Stephen Kelly’s work came to my attention a couple of months ago when he dropped me an email. In particular, his work ‘Qi Lihe‘ that looks at Muslim minority groups in China’s industrial north stood out. It was obvious that this was not a project shot in a couple of weeks; Stephen likes to take his time. His website only features four major pieces of work, and one of those is still in progress. That methodical approach is fuelled by a deep interest in the social and political issues at work in the communities and situations he photographs. Below is an interview with Stephen (SK) for The Rights Exposure Project (REP) where he reveals a bit more about his methodology, motivations and aims.
REP: As a young photographer how have you adapted to the shrinking media space for photographic work?
SK: I am very independent when it comes to working on my personal projects and I haven’t changed the way I approach my working practice. The majority of my work is self-funded, so whatever money I make, usually goes straight back into working on my projects. I also apply for grants for certain projects in order to assist me financially in completing the work. Then I try to find different ways of showing and distributing the work; pushing the work to magazines to publish editorially or printing and presenting my work as an exhibition installation, which is a relatively new path I am only beginning to explore. I’ve also recently begun to run a number of workshops and I have found this to be incredibly rewarding whilst also being a solid way of being able to finance my upcoming projects.
REP: Much of your work focuses on China (incl. Macau and Hong Kong). How easy has access been?
SK: Access has been difficult when working on a number of my projects. In Macau, my aim was to document the huge casino boom that has taken the region by storm. In order to do this, I felt that it was imperative that I photographed spontaneously inside the casinos. However, this is completely forbidden, so I had to be very patient, spending day after day wandering around, finding particular scenes that I knew I wanted to capture, returning time and time again until I got the image I was after and being very discreet with my approach. I had a few shady moments with security but generally I was able to make the images I needed with sensitivity and tact.
In Gansu Province when working on my ‘Qi Lihe’ series, I had a lot of problems with the police. I was working in the countryside attempting to document where the migrants had come from and why. The police interrogated me, followed me tirelessly and tried to stop me from doing my work. An example of this is when I visited a mosque one evening to make portraits of a group of Islamic students inside their dormitory. I knew one of the teachers, who I had met on a number of occasions and he had invited me to visit. While inside, the police rang the mosque’s office telephone and told the imam not to cooperate with me and warned him not to let me take any pictures. It became too difficult to work, knowing that the police were following my every move and were making it quite clear that they were going to stop me from trying to photograph.
REP: What do you think are the pros and cons of foreign vs. local photographers? Is there a way to balance the outsider’s eye vs. the cultural reading of a local?
SK: Foreign and local photographers may approach their work in a different way and from a different angle. A local photographer will be more familiar with the setting and cultural environment, having always lived there but may also lack the broader perspective of an outsider looking in. They may also be restricted in their approach to a certain extent by limitations arising from their customs, religion and laws.
With my projects in China, I obviously have the eye of an outsider and this will never change when working in a foreign context. I believe you have to embrace this and strive to be honest, truthful and respectful when photographing and representing the people and places you are documenting.
The most important approach to take is to understand and appreciate the people and place I am documenting. I attempt to immerse myself within their environment, build relationships with the people I am photographing and try to understand their situation as much as is possible. I aim to stay for a prolonged period of time and return repeatedly, so even though I am a foreigner, I am able to culturally read their story to the best of my ability.
REP: Your latest work focuses on the Hui and Dongxiang Muslim minorities in Qi Lihe district in northwestern China. Can you tell us a bit about the origins of that project?
SK: This project came about due to information gained by a friend of mine who worked for Oxfam Hong Kong at the time. She told me about the situation of many internal Muslim migrant’s in Gansu Province who were arriving into the provincial capital, Lanzhou, as they were unable to survive anymore by living off their land in the countryside (in Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture). Extreme poverty and desertification forced their flight. My friend informed me that Oxfam Hong Kong were part-funding a school for the Muslim migrant children in the Qi Lihe district of Lanzhou. I was given the contact details of the headmistress of the school and shortly after that I was on a plane from Shenzhen to Lanzhou to research a possible project. I visited the school and began teaching English a few mornings a week and that is how my connection to this project began. One or two of the students would take me to visit their homes and meet their parents in the afternoon after teaching and then from there I would meet more families and return time and time again to strengthen my connection with and knowledge of the community.
REP: In the end you decided not to go back to Qi Lihe for the security of the people you were working with. What precautions do you take to try and protect those you photograph?
SK: It wasn’t that I decided not to go back. I did return in July 2012 but decided to leave early. I had planned to be there for one month but after two weeks it was just too difficult and I felt it was getting too dangerous, not only for myself but more importantly for the families I wanted to photograph and for my interpreter.
As for precautions, I followed the experience and intuition of my guide who is from Gansu and as soon as I knew that the police didn’t want me to be there and were following me and my guide felt it wasn’t safe to proceed, I stopped and left the province. The most important aspect for me is the safety of those who I photograph and for my guide and I didn’t want to take any risks or put anyone in danger.
REP: When you shoot a social piece like ‘Qi Lihe’ or ‘The Boys of Zheng Sheng‘ (youth rehabilitation centre on Lantau island, Hong Kong) how do you hope your work will contribute towards improving those peoples’ lives? Is it just a case of ‘getting their story out there’ or do you think there are other interventions that photographers can make with their work?
SK: In relation to these two projects, the most important aspect of my approach is to illustrate and highlight what is happening to these particular communities and why. I’m very much interested in documenting issues that are under-reported and by producing these bodies of work I hope to bring the stories of these people to a wider audience and shed light on communities living on the periphery of society. I aim to inform and bring a sense of awareness and understanding from the audience having viewed my work.
REP: Any tips for young photographers try to build a career?
SK: Have a strong passion, dedication and commitment to the issues that you are interested in exploring and documenting. Be determined, patient and find a way to complete the project even when faced with financial restraints. It’s important to continually make meaningful work and have a distinct voice and approach.
REP: What are you working on now?
SK: I’ve just begun working on a new project exploring Finland’s experiences with increasing migration flows to the country. I was in Helsinki for two weeks in November doing some research, making initial images and having meetings, so I’m looking forward to returning in the New Year and immersing myself in the project. I will also deliver a number of workshops in the coming months and will continue to work on commissions. If possible, I also plan to return to China later in the year.