“I try to empty my mind in order to receive whatever that life offers me on the street”
Ethan Chiang (born 1977) is a street photographer currently based in Taipei, Taiwan.
He’s self-taught when it comes to photography.
“First of all, please excuse my sloppy English writing, I’m not a native English speaker.
I’m an overseas Taiwanese born and raised in Seoul, Korea, now living in Taipei, Taiwan.
Street photography to me is an endless source of inspiration. It’s been over 3 years for me to consistently shooting on the streets.
“Curiosity is the most important thing for a street photographer.”
Street photography is like a mirror, it’s a way of finding my inner self. I have experienced 3 different cultures as I grew up. Korean, Chinese and American.
These multicultural life experiences actually helped me remain my curiosity towards my surroundings. Curiosity is the most important thing for a street photographer.
I am currently working on an ongoing project called “A Piece of Taipei”.
I try to capture everyday life in Taipei, a piece a day. The purpose of this photo project is to introduce my hometown Taipei, to the whole world hopefully.
I also believe every single photography is a piece of story that initiated by photographers, which needs to interpreted by the viewers according to their own life experiences and emotions.
Interview with Ethan Chiang
Ethan, what was your most memorable moment shooting pictures out on the streets?
I forget things easily. I often forget what I had for breakfast by noon.
But I actually like the fact that I have bad memories in terms of photography.
I tend to forget my favorite shots on purpose, as well as the compliments I might receive form others.
So I can push myself to pursuit my next favorite shot, and to make sure that I’m not taking photos to please others.
So nope, I don’t have any memorable moment, not yet.
Why did you become a photographer? And why street photography?
My father loves taking photos. I remember he always had a camera bag on his shoulder whenever we go. He took photos for me and my sister, the family gathering and outings. Camera was part my childhood memory. I never thought I would take photography seriously until my son was born, I was eager to record his growth and daily lives. I was unconsciously influenced by my father I guess.
One day I saw a Henri Cartier-Bresson photo book on my friend’s bookshelf. I was immediately fascinated by Bresson’s works. The photos were taken in daily lives, no studio lighting effects, sets or models. It’s just normal people, normal streets and normal lives, yet the compositions and the frames were so full of stories and layers. I was totally inspired.
“I try to empty my mind in order to receive whatever that life offers me on the street.”
The next day I took my camera to the street and start seeing things differently, everything became so alive, all the little gestures that people make, traffic, sunlight. It’s like everything suddenly comes to live.
I’m not a fulltime photographer. I work as a designer in an Internet company. I started street photography as a hobby, inspired by Cartier-Bresson and other photographers like Alex Webb, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz and Elliott Erwitt.
At the beginning of my street photography journey, I was just looking for interesting compositions and obvious things, It was more like practicing my observation ability. But more and more I feel that street photography is a way for me to get out of my daily routine, I try to empty my mind in order to receive whatever that life offers me on the street. Street photography helps me refresh. It’s sort of like meditation in some sort.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to say with your pictures?
Photography has different meanings in different life stages.
The first stage was to “record”. At the begging I was just simply recording memories that I want to keep. My son’s growth and life events for example.
“Photography is like a mirror, you’re not taking photos of others, but your own reflection.”
The second stage was to “story telling”. Especially when I begin street photography, I start creating photos by framing the environment differently in order to tell different stories.
Now I’m at the third stage of my photography journey, which is “exploring”. I begin to think a little deeper on every single shutter click and the way I pick photos. I ask more “why”. It’s like you started something that interests you for a while, then suddenly you start wondering “why am I doing this?”
I’m still waiting for the epiphany.
As I’m exploring the “whys” behind my photos, I start noticing that every photos I took somehow reflects a piece of myself. Photography is like a mirror, you’re not taking photos of others, but your own reflection, just in many different forms.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
There are a lot of photographers I admire. I’m a very analytic person so I’ll break down the reasons below.
Elliott Erwitt: Humor.
I love how Elliott Erwitt sees the world in a humorous way. It always made my day looking at his works.
Alex Webb: Layers.
To me Alex Webb’s works contains at lease more than one story, it has so many layers and so many spontaneous moments.
Joel Meyerowitz: Story Telling.
