Michael Steverson describes himself as a former jack-of-all-trades — master-of-none kind of guy. That was his past – his present is shooting incredibly stunning photographs from China. His street portraits and documentary images tell the story of his life in China. The accompanying prose Michael attaches to the images on his blog, Expatriate Games, give his view of China – the sites and people he sees each day. What drives Michael? What are his secrets? Read on in Phottix’s Photog Friday.
Editor’s Note: It is with great pleasure I present this interview. Having known Michael for three years I speak for a great many photographers when I say he is an inspiration and a great mentor and friend.
Name: Michael Steverson
Country of residence: China
Brief Bio: An American experiencing midlife in The Middle Kingdom, I teach English at Liuzhou Teachers College in Guangxi Province in South China. I’m there three days a week, teaching mostly Business English classes to mostly poor students from the countryside of Guangxi, who are mostly (97%) girls. For more than half of my students, I am the first foreigner they have ever spoken to. Aside from being their English teacher, I hope I am a positive ambassador from the West. I also take photographs. Photography is my passion. Over time I’ve come to realize that we are all much more alike than we are different and I’m trying to bridge cultural gaps with the camera. I have 4 days a week to shoot and I’m also free for photography for two months in the summer and one month in the winter. Life is good.
How did you first get interested in photography?
I was always somewhat artistically inclined but was bit of a jack-of-all-trades — master-of-none kind of guy. I was a sketch artist, dabbled in oil and acrylics and sculpture. I played all the woodwinds as well as guitar and some piano. I loved to write too but none of that stayed with me over time.
I probably first picked up a camera in my early teens. I remember I later took a class, might have been in high school, maybe it was in college. I really loved it from day one but had difficulty managing the time required to work with film and I was too much of a perfectionist to let somebody else do the developing. I never really did all that I wanted to do with it, I guess I wasn’t ready for photography or maybe it wasn’t ready for me. My career and babies and other commitments (life) also “happened” and I wouldn’t change any of it as those experiences have made me who I am today. While I still had a camera around, most of the time it collected dust on a shelf, making only the rare birthday or vacation appearance. With the advent of digital photography many of those barriers were lifted. It was then that I became slightly obsessed.
What do you like to shoot?
I’ll shoot pretty much anything but I definitely gravitate towards shooting people in everyday situations, reflecting life here as I see it. I shoot a lot of street portraits but it’s not so much street photography per se. I’m usually trying to come at it from a documentary or cultural angle. I hope the photos tell a story; maybe they will challenge some stereotypes. I don’t want to judge with the camera. Even the least fortunate among us have a story as to how they got there – so I hope I am sharing the images with dignity. There are too many foreigners in China sharing opinions about this or that, espousing negative, ignorant or culturally boneheaded views. I hope I’m coming at it from a different place.
What’s your approach to photography, your philosophy? What do you look for? How do you set-up a shot?
Yeah, you know I’ve gone back and forth about “my approach”. I definitely subscribe to the theory of “you’ll certainly miss a shot if you don’t take it,” so I tend to shoot a lot. For a long time after I arrived in China I took my camera everywhere and I was able to capture some good images simply because I had the camera with me. For some reason, I stopped doing that for a while but it didn’t take very long to realize I was too often saying, “Man, I wish I had a camera right now… “. Even though it can sometimes be a hassle, I’m back to taking one everywhere.
As for what to look for, I’ll usually just keep my eyes open and see what unfolds in front of me. If I’m looking for anything, it’s probably light first and then I think about how to portray the subject matter in a positive or empathetic or understanding way. Does that even make sense? There are times, such as when shooting for a client or a specific assignment, that I’ll have a shot or mood I need to convey and in those situations I may do some location scouting or use off camera lighting or reflectors and pose the subjects. Other than that, unless I am in the studio, I usually don’t do so much setting up. Again, I do search for interesting light, but aside from that I like the spontaneity.
With the photo processing software available today it’s very easy to repair exposure and contrast so I am primarily focusing on composition and framing and getting the shot in-focus, depending on my eye. I hope that in the end I am presenting an image, a moment, maybe revealing a personality that the viewer would otherwise never get to see. I also hope the shot is visually interesting, affecting. I should mention that one thing that is invaluable for me as a documentary photographer here in China, is having a translator along. My Chinese is becoming better all the time but trying to explain to a leery old Chinese woman why I want to take her photograph can be daunting. Here in Guangxi, there are a lot of local dialects to deal with as well. I know I wouldn’t have gotten some of those shots without that help.
