Interview: Rob Battersby

by James Ricketts

A: What first caught your attention about Chinese contemporary issues?
RB: I have always had a fascination with abandoned empty spaces and I often browse through forums that tell you where to find deserted locations, such as abandoned mine shafts and asylums.

Rob Battersby - Chongqing-JialingRiver

A YouTube video about China’s ghost cities was what initially caught my attention. I got in email contact with an economist called Gillem Tulloch, who appears in the video. He informed me that China had spent somewhere in the region of 7 trillion dollars over the last 3 years on various development schemes. I asked him where this money was being spent, and with his help I managed to create a plan for the trip, (He was the one who provided me with all my statistics for the work and they are as accurate as you can get in China). I then applied for a travel scholarship from my University and was successful, so off I went. All because of a 10 minute YouTube video!

A: What do you consider yourself to be, photographer and an artist?
RB: First and foremost, I consider myself an artist. I also do freelance photography for paid work. I’ve always considered it problematic being both a photographer and an artist, it’s something I’ve struggled with whilst studying fine art at university. This year I worked out the balance in using my photography as art.

Within my universities art department, I was weary of my place. Tutors often pushed me towards other mediums that were irrelevant to my practice. For a while my photography was fairly abstract, it took a while for me to find my own language. Even in the build up to the final degree show, I was using my statistics to create ratios and manipulate the photographs in different ways. However much I tried, discussions always boiled down to my tutors personal perception of photography as an art. I finally settled on using the pure images to make sure that people could clearly understand my work and engage with the work from photograph too information.

Rob Battersby - Tianjin-Binhai

A: How would you differentiate your work from documentary photography?
RB: I try to create a contemplative pictorial space within my photography. As Steven Chambers commented, I’m not necessarily walking about snapping away, freely capturing the moment as it were; I go to great lengths to create very strong spatial images. My images don’t necessarily capture a moment in time, but instead a space that seeks to draw the viewer in.

I do appreciate that there is a danger of my work of verging on the realm of documentary photography, but I have always wanted people to enjoy it as art. I justify my work as art, not only because I use the gallery space as means of display, but also because I relate elements of my research directly back into the image rather than as an accompaniment to direct the viewers thought process. I am looking to assess the disparity between information and the physical space in my work rather than offer a full explanation.

A: How long did you stay in China?
RB: I spent the month in China, pretty much the entire of March. I arrived on the 1st March and left on the 31st. I visited and stayed in 8 different cities, stretching from Hong Kong to Inner Mongolia.

A: Did you find it difficult to effectively capture the sense of scale when faced with China’s immense building-developments?
RB: This trip was the first time in my life that I had come across constructions of such magnitude. There is a huge difference between the impressions of China created by the media to actually experiencing it firsthand.

Throughout the trip, I was constantly in awe, especially in Binhai, Tianjin. This city is often put forward as the “new Manhattan” and soon to be “financial center of the world.” I’ve been around many America cities, but Binhai felt bigger. However my most successful photograph in capturing this sense of scale was over the Jialing River in Chongqing. I believe this photograph manages to capture every element of China’s urbanisation; infrastructure, domestic and business related properties, through too public facilities (such as opera houses and theaters).

A: How comfortable did you feel in China? Did you ever feel alienated?
RB: As time went on I felt more comfortable with my surroundings. I became familiar with how I was being perceived by the Chinese.

When walking around with professional Camera equipment, you do draw attention to yourself. Even in the United Kingdom, people would be curious. Eventually I became relaxed about carrying around the equipment and being of intrigue to Chinese citizens, who alot of the time were nothing short of fascinated by my presence.

A: So were there occasions where you got into trouble with government officials by taking photographs?
RB: Not in the places where I was expecting too. I first thought there was going to be a lot of red tape, but I didn’t get harassed at any point, apart from an occasion in the Forbidden City. When I was walking through some cities I was expecting them to be ‘hush hush’ about certain things, as there are cases where their economic project isn’t yet working to it’s full potential. The only time where I did get in trouble was outside the Forbidden City by the front gates. I was setting up my equipment; with my tripod and filters. Then a small crowd appears, they were all intrigued to what I was doing, next thing a security police office asks for my passport. I didn’t have my passport and I was telling him to calm down. I explained to him I was just taking photographs but he moved me on. I think in that particular area, near to Tiananmen Square, there has been an increase in security. On the main streets they have security points with bag scanners and police. The funny thing was that westerners could go straight through; it was only the Chinese citizens that get scanned. It was a very surreal process.

Rob Battesby - SonjiangNewCity-ThamesTown

A: When you came back to England did you view things differently?
RB: I realised that European cities cannot compare to the scale that modern Chinese are being built. It struck me that Europe has reached a fixed point, as European developments could never compare to China’s rapid rate of expansion. Europe has started to reach a state of preservation; a maintenance of a former glory. In contrast China has little concern for protecting its history, during the run up to the Beijing Olympics heritage sites were destroyed to make way for preparations. The Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei rebelled against this, and has since fallen into trouble with government officials.

A: So did any other artists influence your work in this particular project?
RB: Yes, particularly Edward Burtynsky’s work. As a photographer, he focuses on the human impact upon the landscape. One of his projects looks at the four elements of China, from industry to urbanization. I was concerned that he had already done what I was trying to do. On the whole, I am happy that my work is significantly different to his. My photography is focused on the specific effects of an economic policy, as opposed to giving a general overview of Chinese industry.

A: could you tell me a bit more about your experience in Thames Town?
RB: It was weird and surreal. I initially became interested in the area, as it is one of China’s many ghost towns. Despite having huge accommodation capacity, it is sparsely populated. On my travels, two Canadians tourists told me that they had heard about it through an article “the worlds top 10 weird towns”, and it certainly meets up to expectations. I’m originally from Liverpool and there were scenes that reminded me of home. The church there is a based on a church in Bristol and one particular set of houses look identical to my mate’s flat back at home. The town has a bizarre amalgamation of different bits of England, but they really did capture it quite well. One strange phenomenon was the large quantity of wedding photographers around the area. They overran the place; I counted 30 different groups in all.

A: Do you feel you had a particular political bias when you took the photographs?
RB: I am not in a position where I can comment on the future of China. At this point of time I am trying to be as open as possible in regards to my political outlook. In my photographs I concentrate on trying show a sense of the space and what it represents; everything else I leave to the viewers interpretation. I didn’t want my work to dictate a view; rather I wanted to provoke one. It just so happens that politically charged circumstances create artistic opportunity.

My work is more artistic than political because I am trying to provide a sense rather than a notion. Instead of a political message, I wanted to communicate a sublime sensation as well as an uneasiness of feeling overwhelmed. All in all, I want to keep that inexplicable element in my work.

A: Do you have any future plans for your artwork?
RB: This summer I want to travel to Ireland, where the crash in the housing market has left in the region of 300 suburbs unused or half-built. I’m also looking to secure funding for more adventurous projects, such as a project that explores China’s hand in Africa’s economy. My main ambition for the future is to capture China’s influence on a global scale.

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