Greg Girard on the Intersections of Culture and Photography

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Most people would avoid being called an outsider, but Greg Girard is not like most people. To him, having an outsider's perspective may be the key to bridging cultures and creating meaningful art.

Greg was born in Vancouver, but found himself gallivanting all over Asia in the 1970s when he was around 18 years old. What some would label as uncomfortable situations became his comfort zone, and he decided not to bloom where he was planted but to become a citizen of the world. We talked to Greg about his experiences as a young photographer and how he catapulted himself into places he knew little about.

Photos by Greg Girard

Hi Greg! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. How have you been? What have you been up to lately?

Thank you for the invitation. I’ve been traveling recently. I was in Hong Kong last month doing a project, a collaboration with M+ Museum based on my pictures from Hong Kong in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I made a short film and it was played with live accompaniment by the post-punk band Gong Gong Gong, so that was a really interesting, new departure and collaboration for me.

For our readers who are not yet familiar with your work, kindly give a brief introduction of yourself and your background.

I started photographing in Vancouver as a young photographer when I was 16 years old in the early 70s and photographed, I guess you could call it, the downtown area of this small unfamous port city back in the day. And then I made my first trip to Hong Kong and other places in Asia in 1974, and that was the beginning of an interest that continues today and lasted for many years when I was based in that part of the world – first in Tokyo and then later in Hong Kong and Shanghai. I lived in those three cities during important, pivotal moments, and then some years ago, moved back to Vancouver after having been away for more than three decades.

Photos by Greg Girard

When you first went to Asia, what was the purpose of your trip? Was it to simply explore the world or did you already carry the intention of becoming a photographer based there?

When I was just getting started, and for many years, the idea of becoming a photographer in the sense of making a living from it seemed too much to hope for – something that was pretty far-fetched – and I had no idea, and didn’t for many years, how to go about that. But that early interest came from a combination of things – looking at photographs and books and magazines – that led to an early trip.

If I had to track it down to one particular image, it might have been a photograph in a book in the Time Life series on photography where there was a picture of Hong Kong Harbour and it had this scene of the harbour with a working local cargo ship, a kind of sailing junk, with the Hong Kong skyline behind it with neon from the early 60s of consumer electronics and Western and Japanese brands. And something in that photograph made me want to go there and perhaps try to take a photograph like that one.

Photos by Greg Girard

I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at that time exactly what was going on in that photograph, but it was a non-glamorous clash of things and that somehow appealed to me – things not going together that were together. And there's something about what that photographer did, his name was Eliot Elisofon, where rather than crop out one thing to photograph and focus on either the skyline or this junk, he ended up combining both these things and it just showed this non-exotic reality of an exotic place, and I liked that approach. And again, I wouldn’t have been able to put it in these words at that time, but in the years since, I’ve thought about it – what was in that picture and why did I like it.

Did you expect to stay as long as you did?

No, I didn’t. First trip, I wandered around for eight or nine months, and ended up back in Vancouver and then worked and saved money for a year. Japan was generally avoided since, in those days and for many years afterwards, Japan had a reputation as an expensive place for a young poor traveler, but I had a multi-stopover ticket – really stopping everywhere – going from San Francisco, to Los Angeles, to Honolulu, to Tokyo, to Seoul, to Taipei, to Hong Kong and Bangkok. I stopped in Tokyo intending to just look around for a few days in the spring of 1976, but I was quite shocked by the city. It was nothing like I expected, and you have to understand in those pre-internet days that news about places didn’t travel in the same way it does now, so Japan was still probably the place of tradition and some modernity, but nothing prepared me for the Tokyo I fell into when I got off the airplane.

Photos by Greg Girard

I wandered around Shinjuku that first night, stayed up all night and I checked my bags in a storage locker at the airport, and by morning I was so amazed and smitten by what I’d seen and was experiencing that I decided to try to figure out a way to stay, and ended up finding a job to teach English and a small apartment, then ended up living in Tokyo for some years. That wasn’t planned for sure.

Similarly in the early 80s on a visit to Hong Kong, which I’d first been to in 1974 and a couple times subsequently. It’s a city I like and knew a little bit about and I was just visiting in 1982 – and again, I didn’t plan to stay, but ended up doing just that and fell into some work. And then after some years, ended up figuring out how to make a living as a magazine photographer.

Photos by Greg Girard

You mentioned teaching English in Tokyo and that’s very interesting because, when traveling or doing something cross-cultural, language is a common barrier. How did your experience in teaching and your interest in photography help you overcome that cultural barrier or how did it help bring you closer to people from completely different backgrounds?

