This is the first interview in what I hope will become an on-going series of conversations with some great China based photographers. These are artists that inspire me. I hope you’ll be inspired as well…
Mark Hobbs bio says he is “A British/Australian cultural studies teacher in China, trying to come to terms with the ways of the “Middle Kingdom” through photography and comments – Life and experiences are reflected with photos, art, design and musings on China.” I’d say that’s all fairly accurate but it really only scratches the surface.
A Melbourne native. Mark is truly a “citizen of the world”. His life-long love affair with travel began early, when he made the journey with his family to England, where he attended school in London’s East End at the age of 8. Since then he has traveled extensively, spending time in Europe, North America, Africa and of course Asia. With degrees in Film and Psychology, his interests run the gamut and include painting, graphic design, set design, the theatre, writing script and multimedia. An artist in the truest sense of the word, Mark worked as a film maker until the age of 30, making several films along the way. He’s published a couple of books, has a third in the works and he’s also worked in the theater in a variety of roles. After a management stint in the graphic design department of the on-line component of Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, he was ready for a change. China was next on the itinerary. His original plan was to stay for a year, five years later he sat down to talk with me. We spent about three (virtual) hours together earlier this month, typing away via Yahoo Messenger. I’ve spliced some of Mark’s photos into the text, and included some of our individual thoughts on the images.
Expatriate Games: So, I guess the obvious place to start is, why China? What brought you here?
Mark Hobbs: An obvious answer, cause I’d never been! More seriously, I had always been interested in education as a solution to many of the problems we now face and of course having what I consider a very good education I wanted to give something back. I know that sounds like a cliche but its true. A few years ago while traveling in Tanzania I contracted Malaria and became very ill, I actually died before being revived. That experience made me reconsider my life and wonder, and I mean really wonder. what I really wanted to do with the rest of it. I was single at the time and I remember thinking “Hey! I want a family! I don’t want to lead the type of life I’ve been living.” It took me about 8 or 9 years but I finally found the reason, that”lightness of being” we all seek. That all came about from being ill and then getting better.
Expatriate Games: So, the whole epiphany and “giving back” thing was a prompt for a new life here in China.. I know after four years, you and your family decided to head home to Melbourne for a while but soon realized your heart just wasn’t in it. Can you be more specific about why you came back?
Mark Hobbs: Well, as you said, our heart wasn’t in it, nothing felt quite “right”. The Melbourne “lifestyle”, re-tasting it after four years in China just wasn’t right for us. As you know, my partner Cecilia is from Manila and we also really wanted to be closer to her home and her family. Eventually, we plan to live in a small town (Lavezares) in the southern part of The Philippines. We visited there during our last trip home, it’s truly a tropical paradise and we hope to build a home there.
“I’m giving away a secret here. I was on the other side of a fence within the grounds of the Summer Palace when I saw all these soldiers standing in front of a red flag waiting to have their photo taken. They were recent academy graduates. The flag is actually only a little below shoulder level, the red above the shoulders is all photoshop! I love the blank red canvas, almost a reflection of Chinese society today.”
Expatriate Games: With your background, I’m guessing it probably wasn’t much of a stretch getting into photography. Can you describe your path to becoming a photographer?
Mark Hobbs: Its funny, I never have considered myself a ‘photographer’. I’m still learning and hopefully always will. I did study photography as part of my preparation to enter film school, everything from dark room techniques to composition, but I hadnt’ touched it much for over twenty years. I picked up a camera again a few weeks before coming to China, I think that this is reflected in my photography.
Of course I did take some shots whilst traveling in Africa and North America and Europe but never like I do here. China is fast becoming a “different” place to what it was (and I suppose what it could have been) and I want to capture it as it is NOW. There are several reasons why but I think mostly I want my daughter Lucy to be able to see what is was like.
Expatriate Games: It’s so true, the country is changing at such a rapid pace it makes my head spin. As a photographer, I find China unique, in-so-far as it’s ability to offer “something” to shoot nearly everytime I go out the door. Why do you think it is so”interesting” through the viewfinder?
Mark Hobbs: I agree it is, but remember its also through a “western” persons viewfinder, so I think its easy for me as a foreigner to see so much that the Chinese people take for granted and is maybe commonplace to them.
Expatriate Games: Your portfolio is full of different subjects but for me it’s your “street” photography I find so visually stimulating, thought provoking even. It’s presented in a documentary style I find very visually interesting. What are you looking for when you are out? What is it about the street environment that appeals to you?
Mark Hobbs: Thanks, the simple answer is people. Recently I’ve been concentrating on a small market near our apartment, it’s always full of really interesting, hard working people who through their work act out “theatre” for me. Everytime I visit, either to shop or just wonder around taking shots, its the people of this and other places that make it interesting for me. After graduation I worked for a time in the theatre and the “theatre of life”, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is always fascinating to me.
Expatriate Games: “All the world’s a stage…”
Mark Hobbs: Exactly.
when today lasts forever
“This one as spontaneous as it gets. In a “nong tang” (alley) in the heart of Chaozhou, I saw this small group of kids running toward me and I know that they saw me also. We , that is the kids and I, started running in opposite directions. I had my camera out and took the shot as the first kid ran past me, all of us laughing . Very little tweaking, just some added contrast and levels in photoshop.”
Expatriate Games: I was actually going to ask you about locations.I know I personally like so many of the images you took in one Chaozhou alley over a period of many months and as you said, your doing something similar now in Taiyuan. Do you usually go out with a specific idea or objective in mind?
