Interview: Greg Girard

Walled City Exterior, 1987, from  "Kowloon Walled City"

Greg Girard is a Canadian photographer (b. 1955) who has spent much of his career in Asia, first visiting Hong Kong in 1974, and later living in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. He became a professional photographer in 1987, based first in Hong Kong and later in Shanghai. His work to date has examined the social and physical transformations taking place throughout the region.

In 1993 he co-authored (with Ian Lambot) City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City, a record in photographs and text of the final years of Hong Kong's infamous Walled City, demolished in 1992. This unique city-within-a-city was comprised of 300 separate interconnected high-rise buildings, erected piecemeal, and housed more than 33,000 people. In 2007, Phantom Shanghai - a monograph of his photographs of Shanghai - was published by Magenta Publishing for the Arts.

In the Near Distance, a book of photographs made between 1973 and 1985 during his early travels, was published in 2010 by Kominek Publications, Berlin. Hanoi Calling, published in 2010 by Magenta Publishing for the Arts, is his fourth book and looks at the Vietnamese capital on the eve of its millennium anniversary.

His work is represented by Monte Clark Gallery (Vancouver/Toronto). He works on assignment for publications such as National Geographic Magazine and continues to pursue long-term book length projects.

Buildings on Bat Su Street, 2010, from "Hanoi Calling"

fototazo: What drew you initially to the East and what keeps you going back there – both as a person and photographer?

Greg Girard: I don’t know if there is any single thing. There was a photograph of Hong Kong harbor in a Time-Life series of photography books in the early 1970s; it showed neon signs atop buildings, at dusk on a day darkened by rain. In the foreground was a local fisherman standing and rowing a small skiff. The clash of the two worlds (neon, modern buildings/fishing, sampans) was dramatic and yet somehow matter of fact, and I thought I’d like to be in that place, and try to take photographs that had whatever that photograph had in it. After graduating from high school I worked and saved money and then travelled to Hong Kong by Philippine freighter in 1974. I was 18 years old. Friends were heading to Europe, which didn’t interest me. I was reading the novels of writers who had set stories in that part of the world (Graham Green’s The Quiet American). Events in the news at the time also played some part, the Vietnam War in its final years was in the background. A couple of years later I visited Tokyo and decided to stay, living there for nearly three years, and then in 1982 moved to Hong Kong.

House on Yuyuan Lu, 2001, from "Phantom Shanghai"

f: Much of your work examines the themes of the social and physical transformations taking place throughout Asia. Talk with us about what you have learned during your career about the connection between the physical and social transformations of a society. How much does creation and demolition of space change a people? And how much does the nature of a people shape their decisions on how to form their physical surroundings?

GG: Early fascination with that part of the world also came in part from the question of what constitutes "normal" in a place like Hong Kong, where verticality and density are so common that it hardly registers on its residents. Within Hong Kong itself the most extreme example was probably the Kowloon Walled City, one large city block with over three hundred interconnected high-rise buildings, built without the contribution of a single architect, home to 33,000 people. I say it hardly registers but of course it does, in ways that aren’t always apparent.

In Shanghai in the mid- to late-1990s much of the city looked like it had been bombed from the air, so widespread was the demolition of central neighborhoods. It was a unique moment because at the same time the pace of new construction was just staggering. Following a directive from Beijing the city was racing to make up for lost time. Between 1949 and 1990 there had been hardly any new construction in the city, certainly not the kind of urban development for profit that creates skylines.

One of the things I wanted to look at was not simply the contrast between what was disappearing and what was arriving but rather something perhaps not immediately apparent, and that was the way the city's period architecture had been used in ways never intended. Single-family houses and apartments had been reconfigured to accommodate many more people than they were originally built for. This was a feature of life for Shanghai's residents in the New China after 1949, and especially after the Cultural Revolution. Hallways were turned into communal kitchens, car garages into homes, storage spaces into bedrooms. How that worked and what it looked like, knowing it would eventually disappear, was something I wanted to pay attention to.

Cubicle Kitchen, 2005, from "Phantom Shanghai"

f: How would you describe the changes in terms of urban development and preservation policy in Asia between your first trips there in the 1970’s and today?

GG: In Shanghai, for example, preservation was something that happened by default, when China rejected capitalism and banned private property. That was later reversed, unleashing a frenzy of demolition and construction unlike anywhere on the planet. By the time people start thinking about preservation it's usually a belated effort to slow a process that has already gone too far. It's also a sign that a society or a place has matured. Young people in Hong Kong today have an appreciation for their city and its history - as evidenced in the built environment - that the previous generation didn't.

Children on Rooftop, 1990, from  "Kowloon Walled City"

f: Talk about the difference between the approaches to development and preservation between the Asian countries you have worked in.

