Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Q & A with TC Lin

TC Lin is a photographer, musician, filmmaker, and writer based in Taipei, Taiwan.

BA: You were born on Christmas a month early. Did that birth date ever become a factor in your life, with birthday confused with holidays? Did you feel star-crossed in some way? I was born 4 days after you, by the way. 

TCL: It probably had some kind of impact. Did being born so close to Christmas have any effect on you? I basically didn’t have my own birthday parties; most times I’d get a cake with candles after Christmas dinner, and my presents would be lumped in with the parcels under the tree. 

But although I’ve obviously seen other people having their own birthdays, I’ve never had it any other way myself, so it’s difficult to compare with the experience of having an individual non-holiday-related birthday. I guess you could say it might even add to the experience if you can convince yourself that everyone is actually getting excited about your birthday instead of just Christmas. And of course both birthdays and Christmas lose a bit of their luster as one gets older. These days I don’t celebrate either much.

Not only did you naturalize into another country, you changed your name, a central part of your identity. Was that decision hard? Or was the old name relatively unimportant? 

Perhaps not having my own birthday had something to do with it! Or maybe it was just a lack of a solid sense of identity when growing up due to more-or-less constantly moving (nine houses in three states) and few long-term friendships due to that as well as being rather shy…but I was never terribly attached to my birth name. So when my Chinese name was transliterated into “Tao-ming Lin” on my first Taiwanese passport (there was no English on domestic documentation), I didn’t really mind. Since I was already called TC by my friends, I just made it “TC Lin” instead of “TC Locke”. I suppose this is a common occurrence with immigrants, from what I’ve heard.

Tell me about the Muddy Basin Ramblers. How does your band fit into the Taiwanese music scene? What kind of music did you grow up listening to? 

I listened to all kinds of music when I was growing up, including the 70’s rock albums my brother would buy and old jazz music my parents had collected over the years. But I was mainly interested in classical music; most of our musical collection in the house was classical, and our parents often took us to concerts. It was in that genre that most of my musical education proceeded when I was growing up. After studying violin and piano when I was in elementary school, I switched to the trumpet when I was 11. I was actively involved in one group or another through college, including the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Taiwan Central District Philharmonic, but after graduation I stopped, only playing occasionally, such as at the karaoke bar on base when I was in the army. 

It was only when I decided to join a casual jam session with some friends in Taipei around 2004 did I realize that I really had been missing music in my life. They were a new band, a “jug band” that played country/folk/jazz tunes from the 1920s and 30s, and as that era of jazz has always been my favorite, I felt I could contribute something to the mix. I added the washtub bass, euphonium and even a sousaphone to my list of instruments after that. 

Bands come and go in Taiwan, but the Ramblers have proven remarkably long-lasting, especially considering the fact that most of our members are foreign residents. We recorded our first album in my living room with our own pocket money, and used the profits from that to finance our second album, the Formosa Medicine Show, in the recording space of a friend of ours. That album was nominated for both a Golden Melody award and a Grammy. We’re now working on our third album, this time recording at the National Music Hall of all places. 

When we first started out, the Ramblers were unique in Taiwan’s music scene. Since then the scene has become more diverse, but we remain outside most of the music circles as we have never been “professional” musicians. We’ve kept our day jobs and don’t rely on the band to survive, nor do we have an agent or promoter; we just play gigs we’ve been invited to rather than “touring”. 

I think the most important aspect of the band is that we are all good friends, and that friendship is what the band is all about, more even than the music, and certainly more than the business aspect, which we tolerate rather than embrace.

Do you think there is some photography/music nexus? Why are so many photographers also deeply interested in music? 

