petite mort In this issueSomething from Nothing No.3 2005
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RIGHT: Danwen Xing at her Beijing courtyard studio, 2004. Photographed by Thomas Chen.

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Danwen Xing at her Beijing courtyard studio, 2004. Photographed by Thomas Chen.

You started off as a painter and then moved on to photography, was that a sudden shift? Or did you just get caught up in it?
For me it wasn’t really a sudden shift. When I was about seventeen, a photograph caught my eye, it was in one of those photography journals my teacher owned. I don’t know why, but it left a strong impression on me. I think it was because it had a language of its own. It wasn’t really a fantastic photograph. Truthfully, I don’t even remember the exact image, beside the fact that it was black and white. But from then on, I had a conscious urge to go to the bookstores and look at the very limited photo books that were available in China back then. I didn’t even have a camera, but I knew I had found a new language as I flipped through those pages.

Did you feel that photography was more direct than painting?
Well, they are different, but because I was educated as a painter I’ve been trained to look and process images the way a painter does. It wasn’t until the age of 21 that I got a camera and started to shoot, but I had no technical training at that point. [laughing].

Was that about the time when you started photographing Chinese performance artists?
Actually, from the period of 89’ to 93’ my photos consisted mostly street photography in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson (Wiki: Henri Cartier-Bresson). I had a natural affinity with Bresson, maybe because he started off as a painter too. During those 4 years I had only one camera and one lens, I carried it in my book bag and shot wherever I traveled. Because there was no money in China, I had to cut and roll the negatives myself. From printing and developing my photos I began to learn about the more technical aspects of photography. I learned from making mistakes back then.

© 2005 Danwen Xing © 2005 Danwen Xing © 2005 Danwen Xing © 2005 Danwen Xing
"My early street photography was very visceral, they were done mostly out of instinct with a touch of surrealism."

LEFT to RIGHT: First two images from "Tibet", last two from "Germany". All taken while on assignment for magazines and newspapers.

So you were self-educated?
Yes, with a trail and error approach. With one question at a time, I made my way through. In the following years, from 93’ to 98’, I started to shoot professionally, shooting feature stories for magazines and such. [Beijing Opera (1995), Italy (1996), India (1997) ] It was then that I learned to organize specific ideas and how to present them visually: realizing, executing, and then completing the work. I first went to Germany without any professional experience, and not having earned any meal tickets in this line of work, but I went without fear. Whichever magazine I liked, whichever publication had the best reputation, I would just called them up and make appointments to see them.

So it was you against the world…
Yes, yes. I gathered up 4 years worth of my work, and organized them into portfolios and began to show them around. Normally you just drop off your portfolio but, maybe because there were very few photographers from China in Germany at that time, I always managed to get interviews, and most of those face-to-face appointments were successful. This went on for my entire stay in Germany. It gave me such a high. Everything exceeded my expectations.

It was a token of recognition?
An encouragement of course! From then on I was asked to be in exhibits and to shoot feature stories.

As a matter of speaking, this wasn’t simply about work anymore. Photography has engaged you in such a way that has shaped your new lifestyle.
It was a means to reach those ideals that I had been searching for. My life was very much attached to my professional interests. During those 6 years I also spent about a year and half as an art director for an advertising firm. This was the opposite of the problem solving involved in photojournalism, working at the ad agency was more about creating dreams, it was fun. But in 98’, as I turned 30, I came to a total realization! [laughing] I felt I had enough of this kind of life.

© 2005 Danwen Xing © 2005 Danwen Xing © 2005 Danwen Xing © 2005 Danwen Xing
"I didn't mind being either a painter or a photographer; [...] I simply want to be considered an artist."

LEFT to RIGHT: first two images from
A Personal Diary
Ma Liuming, Wang Jin. last two from the "Wo-men" series.

When did you began to investigate other aspects in photography outside of photojournalism?
All the photos of performance artists and the Wo-Men (1993-1998) series were taken between ‘93 and ‘98. They were part of my experience along with my photojournalistic work at that stage. When shooting for a publication, you have to ask yourself "what do they [the readers] want to know?" When I am shooting for myself, the difference is that I am satisfying my thirst for knowledge.

So photography became a conceptualizing process for you?
My early street photography was very visceral, they were done mostly out of instinct with a touch of surrealism. In retrospect, I think I was borrowing from reality as I searched for my own images, and my own vision. While in the process of constructing what I want in my work, I try to incorporate elements from my everyday surroundings. By doing this I can confirm my own way of seeing.

When you started working on your Scroll Series (1999-2000), I noticed you were moving away from the so-called representational photography and into more formal studies about the nature of photography. It seems like you were interested in time and how to represent it in a 2-dimensional format.
At that point I wanted a revolution to set myself free. While a painter creates realities from inside their head, a photographer must be faithful to a certain external reality. I wanted to try and reconcile these two seemingly opposing views and hopefully in that process push my work into a new level. I didn’t mind being either a painter or a photographer; for the most part I simply wanted to be considered an artist. X


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Related Article Links:

"Where Computers go to Die: Poor Cities in China become Dumping Ground for
" by Karl Schoenberge.
THE MERCURY NEWS, Tues, Dec 3, 2002.

" Poisons inside your PC"
Reporter: Erica Johnson; Producer: Ines Colabrese; Researcher: Colman Jones. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, originally broadcast Oct 22, 2002.

China In Brief website, Regarding Special Economic Zones

Henri Cariter-Bresson Foundation

"Unplugged" by Stuart Luman.
WIRED, Issue 11.12, December 2003

Danwen Xing’s official website

Wo-men Series (1994-1996)
Scroll (1999-2000)


latest work at time of interview:
disCONNEXION (2002-2003)


Most recent work, post interview:
Urban Fiction (2004)

Professional Photojournalism:

Germany (1994-95)

Beijing Opera (1995)

Italy (1996)

India (1997)


Bresson Inspired times:

China (China 1989-1992)

Tibet (China 1990-1993)

Cola Mine (China 1993)


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