Mark Hobbs: Yeah I like those images in the “nong tangs” (alleys) of Chaozhou too. Looking back on the shots they have a certain “warmness” that other shots I have taken in China lack. Maybe its the age of the buildings or perhaps the integrity of the people. I walked those alleys on my way to and from work everyday so I was able to become very familiar with the comings and goings of the inhabitants. I would often look out one of my classroom windows and stare into the narrow sheltered dark places those people lived. When I go out I often do have an idea for a shot. I even get the shot sometimes but on most occasions its really just me shooting what comes along, more of a documentary style approach.
“One of my favorites, this was maybe one of the best images taken in Chaozhou (a small city about 40km from the coast in Guangdong). Every morning I would make the 15 minute walk from our apartment to the teaching building through the “nong tangs” and every morning I’d see this woman carrying the “night waste” that she had collected from the small “hutong” (traditional Chinese alley dwellings). We would nod “hello” to each other and after maybe a month I learnt which alleys she would be in and at what time. After deciding on what I thought to be the best location for photographing her I waited and as I always do I “shot from the hip”, meaning I really didn’t frame her nor did I focus. I just played it by ear (or eye). I’m happy with the result and after some tweaking in Photoshop (just a little) this is the result.”
Expatriate Games: I envision your shooting style as loose and natural without spending a lot of time setting up a shot, yet, the light always seems to to be working for you in lots of subtle ways. Are you consciously looking for good lighting?
Mark Hobbs: Not consciously but maybe subconsciously. I do use photoshop and with my graphic design background I think it’s the final image that is most important so I am not afraid to “adjust”. When I was making films I always tried to shoot at the magic hour and I still do whenever I can.
“Another of my personal favorites. There are so many things I could mention about the “image” but I suppose it should speak for itself. I love the way they guy is sitting seemingly relaxed in a chaotic environment. It was a warm sunny day and I remember feeling like the shadows were too deep and the light not ‘”right”. I guess I got lucky. Like so many of my shots, it’s a “walk by” shooting, but I was able to compose the shot in a brief moment beforehand. I think the background light adds something to the image as does his expression.”
Aside from what most of you will think is the obvious reason, I really like this image. It was taken in Yantai and as Mark himself said, there is something funny yet tragic about it. Considering her obvious occupation, I really like the nonchalant posture as she goes about her daily routine. I look at the shot and I ask all kinds of questions, I think some would call that thought provoking. The shot definitely makes me feel something and I think that’s what art should do.
Expatriate Games: You and I have talked about this before, so I think I already know the general answer but I would like for you to talk about your thoughts on digital photo-processing. Some folks are very “anti-manipulation” of any kind, while others go another place and push an image beyond recognition. As you just said you aren’t afraid to “adjust”. I often look at your images and recognize a certain visual “style”, a patina that I can associate with many of your photographs. How did you develop this “look” if you will?
Mark Hobbs: I wouldn’t say I consciously developed it , it just “is”. Yeah, I do try to resolve certain issues as an artist with my photography and each time try to do it better… does that answer the question?
Expatriate Games: Yeah sure, we’re almost finished, how you holding up?
Mark Hobbs: Fine, it’s actually been a pleasure, I just lit my third cigarette!
Expatriate Games: OK, here’s one of those “If I only knew then…” questions. If you could talk to yourself as a photographer 20 years ago, what advice would you give yourself? What have you learned that you wish you knew then?
Mark Hobbs: Always be aware of what is interesting to you and what is “around” you. Be yourself and stick to your guns, shoot what you want and the rest will follow, oh, and shoot often! Try different ways of doing the same thing. Go back (if you can) and shoot it again and again. With digital photography this is of course very easy.
I love the olive and gray tones in this shot. Mark always seems to nail the color, his shots have a certain patina that I really like. There is something so simple yet so very compelling about this. A candid catch of two guys taking a moment and having a smoke. It could be anywhere of course but ultimately this is soooo China. I want to go over and ask them what they are talking about!
Expatriate Games: Do you have any goals for your photography? I mean, do you know what you would like to be doing with photography in the future or do you even think about that right now?
Mark Hobbs: Man that’s a hard one. I am interested in publishing again. I’ve published two books, the first was on Africa and the second I shot whilst living in New York. So, yeah I really would like to publish a third, this time on China of course. I actually thought I had a publisher lined up but the deal fell through. I’m also considering a film based on a short story I wrote during my first year in China. It’s set around the time of the Cultural Revolution circa 1965, and is about a young girl and her family.
Expatriate Games: Well, good luck as you pull all that together Mark. I really appreciate you spending so much time here with us. That’s three hours you’re never gonna’ get back!
Mark Hobbs: Don’t want it back! It was given with the utmost pleasure, it’s cool to chat. I enjoyed it!
me and her
The photographer with his daughter Lucy, taken on her first birthday in Guilin in August of 2006. This is one of my favorite images in Mark’s Flickr photostream. It was actually “taken” by his partner Cecilia after Mark set up the shot. It shows a lot about the man I have come to call friend. Unpretentious, kind and caring and very talented. Mark, Cecilia and Lucy currently live in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province where Mark teaches English at Taiyuan Institute of Technology. He continues to “give back” with the hope that education can indeed change the world. Mark’s doing his part, one student at a time.
It was extremely difficult to choose the photographs to be included with this interview. I went back and forth for weeks trying to decide what should be included and why. Ultimately, I selected these knowing I would be inviting you to take a look at Mark’s volume of work here.
You can also see the details about any of the photos here just by clicking on the image. You might want to grab a sandwich and something to drink, you could be there a while.
UPDATE: Mark and Cecelia did move to the Philippines and Lucy now has a baby sister to play with. Alex arrived in March of 2010.
UPDATE II: Mark and the family are back in China for awhile. Lucy and Alex continue to grow and Mark continues to create wonderful photographs.