Photographer Mike Emery is in the business of capturing memories and documenting times that no longer exist. He saw China as it was, and has now immortalised that time in a new book.
Hi Mike, can you tell us a bit about the passion for photography that led to your influential career?
I think it went back to when I was 18 years old, I started a visual arts degree and I needed one more component. A friend of mine said this photography course is easy you just take photographs, so that’s what I did. I was an abstract artist but I came to realise I could create pieces of work far more quickly by taking photographs so I became more creative in a different way. I became interested in photojournalism and loved the way you could capture a photograph which was unique, nobody could copy. That’s when I found the passion to see life in a completely different way.
What did it feel like, when you took your very first photograph on the streets of China in 1980?
It felt like you were going back in time, you could feel like a curiosity—people had never seen a blonde-haired westerner before. Most of them had never seen a Nikon camera before, they didn’t know what it did or could create. I felt like I knew the people and I was safe being with them. Walking down Nanjing Road in Shanghai I would have 50 or so people around me asking questions in broken English. I think some of them were university students wanting to practice English. On reflection, this was a special time in my life. Being in country where very few tourists had been, it was an adventure, you didn’t know what you would see next!
How has the development of China over the past 39 years shaped how you view the initial images that you captured?
I stepped off the plane six weeks ago in Shanghai and I was amazed at what I saw. Hundreds of tall buildings stretched across the horizon, roads “spaghetting” every which way, cars meandering their way to a large modern city.
If you move away from new roads and the tall buildings there are areas where very little has changed.
The people have not changed, you still see the innocence in their faces, no urgency in their everyday life. I still had parents pushing children forward for me to photograph just as they did 1980. I compare the before and after images of the children—hey, no difference! Apart from modern clothes, hairstyles.
If you could give advice to one of the children that you captured in your images, what do you wish you could have told them?
Wow! What a roller coaster ride you have in front of you! At the time I knew that what the western world had to offer was exciting for them. I think I would have definitely said “dream”. Follow your dreams with no regrets. Your life is just beginning, live life to its fullest but most all have respect for others!
Was there any one image that you captured that will always be particularly special to you?
There is a father and little boy. At first the child was very shy, and it took me probably ten minutes to get the right shot. I started tickling him, making him laugh and gaining his confidence. In 1980 it was Nikon film cameras, you couldn’t see what you took, you had to feel the image, anticipate the moment. Eventually, I put both hands out in front of me for me to hold him. He copied me and I got my shot! Very fulfilling when I processed the film to see such a powerful image.
What do you hope people gain from purchasing your book?
First of all, I never realised how important these images would become. There are very few lifestyle shots of Shanghai and Beijing in 1980. I think the book is documentation of a period in history where little is known—the way people dressed, lack of femininity, the way people lived, transport, street life and working life.
I think people will enjoy the depth of some of the photos creating layers of interest.
I think the most important reason to buy the book is if you lived in China around 1980s these photographs will bring back memories of the period. Very few people had a camera and took family photos. I would like this book to be shown to young people of today so they can see how their parents and grandparents lived. It is very important for people to know their history so it will help them to go forward to the future.
What advice do you have for other photographers who may hope to one day have a similarly impactful photography career as yourself?
I may have been lucky! At the time in China never realised what an opportunity I had! Nowadays Nikon digital cameras are around and it’s too easy to take to multiple shots of the same thing! Try and capture your perfect image by taking one shot, challenge yourself.
The art of seeing is important, especially if you’re out there shooting street life. Build a photograph with depth, have a foreground, then go through to the horizon so there are layers.
Keep taking photographs. The more you take the luckier you will be!