There does seem to be a connection, but I’m not aware of any studies exploring that aspect. I do approach photography in the same way as we approach our music, i.e. not professionally, purely for the pleasure of doing it rather than for any commercial motive. But as to the connection between the two…perhaps artistic creativity in general results in less constriction in terms of exploration in general? Or maybe improvisational chops are developed more from a willingness to risk mistakes in order to go further in either area? A general openness to one’s surroundings and more attention paid to sensory input? I’m just guessing; I really don’t know, but I would be interested in learning more about it.

You're involved in several creative outlets as a writer, filmmaker, musician, and photographer. Which outlet is the most meaningful for you at this point? Which do you feel most proud of? The most connection with?

Photography is closest to me in that it is more personal and intimate, as well as something with which I am engaged in on a more-or-less constant basis. Writing is personal as well, but at least in practice feels more cerebral than photography, which feels more visceral to me. Unfortunately, I have neglected my writing since the publication of my last book, but I’ve got some ideas to get me writing again. 

Photography is more about my engagement with the actual physical world, however, whereas writing tends to concentrate more on my inner thoughts and speculations than photography (though most really good photography does both…I suppose you could find a wide range of different balances within the spectrum of styles in both mediums). My music as part of a band is a cooperative expression, and of course filmmaking demands extensive collaboration with many others as well as compromise on a scale I don’t encounter in either photography or writing. 

That is, until I want anyone else to know about it…then of course, be it photography or writing or anything else, social connections come into play; I’ve never been good at self-promotion, nor can I bring myself to put too much time and effort into it. I’m kind of baffled how other people manage it, to be honest. 

TC Lin
What is the photography culture like in Taiwan?  

In the early days of photography in Taiwan, it was a very expensive proposition, with just a camera costing as much as a house, not to mention the costs of film and processing. What one could photograph was also quite restricted under martial law, which lasted up until the mid-1980s, not long before I arrived. Add to that the Confucian trends in this society and the educational system, and you end up with bickering factions of photographers rallying around older “masters” who have some claim to notoriety based on either actual photographic experience (former reporters, in particular, had more access to the gear and events than ordinary people) or simply having been involved in these circles for a long time regardless of whether or not they produced much work of note. The general public ignores most of these goings-on, of course.

Many Taiwanese photographers tend to copy others’ styles, and most never break away from that. As a result of the history and social traditions here, street photography has not been appreciated until very recently, and even now most of the people you see with cameras on the street here are engaged in either landscape clichés or trite posed shots of their friends. Though candid photography in public places is legal as long as it is not used commercially, the law in Taiwan often takes a back seat to “feelings” and “connections”, i.e. judges in such cases are not obligated to make rulings according to the laws but may issue verdicts that run contrary to it, somehow without creating precedents. 

The legal system there sometimes favors "feelings" over legal requirements? Wouldn't that cripple the entire legal system? Can you elaborate? 

I'm not a legal expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I'll try to explain what I meant: The court system here is somewhat different, based on continental European legal systems. For one thing, there are no juries (though a quasi-jury system has been proposed). Judges are appointed after a period of training or following a legal career, and they are lifetime positions, so you can get a very young, inexperienced judge with only classroom knowledge making life-and-death decisions. Precedents can happen, but they have to be "officially approved". 

The differences from the U.S. legal system are not black and white, but there is a saying that Western nations operate on the basis of "Law-reason-feelings" in that order when making (legal) decisions, whereas in the greater Chinese arena, it's more like "Feelings-reason-law," in that order. Actual democracy is a rather new thing here as we were under martial law until 1987 and didn't have direct presidential elections until 1996, so the idea of society under a paramount rule of law is still building inertia; there has traditionally been a bit of hesitance to question authority (this is changing with the younger generation, however)...therefore some officials feel they can operate more or less on the basis of whatever they feel is right, and the actual law might receive a lower priority, and in any case the judgement will take these feelings into account. 