GG: I’m really not qualified to talk about either, and I’m not interested in either per se. What I tend to photograph is modernity. Its surface could be almost anything. In Asia, where I lived for most of my adult life, I've tried to make pictures that show what that modernity looks like, especially in its cities. In the recent past, excesses related to growth and urban development have often been unchecked. But in these places where the 20th Century has flowed so hard through it – civil war, fire bombing, occupation, food shortages, violent regime change, the list goes on - building codes and zoning laws are relatively late additions to the list of what a city requires.

f: In editing and re-examining the images that became In the Near Distance did you feel that they presaged the content and form of your later work? Do you feel a strong connection?

GG: Yes and no. Much of the early work was made in response to the excitement of being away from home, even if, in the beginning, that was only six or seven miles away, taking a bus from the suburbs to the city. The pictures from In the Near Distance were mostly made before I knew what a journalist or an artist did or was supposed to do. Photographs were rarer things in those days. A connection does remain, the need to make something that registers what it feels like to be there, and communicate what you've learned, if anything.

Shirtless Young Man, Senator Hotel, 1975, from  "In the Near Distance"

f: Talk about how much you become involved before and after a project with the people, communities and spaces you are photographing. Do you spend time with a subject - be it person or space - before taking out your camera? How long do you spend on average developing a project?

GG: I'm pretty straightforward if I want to photograph someone or some place. Using a camera on a tripod sort of gives away what you're up to anyway. I basically expect to have a tough time at the beginning and just hope it gets easier as time goes by, as people get used to me or bored with me. I spent five years photographing in the Kowloon Walled City. In the beginning, it was difficult; people were openly hostile. Things became easier after the Hong Kong government announced plans to demolish it. People understood that you were there because its days were numbered. Still, after five years, there were still some people who refused to allow me to photograph them or their shops or homes.

Untitled #2 (New Buildings), 2005, from "In Chinese Cities"

f: About Kowloon Walled City, you have said, "I found that by photographing not the people, but the spaces, it revealed as much if not more about how people lived." This quote leads me to wonder if you believe that documenting how people live – and not the physical changes of Asian cities - is the core of your photographic work?

GG: I think I said that in relation to Phantom Shanghai. The spaces, and the way people used them, were unique to that time and place.

fHalf the Surface of the World seems different aesthetically from your other projects. It seems more concrete in its narrative. It feels as if you are focusing on showing us the facts of life in and around Asian US military bases and subsequently less on the development of the saturated palette, soft lines, and nocturnal ambience found in your other projects. First, would you agree, and second, if you do, talk about how and why you have made these aesthetic decisions with this particular project.

GG: I think I can answer that question in part by linking to a short explanation of how the work came about here.

The work in this series is necessarily different because of the limitations on access to the subject. During my "on base" visits I was accompanied by a military escort at all times, I didn't have the luxury of wandering around at my own pace at any time of day or night.

Training Exercise, Guam Navy Base, 2008, from  "Half the Surface of the World"

f: Jaime Wolf in the New Yorker calls William Gibson’s introduction to your book Phantom Shanghai "indignant" and you have said, "Violence is not the wrong word to describe what happens when there are no impediments to change." How much do your images have an agenda against the demolition of the spaces you are photographing? Is your work an aggressive critique with preservationist ideas for modern Asian cities? Have you seen your work have an impact in terms of cultural attitudes or policy change?

GG: My position is more along the lines of "I can’t believe this exists." The various things I've looked at all tend to have that in common –and this is true of the bases work as well. I don't really have an agenda against the demolition as it were because I already feel it's sort of unbelievable the places have lasted for as long as they have. They could never continue indefinitely in their present state, and to "preserve" them would effectively destroy the living thing that they are.

Woman, Ikebukuro, 1977, from "In the Near Distance"

f: You have made images in 35mm and medium format, black and white as well as color. Tell us about the technical development of your work over time.

GG: One benefit of a lack of formal education was that I never learned to distinguish in any dogmatic way between black and white and color. I thought color looked great. I thought black and white looked great. Having said that, I haven't made black and white pictures for a long time. The last attempt was the first year of my Shanghai project. I photographed in black and white from 2000-2001 and then changed my mind and starting doing it in color. It was a lost year. I’ll probably never look at those black and white pictures again.

Yakuza Greeting, Mister Donuts, Koenji, 1980, from "In the Near Distance"

f: You have worked for a number of magazines as an editorial photographer including National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times Magazine. What is the relationship between your book projects and assignment work? How do they co-exist together in your life?

GG: They are parallel universes that occasionally merge. I'm always trying to interest magazines in ideas I have, that I may or may not be working on. At the same time I welcome the unexpected email or phone call that asks if I would be interested in something it might never occur to me to pursue on my own. It can take you out of yourself and it keeps you on your toes. And you make it your own while you're doing it.

Alley with Mirrors, 2002, from "Phantom Shanghai"

f: What are the next steps for you, Greg?

GG: Continuing to work on my own ideas and trying to get support for them. Photographing the old neighborhood here where I haven’t made pictures for 30 years.

Man in Red Sweater Fishing, 2010, from "Hanoi Calling"