In celebration of Being There, available here and now shipping to stores worldwide, we sit down for a conversation with Vivien Liu. Vivien discovered a passion for photography by focusing on the powerful imagery throughout her native Hong Kong and the urban density in her travels around the world. Her style has expanded to include portraiture and natural landscapes with the same rich detail.
It’s clear in Being There that you have a very creative eye for shooting places, spaces and people. You mentioned in a previous interview that: “I want to capture the experiences that I am having when I traverse and travel through places. The things I see, the people I meet, every emotion of joy, sadness, nostalgia, love and exhilaration. I stay inspired by going to new places constantly and enjoying the work of other artists and photographers which I admire.” Tell us more about the book’s title.
It has to do with the experiences I try to document in the pages of this book. Personally, I want to look back at the images and feel like “being there” – revisiting the places, the faces, and the feelings – all over again.
What can viewers expect from your book?
I hope the viewer will experience the cities or at least imagine what it’s like to be in the places captured in the work.
How was the production process of coordinating the story of Being There? And what was the most important thing to you in creating an image you are proud of, and now seeing it in printed published format?
The production process went very smoothly since it was quite natural for me as to which photographs to select for the book. Trope was super helpful in giving their expertise for curating a selection that would tell the perfect story.
When I created those images, I never really thought I would see them published! So, I guess the most important thing is to keep creating images purely from passion and not with any other intention.
Can you pick and describe for me one of the images in Being There? Tell me why you’ve picked this particular image and the significance of what the image/experience means to you.
It has got to be the image on page 30 – the neon signs at night, which have now perished. This image poignantly represents the reason I shot the images in the book. Scenes like these may never exist again, and will only be available to us through photographs.
How do you feel a book tells the story of your work differently from, say, your social media account or your own website?
It’s all about the narrative for the book, like a journey from start to finish. It’s more spontaneous and real-time on social media, and on my website it’s more about showcasing my ability to potential clients.
Your style explores the dialogue between people and spaces; the visual worlds of portraiture, landscapes and street photography mix, clash, are twisted and fused to create your own unique vision of how you see the world around you. How do you make it?
By combining the things that I’m naturally interested to shoot, I would say. I’m also fortunate that Hong Kong can offer the opportunities for all these genres to exist, often times in a single frame. For the cities that I travel to, it’s a self-selecting process, in that I chose those cities (or they chose me at times, for work) because of how they offer the same possibilities.
What inspires you the most about these two different themes (people and spaces), and how do you find a midpoint between them?
My departure point is shooting people in spaces, so they are not mutually exclusive. Rather than a midpoint, they have a synergy that, in my mind, enhance each of their qualities by being in the frame together. In this sense, it’s always inspiring to see the outcome of how people and space complement each other.
How much thought/planning goes into your photographic process?
For the work shown in Being There, there wasn’t much planning; for most of the images in the book, they were pretty much spontaneous.
Even though all your photographs have a perennial quality of color, layers and scenic atmosphere, there is a certain fluidity to your work, perhaps due to your multidisciplinary practice as an artist and architectural designer. What would you highlight as recurrent themes and aesthetics in your work
I’m drawn to night lights, like neon signs, as well as warm sunlight like you would find in a summer sunset. I think these are reoccurring themes one can expect to find in my work.
Your photography is not only beautiful at first sight, it also has a second layer that makes you look twice while questioning the message behind it. The fashion visual culture of your imagery contains a vibrant combination of playful, powerful, rich and extremely authentic elements. How did you develop this particular way of photographing?
I began by doing test shoots for fashion models, but I didn’t have a team like you would for an editorial shoot, nor did I have a studio to shoot in. So I would shoot on the streets, which is what I was used to. I also gave my subjects the freedom to pose and dress as they want. Therefore, the outcomes of these shoots were always authentic, as opposed to something planned well in advance with a larger team. It was also possible because everyone had the freedom to express themselves in absence of any clients. Little did I know at the time, I would be hired to shoot in the same style in the future!
How do you merge photography, styling and the space in which you shoot?
By not really thinking about it! If I were to consider any of these in advance, it would be something more intentional, like themed shoots (such as old school Hong Kong) where I would think about how the subject would either match or contrast from the surroundings.
Let’s talk about portraiture. This is traditionally one of the most challenging disciplines when it comes to reflecting/conveying emotions and expressions. Which part of human nature do you like to expose or show us?
The confident and carefree side.
And, in your creative process, do you think of a story first, or do you have certain conceptual starting points in mind before you start shooting?
Usually I determine who to shoot with, then the location – and improvise the rest. If a team such as stylists, fashion designers or makeup artists are involved, I usually start with a concept so that everyone is working towards a common theme.
From personal work to fashion editorials, travels and spaces: do you feel more comfortable in any particular one? Or do you like to keep your practice as open as possible?
I would like to keep my practice as open as possible, because I believe we can always improve, even when we consider ourselves well-versed. I constantly critique and expose myself to advanced-level work to inspire and push myself to do better in all genres.
We know you love to travel. From Venice to architectural beauties such as Ricardo Bofill’s La Muralla Roja, you’ve photographed and visited some incredible places. Do you have a particular story or memory from your travels that stays with you?
Not one, but a few – and they’re presented in Being There.
Lastly, what excites you most right now?
To be able to travel again after the pandemic is over! Also, I am looking to expand more into production which I hope will encompass photography and video – I’m not very far yet, but this will be my goal for the middle to long term.
Find Vivien’s arresting and colorful work in two of our meticulously crafted ongoing series:
Being There, Vivien Liu’s first solo book and the fourth in our Emerging Photographers Series, explores how people interact with their cities and how a place itself impacts its inhabitants. Her years of work in architectural design have honed her meticulous eye for symmetry and composition, leading to a truly breathtaking visual journey through Hong Kong, Moscow, Tokyo, Rome, and the stunning vistas of Zhangjiajie.