But not everyone's feelings are equal. For example, if someone doesn't like being photographed in public, even though it is perfectly legal, they could theoretically have you detained by a police officer. The reason would be that person's feeling of aggrievedness. Of course, if you persisted with your own aggrievedness (which you would be quite justified in having), you probably wouldn't be charged with anything and be free to go...unless that person is well-connected. Connections are a very important part of society here, a result of a heavy dose of Confucianism that means everyone has their place. People rightly fear rich, connected people here because they are largely above the law. Police might tow an old Datsun that is illegally parked, but a new black BMW with tinted windows is practically untouchable. So under the circumstances where connections often trump law, you can see why people act the way they do. 

I imagine that this is the case in many countries all over the world, of course. The law can be interpreted according to feelings in any country; just look at the way different groups are treated differently in the U.S. for the same crimes. And I'm sure that wealthy, influential people wield an inordinate amount of power there as well. However, I am not an expert on the workings of the law anywhere and can only point to my personal observations in this regard.

What about outlets in Taiwan for exhibitions, promotion, and exposure? 

Various groups have been trying to found a permanent photography museum for years, but so far we haven’t managed to accomplish this. We have exhibitions from time to time, some better than others, including some obvious vanity projects and conceptual art masquerading as photography, but few big international shows. I’d really like to hold a BME event here at some point, as Taiwan is far off the beaten path as far as street photography goes…that would, however, take a lot of planning and a budget rather beyond my means.

We have, however, seen a few good local photographers over the years. Chang Chao-tang is probably the closest photographer we have to someone like Moriyama or Cartier-Bresson in terms of national representation, but though Chang started out in the street photography tradition, he veered into conceptual photography rather early in his career. There is of course the only Taiwanese member of Magnum, Chang Chien-chi, who doesn’t spend much time here these days but who has done some interesting projects here in the past. The last time I talked with him he seemed frustrated at having to deal with the promotional side of the photography business.

I’m particularly fond of the work of the late Yeh Ching-fang, and my friend Shen Chao-liang has made one of the best Taiwanese photobooks I’ve seen about Nan Fang Ao, a fishing village on the east coast. But as seniority, the perception of seniority, and connections to seniority all tend to be revered above actual talent (which is subjective at best, I admit), the best photos in, say, a local competition, are usually those who have won at most Honorable Mention. The top spots are generally reserved for students of the person in charge of the contest, some official they want to impress, or someone else close to them. This is unfortunately not conducive to the development of a real national photographic tradition. 

I have spent a bit of time in local photographic circles, but I could never bring myself to do the things that would have resulted in promotion and exposure from them; it’s just not in my nature, so I generally only hang out with a few other photographers here, people who I respect and like, and only now and then. As a result, since the advent of the Internet I tend to have as much or even more interaction with other photographers online than in real life (if you don’t count my classes or workshops).

If you're interested, here is a small Flickr group that I run that aims to show good Taiwanese street photography.

from TC Lin's Flickr

How is photographing in Taiwan different than in other places? 

This question might need some background…this is a vast oversimplification, but basically, Taiwan has been handed off from regime to regime over the last several centuries, with the last one being the spent forces of the Kuomintang military after it retreated here following its losses in the Chinese civil war that ended in 1949 with the founding of the People’s Republic of China. They spent the next few decades thinking that they would be going back to China “any day now,” and the result is a short-term pragmatism tinged with face-saving bravado, as well as an infrastructure that is always in flux. The Taiwanese people compensated with hard work and sacrifice to survive, but few things were built to last, but rather to serve a purpose for the time being, and the most beautiful and fascinating scenes you see are almost pure coincidence. 

This pragmatism also means that, without as many barriers between the public and private aspects of society, there is an interesting overlap. The most obvious physical manifestation of this phenomenon is the arcades that line most Taiwanese streets in order to protect people from the sun and rain; part sidewalk, part interior, walking down the street sometimes feels like a succession of people’s living rooms and kitchens. You can stop and chat with just about anyone in this environment if you like, or just observe as you go. 

