RongRong & inri, the influential photographic husband and wife team who have shaped contemporary photography in China and around the world, are this year’s recipients of the Outstanding Contribution to Photography award.
In celebration of the award, a special exhibition of the couple’s current and past work will be shown at Somerset House, London from 22nd April – 8th May as part of the 2016 Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition. It will be the first time many of their works have been shown together outside of Asia.
The artistic duo have been working together since 2000, with their works reflecting the intimate world that they have created together, while pushing the boundaries of traditional black-and-white darkroom techniques. Their past critically acclaimed series of works, such as Mt. Fuji, in Nature, Liulitun, and Tsumari Story focus on the beauty of the human body in nature and the urban environment. Their recent work brings attention to the beauty and value of new beginnings in their shared life and surroundings, especially amidst a rapidly changing world.
In 2007, RongRong & inri established the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in the Caochangdi art district of Beijing, the premier platform for international communication. They also started the annual Three Shadows Photography Award to discover and encourage China’s most promising photographers.
Congratulations both on receiving this year’s Outstanding Contribution to Photography award. Can you start by telling us your thoughts on the state of Chinese photography today?
Today, Chinese photography is very active, but as I’ve said on many occasions, it also has problems. It’s at a very “awkward” stage, the ecology is not “healthy”. Within the system, Chinese photography has not stepped up to the international stage, not many people identify with its artistic value. The problem exists in many aspects, for example, in the market, in the museum system, it can be said that up till now the museum collection of photography is “zero”, blank, only a few here and there but no systematic collection of works.
In the future, I think for sure China will have its own photography museum, it must have, but it’s a matter of time. It will need efforts from many people, even from critics, writers and researchers. Photography in the 21st century is the most powerful medium, but we (in China) face the problem of deciphering images. Photography originated from the West, but now it has also inevitably become part of our lives in this century as well. In the age of reading images, we seem blind. What is an image? So this caused many, many problems. In China there’s millions and millions of people interested in photography, but how to express their thoughts, make their voice heard is the question. Also for education and publication it’s also blank within the photographic ecology. Same with galleries and collectors, in China there’s very few photography collectors.
In my own case, when I first came to Beijing, and as an artist, my first solo show was inside a diplomatic space, it was in the French cultural department, in the home of the French cultural counsellors home…. maybe it’s because back then in Beijing there was no gallery, but gradually my works were exhibited abroad in international art fairs, but I thought it was very weird that my art could not be accepted even in my own country.
Take us back to the beginning of your collaboration. When and why did you start working together?
RongRong: It was when inri first came to China, we went together to shoot on the Great Wall and Jiayuguan (in the desert), and this was the start of our collaboration. She as an independent photographer had shot many photographs in Tokyo before we met, we each had our own works, for example I had East Village and Ruins, while inri had Tokyo 1999 and many other series. As photographers, we travelled with our cameras, but every time when she raised her camera to shoot, I instinctively tried to move out of the way, and when I shoot she also avoided being in the picture. When the landscape was so beautiful we both wanted to take a picture of it, and as we were trying to get away from each other’s lens, we thought why not leave the camera to the tripod and we do a picture together. So it was a “selfie”, the first of our collaborative work, everyone must have a photo with nature some time in their life.
Talk to us about your working relationship. How does an idea typically take shape and progress?
inri: The process of each series is different. We put ourselves into the very last part of each series creation, the selection of the works to form a series. And discussion is an important element in this process, also in the shooting process. In the beginning, we didn’t have a common language to discuss things, but when we knew each other’s language and could communicate, we could discuss a bit, and within the discussions there are controversies. When we look back at our projects now, they are all very special, because they are different, not one is the same, they have all evolved. And we do not like to repeat ourselves, we want to challenge ourselves, and make new things, so we discuss a lot. But now actually we want to be extracted from this state, to step away from discussing everything.
RongRong: Discuss what? You only need to look at the pictures, no need to say too much, just look at the photo and that’s it.
inri: So it’s actually going back to where we began, back to the starting point, without words, we could create without this kind of communication.