I think the teaching was simply to make a living and I scheduled my teaching hours so that I had plenty of time to photograph, so maybe I worked three or four days a week, leaving lots of time to photograph and just make enough money to get by and pay for film and processing. I liked being in Tokyo a lot and loved photographing the city and exploring it.

As an outsider and as a photographer, you go everywhere and anywhere, and quite often you get to know a place even better than the locals do. People have their patterns and habits and, unless you’re a photographer or have a particular interest in exploring all corners of your city, you tend to stick with what you know. I can say that I got to know Tokyo really well, and life in every way opened up after I started making an effort to learn Japanese and started having friends who didn’t really speak English, so that was a huge evolution in dealing with the city and enjoying it, and exploring it, and loving it, and getting to know it in a way that wouldn’t be possible without learning the language. That was something, I think, that mattered quite a lot as it turned out to become comfortable, not just in Tokyo but in Japan in general, to be able to move around and talk to people.

Photos by Greg Girard

In any conversation about culture and photography, there also has to be a conversation about ethics. I wanted to ask your thoughts on where we’re supposed to draw the line between appreciation and appropriation.

I think being attracted to what you’re not is a fine thing and should only be encouraged. The idea of limiting yourself because you don’t belong here or there, or to this or that is a huge mistake. I would say, if your intentions are right – and that’s for everyone to decide – then you can do anything, and go anywhere, and talk to anybody, and make your work. I don’t think there should be any limitation about geography, or culture, or anything else in leading you to explore and connect with other people and other places.

How do you take pictures without creating an uncomfortable environment for your subjects? Especially at night when you may need aid from flashes or external light.

Most of my night pictures are made without lighting. They’re made on a tripod. There’s no auxiliary lighting, and most of what you would describe as my night pictures are long exposures that are made just using the ambient light from street lighting, the light of the city reflected off the clouds, lighting that’s off-camera or out of frame, and just the kind of light that exists at night that you’re probably not used to seeing because people often just treat it as darkness when in fact it’s far from dark. These long exposures allow you to really see into the night.

Photos by Greg Girard

As for taking pictures of people or strangers, you certainly don’t need to be in another culture to make those kind of pictures. Even in your own town or neighborhood, making pictures of strangers is probably not that much different than making pictures of strangers 10,000 miles away. People don’t know you, and you come up to them and you ask to take a picture, and the question is usually why? or the answer is sure or no. There’s very limited reactions to that.

Sometimes, it’s not even a question. It can be a gesture with body language. Even in your own culture, you don’t need to ask people with language. You raise your camera and tilt your head, people know what you want to do. I don’t think these things, making pictures of strangers, are necessarily language-based. It’s all about your intentions, and those can be communicated in other ways non-verbally. I don’t feel there’s any problem at all making pictures of strangers in another place, in another language environment. I don’t really feel it’s all that different from doing things at home to be honest.

Photos by Greg Girard

When you turn a passion into a job, there’s always this challenge of maintaining your creative voice. Most of the time, you’re no longer just representing yourself, you’re also representing this certain news outlet or magazine. How do you find your own creative voice and how do you keep it loud and clear enough to guide you?

In my own case, I was absolutely thrilled to be able to figure out how to make a living from photography when it first opened up to me. I knocked on some doors and presented my work, and little by little got some assignments and attention. At the same time, I was working on things I believed in and wanted to do, and was interested in, or curious about without anybody assigning me to do it, so I certainly never needed anybody to direct me in any way to look at this or that. But I really felt like the hard part was how do I turn my interest into making a living from it? I think it’s different for everybody. In my case, it was knocking on doors at magazines and finally getting some attention and being offered a job for a magazine.

For many years, I was completely happy; it was like a dream come true to be able to work that way. I’d say also that, at the same time, even separate from the assignments, I’m making my own work doing things I’m interested in. But what I did find over the years was that there was a certain amount of repetition in the assignments and what was expected from editors in terms of making pictures or illustrating editorial points about a place. And I felt that the things I became interested in as I got more involved, and learned more about a place, started to somewhat separate from what the magazines were assigning me to do. So maybe that speaks to your comment about creatively feeling limitations.

Photos by Greg Girard

In any case, I kind of ran up against that, myself, in that way and it led to me trying to figure out how to make pictures for myself like I did back in the beginning – let’s call it before I knew how to make a living as a magazine photographer. I went back to my origins in a way because it’s a slippery slope and it’s dangerous creatively, or at least it was for me, to always make pictures that have a use. I kind of wanted to make pictures that were useless, that didn’t have a prescribed use in any case, that didn’t have some determined outcome. Back in the beginning, you would make pictures not knowing why you were even making them. You’re attracted to this and that, and the picture was an exploration. I did want to go back to that way of working and thinking.