Of course this is all still changing; the Taiwan of today isn’t the same as the one I first saw nearly 30 years ago. We have subway systems and a more democratic government. Luxury high-rises and gated communities have been popping up, but for now the majority of Taiwanese cities and towns are still open to such interaction.

All of this makes the beauty that I do encounter all the more precious, more genuine and fascinating as it wasn’t constructed or planned or meant to be that way…it just happened...what are the odds? The range of possibilities is almost unlimited; I love that. 

Taiwanese people, nearly everyone will tell you, are largely friendly and generous. As I don’t appear to be Han Chinese, I get noticed on the street perhaps more than I would otherwise. On the other hand, people also often assume I’m a tourist, so there’s good and bad as far as that goes. I’ve never deceived anyone about the fact that I am actually Taiwanese; if they ask I will tell them. I’ve had some interesting discussions about this with Rammy Narula, who is also a visible minority in his country. Following the advice of Richard Bram, I keep a small book of my photos on me, so I can show people the kind of work that I do, and that has come in handy on more than one occasion to avoid misunderstandings. 

Where do you teach photography? 

I teach photography at the Zhong-zheng Community College in Taipei. My students range in age from 20 to 60 or so. We concentrate on street photography, though I try to shift their attention from the question of whether a shot is street or not to whether a shot is compelling or not. I try to make it interesting (although if you find the process of photography boring then why do it? I’ve never understood the complaint I often hear online: “I know I should go out and shoot but I just can’t be bothered.” How can you not shoot?) 

But I’ve been impressed with my students’ progress, and the school as well as other institutions have occasionally invited us to be involved in other projects, such as photographing older communities and temple activities, subjects that the traditional photography teachers (you know, the ones that teach people how to wave a card in front of their camera on a tripod while shooting a sunset) refuse to contemplate. 

As a teacher what is your reaction to this chart?

I’ve seen the first chart before online. I’ve made attempts at rules 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 (poorly), 8, and 10, but haven’t been successful at rules 1, 5, and 9. The handy tips at the end are especially useful.

What about this one?

I love the last line, “…with a tiny movement rule the world.” I can see a lot of parallels with photography, e.g. the equipment doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you…you shouldn’t restrict yourself to standard, traditional photography and explore more types. I still believe in the quaint notion that you should at least know the rules before you break them, but I agree that your priority should be to fulfill your own vision rather than those of other people. Technique, etc. is useful as a tool to get the camera to do what you want it to do; I don’t really cover the mechanics of photography in my classes unless there is a call to do so, e.g. a student wants to do something and can’t figure out how to get a certain result, a problem that can be solved that way. I don’t care what kind of cameras they use, anything from a wooden box to a mobile phone…it’s all good. What I’m trying to do, basically, is teach them to observe, both the world around them and their reaction to it, and hopefully make a photograph that conveys that.  

You have a list on your blog, 100 things not many know about you. 

I made that list when I first started blogging; it is actually over 15 years old and not really accurate anymore. I should get rid of it; my entire website badly needs a new design and consolidation of my various blogs as well as a place for my work that isn’t just a link to Flickr.

I'm curious about a few items on the list. Can you expand a bit on these ones?

20. Most of my best friends have had terrible and/or absent fathers.

This was true as of the early 2000’s, but hasn’t really held up since. It may have been coincidence, and as I’ve never had very many friends it probably can’t be considered statistically reliable.

26. I have alienated two different families. 

Again, at the time I was going through some disagreements with relatives in Taiwan (I was adopted by a Taiwanese family not long after I came here, which of course added to the friction that already existed with my relatives in the U.S.). 

45. I have never been in love.

Again, true at the time…I might have fallen in love since, however. My current relationship is rather complicated, but I doubt your readers would be interested in that aspect of my life.

