Documentary photographer Tim Franco on the end of the China boom
Author Juno Diaz returned to Shanghai this year for the first time since 2009. Fewer cargo ships were coming in to port, he observed, than when he last landed at Pudong airport. There are plenty of signs like this of China’s economic slowdown, a condition described ominously as “the new normal”. Tim Franco, a French-Polish photographer who has been shooting in Asia since 2005, has observed them more closely than most.
Franco began shooting photographs as a teenager to accompany articles he was writing for his online music magazine. “I sometimes found myself in venues with 18,000 people, alongside professional photographers with big zoom lenses, shooting with a disposable camera,” he says. Since moving to Asia, his works include assignments for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, photos of Zaha Hadid’s behemoth Beijing developments, a five year project shooting in Chongqing and ads for LVMH, Tiffany & Co., Apple and more.
A recurring theme in your work is the scale of development in China. How did you feel about gargantuan, often brutalist architectural developments when you shot them?
I never experienced urban development before coming to Asia. Paris and its surrounding region have barely changed since I was born. In Shanghai, 10 years have completely reshaped the city, gentrified it, destroyed it, rebuilt it. It has impacted how people live, how they behave. I like shooting urban landscapes where there is still a human presence just to get the scale of it. The series Made By Chinese, an assignment from a French Gallery, was a chance to discover a lot of different parts of China and better understand this process. It was during this assignment that I starting to travel more and more to Chongqing, and I started a project documenting the city over five years, choosing to get closer than the classic urban landscape photo, but far enough so they’re not portraits either.
In China, you’ve shot major Zaha Hadid buildings still under construction for newspapers and the completed buildings for Zaha Hadid studio itself. Why do you think she was so successful here?
Zaha Hadid buildings are a gift for architecture photographers. Everything looks amazing, you just turn you camera from one angle to the other and everything looks perfect. But those buildings also have their shortcomings. They don't always fit in their environment and, in China, the building quality is very low since the studio does not directly take care of the construction. I had the pleasure to meet Hadid in Guangzhou and she was avoiding responding to some of those issues back then. She is a great artist though. I love shooting her buildings and I am actually traveling to Azerbaijan soon and will shoot one of her greatest buildings.
I think she was so successful in China because she is a brand, and this is something local governments love. To flash incredible looking buildings in their city. They started to invite famous foreign architects such as Hadid, Koolhas and others . Which is too bad cause China has an excellent pool of local architects such as Liu Jiakun or Wang Shu who are are still largely unknown to the general public and aren’t often used for big public projects. You even get some vulgar copies of Hadid in China, such as the fake Zaha Hadid building in Chongqing, that was actually finished before the original in Wangjing. Ridiculous.
With the China economy slowing down, are you seeing a decline in mega-building contracts and commissions to photograph them?
For sure. I observed it first with my clients and architect friends whose projects were slowing down, seeing budget cuts, lay offs and cancelations. A lot of housing began losing value. I did a couple stories on this topic for the Wall Street Journal two years ago in the northern part of China where we visited a number of completely abandoned construction sites. It’s quite scary to think that part of the Chinese economy was based on so much construction, public projects and housing, and a lot of those went into investors and placement. it feels like a gigantic real estate bubble waiting to explode, but since it’s china, nobody really knows where and when... China is surely going through a tough moment regarding that and it will be interesting how they will get out of this.
You shot Ordos, which has been described as a “ghost city”. Dongsheng District was intended to have 300,000 residents by 2010 but had only a tenth of that. Have you checked back in on the situation there?
I have heard the city is slowly populating but we are still far from the expected population. I know back then, some people were getting a sum of money to move there and open businesses but I haven’t followed the situation closely enough to give a good answer. But Ordos is certainly a fascinating place. It’s actually like many other cities in China — any evening you take a fast train or a bus you ride past cities full of housing developments without many lights on.
Photography itself has changed a lot since you’ve been in China. Have smartphones, filters, editing apps and so on affected your work and how people perceive it?
I think photography has changed a lot in China in a good way. We see a lot of extremely skilled young local photographers having their work noticed at big fairs and festivals. This whole thing about photography changing because of smart phones and all, I don’t really believe it. Give a professional camera to an amateur photographer and even if he understands every technical capability of the camera, he still will not know how to compose a shot or document a subject.
Good phone cameras are, however, an incredible tool for photographers. I worked on a social media campaign for Samsung Galaxy and it was a lot of fun. But I think that printing photos, and editing your work (choosing the best photos and keeping only the best) is really important. People pay more attention to the best shots, and physical prints will be there as long as the paper lasts, performing a real function of memory and communication.
What’s next for you?
China treated me well with plenty of assignments and commercial work, and not so much competition. After 11 years in Shanghai, I chose to escape China and made my home in Seoul, but I shoot in the whole region and traveling to China at least once or twice a month for shoots. I created a commercial agency four years ago where we work with photographers around Asia on various commercial assignment and it’s been going well.
There are so many projects to be done in China. I would love to continue but I spent five years on Metamorpolis and now the book is out, I want to explore new horizons.
- Article by Sam Gaskin