Interview: Liu Heung Shing

HS Liu on the differences between photography in China and the West


Liu Heung Shing (also known as HS Liu) was a master of an art that has been completely transformed: photojournalism. He comes from a time when talented photographers were sent by press agencies to cover the world’s events and conflicts as they unfolded. His photography has captured news from around the globe and been plastered throughout the world’s best known papers, but it was his work depicting the fall of the Soviet Union that won him a Pulitzer prize.


Credentials like this have made Liu the perfect person to found China’s first ever public museum dedicated solely to the art of photography: the Shanghai Center of Photography, which opened in May. But Liu’s own history with mainland China hasn’t been straightforward. ‘My parents left Fujian in 1949, three years later I was born in Hong Kong,’ Liu tells us in his front room, on a beautiful autumnal morning. ‘Then after another three years, my parents sent me back to the mainland to go to school.’ Anyone with a brief knowledge of modern Chinese history may be able to guess what comes next. ‘Towards the end of the ’50s things started to deteriorate because of the Great Leap Forward, and I went back to Hong Kong,’ Liu explains.


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Having taken photography in his fourth year at university in New York as an elective course, he was taken on by Time magazine after graduation – and the publication ended up sending him back to China in 1976 to cover Mao Zedong’s funeral. ‘It felt like the beginning of a new era – I wanted to capture postMao China,’ Liu recalls.


Education in the West had a deep impact on Liu. ‘One of the things I really appreciated is the focus on lateral thinking,’ he tells us. ‘Chinese education focuses more on top-down methods, but this doesn’t lead to innovation.’ SCôP’s latest exhibition, Grain to Pixel: A Story of Photography in China, is very much an expression of this belief. Curated by Liu, the show features every kind of photography imaginable. It’s clear that SCôP, and Liu, are not taking a top-down approach. ‘Chinese people are more used to categories, but I want to present all types together so that people can see that it’s all part of the same thing,’ he says.


Recent times have seen incredible growth and development in photography in China. What does Liu think has driven these changes? ‘In the last few years you have had an unprecedented amount of Chinese people going to study abroad,’ he says. ‘Those people are now coming back, and bringing with them new ways of thinking that are driving all areas of society: business, photography, art and so on.’


Despite reasons for optimism, there are structural obstacles which mean China still has a lot to do before it can begin to create its own photographic legacy. Not least of these is the nature of media on the mainland, compared to Western countries. ‘There is a long history of photography in [Western] countries, and a long history of iconic photographs,’ says Liu. ‘If you ask people about the Vietnam War, the same pictures come to mind over and over.’ This has engineered a bold, aesthetic language that has been passed down and developed over time, driven by keen-eyed editors at news organisations acting as tastemakers.


But what about China? ‘China only has five main papers, and they would print whatever Xinhua News agency said would be the main story of the day,’ he explains. ‘Photographers would also be chosen by their political loyalty, rather than their expertise.’


While China searches for its own photographic language, Liu thinks it might be finding it in an unusual place. He openly admits that the digital world has seen an increase in the number of photos, but not necessarily the number of good photos in the world, which leads us to wonder if he thinks apps like WeChat are bad for photography. ‘Actually, I think the opposite,’ he reveals. ‘Everywhere on WeChat you see photos; photos of friends, family, food, drink and travels. As you look through those photos, the better ones stick out and people begin to try and make their photos bet ter too.’


It’s the answer of a man who sees the glass as half full, and who is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for photography here. The narcissist within also thinks it could be cause for hope for mere rookies like us too – but then we realise we probably won’t be seeing our snaps of last Sunday’s brunch on the walls of SCôP any time soon. Your loss, Shanghai, your loss.

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