© HAO WU
Lessons in Love and Acceptance: Hao Wu’s richly lit series of collaborative self-portraits with his wife balances the realism of documentary with the fiction of stage performance.
PDNedu: Please tell us about your background and studies in filmmaking.
Hao Wu: I studied television production in China and filmmaking in Japan, where I obtained my MFA degree. Afterwards, I traveled between China and Japan to work as a film production coordinator as well as directing media advertisements. I’ve also worked for some world famous directors, such as Yimou Zhang.
PDNedu: When and why did you transition to photography?
HW: Cinematography and photography have very much in common. I started playing with a single-lens reflex camera in 2008, in order to shoot film stills. I find photography to be more concise, but to create more space for imagining. Thus, I prefer the language of the lens—to visually release more abstract emotions—rather than script writing, which conveys straightforward meanings.
PDNedu: Why did you make the decision to come to the United States to study at ICP and what was your process for setting this up?
HW: My girlfriend (now, my wife) planed to study in the United States for her Masters degree, so we came to the United States together. Since I had always lived in Asian countries, I yearned to go to the west. The American culture of openness, liberty and democracy was very attractive to me. I decided to study photography at ICP, because I wanted to deepen my fine arts sties while experiencing more about American culture. After I did the research, ICP’s one-year General Studies program fit my needs very well.
PDNedu: How did your education in Asia compare with your studies at ICP in New York?
HW: The major way to train artists in Asia is apprenticeship, whereas art education at ICP is more enlightening, which helps me to deeply explore what I truly want to express in my heart. Studying the arts in China is about accumulating and growing, in Japan it’s about thinking and exploration, in the United States it’s about classifying and creating.
PDNedu: What was the best aspect about studying at ICP? What was your favorite course?
HW: As referenced in the name, International Center of Photography, the school has a really international environment. Half of the students are from foreign countries all over the world. Luckily, I am the first student from Mainland China. This diversity is really beneficial for inspiring artists. My favorite courses are the seminars, which help students to use photography for deeper expression and to look for a personal art style.
image © Hao Wu
HW: It was about a year after my wife and I arrived in New York.
PDNedu: Please talk about involvement of your wife as model and collaborator in your picture-making process.
HW: Since my images are trying to represent our relationship and our love life, both of us are not modeled as characters, but appear as we really are. Obviously, I staged these images, therefore we have to go back to the moment when we were fighting or experiencing hard emotions. This is really difficult, because it requires balancing the realism of documentary with the fiction of stage performance. Certainly, it brings up unhappy memories, just like being hurt again by a slap the month before. However, we gradually found making pictures together is a good way to help us release our emotions and analyze our relationship. Therefore, we tend to discuss things before I start shooting and we also plan shooting scenes together. Through this collaborated shooting process, we learn more about love and acceptance.
PDNedu: Please describe the lighting techniques you use in these pictures. Do you have one particular go-to lighting technique?
HW: I design different lighting based on the environment and the story I am planning to tell. Flash, strobe, LED, tungsten, even lamp light, I use them all according to different circumstances. I don’t have a particular favorite.
PDNedu: What did you learn about lighting from your filmmaking studies and how do you apply this in your still images?
HW: It’s true that I learned a lot about lighting from my filmmaking studies, and studying photography has taught me about other kinds of light sources. As I was learning to be a director, I always designed my lighting based on different stories and emotions and then drew lighting plan graphs. So when it comes to photography, I come up with a story first and then choose appropriate lights. Many people have called my photos cinematic, but this is not intentional. I think that using lights in this way feels more comfortable to me because I’ve studied filmmaking for a long time, which affects my aesthetics.
PDNedu: What do you view as the most important elements in the pictures you make? What is the most important thing that you want to communicate with your work?
