I-Hsuen Chen is a recent graduate of the MFA Photography program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I sat down with I-Hsuen over lunch for this conversation about his recent body of work, Nowhere in Taiwan. A photograph from this series was recently purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Austin Nelson: Your work became really strong really quickly with your Nowhere in Taiwan series. You went home for the summer and came back with this huge body of work that was very strong. Do you feel like something changed inside you that allowed that to happen? What do you attribute the success of that series to?
I-Hsuen Chen: Of course, some training of aesthetics – the way of looking at photography or images – I learned a lot at Pratt. That’s one part. Say if I don’t study photography and I go back to my country, I don’t think that project would have happened in that way. And also, another point is this was kind of the first time I went abroad to study, the first time I’m actually leaving my country to live for a while, so it makes a really big difference that the culture shock hit me a little bit differently. At first I came here and the culture shock was like a language issue, or this thing is different, or this is something I have to get used to, so I maybe over time am getting used to the western culture. Like if someone says “your work is good”, in Taiwan you always say something like “oh, it’s not good enough” or “I’m still working on it” or we just nod, showing appreciation, where here I just say “Thank you” to show my appreciation, where in Taiwan that would be considered a little bit arrogant, so things like that are different. That’s just a little example. So when I go back to my native country, Taiwan, everything changes. When I go abroad, I become others. I am no longer myself. So, I go back to my original environment that shaped me and the bigger part of my personality, but now I am others and I can see through everything in my country. It’s kind of like when you go traveling and then you go back to where you live, you suddenly see everything that you haven’t seen before. On top of that, it’s also that when I go back it’s like a reverse culture shock when I go back to my country. I feel like I don’t fully belong to either place and I’m floating in between. American culture leads me to road trips, because I like a lot of road trip photography, like Alec Soth and others like that, so that’s why I went on a road trip in Taiwan. It really fits my state of mind and all of that and my training in aesthetics shaped this body of work. It’s not only taking documentary photographs in a certain area. I’m not interested in an issue in a certain area and I went to do a documentary on it. It’s not that. That can be really kind of exotic and superficial in a way, because you don’t belong to them. So my case is that I belong to my country, but I also belong to others.
Nelson: So now you feel like an outsider in your own country.
Chen: Yes. And of course, a lot of the photographs we take as photographers, we are all outsiders. We are really withdrawn, even detached from the environment. I think that’s why this series became a little bit special. It has the Western point of view and aesthetics and form, but also has a really Eastern spirit, which is my roots.
Nelson: I think that is what is remarkable about this series. It’s very familiar – the way that things are composed – but also, it’s very poetic.
Chen: Thank you. I guess that’s my aesthetic. I really don’t like photographs to be answers. I like for them to be questions, so I don’t like when one image has only one layer – whether it’s a cultural layer or whatever – I think that a good photograph should be asking questions and that creates an imaginary poetic space and you can extend it from that image. So if we are only taking photographs of the answers, it would be like “That’s it. There is no other stuff.” Also, I’m a little bit aware of the limitations of photographs to tell a story, so a documentary photographer might edit their series to do some visual storytelling, but actually movies can do a better job at that. So, for telling a story, movies are better for that and for me photographs should be more like poems. In that sense, for me, I try not to put a lot of really clear things in my photographs. Of course, I’m not thinking that when I take photographs, it’s just my personality, but thank you for that.
Nelson: I also really appreciate how you speak about photography. You’ve said to me that you don’t speak about it academically, but you do speak about it very intelligently and passionately. You do speak more to the poetics and I’ve rarely heard you say anything about the technical aspects of the field.
Chen: I’m also not too good at that.
Nelson: I don’t believe that. I think it’s really just part of your personality that you’re attracted to the poetry of it.
Chen: Maybe it’s because I have different backgrounds. I was doing marketing and I learned how to communicate with people in that way, but I am also an opera singer and a lot of times I’m an outsider in a lot of ways and so maybe since I’ve been into a lot of different things and nothing for many years, I am more free to be detached a little in each of those forms. When we are only doing one medium, maybe it restricts us in a way.
Nelson: You mentioned storytelling. What do you think of your photographs in that regard? This body of work is a series, but do you want the viewer to see it as a whole as a story or do you want them to see each individual image as a story in itself or some combination of both?
Chen: I still think that one image is not strong enough to say everything or to leap to a larger sense. That’s why we’re still using serial photographs. I remember I read an article that said all the major photographers of the last twenty years shoot for something that will lead to a book, because that will lead to a larger issue, so that’s why I’m using serial photography, but I don’t think it has to be a story. I mean, I think if you listen to a sonata, they have a sense of storytelling, but that is not a story. It’s more like a sentence. For me, showing the images together is not about telling a story. It’s more about having a rhythm. There’s not always a story. There’s not always a conflict and a conclusion.
Nelson: So the series for you is about a flow more than a narrative or other dramatic mechanism.
Chen: All the images don’t even have to be the same size. We don’t even know why we’re shooting in series. I don’t know why. I think it’s influenced too much by how photographs are shown in galleries. Why can’t we just show one photograph? When people ask me “So, this is your final edit?” I say, “I don’t know. It depends on where I’m putting it.” For my there are no final edits.
Nelson: It’s interesting not only how you speak about your photography, but also about other people’s work. Do you ever not know where to start in addressing others’ work?
Chen: Before I came to Pratt, I can honestly say I knew nothing about photography. When I looked at some photos, I didn’t know why they worked or didn’t work. So, for me, it’s that I’m trying to analyze my feelings about the work. That is always my way of thinking about things. When I started, I had feelings about works, but I didn’t know why and didn’t know how to interpret those feelings. I’d say I learned how to be myself. At first you sort of imitate, and then you start to realize that your feelings are correct. It doesn’t mean that I have a really good or special point of view, but your feelings are always true for you. What might be good about my critiques might be that I try to deconstruct my feelings about other people’s work and that might be good.
Nelson: If you were going to critique your own work, specifically the Nowhere in Taiwan series, what would you say is the strongest aspect of the work and what do recognize as something that you need to work on?
Chen: It’s really hard to do that. I will say it’s too large. I still say trying to put everything in one group – it’s a little too stiff. And also, maybe because of my taste, I don’t like the images that seem like one-liners. Maybe they are connected, but there’s something problematic about that, too. My dream of course is that everyone will like my work, and that’s really hard. Maybe some photography insiders will like some of it, but other people might not get it, so I don’t want to make photographs that only other photographers will like. I don’t know. I’m still too attached to my work, but I’m not wholly satisfied with it yet. And the strongest point? I like the work that really grabs your heart. I think some of the images make people feel something and question something about themselves. I like the images that are complex. There are some photographs that are funny and sad and questioning and unsettling and debating themselves. I don’t know how other people look at my work, but that’s what I’d like for them to see. I can be really quiet, I can be really talkative, sometimes I’m funny and I’m sensitive all the time, so that’s just my personality and maybe that’s why I like those images – they are a weird combination of my personality.
Nelson: Are you going to continue to work on this series or are you going to start on another project?
Chen: I’m going to work on something else first. Once I start thinking ‘ok, this is good’, all of the surprises and specialness sort of disappears, like “you are repeating yourself”.
Please visit I-Hsuen’s website www.ihsuenchen.com