Expat Interview: Beijing Photography with Jasper James

Jasper James PortraitI first met Jasper James, a photographer from the UK, at an event about business, branding and creativity in Beijing. His girlfriend, Ling, is a Chinese-English interpreter, and she also had a lot of connections to Chinese artists – and helped my husband and I connect with several artists. Jasper was generous enough to share some of his stories about life in Beijing, including how he ended up there. And for some truly unbelievable photography, check out his website.

Can you introduce yourself a bit: Where are you from, where have you lived and what sort of work have you done in the various different places you’ve spent time in?

I’m  a China based photographer working in Shanghai and Beijing,shooting editorial,advertising and corporate work.My photography ranges from portrait,travel and interiors to concept driven projects.
Over the past decade I’ve lived and worked in New York,London and Beijing, covering assignments around the globe for some of the worlds leading magazines, design and advertising clients.
My client list includes:
Ferrari, British Airways, Wrigley’s, Volvo, Bosch, China Mobile, Marks and Spencer, Bank of China, QQ.Com, Ritz Carlton, Mandarin Oriental, Dockers, Wallpaper, Traveler, Travel and Leisure, Departures, Mens Journal, Telegraph Magazine, Dwell, Vanity Fair, Monocle.

How has each place been different and in what ways has it been different?

I think each place I’ve lived has had it’s own unique identity, they have all been places that have very strong histories/personalities and each place has had an effect and change on my personality. I’ve been lucky enough to spend an extended period living in 3 of the major cities of the world, being London, New York and Beijing. Obviously the difference between London and New York is a lot easier to navigate than that of Beijing, but I’ve found it pretty easy to build a life in all of the cities that I’ve lived, but  in Beijing I’ve definitely had to draw more on my patience and learn to just roll with things as the difference in culture, language and various other factors means it ‘s pretty easy to get frustrated or lose you’re temper if you’re too uptight, demanding or impatient.

Why did you decide to move to Beijing? Do you ever consider moving back the UK?

I first moved to Beijing because of work offers from the London office of GETTY IMAGES, they were getting me advertising shoots in China and I made a number of trips to various cities in China at the end of 2007 and into 2008 and then made the decision to move to Beijing with their help. Within 6 months of my moving Getty had sold out to their Chinese co owner, so I was pretty much left high and dry and on my own in Beijing. With no understanding of Chinese and no contacts in China of my own I was thinking it was obvious that I should return to London, but jobs began to come through from Western clients via my website and I quickly realised that I could still keep working in China independently of Getty Images. I don’t really plan much beyond next week, so I’m unsure about how long my stay in China will be….I’m happy to drift from week to week. I’m lucky enough to get a wide range of commissioned jobs that take me all over Asia, so I have no immediate plans to return to the U.K.
I’ve been here over 6 years now and during that time I’ve seen so many friends come and go. Most people tend to last 1 to 3 years and then for one reason or another they decide to leave China.

XIANGJIANGresizeHow has living in China helped or hindered your professional development? What sort of opportunities have you had in China that would not have been possible elsewhere?

Obviously, living in China my competition from Western photographers is a lot less. So I pick up a wider range of shoots from clients with photography needs in China or Asia, but it has seen the majority of my work shift from UK/Europe to Asia. Also, the domestic/Chinese photography market is usually very separate from the Western market because of language and so I place myself in China as a photographer primarily working with Western clients for about 80% and Chinese clients for the other 20 %.

Are there any especially memorable moments from your time abroad – either good or bad – that you wouldn’t mind sharing?

The special moments vastly out way the difficulties for me. But their are a lot of difficulties as well as joys that arise from trying to work/live as a photographer here. Problem wise, the internet fire wall throws up a lot of difficulties, with the use of VPN’s you can usually get around it but it can be trying, especially as the majority of my communication/working experience is done via the internet. If you’re sending big photography files under tight deadlines…this can be very frustrating.
Learning about the difference in communication and how to approach working relationships is another area that takes time.
SANYAresizeOn the plus side, I’ve got to travel all over China, visiting most of the major cities as well as more remote areas. There is a wide and diverse range of places, much like the U.S. traveling across the country shows you just how diverse and different the people and places can be.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about moving to China?

People and situations are obviously so different, so my experience of living in China is specific to me and everyone that moves here from the West has their own personal experience, some of the themes are shared but I think each person has to navigate it in their won way. I would say patience would probably help. Expect a certain amount of frustration as some of the situations in relocating to a completely different culture/society can be stress inducing and if you don’t speak the language,you are going to need a lot of help to get by. Luckily I had Getty Images to help me get going and later I found assistant’s that spoke good English and I heavily rely on them for my day to day dealings.

Is there anything else related to language learning or living abroad that you’d like to add or think would be interesting to readers?  

When I first got here I would have 4 to 5 …..2 hour Chinese lessons a week but for what ever reason, mainly I guess my own laziness and lack of discipline when it came to doing something I didn’t enjoy….the language ability didn’t make much headway. So I never got beyond basic shopping/taxi communication. After being here for 6 years I’ve settled in to my own world where I rely on people I work with around me to help with organisation/communication and really I’m oblivious to most of what is going on around me on a deeper level. I’m an English guy that happens to live in Beijing in my own bubble, I don’t think you could really say I’ve assimilated myself in to Chinese culture or gone the way of learning the language and becoming part of Beijing. Luckily most of what I do is visual and I’m not a photo journalist who is trying to understand the society or go deeper than the surface. It might come across as shallow but I enjoy my life, work, experiences and I found that to not stress myself out enjoy the experience of being in China – I just relaxed with the situations and let myself be pushed along by what ever comes up. To live day to day not being able to communicate with the majority of people around you other than on a basic level might be a strange way to live and not for everyone, but it’s the situation I’ve found myself in and for the most part it’s a situation that I can live with and I have to say that my girlfriend, who is Chinese and speaks perfect English makes my day to day life here immeasurably easier and smoother. We have been together for over 3 years and without her it would be a very different story. Having said that, the majority of my Western friends that have been here for a number of years speak decent to good Mandarin, so I’m only telling my own experiences here about how I’ve tried to adapt to living in Beijing.

Thanks again, Jasper! And for all of you reading, make sure to check out Jasper’s photography, it is stunning.