No stranger to controversy, New York– and Beijing-based photographer Quentin Shih (时晓凡) has depicted images such as Cultural Revolution propaganda, young Chinese mistresses with older white men, and a recreation of The Last Supper with a lingerie-clad model in his art, editorial, and advertising photos. Born in Tianjin, the self-taught artist was named Photographer of the Year by Esquire (in China) in 2007 and has accumulated a long list of major international partners and clients. For example, he’s collaborated with brands such as Dior and Christian Louboutin, created editorial spreads for top fashion magazines, such as Vogue China and Harper’s Bazaar China, and produced ads for an extensive list of major brands, including Adidas, Nokia, Microsoft, IBM, Yahoo, Siemens, and Sony Ericsson—just to name a few.
Whether for art or commercial purposes, Shih’s work explores themes related to both the fashion industry and Chinese society such as individualism vs. collectivism and rising confidence in Chinese culture. He generated a firestorm of international debate in 2010 when his “Shanghai Dreamers” series was displayed in Dior’s Shanghai flagship, with some critics arguing that his scenes of white models standing with a mass of identical Chinese subjects were “racist.” Five years later, the series has major supporters as well—it appeared in an exhibit last year at the Maison de la Photographie in Lille, France.
We recently caught up with Shih for an interview to learn more about the concepts behind his famously provocative work and most recent projects, which include “La Habana in Waiting,” a series from his trip to Cuba, and “9 Dollars Fashion for Photography,” a high fashion–style shoot in a third-tier Chinese city featuring fake luxury goods purchased at local markets for no more than $9.
As part of a partnership with Christian Louboutin, your photo series “La Habana in Waiting” that you shot in Cuba was on display at Art Basel Hong Kong in 2014. What is the concept behind the shoot?
“La Habana in Waiting” is a project I shot at the end of 2013, because Cuba is a very mysterious country for me and holds many similarities to China’s system as it was in the past. I personally have an instinctive interest in the Communist system, so I felt that if I was able to go see Cuba, it would be a particularly good choice to shoot a photo project at the same time. Of course, the inspiration I got from the country’s unique colors, lights at night, buildings, and more was also a reason to go to the country.
This project has two parts: one is street portraits and one is studio portraits. The former pertains to the individual while the latter pertains to collectivism, and they embody my observations about the country.
In another recent shoot, you used a budget of $9 to shoot photos of fake “made-in-China” luxury goods purchased at a small-town local market. What inspired this idea?
This is a very interesting idea, because previously, I lived in a big city similar to Beijing all my life, so I wanted to understand the people and way of life in a model third-tier central Chinese city—taking photos gave me a reason to do so.
I found a few young people at a school to pose for what I call “fashion blockbuster”–style photos on the side of a local road (or “big-budget fashion shoot,” shizhuang dapian, 时装大片). I borrowed some trendy clothes from the local clothing market while employing a local makeup artist. I wanted to use a fashion magazine–style process to shoot my own “fashion shoot.” This also included two parts: the so-called blockbuster and scenery photos. This is definitely not a photo record of the real way of life in third-tier cities; rather, it’s more of an experiment; I wanted to create very earnest humor regardless of whether or not the process ultimately resulted in a piece of work.
Whether for commercial or art shoots, your work often has many elements referencing political or military themes in China—especially those related to the Cultural Revolution. What do you find compelling about these ideas?
Actually, I’m not interested in politics and the military; my interest is in is the “person in uniform” such as students or the police, because I always want the characters that appear in my work to completely appear as stage props. I tried to get rid of their own individuality; the uniforms completely “de-individualize” them. If we look at the latest fashions on the runway or fashion photos, the model is just a model. We do not want the audience to have any interest in that model’s background, age, nationality, personality, and so on. It is the fashion that changes them into models and completely “de-individualizes” them. In many of my works, I use uniforms to completely “de-individualize.” If a model wearing high fashion and a person in uniform are standing side by side in a picture, their status is equal.
One example of a Cultural Revolution reference was your “Shanghai Dreamers” campaign shot for Dior in 2010, which generated a great deal of controversy over the use of white models in couture juxtaposed with a mass of identical Chinese subjects. In the spring of 2014, the photos went on display in Lille, France. Has the response to the series changed after the initial controversy? Looking back on it now, do you have any new thoughts on the work?
As I mentioned in the answer to the previous question on my point of view, a model wearing high fashion has already been completely “de-individualized.” She is already not emphasizing her background, skin color, or nationality as a living “human”; she is merely a “model.” These uniformed Chinese faces have all been completely “de-individualized,” so the whole picture is not about white people and Chinese people, rather, it is about the “models” wearing the high fashion and the “models” wearing the uniform. My meaning is that if a white model was replaced with a Chinese model, there wouldn’t have been any difference.
In “Shanghai Dreamers,” I used black humor to display the so-called “rise of China”; the Chinese power that is starting to stand on the world stage. As everyone knows, it is this power that is manufacturing most of the goods for the entire world—of course, this includes clothing manufacturing.
At the same time, I want to point out that “Shanghai Dreamers” is not a Dior ad; rather, it is a Dior-artist collaboration. In other words, the voice of the work and Dior have no connection; it comes completely from the artist’s own voice and the artist can produce whatever they want.
Much of your work pushes the envelope in its portrayal of political topics or issues in Chinese society, such as a “Chinese Lolita” photo series you did for a fashion line depicting a young Chinese mistress with an older white man. While it’s not uncommon for art pieces to be provocative, have you ever found it surprising that so many luxury brands are using this for their advertising?
When I’m on a plane, I frequently browse the magazines in the seat pocket. Many of the native Chinese brands use English and Western models; I do not think the reason is that Western models are taller or more beautiful. The brands want to give Chinese consumers an “exotic” feeling to make the clothing sell better; after all, Chinese consumers know that the best fashion brands are from Europe or the United States. This is a complicated “local” and “Western” question, and also involves the question of self-confidence in one’s culture. I personally don’t feel it’s unacceptable. After all, we are looking at the clothing itself, not the model.
For the “Chinese Lolita” photos you mentioned, this is a project I did with designer friend Liu Lu. The pictures show the image of a young Chinese girl and an older, rich Western man. In the image, their relationship is ambiguous; it appears that there is miscommunication between them. I wanted to use this girl as a metaphor of China’s emerging fashion design industry—young and immature, and struggling to grow up with the support of this Western millionaire.
Commercial fashion labels are often very interested in collaborating with artists for both advertising and special products. Do you believe artist-brand relationships are beneficial to both parties?
For artists, these collaborations can make their work more widely known. For fashion brands, it can broaden the culture of their clothing. There’s nothing bad about these collaborations, but of course, they’re limited to fashion. You would never see a coal mining company collaborate with an artist.
Do you think international luxury brands are becoming more interested in working with Chinese artists?
If they want to enter the China market, their unspoken subtext is: “Since this quality artist is interested in our products, you should all come and quickly buy them as well.”
This interview was translated from Chinese. View more of Shih’s recent images below: