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In Conversation: Yan Jiacheng, Vicinity in Focus

Yan Jiacheng, a 29-year-old photography enthusiast from Guangzhou, leads a dual life as a domestic enterprise employee and a keen observer of humanity, capturing life's tableau both on the streets and through the web.

In 2018, Yan started his digital "showcase" on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, using the handle "Angry Bank." Through his camera, he began to capture the fleeting, everyday moments of ordinary people, revealing his unique perspective on the world. His subjects are diverse: passersby against the glow of advertisement boxes, pedestrians waiting at traffic signals, motor drivers outside stations, nocturnal wanderers, onlookers of square dances perched on railings, and couriers in the throes of online fashion market live streams. Distancing from the art scene has propelled him out of the conventional photography boundaries. Google Street View, printers, PowerPoint... any tool becomes a means in his quest to actualize a myriad of imaginative concepts.

Portrait of Yan Jiacheng. Image courtesy of Yan Jiacheng. Instagram @gooodooot.

The limitations of a camera's viewfinder are no match for Yan's creativity. With some basic Photoshop skills, he shatters traditional photographic proportions, stitching together expansive collages that narrate the diverse urban existence.

Yan Jiacheng's work stands as a compelling testament to the idea that life, when meticulously examined, acquires heightened significance. Let's dive into his story.

Q: To begin with, could you tell us about your background and how you became interested in sharing your observations of life through photography? What drives you to capture and present these moments?

My name is Yan Jiacheng, and I majored in Chinese Language and Literature for my undergrad study. Currently, I am a designer and photographer.

My mother is a tailor. She likes designing clothes and painting. Growing up under her influence, I have been quite interested in art since I was little, but I never knew how to make them. After studying Chinese literature, I felt that I was not good at dealing with words, so I was unsure what I could do—the first few years after graduation, time slipped away as I was busy with intense overtime work, trapped in a vicious cycle. I wanted to grab onto something desperately, and then one day I noticed a camera I had bought but left unused. I started taking pictures with it. From then on, I felt that I was somewhat good at photography. I began documenting my life and surroundings, and after posting my works online, they drew some attention, which has motivated me to continue doing this.

Q: Your work seems to capture the "vicinity" of life in suburban and underdeveloped areas. Has your perspective on the concept of "vicinity" evolved or changed over time as you continued your photographic journey? If so, how?

The concept of "vicinity" has also become popular in China over the past few years, including ideas such as "locality" and "city walk", all emphasizing the observation of one's immediate surroundings. My observations are often passive on my way to work, and the day-to-day commute forced me to focus on my surroundings. However, this approach has made me realize that life isn't always about grand narratives; it can also be found in the subtleties and ease of everyday moments.

The notion of "Vicinity" embodies a dimension of society, and with careful observation, one can unveil its intriguing nuances. While capturing grandeur may be straightforward, uncovering fascinating elements out of the mundane often requires patience and diligence.

The collage street view with gaps that cannot be filled by algorithms (2019). Photography collection courtesy of Yan Jiacheng.

Q: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your recent work that centers on your new community in the remote suburb? What drew you to this particular subject matter?

Due to the pandemic, my girlfriend started working remotely, and we hoped for a larger space, so we simply moved to the suburbs. At that time, I had been living in my previous community for four years, and I had walked almost every road in that area countless times, so I also wanted a change of environment and decided to see what different scenes the suburbs might offer.

When I first moved, I had some regrets because it was so desolate, but as I lived there longer, I experienced the complete urbanization process. Then I realized that "change" itself is a theme, so I created several works centered around it.

Q: In your work, Night in the Suburbs, your description of the riverside as a communal
gathering space is fascinating. Could you elaborate on the role of public spaces in your artwork and the significance of this particular location for your community?

Night in the Suburbs (2022-today). Photography collection courtesy of Yan Jiacheng.

