An Interview with Liz Hingley

by on Tuesday, 12 November 2013 Comments

Liz Hingley is a British photographer who holds a first class BA Honours in Photography from Brighton University. Her work has been recognized with many international awards, including the Prix Virginia in 2012. She is currently living in Shanghai and working on her new project in the city. On an interview with her over Skype, we discuss her experiences in Shanghai. 

Last time we caught up with you, you had just presented "Under Gods" and were still living in England. Could you talk about your new book came to be?

Liz: In 2012 I received the Prix Virginia prize for my work with the Jones family, where I was looking at the cycle of poverty in the Western world through spending two years working closely with one family. As part of the prize I received a commission from be-poles to do one of their books from the series City Portraits. The graphic design company ask photographers they like to choose a city and document it through their own individual eyes and perspective. Mine was to be published in Paris Photo this November. I knew I was coming to Shanghai, so I arrived at the end of June and that left me two months to finish the project.

LizH ShanghaiMetro L10H 31

That is a much shorter timeframe than your other projects right?

Liz: Yes, I usually work on longer term projects. However, I knew it would be a great challenge, and an opportunity to test myself. At the beginning, I didn't know how to approach it at all. I thought about being safe and doing something on the UK, but then I felt it would be interesting to have a project in Shanghai when were eyes were completely fresh to it.

How did you get the idea for the metro?

Liz: When I first arrived I was living at a place that was not so central, so I spent a lot of time going into the centre on the metro, and I became intrigued by the huge system and the social world surrounding it. It was a wonderful place for me to observe the life of Shanghai because everybody takes the metro. Then I learned that it had only existed for 20 years, and that fascinated me, the way that there was this rapid development that must have changed the landscape, the economy, people's lives and relationship to the city space. I decided to go to the end of the lines and see what was there, not knowing at all what I would find.

There is an almost rural quality to your photos which is a bit surprising for a city like Shanghai, where most people have the impression of a dense, urban, metropolis. Where you expecting such a rural setting?

Liz: I didn't put any expectations on what I would find. It's quite exciting because you leave from your home in the center, go underground, and you never know when you pop up again what experience awaits you. I was constantly surprised, and my wonderful Shanghainese assistant from Fudan University was also frequently surprised by what we came across.

Could you give us some examples of these surprising experiences?

Liz: The first terminus we went, Xinjiangwancheng, was a huge metro station, very shiny and new with a large field of concrete at the back. And then the concrete just broke into a field of horses, desolation, wilderness. The contrast was dramatic and it felt like the ultimate limit of the citys development so far.

LizH ShanghaiMetro Line9  2b

I believe your photos are published in the order that you went to the stations in. Was there any reason behind this choice of stations?

Liz: Well, I only went to the very last station and some of the lines joined in. For example I might go to one end of line 6 but the South end of it joined with line 5, so I didn't document that. I only went to the very end where you can't go any further.

In your introduction you say you spent mostly one afternoon with each of these groups of people, yet we get a strong sense of intimacy from your photos. How did you manage this?

Liz: You can't really explain how you create an exchange with a place and your connection or relationship with the people you photograph, it's something as a photographer you learn to do in your own way. I couldn't communicate verbally so well, but there is definitely an international language of communication in which you don't need to speak. My assistant was obviously key in translating conversations and noticing interesting cultural points in a place. I also became more visually aware when I couldn't connect through the language and for this project where I only had brief experiences in a place it worked quite well.

LizH ShanghaiMetro L11Anting 280

How were you generally received? Were the first impressions good?

Liz: Well, at the end of lines foreigners are less expected, and I definitely had more people reacting to me with surprise than in the centre of Shanghai. Generally people were very open, I didn't really find any problems of people not wanting me to be there or to take photos. People often asked for their photo with me so I felt we had an exchange.

Have the people you photographed seen the book yet?

Liz: The people who I developed relationships with yes. But a lot of the people in the pictures I met very briefly. I collected people's emails though and I will invite them to the exhibition in Shanghai in March.

Which is your favorite terminal station or photo in your book?

Liz: I think it's still the one with the horses, which is the first one I went to, because I also continued my explorations and discovered Thames Town, the replica English town nearby. The numerous replica European towns were a phenomenon I found quite fascinating at the end of metro lines. I even stayed a night in a villa in the replica German town. They are all a mockup of the style of architecture in these countries, and are designed by people from that country, but they feel strange, like toy towns, as barely any people live in them. The area is also the location of the oldest mosque in Shanghai, a big Taoist temple and a very active Buddhist temple. For my long-term project in Shanghai about religious communities, it was clearly great to discover them.

You just mentioned your ongoing project here in Shanghai. Can you tell us about it?

Liz: IIt's a continuation of the work I did for the book "Under Gods" about the mix of contemporary urban religious communities on one street in the Uk, which I then continued in my Msc in Social Anthropology, where I went to Paris and looked at the diverse activity of religious communities there. It was through my work "Under Gods" that I was invited to come to Shanghai and continue my photographic documentation of urban religious communities. Obviously it will be very different from my previous works both in the U.K. and France.

LizH ShanghaiMetro L10 HangzhongR 108

For your projects on religious anthropology, do you have a systematic way of proceeding?

Liz: No, you can't really overplan it, bit by bit you make relationships and develop understanding. For example, on Saturday night I went for dinner with some friends and met somebody who was very good friends with the Hindu community, and he said: "It's Diwali tomorrow and I'm going to my friend's house to celebrate, do you want to come?" So I cancelled my appointments last night and went to Diwali. So you just have to let things happen. But now I'm getting more and more contacts and it's getting harder to manage all events.

Did you encounter any difficulties due to the language barrier or people not being open about religion?

Liz: I think on the surface level, it is sometimes easier to photograph here than in the U.K. or France, especially I found amongst the Muslim community but to go much deeper I think will be hard. To do the subject justice I need to learn more and time will be the key. Often it helps being a foreigner, it offers a distance and outside perspective.

Thank you very much for your time, we wish you good luck!

Liz: Thanks!


Interview by Cerise Phiv.

Transcribed by Daniel Pagan Murphy.

The book Portraits de villes, Shanghai, by Liz Hingley is published by Be-Poles in France. Visit the website for more information and order:



Daniel Pagan Murphy (李大年)

Graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA Chinese-International Relations in 2009. He has been living in Taiwan ever since and has been working at eRenlai since 2011.

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