Exploring Edges of the World: Getting to Know Independent Photographer Xiao Gu

When you see Xiao Gu’s photo for the first time, you would totally think she is a young girl. It is hard to imagine the majestic and mind-blowing works came from this girl. Xiao Gu has won various international photography awards consecutively in 2017. In the recently announced French PX3 (Prix de la Photographie, Paris) Photography Competition, Xiao Gu won awards from both the Annual Reports Category and the Travel/Tourism Category.

Now, let’s get to know this young independent photographer more.

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Xiao Gu was born in Beijing and due to her family’s work obligations, she spent a large part of her childhood living and studying in Tibet and many other provinces. This experience triggered her strong interest in multiculturalism, folk customs and natural landscapes, as well as inspired her to record precious natural sceneries and focus on marginalized groups with her lens, which ultimately became her photography direction.

©Xiao Gu

In these years, Xiao Gu has successively traveled to the Antarctica, the Arctic, and Kenya for photography. She has climbed “the Roof of Africa” - Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa. Many people came from far through dangers and difficulties for a glance of the grand scene known to the world, but Xiao Gu paid more attention to the natural and cultural environments of these places. She identifies herself as a documentary photographer, “Compare to the grand landscapes with a large spectrum of shapes and colors, I’d rather record the gorgeous, splendid, and touching beautiful moments”.


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Exploring Ahead, Advancing Ahead

“Walking Over the Clouds – The Porters of Mount Kilimanjaro” – ©Xiao Gu, taken at Mount Kilimanjaro, the Roof of Africa

GP: It came to my knowledge that you have been to many dangerous remote areas. I heard in order to travel to the Antarctica, one has to pass the Devil’s Westerly Belt, and I can only imagine the difficulties in photo shooting. What motivation keeps you going forward?

Xiao Gu: There were indeed lots of struggles and fears along in many places. I recall something my guide said while I was climbing towards the top of Mount Kilimanjaro – it was dark and cold, walking on the seemingly endless route only made me want to give up; I remember my guide telling me, “Look ahead, there is full of hope in front; do not look back, and don’t let fear stop you.” Thinking back, this really makes sense – it is not that we are not capable of doing things and going to places, but when we deny ourselves and allow fear to manipulate us in the first place, we bypass the beautiful things.

GP: Are there any equipment requirements for photo shooting at these places?

Xiao Gu: Simply put it, the requirements for equipment are heat preserving, waterproof and the ability to be relatively hassle-free. Heat preserving is not only for people, but also for the camera, as the battery drains faster under low temperatures, and it is better to bring spare batteries along. Waterproof is due to the capriciousness of the Antarctic weather, the sun may be out this moment but rain and snow may fall the next moment. Waterproof device is therefore needed for the camera. Hassle-free is more for the lenses, as changing the lenses outdoors in the Antarctica will be difficult. The best solution is carrying two cameras with long-focus and wide-angle lenses respectively, the drawbacks are the strength needed to carry them, and the relatively high cost. To compensate these, I usually use a Go-Pro and a smartphone, in addition to a telephoto zoom lens.

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“Roaming the Glaciers” – ©Xiao Gu, taken at the Antarctica

GP: When arriving at a place with amazing wonders, many photographers become puzzled and do not know where to start. Can you tell us how to locate an appropriate angle?

Xiao Gu: I think this is a great question. As you mentioned, if there are wonders everywhere at a certain place, it is indeed hard to start because it is difficult to set priorities. Personally, I like to show the micro through the macro, and vice versa. If I am at a broad space and it is hard to distinguish the layers, I tend to focus on the subtleties for composition. For example, a large glacial area appears white and grand, but it also looks plain, therefore it is better to choose a few interesting glaciers as point of view. On the other hand, when at a tiny area, I rely more on the good use of sky and earth to create a broad visual effect.

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©Xiao Gu, taken at Cappadocia, Turkey


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Let the People Who Need Help Enter Public View

GP: Can you talk about your photography concept?