Because most of my works are based on public spaces, this almost determines what kind of work I can produce. Before moving to the suburbs, I lived in the city center of Guangzhou, where there were a lot of people, so I always felt that there was no shortage of subjects to shoot. Therefore, when I first arrived in the suburbs, I somehow regreted my choice because I found it wasn't the kind of complex scene I had imagined as a "combination of urban and rural areas"; it was just a desolate outskirts, with few people, dull.

However, as more and more people started living there, interactions between people and the environment inevitably occurred. These interactions were quite different from the urban culture in the city center, which actually piqued my interest. So, even though my work isn't complex, and the perspective remains relatively fixed, once the work is shared on Weibo, people quickly grasp this form of living. It stripped away the complex urban landscape, retaining only the most basic human need, which is "to go out for a walk."

Q: In your exploration of this community, have you encountered any specific individuals or stories that have left a lasting impression on you and your photography?

Actually, the most memorable thing is probably related to the vendors setting up their stalls. In our community, there are no commercial centers, malls, or large supermarkets. So, as the community grew, a commercial landscape naturally emerged. The vendors noticed the increasing number of people strolling along the riverside and immediately began setting up their stalls.

This phenomenon was almost explosive, and it didn't take long for the vendors to become so numerous that the area became overcrowded. However, the plot that followed is quite predictable—city management stepped in. But after the vendors were driven away, the budding of commerce was not extinguished. Instead, with the "upgrading of industries" policy, everything became more interesting. The original low-end forms of street vending, such as stir-fried rice and noodles, were replaced by trendy youths selling hand-squeezed lemon tea in a camping style. The latter’s appearance was evidently confusing, as the city management found it hard to distinguish whether they were there for leisure or for business, making it difficult to regulate effectively.

Since this year, with economic problems in China leading to mass unemployment, city management no longer drives away the vendors. So, the commercial activities on this street have fully recovered and have entered into the phase of market competition. As for future development, it still needs continuous observation.

Q: Let’s talk about your work, Those who don't wear helmets are very vivid in the notification platform. The neglection/negation of rules and the relaxed consciousness in the temporality of the photography captured by CCTV cameras seem to be key elements. How did you accidentally stumble upon this exposure platform for traffic violators? What piqued your interest in doing such a photography project?

Those who don't wear helmets are very vivid in the notification platform (2023). Photography collection courtesy of Yan Jiacheng.

One day, while searching for information online, probably looking for a specific article, coincidentally, the name of one of the editors in that set of photos was the same as the person I was searching for. So I came across one of the photos in that collection, and I found that particular photo quite intriguing. Thus, I opened the website linked to the photo, only to discover it was a government site. However, it only listed a partial selection. Following a trail of clues, I found the institution's official WeChat public account. There, I noticed they regularly posted photos of individuals caught riding motors not wearing helmets. The people captured in these photos had no idea that a camera was recording their illegal actions, so their expressions were incredibly vivid.

Consequently, I ended up reading through all the articles, saved hundreds of these pictures, organized them, and later posted them on Weibo. It immediately caught the attention of many online viewers. I recall one person's comment: "Everyone looks so carefree." Indeed, that kind of natural state is rare and difficult for photographers to capture through their lenses.

I enjoy collecting various materials online to create my works because photography itself is quite limiting. It's restricted to "exploring" and "capturing," whereas online, it heavily relies on "searching" and "unearthing." These two forms are distinct, providing different types of enjoyment.

Q: You viewed thousands of photos of those who violated the traffic rules and saved over a hundred. Were there specific criteria or guidelines that led you to choose which photos were worth posting and which were not?

Most of the time I enjoy saving photos of young people. In fact, in the process of viewing them, one can see different states between different age groups. Adults and those slightly older rarely show smiles on their faces, while young people are full of vitality. They joke around, strike cool poses, smoke, and ride their bikes with great skill. Seeing these activities, it is almost like observing a part of myself that has gradually vanished. This makes me wonder: Do people really become less happy as they get older?

