RongRong, photographer and founder of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre: "We created Three Shadows in 2007 with the hope to break the current status of photography"

A legendary photographer who started in the 1990s, RongRong (born 1968 in Fujian, China) established in 2007 with his wife, Japanese photographer inri, the very first non-profit museum dedicated to photography in China, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, in Beijing’s art district Caochangdi. Soon after the creation of the museum, Three Shadows created an award dedicated to young talents in Chinese photography, the Three Shadows Photography Award (TSPA), which has become in 10 years a reference in the Chinese art world. RongRong is also the founder of Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival in Xiamen, with Rencontres d’Arles’ director Sam Stourdzé.

Doors interviewed RongRong on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of TSPA and the related exhibition organized by Three Shadows, with works by award laureates or nominees from the past 10 years: BING Nv, CAI Dongdong, CHEN Xiaoyi, CHEN Zhe, CHENG Xinhao, CHU Chu, DAI Jianyong, DU Yanfang, Feng Li, HUANG Jing, HUANG Xiaoliang, JIANG Pengyi, 9mouth, LI Jun, LIANG Xiu, Lin Zhipeng (aka 223), LIU Zhangbolong, LU Yanpeng, LUO Yang, LUO Dan, Mu Ge, QIU, REN Hang, SHEN Linghao, SUN Yanchu, Taca SUI, WANG Lin, WANG Lin, WANG Tuo, Yan WANG Preston, WEI Bi, XU Lijing, YANG Yuanyuan, ZHANG Jin, ZHANG Kechun, ZHANG Wenxin, ZHANG Xiao, ZHANG Zhizhou, ZHU Lanqing

RongRong&Inri, from the series of  Three Shadows , 2007

RongRong&Inri, from the series of Three Shadows, 2007

You said in the exhibition foreword that you knew that you wanted to follow the path of photography at a very young age; what was it that attracted you to it specifically?

Photography is endlessly attractive, and holds unlimited possibilities. Although the camera is actually a tool, the images it produces contain a world of meaning, giving me answers to questions I wasn’t even aware of. As young people, we’ve all been through confused periods, in which we hunted for both problems and answers. The camera helped me find an exit. Oftentimes we are faced with real issues of the moment, but when the images are extracted from reality, they offer an infinite space for the imagination. This is how I’ve searched for ideal images. It’s not an instant process. You need to search among your accumulated experiences.

What motivated you to start Three Shadows?

Three Shadows Photography Art Centre is not just my creation. It came about after meeting inri, because we had the same idea. We all have faith in photography and want to use the Three Shadows to present the ideal world of photography. More than 20 years ago, we all explored on the road of photography, and we also took many detours, so when we have good conditions, we hope we can break the current status of photography, change the local soil in which photography grows, and enable a dialogue between the local and global worlds of photography. The photographic language transcends nation and country. The image is an independent carrier of meaning.

What about the annual award?

We’ve all been young, we’ve all experienced a state of youthful confusion, and so we know what young people need. We’ve all submitted drafts and had setbacks and failures. The Three Shadows Photography Award was established to give young people a platform and space to display their work. We hope image lovers will demonstrate their talents and realize their possibilities. In China, support for photography is somewhat lacking, having become marginalized in contemporary art. This has not been properly addressed in the last few decades, leading to scarce public access to the art. We hope to increase awareness of video art too via this award.

This award gives a chance for young Chinese artists to get recognition in the photography field. How do you relate to this young generation of photographers, as you were also struggling when you were younger?

First of all, I feel very fortunate to be able to communicate with young people, witness their growth, and interact with them on an artistic level. In the first 20 or 20 years of my life in Beijing, I became friends with some of China’s first contemporary artists, the Stars group that organized the Stars Art Exhibition in 1979, and I also got to know and work closely with the Beijing East Village artists. After setting up Three Shadows, I worked with the new generation of artists and witnessed the fast-paced growth of Chinese contemporary art in the past few decades. We can learn a lot from our predecessors but it’s also important to see the vitality of the youth and grasp where they’re coming from.

Every year you receive many submissions and you have to choose around 20 artists to be exhibited, one of which will actually win the award. Which criteria do you use to choose the finalists?  

Every year we receive between 500 and 600 submissions, of all types and varying degrees of quality. A small group at Three Shadows sifts through them first. Inri and I also get involved in the initial screening process. When we first established the Photography Award, we did not expect that there would be so many applicants, especially from Chinese artists abroad. At the beginning, we did not know what selection criteria to use or what direction the award would take. But from the beginning of Three Shadows, the Award has always had its own style. It is hard to apply standards to definitions of art. We’ve also invited outsiders to participate in the first stage and nominations, hoping to present a diversity of images as far as possible. Submission quality is closely related to the standard of the contributor. In recent years, as more and more international contributers have participated, this diversity has become increasingly obvious. Young people who have studied abroad are taking part in numbers we could not have predicted at the beginning of the Photography Award. It has happily taken us in many unexpected directions.

The award jury is composed of five or six members who come from an international background, how do you select them?

The selection of the Three Shadows Photography Award panel is quite special. We invite curators from art galleries around the world, such as photography experts from MOMA and the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. Artists such as the Dusseldorf school’s Thomas Ruff, and Hilla Becher are also invited to evaluate submissions. A jury composed of professionals will meet the artists before judging, and this jury will view all the submitted works before making a decision. We chose a few different judges every year, and always reserve one vote for Three Shadows.

Three Shadows visits photography institutions around the world every year to know more about our prospective judges’ standards. Some judges have been invited many years in a row. These include former Tate Gallery curator and director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris), Simon Baker, and Clement Chéroux, previously at SF MOMA and now curator at the Pompidou Centre. We trust our judges to have a keen eye for contemporary photography, and appreciate their enormous contributions to the industry. Determining next year’s judges is one of our biggest tasks of the year. We also hope that while helping Chinese photography become more open and international, we are also increasing our judges’ understanding of Chinese photography.

Having an international jury enables TSPA to have an open and independent attitude, does it also help promoting the artists internationally?

Definitely. Last year, the curator of the Tate Gallery came to China. We not only introduced him to the artists and photographers who participated in the award, but also to photographers from Republican China. One of these was Luo Bonian. The following year, Luo Bonian’s work was on display at the Tate. So through the international judging process, we have brought many forgotten masters back into the light.

The Three Shadows Photography Award taps into youth art, and provides considerable support. The more young people meet and communicate with international judges, the more they will have the opportunity to publish and exhibit their work abroad.

What direction do you hope the Award will go in the future?

Making the Photography Award sustainable is, for us, the hardest challenge. From the start, we’ve positioned ourselves in the role of facing up to tomorrow's problems. As a founder of this space, we have a responsibility to keep it going, but we will inevitably get older and won’t be able to manage it forever. Meanwhile, Three Shadows will grow and become more independent. Many people have given us support and recognition over the past decade, and it is this that has helped us carry on til today. The very least we can do in return is to keep positive and inject optimism into our view of tomorrow.