Joel Meyerowitz is one of the best story-teller with no doubt. You can feel the passion when he talks about street photography and how he is eager to capture life.
Henri Cartier-Bresson: At last but not least. The master that inspired many aspiring street photographers.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most inspiring photographer of all. The decisive moment, the composition, the dramatic moments within candid daily lives, and the way he moves on the streets (I saw some of his documentary videos, he moves like an elegant ballet dancer when taking photos on the streets). Bresson is still one of my biggest inspiration.
Your favorite photography quote?
I forgot where I got this quote. But here it is:
“Street photography is not about what you see, but how you see it.”
I like this quote because it also a great reflection to life. It’s not about what you see, but how you see, life can be very different when you see things in different angle.
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
Go with the flow.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic voice?
“Great artist steal”. Having one’s style is a good thing.
But first you have to observe what other’s do. Learn from the masters and experienced street photographers. I don’t think I have found my own voice yet, I’m still exploring. But maybe, just like Chinese Kung-Fu master once said: “No style is the best style.”
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
Most of my works are in color. I once heard a quote from Alex Webb that inspired me. He said: “Life is in color, why should I take it away?”
I stared my street photography in black and white, I love black and white, it helps me focus on the subject without disturbance, but color enhances the stories, and it’s more real in terms of “capturing life”.
I have to “zoom by feet’.
But I have recently start taking black and white photos again. I now take both color and black and white, depends on the story that I want to tell.
I only use 50mm lens. The reason is the 50mm lens is like the same sight as human eyes.
It’s like capturing moments with my own eyes, I don’t have to worry about the distance, what I see is what I get. And I have to “zoom by feet” if you know what I mean.
I walk a lot to get the right composition I want on the streets. If you don’t have time to work out, do street photography, it takes a lot, I mean a lot~ of walking.
What qualities and characteristics does a good street photographer need?
“Be curious like a tourist.”
Curiosity. As a street photographer, you have to remain curious towards almost everything and keep asking why. Be like a tourist, literally. When you go to a new place, everything seem interesting. Be curious like a tourist.
What does a photo need to be a great street shot?
It really depends. But you can usually tell a great shot by following elements – experience, skills, right timing, right lighting, right moment, appropriate exposure, composition, story, aesthetic, and luck.
Most people underestimate “luck” in street photography. They think those great photographers are just simply skilled and fast, but believe it or not, Bresson’s one of the most famous work, the one photo that equals to “The decisive moment” (a man jumps over a puddle).
He said he got that shot by luck.
But without experience and nonstop practicing, luck itself is not enough.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
What’s the biggest challenge shooting on the streets?
“If you just keep wandering around, you might going to lose some great details on the streets.”
The most challenging thing for me when shooting on the street is you have to be very focused, yet needs to keep your eyes wide open and wandering around.
If you stay too focused for too long, you’ll lost the sense of the surroundings, but if you just keep wandering around, you might going to lose some great details on the streets.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
Leica M9 with summicron 50mm/F2.0. and iPhone 5.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I don’t really have any favorite website on photography. Instead, I use an App called Feedly on my iPhone, it allows me to subscribe to all kinds of sources that has the keyword “street phogotaphy” in it.
So it’s more about the contents really, not the single website.
What photography book would you recommend?
“No single photographer could ever get that ‘perfect shot’ just by pressing the shutter once.”
As an aspiring street photographer, I tend to look for the perfect shot with as less shutter clicks as possible. But if you look at the contact sheets from those so-called masters, you’ll noticed that no single photographer could ever get that “perfect shot” just by pressing the shutter once. You have to try multiple times, meaning you might have to take couple of shots to pick the best one out of it.
Another great thing about contact sheet is you can kind of get into those masters’ head. You’ll get to know about how they critique their own photos and why they picked that specific frame.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a street photographer?
“Get a camera, remain curious, go out and keep shooting.”
To become a street photographer is not that difficult, look at some of the works from those experienced street photographer. Get a camera, remain curious, go out and keep shooting.
But become a professional street photographer is another story. I’m not a professional street photographer so I can’t give too much advice on this. But I guess to become a professional street photographer is like a start-up, you have consider a lot of things before making that decision.
One thing I know is that passion is not enough. You have to have discipline and being determined on what you do.