I was living in Shanghai at that time and I started turning my back, so to speak, on the magazines and I just started photographing the things I was interested in that couldn’t really illustrate, in any clear way, anything about the city that would make sense in any magazine story about the place. I continued doing that for some years, and that happily turned into a book called Phantom Shanghai, and ended up being represented by a gallery based on that work. It was very satisfying and empowering to get that kind of reception from my departure from the certainties of making pictures for magazines and just going back to that undetermined way of working based on instinct.

It seems to also be a matter of trusting your own style.

Yes, and not pretending that everything’s okay when it’s not.

Photos by Greg Girard

Speaking of going back to your origins, you’re in Vancouver now. How has your experience in Asia impacted your current photographic approach? Would you say that your exposure to a multitude of cultures influenced your work now?

Probably. It makes me feel at home in, and certainly appreciative of, a culturally mixed environment.

Do you think a person has to know the backstory or the cultural context of a photo in order to fully understand or at least appreciate it?

No, I don’t. I think a photograph should stand entirely on its own. Backstories are interesting, but they’re backstories. Whatever the photograph is, at least in the way I make them and think about them, there is no accompanying words, or subtext, or commentary, or backstory that can help them because I didn’t make them that way. I didn’t make them for me to be standing next to them, talking about them. I make them for them to be seen by themselves. That’s how I look at other photographs also.

Nowadays, do you still use film for your photography?

I do! It’s gotten ridiculously expensive, but I’m still addicted.

Why do you continue to use film in the digital age?

It gives me what I want, and I don’t get that with digital except by spending a lot of time and many dead-ends in trying to massage it to make it look like film – which I don’t even do. In fact, if I use digital, I accept it as digital and I don’t try to make digital look like film. I do like what film does. I’m reluctant to give it up because I still like what it does.

Photos by Greg Girard

What have been your most commonly used products throughout your career?

I guess I’ve used pretty much everything. In the days when Kodachrome was available, I used that from my earliest work in Vancouver and throughout different places in Asia. That was discontinued some years ago.

In the early or mid 90s, I started using a medium format camera, and that was a different kind of departure. That change of format was a very useful kind of tactic for me because I was still working for magazines at the time, but when I started using this other camera, that was a signal that I was doing my own work for myself. Separate from the material, it was a way of showing myself that now I’m in this other photographing time and space for myself where the magazines no longer are to be considered. It’s a little bit of a cheat or a conceit, but it was a useful thing for me as it turned out – just going out with that camera, nothing else, not thinking about anything else except what I’m trying to concentrate on.

Back to the film, using 120 film was part of that and I continue to use 120 film today with a 6x7 camera, mostly Provia or Ektachrome or color negative – I kind of mix those things together a bit, depending on the situation. A little bit of 4x5 sheet film as well.

Photos by Greg Girard

If given the chance, a lot of creatives would like to travel the world, explore other cultures, and apply their experiences to their work like you did. Please share some words of advice for them and for the whole Lomography community.

Don’t make pictures for other people. Make them for yourself. That’s a journey that only you can be on and nobody else. And as you take it to whatever conclusion, I expect people will be interested to see where you’ve gone with it.


We’d like to thank Greg for sharing his stories and photographs with us! To see more of his work and stay updated with what he’s up to, you can visit his website or his Instagram and experience what it’s like to be @gregforaday.

written by kylavillena on 2024-07-07 #culture #people #places #tokyo #culture #interview #hong-kong #shanghai #greg-girard #multiculturalism #east-meets-west

5 Comments

  1. hervinsyah
    hervinsyah ·

    Underrated legend ❤️ one of the best article at lomography ever

  2. kylavillena
    kylavillena ·

    @hervinsyah Greg is amazing; I'm happy to be sharing more of his story through Lomography. And thank you so much for the kind words. It means a lot! :)

  3. hervinsyah
    hervinsyah ·

    You are welcome bro/sis. I really like reading his adventure and some of his photo are world class journalistic photo, kind of photo that I like since I was raised by reading newspaper and magazine when I was a child

  4. ihave2pillows
    ihave2pillows ·

    Lots of history. Thank you!

  5. kylavillena
    kylavillena ·

    @ihave2pillows He has such great stories! Thank you as well :)

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