Friday, December 11, 2015

Taiwan through the lens of Josh Ellis, Part 2

This is Part 2 of an interview with Josh Ellis, a Canadian photographer living in north Taiwan. (Part 1 is here.)

Do you do commercial photography?

Yes. I have to travel around the country getting shots for clients, which requires a bit of flexibility. Most of the people I do work for are overseas and probably don't understand the amount of travel involved in doing what I do for them. When I originally arrived in Taiwan, I started working for an English school and I'm still there part-time. They’re quite flexible with me and treat me quite well; they’re willing to accept that my workload will be considerably less than most of their other employees. I teach a few days per week for them and also help with training new employees. Teaching was always a means to an end, particularly when I needed a work permit. I'm now a permanent resident, so I can do pretty much whatever I want, work-wise. My friends often ask why I still bother to teach, but I like the flexibility my company gives me. Also, the income it brings stabilizes my fluctuating photography income.

Have you had any weird or unpleasant experiences when taking photos?

Generally speaking, Taiwan is a very photo-friendly country. Over the past five or so years DSLR cameras have become pretty common. A lot of people are trying their hand at photography and I find that the accessibility of so-called professional-level cameras tends to skew the line between amateur and professional; this is part of the reason why I don't like to use the terms very often. The amount of images floating around the internet really creates a lot of competition for working photographers, so you have to do your best to stand out from the crowd and only post your best work. That being said, Taiwanese people are generally pretty great when it comes to photography. When you do street photography it is all about the momentary relationship you create with a person. Sometimes you’ll find someone who doesn't want their photo taken but most of the time it is fine and people don't mind. 

In my decade of shooting here I’ve only been told not to take a photo of something twice. I remember each experience vividly because of the rarity of being told not to take a shot and the strangeness of the situations. The first time was a year or so ago on Shenkeng Old Street. I came across a store that had a bunch of cool-looking traditional hats and oddities on the storefront. What struck me about the place was how adamant the boss was about not wanting pictures to be taken. He had at least 10 different signs saying “No photos,” which I thought was quite extreme. I decided to take a photo out of spite since the boss was standing in front of me. The resulting photo [below] features a guy with an angry face, and it made an excellent street shot with what was happening in the background. 
More recently while I was shooting Zhinan Temple, near Maokong in Taipei. A temple volunteer took exception to me shooting a religious ceremony taking place and indicated quite rudely that I shouldn't be taking photos. She then proceeded to follow me around until I felt so uncomfortable I left. As a photographer you have to be considerate of people and know when something is okay and when it isn't. I do my best to be respectful and considerate of people in all aspects of life, so photography is just an extension of that. If anyone ever objects to what I do, then I will delete the shot and apologize. I think that is probably a general rule among most people who are fans of street photography – but for the most part Taiwanese people are very welcoming and don't mind having their pictures taken.

You live in Zhongli, which has something of bad reputation.

Before coming to Taiwan I didn't do much research. I had heard how beautiful Taiwan was when I was in China. The people there had talked about the country as a sort of Shangri-La they all wanted to visit but couldn't because of the political situation at the time. I thought that nowhere could be as bad as Beijing when it comes to pollution and weather, so when I decided to accept a position as a teacher I didn't really bother to check where it was. I noted that I'd be living close to the airport and a short bus or train ride to Taipei, but would also be close to the mountains and Hsinchu

After living in Zhongli [pictured below] for ten years, I can't say I have any complaints or that in my ignorance I made a terrible mistake. I have a love affair with the city, even though I know it has a bad reputation among expats. I think most of those opinions are unfounded. The way I see it is that I live in a city full of Hakka people, culture and food. I have a great respect for that culture and I think you'll see through my work that I've done a lot to promote Hakka culture and different tourist spots related to their history on the island. Zhongli isn't perfect – like any industrial city it does have its gloom, especially during winter. 
Living here for ten years means I've seen the city change and develop into much nicer, cleaner and greener place. I like the direction the city is taking. When the MRT line is completed, it’ll be another satellite city of Taipei and will attract people sick of the cost of living in the capital. People often ask why I don't move to Taipei, but I don't see why I'd leave where I am. Most of my work is done outside of Taipei and moving there would just require more travelling. Also, most landlords in the capital aren’t big fans of tenants who have pets. I have a Shetland Sheepdog that was saved from a shelter near here. My ancestry is 100% Scottish and one of the ways we celebrate our heritage is to always have a sheltie. My parents have one, my sister has one and when I found the opportunity to get one, I got one too.

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