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Home  /  Inside China  /  Photographer Adrian Fisk talks about his iSpeak China project, focusing on the thoughts of young Chinese
Photographer Adrian Fisk talks about his iSpeak China project, focusing on the thoughts of young Chinese print version
In an exclusive Thinking Chinese interview, UK photographer Adrian Fisk talks about iSpeak China: The idea behind it, interesting encounters and its acceptance. The project, considered by Fisk as a promoter of the understanding of China, has also led to intriguing reactions within China, as discussed below.

The works of UK photographer Adrian Fisk, 40, have been published in well known periodicals such as the National Geographic and The Economist. The subject of youth (youth movements, activities and thinking) has attracted his camera lens since the 1990s and until recent years, when Fisk is giving his complete attention to South Asia and China. In the last 3-4 years Fisk is working on the iSpeak series, in which he captures youngsters holding a paper, on which they had written an idea they have regarding their life or society. This was so far completed in China and India.

Although Fisk had created iSpeak China back in 2008, in summer 2011 the project has been newly esteemed and covered by the Western media, as well as by big Chinese periodicals and internet portals. The written messages exposed in iSpeak China are mainly people's philosophical beliefs about life, people's view of globalization and global aspirations (which were perhaps promoted by the fact they were shot by a European photographer), and social moral issues. One youngster also wishes China to be 'a little more democratic'.

Adrian Fisk, how did you think of the iSpeak China idea? 

In recent years there is a global shift from West to East in terms of domination of economics, politics and culture. People in the 16-30 age group in India and China not only consist a big proportion of the world population, but they are also the ones who will inherit this new global influence.

I realized that I know nothing about the young Chinese, and I found out that my friends in London and even in Delhi don't know much about them either. I wanted to get the essence of the young generation, that will have an impact on global influence. In order to understand where we are heading as a global society, we need to look to this young generation.

I chose the age group of 16-30; in age 16 one can obtain many rights and duties (sexual activity, joining the army, etc), as well as begin forming one's own opinions. In age 30 people normally have formed opinions already.

Then I thought where do I photograph? Night clubs, shopping centers? I got the idea to get people write on a blank piece of paper whatever they want to write, and I take a photo of them holding it. This serves as a portal into their mind and you get to see what an individual is thinking and when you traverse a country you also get to see what a country is thinking.

How did it work? How did you choose your subjects and how did the work routine look like?

I came to China with one translator and together we covered a distance of 12500 km within 30 days, which was the length of my visa. My choices of people and locations were quite random, though I did want to cover many different regions. Sometimes we would start a chat with a person sitting next to us in a restaurant, in some towns we went to schools and universities... Basically we tried to look for interesting people who will have something to say.

Did you encounter any unique reactions? Did you feel any suspicion from the subjects or from officials?

I didn't get any suspicious reactions from officials. Concerning the subjects, there was something interesting that happened 6-7 times. What happened is that I approach someone, and I say 'ok, I want you to stand, holding a sign', and he says 'what, you want me to look like a criminal?!' I went 'what are you talking about?' And they answered that during the Cultural Revolution, if you committed a crime you had to stand there with your crime title written on a piece of paper, and you were photographed. I was thinking 'this is really interesting!' I never knew about this and I was telling them 'I don't want you to feel like a criminal, but I do want you to stand in this way and 'speak' freely.' This was important, because the responses I get from people depends on the atmosphere of trust, which I wish to create.

(If Fisk would have chosen an older age group, then no doubt that that the suspicion and Cultural Revolution associations would have been much more frequent.)

ispeak_china_1_1200  ispeak_china_2_1200 

 Top right: "There are huge cultural
 differences between East and West;
 don't tell us what to do!"
 Li Qisheng, 30, Guangxi      

 Top Left: "We are the lost generation,
 I'm confused about the world"
 Avril Lui, 22, Guangxi   

 Bottom left: "Im worrying something.
 Girls in China is becoming materialistic.
 Without house my girlfriend would not
 marry me. My parent cannot help me
 either, so I need to get a good job with
 high payment, that's what I totally want"
 Rainbow Su, 22, Guangdong 

  (The photos displayed were chosen
   by Adrian Fisk)

Does your choice of China have to do with the debatable issue of 'freedom of speech in China'? Were you disappointed that people didn't write more underground anti-governmental messages?

My choice of China had nothing to do with the issues of democracy, human rights or freedom of speech, but only with the facts that I knew nothing about young Chinese and that this generation will have a dominant role in global affairs in the future.

I had no expectations whatsoever concerning the messages people would write. I had no idea how it would be and I was quite amazed by the results. Meeting with these people made me realize that democracy is not a big issue among the young generation. With China's economy continuously growing and managing to get hundreds of millions of Chinese outside poverty, most Chinese are more concerned about their own economic prospects, the car they could own, and their overall consuming abilities.

While it cannot be 'proven' that Chinese don't care about democracy, as some Western critics would claim that fear is what prevent such resident from expressing their true desires, consumerism-related issues, like Fisk has said, indeed have a firmer position in youngsters' minds. It is true that many Chinese are still poor and have low living conditions, but what should be considered isn't only the poverty level, but also future prospects; do poor Chinese feel a possible improvement in their financial state? China's development allows many residents (though not all) to maintain hope and thus show some support towards the system.

Were people in the West criticizing you for not producing more 'rebellious' messages?

No, actually people here were all intrigued and fascinated by the results. There's a lot of distrust of China, people fear China, therefore the basic philosophy behind the iSpeak series is to create a better understanding of who we are in this planet among different nations and amongst internal nations. Letting Chinese speak for themselves means that those within China could learn about other Chinese, which has pretty much happened, and those outside China could learn about the young Chinese, and it takes away the fear, because we are communicating. Communication brings tolerance. If we don't communicate, if we don't let people speak, how can we achieve a better understanding?!

Lately many Chinese media groups have been giving attention to iSpeak China project, mostly in an unbiased or supportive manner. Chinese netizens' comments were also quite supportive, adding their own personal 'message' or in some cases criticizing the subjects that wrote their messages in English instead of Chinese. Why are Chinese intrigued by this project? Is it indeed their ability to understand what other Chinese are thinking through Fisk's photographs? Is it the exciting attention a foreign photographer is giving to Chinese people's thoughts (perhaps in a more intimate way compared to most Western journalists in China)? Or is it the new media format generated by Fisk, which can perhaps be described as a 'lively instant-messaging format', only one in which the messages are less instant and more permanent, and people's real expressions are seen?

You mentioned the fact that people in China have also showed interest in the iSpeak project; were you surprised by the exposure given to the project by the Chinese media?

I did iSpeak China in 2008 and for about a year I didn't get any response. In this business you never know how your work would be accepted and how long it would take. In 2009 it was covered by a magazine and an Indian website and then by a few Chinese blogs, following by a Xinhua-agency article, as well. This summer I had an exhibition in London and afterwards there was another wave of response and publicity. I was amazed to find out that an item about the project, posted in, received 2.5 million unique visitors within 6 days!

Do you plan further projects in China in the near future?

Well, I intend to continue with the iSpeak series (so far India and China completed), but currently I don't have further plans for China, no.

One can choose, according to one's personal taste and knowledge of the Chinese society, where to put iSpeak China on the scale between a truly revealing work that induces inter-cultural understanding and a nice art form that shows people's thoughts, though not necessarily in a deeper or more representative way than other formats of media or communication. In any way, the final result, Fisk's personal impressions, and the way Chinese regard such work can be a source of many interesting discussions.

The Adrian Fisk website

Interviewed & written by Gil Hizi,
Thinking Chinese 21.9.2011

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