Kicking off the new series: An interview with the photographer Liu Tao. Street photography, the dichotomy between humor and mundanity.
From Hefei, China, Lui Tao has been doing street photography for 10 years. He has captured with his camera the changes in the area where he lives and its inhabitants. “ I understand the surroundings like reading a very thick book.” says Liu Tao, who states that he does photography the way he feels in his heart.
He has found in street photography a way to experience life. His subjects were inspired from the beginning by his work on the streets as a digital recording of a regional water meter. At that time, when he finished his work, he would take his camera and stay there taking pictures. ” My shooting method is the same as writing, no one can help me, I have to and can only do it alone, just like my relationship with my own destiny. ” says Liu Tao, who has created a unique mix of humor and mundanity .
For his way of interpreting life through his camera, Liu Tao has achieved recognition in China for his photography, and his work has been exhibited in Japan, The Netherlands, France and Hamburg (Germany), where he won the Visual Leader award. IMAGO spoke to Liu Tao about his work and what street photography means to him.
What was it about photography that interested you in the first place, and after these 10 years what continues to draw your attention?
At the beginning, taking photos can let me find impressive pictures in the city. I’m quite curious. When I picked up the camera and walked on the street, I saw a lot of people and things that I had never experienced before. I took photos in the street and found myself. The area I took pictures is within a fixed range of 20 kilometers in the city where I live. As time went by, I saw many people, passers-by and businesses, including the scenery on the street, which has been changing. Although we haven’t spoken, it is a process of passing by feeling and observation, like an emotion.
Many people’s lives who are within my scope of taking photos have changed, but I can clearly recognize them on the street. There are schools, hospitals, parks, bars and villages in the city within the scope of my photos. Every time I take photos, the process is complete from afternoon to evening, feeling the lives of different people and thinking about my own life. I show completely different urban landscapes in different climates, seasons and times, I always want to find my own shooting pictures here.
“Street photography is a very important part of my life.” What does street photography mean to you?
When taking photos on the street, I have been alone and thinking for a long time. Street photography allows me to enter life as a bystander. I spend a lot of time walking on the street, making me feel vital, which is a process for me to experience life. I have been sharing my photos on social networking sites and microblogs every month since ten years ago, this is a process of showing myself. I am very familiar with the area where I take photos, i n the past ten years, I have seen the changes of many people who are busy living here. Children grow up slowly, and some people grow old slowly.
I understand the surroundings like reading a very thick book. This society is different, while mobile phone photography is so popular, I am very different. I’m not interested in recording the history of the city, it’s not my job.
Your work as a public water meter inspector is a far cry from photography. How did the two come together and are there any striking similarities or differences?
I used to work on the street in charge of the digital recording of a regional water meter. The similarity is that I work on the street by motorcycle and spend little time in the office. At the beginning, I spend more time outside than anyone else. My photography theme comes from this, at that time, I took my camera every day, and often stayed on the street after work.
The difference still related to me personally. In September 2020, our company abolished the original work department and assigned me and my colleagues to a new position. I had been shooting for ten years, and in the new job there was no opportunity and time to take photos on the street as before. A fter working for a week I felt that I had less and less time to take photo, and because of my passion for street photography, I resigned from the company where I had worked for 17 years. No one could empathize with the experience of taking photos on the street, only I know this love. In order to continue taking photos, I went to the company and applied for resignation. Not everyone understood this, because this job was very stable.
My shooting method is the same as writing, no one can help me, I have to do it alone. Is like a relationship with my own destiny.
What scenes or elements are most impactful to you – what are the things that best catch your attention when shooting street photography?
First of all, it has certain epochal characteristics, as well as the changes in life brought about by society, which produces a sense of absurdity, or a sense of humor, as well as some real emotional outpouring between people. The streets are rich, most of the time I use my solid steps to find and discover, people’s living conditions are also very attractive to me. Encounter after encounter will give me in-depth feelings. I’m like a silent observer, passing by, moving quickly, taking photos, observing and choosing. Even if you go to the same place every day, you find extraordinary in the ordinary.
What role does the dichotomy between humor and mundanity play in your photography and daily life?
Some are related to their own life experience. I have encountered many mundane things, which makes me feel very funny. Although I keep rational in the process of taking photos, I am not an overly rational person in life. During the process of taking photos, I have been famous in China, exhibited in Hamburg, Germany, won the visual leader award in Germany before, and my works have also been exhibited in Japan, Netherlands and France. But after that, I continued to work as a meter reader, as if I had experienced a different world, but I still worked on the street. Everyone believes that it is not my work, but the identity of the meter reader is attractive.
I am rarely encouraged in this city, and few people are willing to share Street photography with me. It seems to be a completely different world, but I think it is very interesting. For so many years, I have been walking back and forth in a block to take photos, and the passers-by and traders in this block don’t understand what I’m doing at all. The artistic atmosphere in the city where I live is not very strong, i t cause misunderstandings, which i can feel by myself.
What is your process for shooting your subjects/ strangers in real time?
I walk more than ten kilometers every day, from day to night. I walk very fast until I find something before I pick up the camera to stay. Sometimes it’s a fast-moving focus. I try to keep people around me not noticing me. I walk very fast on the road, it requires plenty of physical strength. In fact, there are not many opportunities to shoot every day. For example, most of the shooting at night is from afternoon to night, just for that shot, and then I go home, and I often go out for two or three days without taking a satisfactory picture. I would think about what went wrong, and be patient and pious.
When viewing your work as a photographer, what do you want viewers to take away from it?
I hope the viewer can get more inspiration from the photos. Street photography is also a learning process, where you can see your life from different angles. Even if street photography has existed for a long time, now most people know their surroundings from the Internet and mobile phones, and there may be some deficiencies. I hope more photography lovers will practice it and have a sense of curiosity about people and cities.
What does an ideal scenario to capture look like for you?
I feel that you can try to shoot in any environment. The ideal shooting environment is a state. Sometimes you feel lost, sometimes you feel happy for a photo, which depends on your mentality, because in the street, you will always be full of various feelings. It can be a noisy environment, an animal on the street, or an urban landscape. Such solitude is conducive to thinking.
Holding a camera in your hand, the ideal shooting environment is in front of you.
Part of our month-long Colour, Candid & The Streets series. website/interview by Camila