been one of the biggest challenges in your career?
The most difficult challenge in becoming a working photographer was to make the crossover from working regularly as a well-paid photographic assistant to a freelance photographer. There were many stops and starts and challenges, both financially and mentally, before I finally got to the point where I had an income and regular clients. To choose to follow a career as a photographer can be a pretty hard path to take—much the same as trying to make a living as an artist or actor. You have to be very self-motivated and able to deal with the insecurities that come from the freelance world.
How do you define success?
I define success by being able to live outside of a system where I do the same thing day in day out—by making a living doing something that I enjoy. When I was a kid sitting bored in a classroom in London it’s all I ever daydreamed about. I left school at fifteen and the headmaster pretty much followed me to the gate and told me that I was unemployable and I would never make anything of my life—that I would be a failure. It’s an interesting journey, and I feel that I’m living the life I imagined.
Stay tuned for the second part of this series, about photographer Yifei Fang.
Top image: Man painting a bird on a screen by Jasper James.
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