51. You weren't allowed to watch certain TV shows because they taught disrespect.

My parents, who grew up in the 1950’s, didn’t like the anti-authority messages in a few of my favorite shows such as M*A*S*H*, and the Dukes of Hazzard, nor did they appreciate people making humor from serious subjects like Nazi internment camps as they did on Hogan’s Heroes. But since both my parents worked, I could watch whatever I wanted after school until they got home.

In a photo caption online you said, "Intent is one of the most important things in photography." Can you explain?

To me, intent has a tremendous influence on one’s photography; pressing the shutter at a certain moment, at a certain angle, in a certain way, although often not a conscious choice, is still a decision that often says more about the photographer than the ostensible subject of the photograph. I might be taking a liberal meaning of “intent” that also includes so-called “subconscious” decisions. But it seems to me that, for example, a photo taken in anger is likely to have a different result than one taken from compassion. Even a snapshot of a boring landscape or someone’s breakfast conveys something about the photographer’s view of the world around them. It may not be the most enlightening or interesting view, but it is a view nonetheless. We are not objective; we can’t be, thankfully. So when one of my students expresses discomfort with photographing people in public, I ask them what their intent was at the time. Why did they feel uncomfortable about the prospect of photographing that particular person? Often I find that, if we explore that intent, where we are coming from, we can come closer to being able to convey ourselves more truthfully through photography. 

Granted, much of this is intuitive, and some photographers might prefer that this aspect remain unexplored in order to preserve its “mysterious nature” or (somewhat ironically) avoid the “observer affect” that has been seen in physics experiments. Personal psychology is such a deep well that I doubt we as non-experts can do much more than scratch the surface, so why not at least consider it? That said, I definitely am not advocating that anyone should get bogged down in thinking about such things at the expense of time spent actually shooting.

I get the sense reading your blog that you may be a compulsive journal keeper. Is that true? Do you consider photography a form of journal keeping? Did you keep journals in earlier parts of your life? Do you still have them or refer to them? 

I began keeping a journal early on, probably around 7th grade, though I haven’t always kept up with it. They are embarrassing to read now, because I have always had a tendency to use them for venting. We were required to keep a journal in the army in the mid 90’s, and my written Chinese probably improved quite a bit during that time just out of practice. I started blogging online in 2001, but blogging is a different animal than a private journal; I can’t rant as freely or whine quite as piteously in public as I might in a private journal. Humor plays a larger role, as a blog is more akin to entertainment than a personal catharsis.

Photography could be a kind of journal in that it records not just places, people and times, but our feelings about them at the time. When I take a shot I don’t usually think about it that way, however; the idea of shooting strictly to record physical things bores the hell of me. I did find it interesting that Stephen Shore said his prints from the 70’s feel nostalgic due to the aging of the colors and paper, and indeed when I saw new prints of those photos at SFMOMA, they felt less like historical documents and more like, “Yeah, I remember those colors, the signs, buildings, the cars…that is how they looked then.” But when I take a shot it is because I saw something that I hope will result in a compelling photograph, rather than the hope that it will record something…that part will happen in any case.

Is swordplay like street photography?

I’d never thought of that; the kind of swordplay I practice is tai-chi sword, which is kind of like tuishou or “push hands” but with swords. It’s more of an interplay, a dialog rather than a combative or competitive interaction. In terms of action and reaction, I guess it could be compared to street photography, but the latter seems to involve a different kind of connection than the former, in that street photography is a more personal, internal process, one of which the subject of the photograph is often unaware, whereas swordplay involves a more similar connection between its practitioners. 

Now, applying the concept of swordplay to the composition of a photobook or exhibition, for example, might be a more apt comparison, in terms of the give and take between the photographer and the viewer.

from TC Lin's Instagram (@thepaogao)

You're an ex-pat. Is alienation a prerequisite for street photography?

