Photographing the Proletariat: An Interview with Ho Ching-tai and Chang Jung-lung

by on Friday, 24 August 2012 Comments

Documentary photographers Ho Ching-tai and Chang Jung-lung give us an exciting debate upon photography and its influence on society, as well as the "exploitative" relationship between the photographer and his subject...

Ho Ching-tai, "Industrial Injury, Taiwan Version"I 1996


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Ho Ching-tai

Ho Ching-tai is a documentary photographer and experienced media photographer. He had worked for big media organizations such as CommonWealth Magazine and China Times Weekly and is currently vice editor-in-chief of Ming Pao Weekly. His individual exhibitions include "Shadowed Life" (1990), "File of White Terror" (1991), "Industrial Injury, Taiwan Version I" (1996) and "Industrial Injury, Taiwan Version II" (2003). Most of these works consist of serene portraits that faithfully document the lives of injured workers and their families. (Photo by Lin Jia-he)

Chang Jung-lung

Before becoming a photographer, Chang Jung-lung was a worker who lost his right hand and foot during a work accident. This subsequently led him to become director-general of “Taiwan Association For Victims of Occupational Injuries” (TAVOI). After his injury, he taught himself the art of painting, writing and photography. In recent years he focuses on taking street photographs of social movements. He has also been a long-term documenter of Taiwan’s migrant workers that have fallen victim to labor dispute and work injury management disputes. In 2008, the Taipei City Government awarded him the honor of “Blue-collar Artist”. (Photo by Lin Jia-he)


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Ho Ching-tai, "Shadowed Life." 1990.

You have always worked for mainstream news media, what inspired you to photograph the underdogs of society?

Ho: When I was in CommonWealth Magazine, most of my news subjects were successful businessmen. That was during the Taiwanese economic boom, when stocks were really high. Afterwards I went to work in China Times Weekly. Since I was doing social issues news, I had the opportunity to visit places that I’ve never been before. That was when I finally realized: “oh! So there’s also a group of drastically different people living in Taipei.”

Unlike Jung-lung, I began with photography. Under the atmosphere of that era, I was hoping that my work could make a certain impact on society. I wanted people to see that this condition exists in Taiwan. The “Shadowed Life” series aimed at presenting the poverty of Taipei. Perhaps people couldn’t see it during that time, or chose to ignore it, but I saw it and believe it should be highlighted.

Of course, I make a living out of photography. The subject of my photos are often restricted by work, so it’s hard for me to have a complete set. I’ve been working my college graduation 30 years ago. Even if I were interested in a particular subject matter, I can only find very limited time for execution.



“Shadowed Life” applied a very unusual method of presenting the poor and the homeless through portraiture. What inspired you to do so?

Ho: I wanted to cover an entire aspect of my subject matter. This requires an abundant source of samples, so I chose portraiture. The usual method of capturing homeless people on camera, which is to rapidly snap a few side shots or snap shots of the subject, is extremely easy. However, I didn’t want to present them in this fashion. I wanted to do it face-to-face. I told them: “you must look right into the camera, show that you’re fully aware of the shooting process.”

Why is it so important to look directly into the camera? Because when one looks at the camera, it implies that one must have given “consent.” This is what I want to stress when I do portraits. I want to stress the concept of “facing.” He faces the camera; I face him. Even at the exhibition, the viewer must also submit to some sort of “facing”! When I am shooting, certain homeless people even take the time to comb their hair and arrange their clothes. The camera, me, him, directly face-to-face.





Ho Ching-tai, "Shadowed Life." 1990.
How do you establish relationships with your subject when you’re shooting this type of photo?


Ho: I spent three years shooting “Shadowed Life.” I took photos of hundreds of people and got to know even more. I’m not a very outgoing person, so it’s hard for me to make friends with these people. At first I would hang around these people, though I was too shy to talk. They mistook me as another homeless person and gave me instructions on where to sleep. Just like that, we started talking, and I made several friends. It was only afterwards that I dared to mention my photography project.

Chang: My position is sort of different. I don’t take photos because I’m a photographer in search of a theme. I am an active member of the Taiwan Association For Victims of Occupational Injuries (TAVOI) and I’m also involved in social movements, so I don’t need to find connections, since most people already know me. For me, the hardest part of taking pictures is: What am I supposed to do with these photos? Even now, I still often fail to convince myself.

Ho: When I was doing “Industrial Injury, Taiwan Version,” TAVOI held a very official meeting with me, inquiring my motivations behind this project. I told them that my previous series, “Shadowed Life” and “File of White Terror” are all based on injured people. I also told them how I was surprised why so many injured people were unjustly treated, so I wanted to document them. The TAVOI discussed it over and agreed to support me. That’s when I started shooting.

The “Industrial Injury, Taiwan Version” series was supported by the TAVOI, does that make the photo-shooting process easier?

Ho: “Industrial Injury, Taiwan Version I” was actually my most painful photo-shooting experience. Every night after I get off work at 7 or 8 pm, I head straight with the TAVOI crewmembers to interview victims of occupational injuries. I returned home after a long and grueling night and repeated the exact same process the other day. Aside from pressure from work, we also had to face the pressure endured by the victims….

