A dedicated street photographer, Ethan Chiang has created provocative images from Taipei, Taiwan, where he lives, and Seoul, Korea, where he has cultural roots. This is the story of his passion for street photography, what motivates his quest to transform the everyday into the extraordinary, and how he has inspired other photographers to follow in his footsteps.
Q: What camera equipment do you currently use?
A: My first Leica was a black painted M9 back in 2012. It was a Father’s Day gift from my wife. It took me a while to get used to the manual focus but it all became second nature to me after a few weeks of shooting. Currently my main camera is a Leica M9, but I also own a Leica M9-P and an M6. My only lenses are Summicron f/2; I have 2 of them and I’m loving it.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I am a street photographer. My inspirations come from daily life; the light, the sidewalk, the street signs, people on the streets, etc. My friends and family have no idea what my photographs are about when they first see them because the style is very different from what they expect. They always tell me that my photos tell stories and bring up fascinating feelings. People turn on auto-pilot mode and overlook small things in daily lives. My photos give them a fresh eye on environments they’re already familiar with.
Q: Can you provide some background information on the images in this portfolio?
A: I am an Overseas Taiwanese, born and raised in Seoul, Korea. When I was 18, I moved to Taipei, Taiwan. Most of my images have been taken in these two cities. Taipei and Seoul are perfect places for street photographers. Both cities have an engaging mix of old and new elements, dynamic buildings, and various constructions with unpredictable lighting. These elements provide photographers with limitless inspiration.
Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: To me as a street photographer, natural light is the best gift from God. Although it’s not as easy to control and predict as studio lights, it has the limitless possibilities for creating dynamic atmospheres. I named this series of photos The Light Stalker.
There’s a phrase from the Bible: “All things work together for good.” I wanted to express that where there is light, there is shadow. Light is usually interpreted as bright and positive, and shadow as the opposite, dark and negative. But as in Tai Chi, opposite forces that keep the world in perfect balance.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?
A: I remember that my dad loved taking photos when I was a child. There was always a camera bag on his shoulder wherever we went. I bought my first digital camera in 2000 after I graduated from college, and taking photos then became part of my life.
I have a strong belief in the saying, “If you want to know a person, go look at the photographs he/she took.” Photographers often unconsciously reflect themselves in their works. For me, photography is a way of identifying who I am.
Q: Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: I am a self-taught photographer. I took a couple of photography courses back in college, but they were all about gear and technique. Once I was exposed to the work of Cartier-Bresson, it gave me a whole new perspective on photography. Everything became alive around me.
Another photographer that really helped to transform my style is Alex Webb. The dynamic range of his work; multiple layers, vibrant colors, and the way he captures light and shadow while putting all these elements into a single frame is stunning and inspiring.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: One of my friends told me about a legendary German camera brand called Leica in 2008. I was looking for my next camera at that time, so I ran an online search for Leica. My first Leica was a D-Lux 3. In 2012, I fell in love with the classic design of the M series. But the price was a little too high for me at that time so I asked my wife to “sponsor” me by budgeting some money as a Father’s Day gift.
Q: What are some of the features and characteristics of the M-series that you find especially useful for your kind of work? Also, what is the focal length of your Summicron lenses and why do you find that focal length particularly effective for street photography?
A: I have two Summicron 50 mm f/2 lenses. My decision to purchase the 50 mm lens was because of Cartier-Bresson. The field of view of a 50 mm lens is about the same as that of the human eye, so there is no distortion between what I actually see through the viewfinder and the images I capture.
Q: Do you think Seoul and Taipei each have a distinctive flavor and personality and do you think it’s important to capture those differences in your images?
A: The cultures are very different between the two cities. Seoul was influenced by Western culture, while Taipei is deeply influenced by Japan. It’s not easy to describe exactly what the differences are; you’d probably have visit them to experience it yourself.
Q: Evidently, light and lighting are an essential element in your personal style of shooting, and many of your images show a fascinating interplay of light and shadow. Your observation that these opposites “keep the world in perfect balance” implies that your approach to them is non-judgmental, but many of your most powerful images use large black areas and shadows do define the space, creating a strong graphic impact. Do you agree, and can you tell us something about it?
A: Light is the most important and interesting element in street photography. It changes according to time of day, your position, moving clouds, and buildings. Unlike photographing in the studio, lights on the street are impossible to control or predict, and that’s also the most exciting thing about street photography.
In my day job I am a User Experience Designer, developing products across TV and mobile channels. Every element on the screen has a purpose, including the negative spaces, which people tend to ignore. In this series, I wanted to use the negative spaces to highlight certain objects. I try to encourage people to think about things they easily overlook in daily lives. Objects shot under in bright areas wouldn’t stand out if there weren’t shadows. I try to convey the concept of balance in these works by focusing the viewer’s attention.
Q: Evidently studying Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book on street photography had a profound influence in inspiring you to take up street photography. While your street photography captures decisive moments, the images in this portfolio use strong compositional and graphic design elements to create an impression of being in a space or place, rather than concentrating on an intimate personal story or capturing a fleeting moment in time as Bresson did. Am I over the top here? What are thinking as you walk the street with your camera, and how do you actually decide when to press the shutter release?
A: I was indeed inspired by Cartier-Bresson; but it was Alex Webb that really influenced my street photography style.
Some of my past works were more focused on stories and a single person, but at this stage I try to capture the complexity of the environment by combining as many elements as possible into one scene. I don’t really think about anything while walking on the street, nor do I have a specific object in mind. I just try to keep myself open, with my camera ready all the time, and release the shutter instinctively when my heart tells me to.