Since I don’t live outside my country of citizenship, I can’t really claim to be an ex-pat. I’ve held only Taiwanese nationality for the past twenty-odd years. I am an immigrant, though. In any case, I would agree that alienation often seems to play an important role in street photography. The best photographers, it seems from my limited knowledge, tend to be a little uncomfortable in highly social situations, in many cases even acerbic and difficult to work with. My guess is that people who are attuned to their surroundings in the way good photographers are do so at the cost of not being attuned socially to acquaintances. If you are paying constant attention to what your friends are saying, and are really involved in your role in that interaction, you’re going to miss more of what is going on around you (everything else being equal, that is…some photographers are obviously able to deal with both better than others). Perhaps it is just different priorities, but we only have so much attention that we can pay; those who are less interested in successful social interaction are by default in a better position to notice other things. Alienation means a necessary amount of detachment, distance that is often necessary to observe more fully, objectively and truthfully.  

But that’s just a theory, as I’m sure we both know many excellent street photographers who also thrive in social settings.

You moved around a lot as a kid. Did that lead to you leaving the U.S. eventually? Did it have any bearing on becoming a street photographer? (see question above). 

Leaving the U.S. was not difficult, perhaps because I was so young at the time, and the fact that I had never spent more than a few years in one place when I was growing up most likely did have something to do with it as well. My interest in photography goes back even further, though at that time nobody was talking about “street photography”. Leaving the U.S. and becoming a street photographer were probably both caused by circumstances as well as similar aspects of my personality, but I can’t say that one was the result of the other.

What influence do you think HCSP has had on the course of street photography?

Hopefully somewhat less evil than the kind many have attributed to it! I’ve always been inclined to think that the amount of influence a Flickr group could possibly have on the course of an entire genre of photography is limited at best, though as Flickr groups go it is probably one of the larger and better-known ones. Of course people see a preferred style in the administrators’ choices, and some might even shoot specifically in what they think is that style in order to gain entry to the pool, but although for a long time it was just me and Justin doing the majority of the selection, we’ve been trying to make it a more interesting group by adding a more diverse range of moderators over the past year or so, splendid photographers such as Rammy, Nakarin, Charlotte, Roberto and Peter. The biggest influence we’ve had, I’d guess, is that HCSP has always ostensibly been a place where you can get a real chance of gaining a genuine appraisal of your work by competent individuals instead of the blind admiration or across-the-board dismissal you often find in other places, neither of which is very helpful. Of course you have to be able to take others’ opinions as well as be able to tell if that individual’s appraisal is worth anything, but it’s not usually difficult to make that call after seeing their work. Although Flickr has been said to be “over” for years now, I still don’t know of any other platform that has the same sense of community and the capability to not only discover good work but also discuss it in a meaningful fashion.   

from Burn My Eye, TC Lin

What goes on behind the scenes at Burn My Eye?

We’ve collaborated on many group edits and several major exhibitions, and we discuss our personal projects with each other in order to gain valuable input. We have had long periods of inactivity while everyone goes off and does their own thing, punctuated by spurts of action when we do a group exhibition or other group projects. We had a few knock-down, drag-out fights in our earlier days when we were still getting to know each other. Members have also come and gone over time. 

But we’ve been together for over five years at this point, making us one of the longer-lived collectives out there. I think one of the reasons for that, as well as one of the best things in my experience with the group since it began, is that many if not most of us have met in real life over the years, not only at group exhibitions such as the ones in London, Paris and San Francisco, but also just in the course of our travels, and that real-life interaction makes online communication so much more effective; you have an idea of the other person’s tone, gestures, and background, and so there’s less need for pussy-footing around. 

We also delegate duties…some of us are more proactive, some more interested in seeking out exhibitions and galleries, some like to manage prints, while some of us are better at organization and details. I’m kind of like the group’s scribe, in that whenever we need to come up with a statement, or, say, when one of our members needs to polish an interview, I will lend a hand. But we are not very strict and don’t have a list of Rules and Regulations. If someone needs some time alone or needs to go silent, they can…some of the most interesting work comes from those times and places. And we’ll be here when they come back.  

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