Wandering star: Chinese water-meter reader shot to fame taking photographs while walking the streets
It has been two years since street photographer Liu Tao shot to fame with a set of whimsical shots that captured daily life in his hometown in central China, where he works as a water meter reader.
Liu, 34, from Hefei, in Anhui province, still wanders the streets for up to six hours a day after finishing his shift at the Hefei Water Supply Company – snapping shots with his Fujifilm X100 camera of ordinary people doing ordinary things, but from a clever angle or at a perfect moment that captures humorous coincidences or the poignancy of Chinese urban life.
Unlike many internet celebrities who are eager to cash in on their fame while they are in the limelight, Liu has so far rejected approaches for endorsements to safeguard his “maximum freedom” to take pictures the way he likes.
He told Nectar Gan abut his passion for street photography and his determination to keep his work untainted by commercialism.
What fascinates you about street photography?
It’s full of all sorts of uncertainties. Every day I go out taking pictures is like being on an expedition. It brings something new to my life, gives me a sense of completeness and something to look forward to every day.
Street photography is all about fortuities, while life is monotonous – at least my job and my life are. I find a sense of difference when photographing – meeting different people and different things, they bring out different expectations. And I can have my personal space on the streets; it’s a place of solitude where I endure a great deal of loneliness and savour all kinds of feelings. Now, if you ask me to go to work in an office, I don’t think I could cope with it. After spending so much time on the streets, I think they suit me better.
Why did you take photos of the same area every day for five years? In my photos, some people and scenes show up repeatedly, but the feelings vary, the angles change, and what I’m trying to express is different.
The same person might be doing this today and that tomorrow, and he might be shot from the front, the side, or only his hand is portrayed. It’s not exactly the same. The same statue can be different, too. I’ve photographed a statue and in the winter the icicle hanging from its nose made it look as if it had a runny nose; in the summer, from a different angle, it seemed to be hanging the laundry out to dry. Things presented in spring, summer, autumn and winter are never the same.
Is there a theme you want to convey through your pictures? I’ve watched a lot of films by [comic actor-director] Stephen Chow Sing-chi, and sometimes I want to create a sense of mo lei tau [nonsense] in my work, too. But I don’t want the pictures to be too straightforward – I hope different people can make different sense of them, just like how complex my feelings were when I snapped the shots.
When you’ve spent a long time on the streets, you will have a very extensive reading of society and see people from all walks of life, and how you feel varies accordingly.
Sometimes I try to express something very personal, sometimes I’ll just snap a shot of what’s happening on the street. I don’t have a fixed theme that I want to convey through my pictures. I think they should be rich and diverse, encompassing all my various feelings towards the subjects in my viewfinder – sometimes directly, sometimes implicitly.
Has street photography affected you or your life in any way? It has changed the way I look at things. Since I started taking photos on the street, I’ve begun to pay special attention to other people’s lives, their situation, and how the city is changing. People always talk about how fast China’s cities change, but after wandering the streets for years, I can also see the invariability and continuity amid all the changes.
Some people, for example a car park attendant, have been working on the streets since I started taking pictures five years ago, and they’re still there. Their lives haven’t changed at all throughout the years. These are the things I never noticed before, but now they’ve influenced me greatly. If I go to a new city, and see things for the first and only time, I probably wouldn’t have such feelings.
I went to Hong Kong once and took a few photos, but I felt there was so much for me to see that I don’t know what to take photos of. Perhaps as a tourist, most things are novel to me. But in Hefei, the sense of novelty has long faded, forcing one to observe and reflect more deeply.
What do you think about your sudden rise to fame and the media exposure you’ve received?
The media here mainly focused on my job of reading water meters. I think they’ve hyped up the difference between my job and my passion for street photography. To be honest, I felt a bit sad. My job provided opportunities for me to snap photos on the street, but the job and taking the photos should not be lumped together.
Some media even tried to portray me as a “model worker”, which is funny because that’s the furthest you can get from the truth. I was often criticised by my boss for being late for meetings, because sometimes I couldn’t help but become oblivious about what i was doing out on the streets. But the media exposure did lead to one positive outcome, namely that my boss has become more tolerant of me and allows me more time to take photos.
I wish I could get rid of all the labelling, at least to some extent. I don’t want everyone to recognise me and start taking photos of me when I walk down the street. I think a photographer should stay behind the camera, instead of appearing in front of it.
Has fame and popularity brought you any business opportunities?
Many people and companies have asked me to advertise for them on Weibo, but I’ve never said yes.
A car manufacturer even asked me to drive their car in Rio de Janeiro during the Summer Olympics in Brazil. I was simply stunned upon hearing that. But I refused them all, because it is just not what I want. The Fujifilm company once sent me a brand new X100T camera – their flagship model. But I returned it to them by express mail, because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone. After taking their camera, I might have to mention what camera I am using every time I post photos.
I simply want to give myself the maximum freedom to take pictures. I don’t want to be influenced. Perhaps I was trying to convey a message that not everyone wants to commercialise themselves. I’ve gained a lot through photography itself already, in terms of my spiritual world, my vision and my world views. I don’t want to ask for anything else. This is good enough.