Q: In your work, Everyone has an online nickname, we see a very interesting juxtaposition of the taxi driver and their nicknames. What are you trying to reveal through the repetition and scrutiny of everyday moments in a taxi?

I've found that everyone has a desire to express themselves, and this need does not diminish with age. WeChat names, for instance, represent a glimpse into observing others.

In modern society, although people do interact with one another, these interactions are often based on service and necessity. There's no inherent need for individuals to know or understand each other. For instance, when taking a taxi: you get in, pay, and then leave upon arrival. It's very efficient, but it also creates a natural barrier between individuals, submerging the individual within a system of efficiency. Therefore, seeing their nicknames is actually breaking through this barrier.

Everyone Has An Online Nickname: Meow Meow. Image courtesy of Yan Jiacheng.

Everyone Has An Online Nickname: I am very cool. Image courtesy of Yan Jiacheng.

Everyone Has An Online Nickname: Who am I. Image courtesy of Yan Jiacheng.

Everyone Has An Online Nickname: Being too emotional is exhausting. Image courtesy of Yan Jiacheng.

Everyone Has An Online Nickname: Pay and get out of the car. Image courtesy of Yan Jiacheng.

On the other hand, while our given names are chosen by our parents, a nickname is self-assigned, representing one's self-awareness, and expressing personality, ideals, or aspirations. It's more vibrant. For example, when seeing someone's nickname, I might ponder about their personality and what their life is like. So I think online nicknames are the tiniest cracks through which we can begin to understand each other.

Q: Can you share one of your favorite artistic photography techniques or unique mediums you've employed in your past work?

I prefer a rougher approach to photography, and this is also how some friends describe my work: not refined, but down-to-earth. I'm not a technical person; I don't know much about cameras, and I am often puzzled by those complex settings. Therefore, when I shoot, I try to emphasize the subject of my photos. Most of my works revolve around people, and at times, I even directly extract the main subject, making it appear somewhat unfinished, but that's the style I enjoy.

Stone Pier in Longhua, Shenzhen (2023). Photography collection courtesy of Yan Jiacheng.

Spring Festival Travel Rush (2021-2023). Photography collection courtesy of Yan Jiacheng.

Q: Your work has engaged a wide range of audiences on Weibo, a large Chinese social media platform. How would you define your audience, and how do you perceive the relationship between you and them?

I believe many individuals without formal training require a channel to showcase their work because opportunities to participate in exhibitions are limited, and connections are scarce. Sometimes, due to personality or other reasons, they may not actively seek to engage with individuals who have the resources. Therefore, social media serves as a solution, making it possible for their work to be "seen."

I am immensely grateful to everyone who leaves comments or shares my work on Weibo; these are all forms of encouragement. Essentially, I believe the ultimate purpose of creating art is for it to be appreciated by others. I believe I can achieve this goal in the era of new media.

Q: Lastly, what's next for you as an artist? Are there any upcoming projects or themes you plan to explore in your future work, building on the ideas and experiences you've gained from your current project?

Many of my new works are currently in progress, being planned, or in the stage of conceptualizing details. This year, I've had much more time for contemplation than before; I need to clear up many details before beginning execution. The latest few works continue to revolve around my community, including "People Going to Work and Returning Home" and "Home." Recently, I discovered there was a homicide in the building where I live, and I'm planning to turn this incident into a piece of artwork.

Upon completing these three works, I feel my mission in this community will be nearing its end. I might move to another place to continue observing and creating. I’m fond of a line from the Greek poet Cavafy: "As you set out for Ithaka, hope the voyage is a long one." I hope my future path in creation is random, fragmented, and lengthy.

Yan Jiacheng's photographic journey is a testament to the power of observation, curiosity, and the creative spirit. Through his lens, he captures the extraordinary within the ordinary and mundane, inviting us all to look closer, appreciate the subtle beauty in our surroundings, and recognize that even the most fleeting moments hold profound significance.


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