“Making them visible” – Yan Preston On Photographing Liverpool’s Chinese Community For LOOK/17

Xu Rui (detail), from Now and Before by artist Yan Preston, courtesy the artist. LOOK/17

Scouse accents, disorientation, loneliness, and constructing portraiture: Maja Lorkowska speaks to LOOK/17 festival artist Yan Preston about her commission to capture Liverpool’s diverse Chinese residents…

“She celebrates Chinese New Year, she uses WeChat [China's most popular messaging app] but she has a Liverpool accent. It’s very nice!”

Artist Yan Preston is on a mission. A photographer born in Central China, she has taken on the challenge of representing Liverpool’s diverse Chinese community for this year’s LOOK/17 photography festival. After all, what does it mean to be Chinese in our changing world? How are mainland Chinese different to those from Hong Kong? What about the Chinese who have lived in Britain for most of their lives?

Preston’s resulting portraits, entitled Now and Before (currently on show in LiverpoolONE and The Museum of Liverpool) challenge the old, mainstream representation of Chinese people: getting away from stereotypes of restaurant and takeaway workers. As a subject, it’s both looking to the past and the future: Liverpool’s Chinatown is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe; concurrently, China is changing, and the Chinese populace outside of it is too.

“If I had friends I’d have ties, and leaving them would be painful”

Her portraits capture models in what would be considered their natural surroundings. From the football pitch to the local library, each photographed person uses their moment differently. There is a confident stare from a trendy, young student complemented by background graffiti; a thoughtful half-smile from a smartly dressed man sitting in the window of a Sandwich Bar. The series is a captivating cross-section of age, attitude and professional choices.

Preston’s “way in” as an artist initially came in the form of international university students. Those who have recently landed on British soil — with one foot still back home — are the newest addition to the city’s Chinese community. She mentions that photographing these first subjects was actually quite complicated, because there was no one place that “belonged” to them. The very particular medium of the portrait demands a meaningful backdrop with relevant local context — particularly given the festival’s theme this year of Cities of Exchange between Liverpool and Hong Kong. So Preston had to trust her artistic instincts and improvise, responding to the moment.

Xuan Yihao, from Now and Before by artist Yan Preston, courtesy the artist. LOOK/17

We talked about one of the models photographed on Crosby Beach, who despite becoming more comfortable around Anthony Gormley’s bronze sculptures (a popular local landmark), nevertheless held a pose that was quite defensive: she had her fists ready, seemingly, to protect herself. “It worked”, Preston notes, “because that’s how she felt at the time.”

Having emigrated from Hong Kong herself 12 years ago, did Preston feel sentimental while working on this project? The artist describes feeling a certain level of empathy with the students’ disorientation, and recalls her own experiences of temporarily refusing to make friends: “If I had friends I’d have ties, and leaving them would be painful.”

However, this LOOK17 commission did not focus solely on students and their non-places. Preston describes the experience of getting to know the more permanent residents as eye-opening. “You see people that have just landed here, and those who have moved here 20, 30 years ago, and how they establish themselves in Liverpool. They are still very much of the Chinese culture however you want to define it; but really, they are from Liverpool now.”

“Can you imagine a life without photography now?”

Portrait and landscape photography seem to be symbiotic in Preston’s wider portfolio. Previous artwork Mother River, the subject of her PhD study, took her on an epic journey around China, following the Yangtze River and photographing it at 100km intervals. Preston describes this project as a kind-of portrait; like photographing humanity with the backdrop of the river. “It’s always about the people. How much do we know about a river? We’re not geologists.”

During our conversation, Preston and I discuss the overlaps and differences between the art of landscape and portrait photography. Most forms of photography are documentary of course – the scene is there and you record it. Yet with Now and Before, there is the element of the theatrical: choosing the model, the location, taking into account their clothes and facial expressions. “It’s half, well, mostly constructed”, she states.

After trying various approaches and consequently rejecting them, Preston eventually found her own method. “I decided not to shoot people from a low angle, looking up, so they won’t appear too heroic. I feel that this is already a project designed to give exposure to Chinese people and you don’t need to blow their trumpets too much.” Knowing that they were going to be shown in a public space in addition to a museum setting – LiverpoolONE has a huge footfall — she chose an advertising-style size of 1.5m in height: “I just present them. Make them visible.”

As LOOK/17’s new vision promotes the “trans-global sharing of images and ideas”, what does Preston think the role of photography is now and how can it work in this image-drowned world? After a moment’s thought, the artist answers with a question: “Can you imagine a life without photography now?” She explains the approach of an artist-photographer as somebody who is more careful about constructing and displaying images. “I feel there is so much out there that if what I’m saying is not adding something, then I better just shut up. For this reason, I am not very active on social media. I feel like I don’t want to add to the flood if it is not meaningful.”

Maja Lorkowska

See Yan Preston’s work at LiverpoolONE and at the Museum of Liverpool until 14 May 2017 

Part of LOOK/17 festival, which continue at venues across Liverpool including Open Eye Gallery (18 June) and the Victoria Gallery and Museum (7 October) — see here for the full programme

Images, from top: Xu Rui (detail), and Xuan Yihao; both portraits from Now and Before by artist Yan Preston, courtesy the artist and LOOK/17


Posted on 27/04/2017 by thedoublenegative