HW: I think it is love. I used to think that I knew love and that I was a romantic. But when I really experienced this with my wife, I realized those feelings were selfish and small. The Bible says: Love is patient, love is kind…it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (Corinthians 13:4,7). My one-year process in creating these images has been about exploring the true meaning of love, which has also taught me about acceptance. As a young family, my wife and I still have conflicts that need to be worked out. But we are happy and have hope. We are grateful to have each other. This is what I’d like to share in my series 3448 89th St.
image © Hao WuPDNedu: Is the documentation of your relationship complete or do you plan to continue shooting more there in the future?
HW: I think the process of exploring love should be endless, thus this kind of creation should also never end. Whenever we are inspired by life, the camera will be on.
PDNedu: Given your background in filmmaking do you have any plans to incorporate motion imaging in your still photography projects?
HW: Yes, there is an experimental video named ‘Tofu & Fork’ on my Web site, which straddles motion and stills. This is different from video I’ve shot before. And I plan to keep working and exploring this type of creation.
PDNedu: Have your filmmaking studies given you any unexpected insights or new/different angles to consider in shooting stills?
HW: I like this question. As everyone knows, many photographers transition from stills to videos, but my experience has been just the opposite. On the one hand, my images look like film stills. This is good because it makes everyday life more dramatic, which can draw more attention and create more space for consideration. On the other hand, film consists of a sequence of scenes/images, which doesn’t emphasize the details of each frame. Since still photography uses just a single image to represent the whole story, it needs to be summarized more abstractly. Thus, choosing people’s expressions and choosing lens I like this question. As everyone knows, many photographers transition from stills to videos, but my experience has been just the opposite. On the one hand, my images look like film stills. This is good because it makes everyday life more dramatic, which can draw more attention and create more space for consideration. On the other hand, film consists of a sequence of scenes/images, which doesn’t emphasize the details of each frame. Since still photography uses just a single image to represent the whole story, it needs to be summarized more abstractly. Thus, choosing details, from the lens used to the expression captured in an image is different in a still frame.
PDNedu: What, if anything, did you learn from the portfolio review process during ICP’s career day?
HW: Each person has his or her own point of view and sometimes reviewers hold opposite opinions. But as an artist, it’s your call to make a final decision about the work.
PDNedu: With the benefit of hindsight on the portfolio review experience, is there anything you might want to do differently in the future, either in your portfolio presentation or in your interactions with reviewers?
HW: I think I might not try to explain my work as much at first. I’ll try to learn more about the reviewers’ opinions rather than trying to explain what I aim to express.
PDNedu: What do you like best about New York City? Has it made you view anything differently about your native country?
HW: The best part of New York is gathering all the crazy people together from around the world and making them look normal. Since living in the United States I have stronger feelings about freedom.
PDNedu: Is there anything in particular that you miss about China or the Chinese photo scene now that you’re in New York?
HW: There are many things worth thinking about, and I’d like to photograph some of these things in the future. On one hand, it’s the cultural differences, such as differences in emotional expression, living habits and values. On the other hand, there are many odd phenomena happening in China now due to the rapid economic growth. China is like a colorful egg. Outsiders cannot see the oddness since the Chinese government covers it so well; the native Chinese don’t feel the oddness, since they are accustomed to this environment. But it’s far more interesting for those who are originally from inside, but can now observe from outside.
PDNedu: Are there any particular photographers you look to as mentors in your work and career? If so, please name them and talk about why they are important to you.
HW: I’ve been influenced a lot by Gregory Crewdson, Jeff Wall, Philip Lorca DiCorcia and similar photographers. Although I’ve had no personal contact with any of them, this style of tableau photography has guided me in how to tell my story with images.
PDNedu: What things do you have in store for the future? Where do you hope to be and what do you hope to be working on five years from now?
HW: Film and photography are equally important as art mediums that help me to understand the world, express myself and communicate with others. Therefore, I won’t be constrained by any medium. I may direct a film looks like still photography in five years. As for place—wherever the dream is. I was born in China, studied in Japan and currently live in the United States. If the technique for going there develops, I will probably be on the Moon.