RongRong: Why could we collaborate, one thing is language, our mother tongue but also photography is a kind of language as well, we also have the sixth sense, it’s beyond language. It’s true, you can’t explain everything you make, it’s based on instinct, intuition, it’s like opening up all your senses, the whole world, you can feel it, comprehend heaven and earth, comprehend the people around you. This is surpassing language, same as images, if you say too much, why do you even bother to take the photo, sometimes you can’t explain it with words.
inri: Photography is very magical, sometimes you make a work and you don’t even know why it’s so good, you can’t explain it.
RongRong: Depending on when you view the works, their meanings change for you, after a few years you look at it it will be different, and people of different ages will see it differently, this is the possibility of photography and its activeness. Paintings have been around for centuries, but photography has only existed for 200 years, but now everyone does photography, from a 3 year-old to a 70 year-old.
inri: So what is photography, and what’s its evolution going to be like?
RongRong: Its potential is without limit.
inri: The themes of our work have always been about our daily lives, taking topics from the outside is seldom done. Even with the works done for brands such as Dior or Agnes b, we’re also speaking of things related to our lives. For Tsumari Story, it’s not our living environment, but we tried to express IF we were living there, what it could be like, and it’s not about living any more, it’s about life, how life would be like.
Tell us about your approach to programming at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. What are your criteria for showing artists/work?
inri: For Three Shadows Beijing, we hope its professional level would be much higher. But in Xiamen, we could do more experimental planning, and we have government support over there so we can do more projects with educational emphasis. The criteria is chosen by us, each artist has his/her style.
RongRong: From its beginning, now nine years ago, of course we have our own likes and dislikes, but we chose what we want to communicate.
inri: We are a private initiative, we don’t need to do those great photography exhibitions, those official exhibitions. We only need to focus on our concept of ideas for Three Shadows. If photographers want to have their exhibitions here we would have our selection standard. We don’t control every single piece of work, we also have curators here to discuss with the artists.
RongRong: There were conflicts before, and they are now even more complex, as we have Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Xiamen, Japan and other artists; but we have to do well in all the places we operate and with everyone.
For sure this is contradictory for us, and we have thought about it for a long time, from when we first started Three Shadows. If you look at Three Shadows, you will see that everything is related to photography, from its library, dark room, book shop, educational programmes. Starting out being an artist was very simple, you only needed to create your own works, but starting to manage the whole space was challenging, even after so many years, we are still finding the balance as we go. Maybe in the future, as the space matures, we will start to move away from it gradually. For Tsunami Story it was an attempt to try another way of working, we went away for a period of time to do our own work. Because now we have young people here working, we have a great team, and they can manage the work on their own, we would like to see them to try out and challenge new things; we also have our own limits, and they have their possibilities and capabilities.
inri: When we first started to collaborate, we were quite poor, life was harsh, it was a difficult period. But we still used photography to realise our dream. Our belief has not changed over the years, we now have Three Shadows to realise it. We keep going in the same direction towards our goal, but on the way, through Three Shadows, our path has broadened, there are so many related things appearing in front of you, they help you in a way but if your goal is not clear in your mind you will be distracted as well, and you’ll be lost. Amongst the confusion, you might find the line that you were seeking; this is the possibility that photography gives us.
RongRong: Take the four seasons in Beijing for example, in autumn and winter everything withers, but like now these days, such good whether, it brings hope as well, we’ve had depressing times, but when you face hope we will need to act, action is important.
The Outstanding Contribution to Photography has previously been awarded to the likes of William Eggleston, Eve Arnold, Elliott Erwitt and Mary Ellen Mark, amongst others. What does it mean to you, to have now been awarded this prize?
inri: This means so much to us. I’m still in the phase of digesting this news. All those great photographers received it. We are still young, we are still developing our works. Of course this award is an immense encouragement to us, we need to keep on working hard, and it’s also pressure so it’s a new challenge open to us.
RongRong: After so many years of giving out awards to other photographers, we never thought that one day we would be awarded ourselves. As this is a contribution prize, for us as artists but also we have Three Shadows, this is a great encouragement for the whole centre. We feel we have even more responsibility, as a platform to spread the voice of photography, to improve and to professionalize more.