Xiao Gu: My photography concept is very simple – to let the people who need help enter public view. When studying at school and working, I participated in various charitable activities and joined different volunteer organizations. The activities are mainly assisting socially marginalized groups, which include the children of migrant workers in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, children in Linqi area with cleft for lips and palate condition who have no money for treatments, and women and children from African refugee camps. After I came to the US, I also joined organizations designated to assist people who finished their time served in prison and were about to re-enter the society. These experiences opened my eyes to the scars underneath the glory and the helplessness behind the smiles in this world. As a photographer, I feel that I have the duty to restore and present the heavy reality I sensed to the general public.

"Children of Dadaab"– ©Xiao Gu

GP: Your work “Children of Dadaab” received award in the Professional Category of the French PX3 Photography Competition. Can you share how this photo series was made with us?

Xiao Gu: Dadaab is located in northeastern Kenya and had the largest refugee camp complex in the world with a population of approximately 300 thousand residents. This series of photos were taken when I was a volunteer teacher in Dadaab. The local environment was harsh and the conditions were difficult, the residents generally lived in shacks built with plastic sheets. The children only had one lunch every day, which was merely a simple cup of porridge made from corn mixture. Flies were seen everywhere in this harsh environment, and sometimes flies covered the children’s faces. However, what really touched my heart was in spite of the heavy restrictions on their living and studying conditions, the children still showed their carefree and innocent nature, their thirst for the precious knowledge, and their curiosity for the outside world.

GP: What role do you think photography played in the whole process?

Xiao Gu: Like I mentioned before, I volunteered in institutions and organizations dedicated to improving marginalized groups’ conditions. Through interacting with the marginalized people, I realized although short-term volunteering activities had practical meanings, they were somehow limited because people could only do certain things in a given time frame. Looking from a long-term perspective, the best way to help marginalized groups is to let the general public learn about their living conditions and let the public understand that there are such groups of people who live in scarcity of resources. In this way, the social resources can be centralized to provide attention and assistance for the marginalized groups. The general public mainly gets to know marginalized groups through media coverage, and photography is an ideal way – it touches people through sincerity and not pretentious displays. This is the reason I chose to sort out and submit my photography works.


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A Few Pieces of Suggestions for Entering Competitions

"Dream"– ©Xiao Gu

GP: Most of the competitions you took part in are international competitions, do you think the criteria are different between international and domestic competitions?

Xiao Gu: Regardless of the competitions being domestic or international, the judges hope to feel the photographers’ heartfelt sentiments. Let me give you an example – the World Press Photo of the Year 2016 goes to Australian photographer Warren Richardson’s work “Hope for a New Life”. According to Richardson, he moved with the refugees every day during that period and almost felt like a refugee himself that fled from Syrian war for a new world ahead. The picture was taken at around three o’clock in the morning, and to avoid attracting attention from the police, he did not turn on the flashlight and used moonlight alone to take the blurry picture. Judging from the photo quality alone, this work cannot be called ideal, but the judges weighed the heavy reality behind this work more.

"Dream"– ©Xiao Gu

GP: You will serve as the judge for the PABA Photo Competion; do you have any good advice for the participants?

Xiao Gu: First, I would like to urge everyone to please carefully read the rules of the competition, it will be a pity if your works cannot be judged because they do not meet the requirements. Secondly, I personally think that good works should focus more on content rather than modification, try to avoid putting too much emphasis on post-production techniques and be more flexible.

GP: How would you plan your photography career in the future?

Xiao Gu: Photography career planning is big work and this question is not easy to answer. I can share with you my recent plan – I plan to travel to Newfoundland, Canada next to photograph the local culture and customs, and learn about the local residents’ living conditions after the Newfoundland fisheries collapsed due to overfishing. I wish to continue to direct the public attention to the commonly easily overlooked places.

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©Xiao Gu


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