“At a glance people looked like they were disco dancing to music on the streets. Yet locals would walked past like this was perfectly natural but for me it was fascinating.”
Grainne Quinlan is a contemporary photographer from Ireland based in Hong Kong. In her photography she focusses on portraiture. In her own word, Gráinne Quinlan says about her approach of photography:
“My work is strictly character lead, with emphasis on costume and color. There is a high degree of performance found in my portraits. Subjects are represented as actors in front of the camera.”
A good example for that is her recent series “White Crane Spreads Wings” which she talks about in this interview.
Interview with Grainne Quinlan
Grainne, you were born in Ireland and then decided to move to the Hong Kong. Why?
An adventure, to see a different world.
How has the cross-cultural experience influenced your work as a photographer?
When I arrived in Hong Kong I had to withdraw from the initial sense of exotic awe. Photographing the imposing architecture or the cinematic streets scenes would have meant I was diverting from previous work.
I wanted to continue to develop a personal style here while influenced by the city. So I set about looking for situations and characters unique to Hong Kong but that would maintain my attraction for the offbeat and the abstract. I have been able to stay true to my style through “White Crane Spreads Wings”.
For one of your recent projects “White Crane Spread Wings” you are photographing people practicing Tai Chi in public places. How did you come up with that idea? And how do you resolve it photographically?
“I was drawn to this routine because of the graceful and effervescent moves practised by the ageing population.”
I was particularly attracted to people practicing Tai Chi when I arrived to Hong Kong because I had never witnessed choreographed exercise en-masse in public spaces. I was drawn to this routine because of the graceful and effervescent moves practised by the ageing population.
There was a humor in the practice also. At a glance people looked like they were disco dancing to music on the streets. Yet locals would walked past like this was perfectly natural but for me it was fascinating.
It took months before the project was resolved. I visited many people and neighbourhoods before I found my angle. I decided after a few weeks shooting that really I needed to concentrate on individuals rather that large groups. As I became more comfortable with my subject and my approach the project really started to emerge.
When photographing the people for your series “White Crane Spread Wings”, do you engage with them prior to taking the pictures or do you prefer to communicate indirectly with your camera and through gestures?
It was different for each subject. In some cases I returned to the same public spaces in order to build trust and become familiar with a group or certain individuals. In other cases I simply gestured that I would like to take photographs and in most cases it was ok though there was the occasional refusal.
A large majority of people in Hong Kong speak English so there wasn’t any great difficulty communicating. Afterwards I would talk to those I photographed and in many cases I was invited to Dim Sum for breakfast. I also offered to share the images.
What does Tai Chi mean to people in Hong Kong? And to you personally?
“I am most interested in the philosophical and sociological themes of Tai Chi.”
There is a palpable sense that Tai Chi builds comradeship in Hong Kong. It brings people together and adds an equilibrium to communities across the city. Tai Chi is actively encouraged by the government and respected by most people.
I am most interested in the philosophical and sociological themes of Tai Chi. I appreciate the skills and nuances involved but really my interest goes beyond. For me it’s curious to witness an ageing population partake in a sport that is centuries old. The practise raises questions about life, spirituality, health and society. Any topic which raises these questions is going to be interesting for a photographer.
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case with White Crane Spread Wings and if so what did you learn during the project?
Initially I spent a number of weeks photographing Tai Chi masters in pre-arranged locations. I used a mobile studio backdrop and the masters arrived dressed in their Tai Chi costumes.
These formal portraits didn’t work.
The masters were at times overly preoccupied by their movements in front of the camera. It was a performance but not the performance I was looking for, it was stilted.
I therefore switched direction and began to photograph amateur Tai Chi enthusiasts in situations on the streets.
I found the whole process of photographing on the streets far more liberating. I had a greater ability to move around my subjects and capture them seemingly unaware.
So although I initially set out to create a series of formal portraits it wasn’t viable.
I had to learn through trial and error that my original approach simply wasn’t suited to my subject matter and moved on.
You refer to yourself as a practice of “performance photography”. Can you explain that concept a little bit please?
“Everything is exaggerated, costumes become signifiers and the importance of the setting is heightened. We all perform for the camera.”
‘Performance photography’ is a malleable term that could be applied to any scenario where the subject is aware of the camera for example, posed images we see on Facebook.
I’m interested in the response of people to the camera and capturing that response. Everything is exaggerated, costumes become signifiers and the importance of the setting is heightened. We all perform for the camera.
Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learned about yourself?
Everything has become a subject and I’ve learned that I’m good at making people feel comfortable in front of the camera.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
Working independently this year as a postgraduate and producing well received work has been a landmark. I wasn’t certain what direction my career would take when I graduated in 2012. However working successfully overseas, removed from a familiar support network, has given me the confidence to continue.