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.

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.