Tan Tien Yun: Intimacy and Action

Tan Tien Yun, an engineer by training, is a consummate street photographer in the evening light. Wandering around in the street corners of Shanghai and the farms in the rural outskirts of the city, he arms himself with a camera concealed in his hands. Photographing changing socioeconomic landscapes and the lives of people  in the backdrop of the Chinese economic boom, he describes the only way to effectively portray this period of rising China is to live, eat and sleep like the people making this happen; summarizing his philosophy of “To understand a person, you have to be a person”.   Here he shares the story of his passion for documenting people’s lives close up and how he brought that to his coverage of the nightlife scene in Shanghai.

Q: You mentioned that you’re an “engineer by training, but a photographer at heart”. Do you still work in engineering? Have you or are you looking to transition to photography full-time?

A: I am a product development engineer in Shanghai. In as much as I love my photography, I love innovating and developing products that help people makes their lives easier. It is through engineering knowledge that I am able to appreciate the fine craftsmanship that Leica puts into their cameras! Am I looking to transition into photography full-time? If I get recognized for my work and people want more of it, a definite yes! As much as photography is now viewed as run of the mill with thousands of photographs made each day, I still believe unique and individualistic, outstanding work could be done; it’s just a matter of when such work is discovered!

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression?

A: I was designated  a field photographer in my unit during my days in the army. It started out as a laissez-faire affair, whereby I was given free rein to capture imagery as long as it made the unit look good! I came upon the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson by accident and that’s when inspiration kicked in. Like so many others that Cartier-Bresson influenced, that’s when I began looking photography as more than just a medium for a newsletter and the army back in the early days allowed me plenty of opportunity to expand my vision.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor or were you self taught. Was there a photographer or type of photography  that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: As mentioned, and there is only one, Henri Cartier-Bresson! There is a particular reason for this; as much as I am inspired, I have an aversion to following in other people’s footsteps or being a fan of somebody’s work. I am strongly individualistic with an allergy to the herd mentality. If somebody or everybody is doing  A, I’ll go off in the opposite direction and do Z! Most of my photography skills are self-taught. Being an engineer by training, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out ISO, aperture and shutter speed. The beauty of Leica cameras is you only have to worry about these three settings rather than a rather hefty monologue of settings found in today’s cameras. Simplicity at its best. I started out in the wet darkroom and even though the majority of my work is digital now, I still would head back to the darkroom in a heartbeat if time allows me.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: Currently a Leica M6 for film and a digital compact with an M mount adapter for my digital work. I shoot mostly with a 50mm Summilux, a 35mm Summicron and a 90mm Elmarit, with the 50mm being my staple lense. However, due to the compact and confined spaces in Shanghai, I find myself utilizing the 35mm Summicron more these days.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A:  I would describe my photography in two words : “intimacy” and “action”. I shoot based on my in-depth understanding of my subject and their relation to their environment, which often means going in close and making contact with a person. While I shoot discretely, if I must tell the truth, I’ve always treated my photography as secondary. The most important priority that influences my photography is I must get to know a place like a local and a subject like a friend before I lift my camera. I want my work to reflect the eyes of an inhabitant of the land rather than the temporary eyes of a stranger.

Q: Your blog’s subhead is “street photography blog of a Shanghai urbanite”. What about street photography appeals to you? Do you exclusively shoot street photography or are there other genres you cover?

A: As my blog indicates, I do solely focus on documentary or street photography. It’s the no frills simplicity, the avant garde nature and the intimate experience of photographing people’s lives close up that appeals to me .

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I saw a Leica IIIf sitting in an antique camera shop one day and bought it with my month’s salary. Needless to say, it took another two weeks before I could mount an uncoated Summitar on it and start shooting. Everything just fits in there! As much as people appreciate the smoothness of a Leica operation, my love for the camera is the fact that it is so practical and compact when it comes to shooting people on the move with a minimum of fuss. Today still nothing comes close!

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Photography means to me as a form of emotive expression. I am not much of an artist and I do not think abstract thoughts, but I appreciate the small things in life that others take for granted because even now, I had to work very hard for them for sometimes little return.  In my photography I try to make the insignificant significant, the boring into the eye catching, and of course the often ignored into the limelight. But most important of all is to tell the truth in the best effort I could about the people and places I photograph, which is why I place a lot of emphasis on getting to know the people and the culture before I even bother taking the camera out.

Q: What made you decide to take on the theme of Shanghai nightlife? Is there something that makes the nightlife scene in Shanghai unique?

A: Shanghai nightlife is visceral. Most white-collar office workers in this city work in a pressure cooker environment clocking up to 12 hour days. Due to uncontrolled urbanization, Shanghai has limited options in terms of green spaces and outdoor activities to relax, so the only way for them to blow off steam is to head to the pubs and discotheques. That, combined with the melting pot of culture present in Shanghai, creates this chaotic and emotional  tension and cohesion all happening at once in a night club: girls hunting for the unwary vulnerable drunken expat, the disdain a staffer has when his superior orders him to mop up fresh vomit or a sly kiss and a smug smile when a young suave man scores with an equally young and suave lady on the dance floor. You have seduction, anger, delirium,  flair and provocation all mixed into a bar that’s not much bigger than a tennis court.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Tan Tien Yun’s work on his blog, Street Photography Of A Shanghai Urbanite, and on Flickr.