Chang: That was really tough (laughs)

Ho: Indeed. The stories were all incredibly intense. To authentically present this type of trauma often meant to photograph the victim’s body. However, I decided that it would be too direct and wouldn’t achieve a desirable effect. I had to change my approach. It isn’t easy for injured people to reveal their deficiencies. Some of the victims only do it in order to make a contribution to TAVOI.

Chang: People who agreed at first may have also change their mind afterwards. A few years after the photo shoot, during which I was director-general of TAVOI, a friend called and told me that he didn’t want his photos shown in public anymore, because he had already moved on from this trauma.


Chang Jung-lung, "Where is my Day Off?!" Migrant Workers Rally. 2007.

To reveal one’s deficiency and trauma, to even let it be photographed, that must always be an emotional struggle.

Chang: I was once myself an injured man. There was a period in my life in which I couldn’t face myself. Even in TAVOI, I have never taken off my artificial limbs. I once had a bad experience with cameras. During a press conference, a reporter demanded me to take off my artificial limbs in order to create a sensational scene for his photos. I wasn’t even prepared to accept my own deficiency, yet under that circumstance I was asked to put myself on display. It was really unpleasant!

Ho: Some press photographers like to demand certain postures from their subjects. It can be very intruding…

Chang: Even now, I cannot bring myself to aim my camera directly at the subject. People often advice me to close up against my subject, so as to heighten the tension of the results, but I just can’t.

I once saw a reporter close up against the subject within 30 centimeters in order to capture the tears. The problem was that the subject, who was wearing a facemask at that moment, didn’t want to be exposed. I thought to myself: “I’m sure this sort of photo will end up looking very intense!” However, these theatrical effects are all based on the suffering of others. So even if I did wanted to take dramatic photos, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.



As a photographer, one is always enacting some form of “intrusion.” How do you deal with this situation?

Chang: I am not a reporter. Even if I’ve taken a photo, I could not report it, or make any direct contribution. Whether I’m taking photos of victims of occupational injuries or foreign migrant workers, I do it for our organization, for the sake of the record and for others. So I often give the photos to the person photographed afterwards.

Ho: I think it’s a pity that Jung-lung only takes photos for the record and afterwards gives them away. Before, it was harder to do photography, but now almost everyone has a camera. Photography itself has also changed.

In the past, humanistic photography was predominately “outer-oriented,” that is, it focuses on capturing images of external objects; now there are more “inner-oriented” approaches, they take pictures of themselves or objects near at hand. The outer-oriented approach requires communication and understanding, which poses a lot of difficulty. With the inner-oriented approach, you can capture entirely different things.

There is a photographer outside Taiwan who focuses on taking pictures of his parents having a fight. He has a very famous photo that displays a wine bottle in midflight, his father just having thrown it towards his mother. This sort of scenery isn’t available to your ordinary everyday photographer. It is only when you enter the core of the subjects’ lives that these possibilities emerge.

Jung-lung, you are an “insider.” I think you can spend more time photographing life happening beside you, be more conscious in your approaches or try to be more creative. To take a picture may seem meaningless at the moment, but things may look entirely different 20 or 30 years later.

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Chang Jung-lung, "Home of Suspension" (暫停之家). 2010.

So, when every photographer is an “insider,” taking photos of “inside stories,” the situation becomes completely different?

Chang: I don’t believe that things will become easier by taking an inner-oriented or introspective stance. After I’ve taken up photography for a while, I started to question myself, why am I always pointing my lens at other people? Once, I turned the lens around and pointed it at myself. I took a picture and was freaked out by the result. So this is how I really look! It frightened me, but I feel that only after this initial fright can one really learn to face oneself.

I’d led a photography class for the physically and mentally disabled in the past. One time I gave the students a project called “A day in my life.” It was supposed to make them reflect upon their lives. The most impressive result I got was from a student who suffered from schizophrenia. During his attacks, he shot photos of midnight streets, his own fridge and pill bottles. Turns out that he gets compulsive symptoms during his schizophrenic attacks, which forces him to repetitively open the fridge door.

I’ve also thought how wonderful it would be if these stories were published! But after discussing this idea with the class, we decided that only trustworthy classmates were allowed to see these photos. So, an inner-oriented stance is not that simple. You must reach a certain altitude in order to reveal yourself and to get to know yourself like that.

Ho: The subject should be paid due respect during any photo-shoot. That is the bottom-line. But I don’t think one should worry too much over the issue of exploitation. To be frank, street movements need media exposure, does that also count as a form of exploitation? I think the relationship is mutual. The point is whether the motivations of both sides are sincere and whether both sides respect each other.

Let me give another example that happened abroad. A person who was suffering a terminal case of AIDS asked a friend to take his photo. It soon became an object of great interest. Many people started to have positive views towards AIDS and it even influenced the making-process of related policies. Under these circumstances, can you still criticize the person and say: “this person is about to dye, how can you still take his picture? Have you no conscience?”

The instant a photograph is published, it no longer belongs solely to the author. What stories are told, what sort of impact will it bring to society; that is not something that can be decided by the author. Of course, one always hopes his work will bring forth some sort of change.


Interview, edit|Zijie Yang, Lin Jia-he

Photography|Ho Ching-tai, Chang Jung-lung




Zijie Yang (楊子頡)


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