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By Fumi Tsai

Chien-Chi Chang, a photographer from Taiwan, is an active member of Magnum Photos. For most documentary photographers, being a member of Magnum is the highest compliment and a great form of recognition. It is a great honor to meet Chang and learn more about his experience.

In the lecture held by National Geography Magazine (Taiwan), Chang shares some of his famous works: “Escape from North Korea" that talks about the situation of North Koreans after they flee from their notation to China, “Burmese Days" that reports about Burma during its unstable period, “Bongo Fever" that records the serious issue of AIDS in Tanzania and “China Town," a documentary on illegal Chinese immigrants in New York. The last is a series that Chang has spent decades on and is finally coming to the completion. Last of all, Chang shares a series closer to himself called, “On the Road."


2012 7.14-21 Chien-Chi Chang Workshop in Taiwan. Photo Credit: Celia Lin

When photography becomes a way of life

Whenever Chang talks about his works or answers questions, he reveals that even though he had to sacrifice a lot for photography, he would still take it as his way of life. For instance, someone in the audience asks Chang, “How do you maintain the balance between your work and private life?" Chang doesn’t talk much about this, but says he lost a lot to do photography. But still, it is what he would keep concentrating on. What’s more, we can see his concern of humanity through his works. It takes a long time and a great deal of effort to create these works. Chang has put himself in the issue, the society and the environment so that he can actually experience what the subjects are going through and present the reality to the general public.

Digging out, tracking and presenting

As a photographer from National Geographic Magazine, Chang has to be on site to record important incidents. According to the photographer, these are just the beginnings. A lot of essential information and scenes can only be found when you’re standing in the front line and fully understand the surroundings. It can mean that photographers won’t be able to make the best impression if they see themselves as outsiders and enter straight into the place. As a result, your subjects will hide what they really are from you. This was the case when Chang did his shooting for “China Town." What he did mostly was spend a lot of time living with the Chinese workers in the crowded garrets . He tried to experience what they were facing every day. “We are in contact with each other and they know I’m a photographer. I didn’t just interrupt their lives and take photographs.”

This is how Chang roughly explains his relationship with his subjects. It is due to this long relationship that Chang extended “China Town" from the US to China (or you could say he traced the stories from Chinese workers back to their family in China). What kind of lives did they live after the men left to work in such a far-away country? How did they feel and how did this influence the second and third generations? When it comes to this, it becomes more than a documentary, but also a good reference for human and social science.

Chang mentions, however, that he often encountered miserable scenes that were too horrible or sad to look at. Sometimes, he was in danger himself. These shocks would make it hard for him to sleep and he would suffer from nightmares. Nonetheless, Chang never put away his cameras. This is a challenge that documentary photographers usually face. No matter physically or mentally. As for how to adapt to these negative feelings? Chang doesn’t explain further but repeats, “I will still take photos.”

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Photo Credit: Chien-Chi Chang(Magnum Photos)

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Photo Credit: Chien-Chi Chang(Magnum Photos)

Revealing Missing His Children and Love For New Lives —"On the road"

In the “On the road" series, Chang picked some photos from previous works and showed how the birth of his children has changed his attitude towards life and creating works. In other interviews with Chang, he says that reviewing his works created during these 20 years, “I no longer pursue a perfect moment by forcing myself to be at the right place at the right time."

Since having children, Chang starts to think again about the issues and relationships with mothers, children and family, which are also connected to his own life. Although children in different countries have totally different standards of living, they share the same purity and love from their parents. Though Chang has to travel for work or take photos in dangerous places, he knows that whenever he comes home, there will be someone smiling and welcoming him back.

Apart from recording images, this series is also a collection of lullabies. While shooting in many places, Chang recorded 15 different lullabies sung by local mothers, which also corresponds to Chang’s endless love for his children.

Sound and video

Chang has published many photography books and many of his works are published in magazines or reports. His presentation, however, is not limited to images. He likes to combine videos and sounds (voices) to show a complete documentary.

“Sound can go faster than the video. It’s different to think about the way of editing images and video," says Chang. He also mentioned that still life is dynamic and motion can be static. There is not a formula for editing these different media or when to use which one. It should be arranged after understanding our subjects, summing up the situation and deciding on what to emphasize. For example, in “Burmese Days," we can hear sounds and whispering on the streets that are not related to the images or scene. Instead, these sounds show that whispers were everywhere during that time. It’s just like you’re staying in a monitored zone and don’t know who is watching you. Also, when he did the documentary about Aung San Suu Kyi, he presented it in video. Watching her facial expression and then getting closer to her eyes, we seem to see Burma from her point of view as well as hope.

Another interesting find is that Chang divides the screen into right and left by putting images or videos of different durations. This is a very special way for the audience to experience the visuals compared to photography books. In “China Town," Chang uses color as metaphors for New York and China counties. New York is black and white while the hometown of China is in color. The reason is that workers are exhausted when they’re working in New York. Only when they sleep and dream can they go home and see the color in their lives. Chang indicates that whenever editing his work, he will think over how to tell the whole story including the method, speed, ups and downs and the transformations. After that, he will arrange the media to present these circumstances.

Despite the short time and few words of Chang, we recognize how Chang is adhering to his photography career and view towards the world. Again, we witness the fact that people respect Chang not only for his techniques and subjects, but more because in the past years, he has realized the solicitude and responsibility to the society as a documentary photographer.

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2012 7.14-21 Chien-Chi Chang Workshop in Taiwan. Photo Credit: Celia Lin

Edited by Olivia Yang

Rinse has authorized publication of this article. The original text is published here: Photography Is Life