Q: You observed that you represent two different cultures, and in some sense you have been treated as an outsider in each. Putting a positive spin on this, you say it enables you to turn yourself “into a tourist with a pair of fresh eyes any time.” It’s a fascinating statement that rings true, but what exactly do you mean by that?
A: When we go to a new place, everything becomes fresh. Even a phone booth on the sidewalk can make you want to take pictures. Having a fresh eye is very important for photographers.
I grew up in Korea, but I was educated in an overseas Taiwanese school. I speak Mandarin at school and at home with my parents; but watch Korean TV shows and speak Korean with my friends. Though I grew up in two different cultures, neither of these cultures was deeply implanted in me. That’s why, though I retain a certain familiarity with Seoul and Taipei, I can detach myself from each culture and switch my perspective any time. My cross-cultural background helps me keep a fresh eye.
Q: This image is masterfully composed and the subject, a man in a suit, illuminated by a de facto spotlight, seems to be moving forward at a brisk pace. The colorful graphics above him add a whimsical touch, but also give this image a feeling of authenticity. What do you think this photo communicates to viewers, where was it taken, and what motivated you to shoot it?
A: This photo was taken in the Hong Kong Airport. I was walking around at the airport food court while waiting for my plane. There was a construction area covered by a wooden wall with some visual decorations. The light from the roof spread out against the wall as seen in the photo. My first thought was “spotlight”. I like to include people in my street images, so I waited at the spot for a while to get this shot. Luckily the angle of the gentleman’s posture aligned exactly with the angle of the light.
Q: Perhaps the most amazing and dynamic image in this portfolio is this one. On the left are two silhouetted figures of a man and a woman, in disparate sizes, and moving in opposite directions. Looming above them on the right-hand side hangs a framed portrait of a man in a suit and tie in full color gazing away, out of the frame. If I didn’t know your shooting methods I’d assume this was an ingenious Photoshop creation. Can you tell us where you took this compelling picture and what you were thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: Ha-ha, I am flattered. This is a real photo without any post-production touches. It was taken near a department store in Seoul. I was walking along in a narrow street, which was quite dark because it was in between two huge buildings. The time was 3-4 PM, the so called the golden hour. The sunlight illuminated the area in between the two buildings and lightened up part of the wall across the street. The atmosphere was amazing. People seldom walk into that street because it isn’t the main street. So I waited there for at lease 20 minutes, and took about 15 shots until I got this one.
Before this, I wasn’t quite sure about the concept of the decisive moment. I thought it was all about fast reaction to the scene that unfolds in front of me, and I have to keep walking around on the street to find that moment. I have come to realize that sometimes street photographers have to wait for that moment to reveal itself. You’ll never know what life will present to you. You just have to be ready.
Q: Here is a beautifully oblique composition of people on an escalator. All three figures in shadow are complemented by the setting, a bright colorful modern building, and its gleaming escalator that separates the upper left and lower right sections with a strong diagonal line. Where did you take this engaging picture, and what do you think it says about the culture and ambiance of the city in which it was taken?
A: This photo was taken in one of the subway stations in Taipei. I was walking out of the subway station from the underground, standing on the escalator towards the exit, and the opposite side of the escalator was empty. I wished there were someone walking down it so I could shoot a silhouette against the light from the exit. Then it just happened; all of a sudden a woman emerged, seeming from nowhere. I was just lucky I guess.
Q: The intriguing picture of two people doing their exercises in a park or garden next to a bench is amusing, and it has a voyeuristic quality, as though we’re peeking in from behind the lush greenery that dominates the foreground and observing their secret activity. The lighting is exquisite, but unlike many of your other images it has a bright, cheery quality. Do you agree, and why did you include this image in your portfolio?
A: I have to admit that the contrast between light and shadow in this photo is not as strong as it is in the other photos in my Light Stalker series. As you mention, I wanted to create a voyeuristic sense. The leaves in front became half transparent; there is light from the fence behind; and then, in the foreground, these two people with twisted postures. The light and the atmosphere makes it feel like a scene from another dimension. I’m not sure if you have noticed, but the clothes of these two people are complementary — black-and-white.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next few years, and do you plan to explore any other genres besides urban street photography?
A: I always say that street photography itself is the easiest genre to enter, but you have to spend a lifetime to master it. What we observe as street photographers is the changing society. Not a single second will repeat itself; you have to keep learning and never stop shooting. I began street photography about seven to eight years ago and I still felt like a beginner.
I’m currently working on a Chinese street photography book. Almost all street photographers’ books are from Western countries. I want to create a street photography book that contains photos that were taken from my city.
Q: You mentioned that you started a Chinese street photography blog in ’07 and have a street photography group on Facebook that has 20,000 members. How has the interaction and feedback from your involvement in social media influenced your work and enriched your experience as a dedicated photographer?
A: Street photography didn’t used to be as popular as it is now in Taiwan. The photo styles in Taiwan leaned more towards studio photography or landscape photography. It wasn’t easy to find information about street photography in Chinese a couple of years ago. So I started a blog to share my experiences, and translate some English articles for people who are also interested in street photography but couldn’t find such information in Chinese.
I’ve made a lot of new friends because of my blog. I found that there are a lot of talented street photographers in Taiwan, but there was no platform to allow local street photographers to share their work with others. So I created a Street Photography Facebook group to let more street photographers see and be seen. Some people have told me that they’ve been inspired by my blog to take up street photography, which is probably the biggest compliment for me. If you ever plan to visit Taipei to take some street photos, you can find me on my Facebook Page and drop me a message anytime! Welcome to Taipei!
Thank you for your time, Ethan!
– Jason Schneider, Leica Internet Team