Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Taiwan through the lens of Josh Ellis, Part 1

Josh Ellis, who grew up next to the ocean on Canada’s east coast, has been photographing Taiwan since 2005. He describes his website as a “showcase for what I do, but also a way of promoting Taiwan and helping educate people around the world about how amazing this country is.” This is Part I of an interview conducted by email in October and November 2015. 
Is it true you ended up studying Chinese by accident?

Yeah, when I got to university, I found I had to take a second-language credit in order to graduate. I decided to try my hand at Japanese. The class was full of young guys much more invested in learning the language than I was, so on the first day of class, when the dean asked some of us if we would be willing to consider taking another language to free up space, I decided to take Mandarin instead. That decision pretty much shaped what’s happened since. I graduated with dual degrees in International Development and Asian Studies; before graduation I did an internship which brought me to China to further develop my language skills in an immersion program at Peking University, and to work on a Canadian government sponsored development project.

Why did you move to Taiwan? 

After graduation, I spent a few months checking out the job market in Canada, but felt the itch to come back to Asia to improve my language skills and continue travelling. I saw an ad about teaching English in Taiwan, so decided to give it a try. I arrived in Taiwan in the summer of 2005, and I noticed almost right away that Taiwan was a lot different to China. I noticed how clean it was and how the people seemed to be quite similar to Canadians in terms of how they treated others. Some of these similarities are among the reasons I’ve stayed for over a decade. I love that I can be in a modern city with a population bigger than most Canadian cities, but still be so close to nature. Taiwan has spoiled me over these years and I have a hard time thinking what life would be like back home without all the conveniences of this beautiful country.

Were you already a keen photographer when you arrived?

I was always into photography when I was young but wasn’t really able to do anything serious about it. After arriving, like a lot of travellers I took pictures documenting everything I was doing, and all the things that were new to me, to show friends and family back home. After about a month of living here I decided to upgrade and buy my first DSLR. Since then, everything I’ve done has been somewhat photography-related. Photography has been a very important facet of my experiences here.
I hope that when people see photos I’ve shot and how I frame them, they’re able to learn something not only from the photo, but from the information I provide with them. It’s great to hear from Taiwanese friends that I’ve shot something they didn’t even know existed, or that they’d never really imagined it would look as cool as it does in one of my photos. I think when you’re a foreign photographer in any country you tend to look at things differently to the locals, and see what they might miss or think isn’t special.

Many photographers adore Taiwan’s temple culture. Are you one of them?

Absolutely. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring temples all over the nation and trying to learn as much about them as I can. I love taking shots which not only show off the beautiful architecture, but also the amazing details you find inside. 

Taiwan also offers a lot of opportunity for taking beautiful landscape shots. I’m often lugging heavy camera gear up some of Taiwan’s highest mountains and taking shots of the coastline, rivers and waterfalls. Taiwan may be a small country, but there are countless locations available to photographers to show off the beauty of the country. 

Apart from temples and natural landscape, what else appeals to you?

I’m also a big fan of street photography, which involves walking around and getting candid shots of people going about their everyday lives. I think not living Taipei means I have better opportunities to explore and take photos that tell the story of Taiwan’s people and their lives.  
I do a lot of research about the places I visit, and I’m still trying to gauge what my audience is most interested in. My posts about the Qingshui Cliffs [pictured above] and Mukumugi Gorge in Hualien generated quite a lot of buzz, but then so did my post about the controversial Pigs of God ritual; this might the only post where I criticize Taiwan. I posted a quick article about a local restaurant that I thought would be nostalgic for some of my ex-coworkers who’ve since left Taiwan; it ended up going viral with hundreds of thousands of hits since I posted it, something I never would have imagined. Earlier this year I did a project where I visited several of Taiwan’s biggest night markets to shoot street-photography-style portraits of the people working there and explain a bit about what they do. This project has been quite popular. I’ve finished the shooting and hope to have the last four posts, about Miaokou Night Market in Keelung, posted before the end of the year.

I think I’m a very organized person, so I’ve a long list of places I need to get to over a certain period of time. I recently hiked up to a peak that isn’t very well known, Yuanzui Mountain in Daxueshan National Forest Recreation Area. From the peak there’s an amazing 360-degree view of Taiwan’s mountains. The location is perfect for the kind of work I do, but unfortunately as I was nearing the peak the weather took a turn for the worse. Everything disappeared in a cloud of mist, which means I need to make another trip in the near future. Apart from mountains, I’ll be shooting some upcoming temple festivals, Taiwanese opera performances, and I’m hoping to get to Kinmen and Matsu in the near future.

Part 2 of the interview can be read here.

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