What is the best photo you have taken? Why? Background and details, please…
Wow, that’s a tough one, does anybody ever answer that question? I mean, it’s like asking someone, which is his favorite child. Let’s say I hope I haven’t taken it yet and that I’ll continue to improve. Of course I have some favorites but they are usually my favorites because they mean something to me personally. I do have a couple of favorite projects that I’ll mention. One involved a series of photos and interviews I did with a group of retirees who get together in a local park to perform Chinese Opera. You can see some of those images on my website here and on my Flicker page in the Operatic set. The other was a photo-documentary of Chinese New Year in my adopted hometown of Liuzhou. I stayed up for 24 hours and shot the people of Liuzhou as they celebrated the first day of Spring Festival. You can read the story and see the resulting images at Xiin Nian Hao – 24 Hours In Liuzhou.
What gear are you using? What else do you want to buy?
I use the Canon EOS system and I figure I will continue to do so because I have so much invested in glass! I prefer to shoot full frame so I’ve got two 5D Mark II’s and I have a dead 40D I need to get repaired. I have a G11, which is small and very handy in a lot of situations. On the DSLR’s I use a range of L series lenses covering everything from 17 mm up to 200 mm. I would like to get an 85 mm f/1.2L lens at some point but I would also like to eat. While I don’t need a longer lens it might be fun to have something longer one day, say 300 or even 400mm. I’d like to get the full frame Mark 1Ds Mark IV when it is available because the build quality should be even better than the 5D. I have the usual range of accessories, flashes, tripod, etc. I’d like to buy a Leica Rangefinder one day too, as I really like the results I see others getting. HA! Maybe that’s enough… I only get new equipment when the photography itself pays for it, otherwise I’d be broke. While I do agree with the adage that it’s not the equipment but the photographer, trust me, if you have a choice go for the good stuff, especially lenses. Oh… and as I continue to learn how to manage my time, I would like to jump back into the fray and buy a film camera one day soon. A medium format something or other. Man, I just read that list back and I will NEVER have all that stuff! What the heck, dream big or why dream?
Which area of photography would you like to explore further (macro, landscapes, portraits)
That’s an easier question. I’ve dabbled in macro photography and it is fun and I like the results but I would really like to take more (and better) landscape photos. I see so many amazing landscapes from talented China photographers and for some reason I don’t “see” those shots so well. I hope it’s just a matter of making the time to practice but I really admire beautiful landscape photography. It’s something I have committed to this year and I am seeing some improvement but I’m so not there yet. I also want to experiment more with lighting in the field. I’ve been inspired by a couple of photographers who are doing some really cool things with off camera lighting in locations and situations you would not normally think of and the images are remarkable. Actually, I’ll feature one of those artists on my website soon.
Where do you see your photography 5 years from now?
Well, like most folks I hope I am a better photographer than I am today. I was approached last year about taking photographers on photographic tours of China and found the prospect interesting so we are in the processing of putting that together now. There are some folks that do that here but from my own experience, I can tell you only a handful of outfits do it very well. I think the business should be fun and let’s hope it will be sustainable. I hope to have more photos and articles published in various magazines and newspapers and by then I would like to have a couple more books published as well. I’d like to be able to quit teaching at some point soon but as long as the photos can at least pay for the equipment I’ll be happy.
My biggest ambition is to develop an outreach program to rural primary school children here in Guangxi Province. I hope to introduce the kids to their first foreigner, teach them a bit of English and introduce them to photography. We’ll identify needs in each school and do what we can to fulfill those needs. As a foreigner, it is challenging and often confusing interacting across cultural lines while dealing with the bureaucracy involved in trying to develop something like an unofficial NGO. The rules seem to “float” and I’ve run into some roadblocks but I become more positive and even more determined after each setback. I think I just haven’t met the right person yet, and in China, it’s usually all about knowing “the right person”. Lofty expectations to be sure. I figure I’m not getting any younger so if not now, when?
What’s the best advice you would give to fellow photographers?
I am not sure how qualified I am to give anyone advice but I’ll throw a few things out there. I’d say if you’re a beginner, the sooner you take your camera off the automatic settings the better. Experiment with different settings and really get to know your camera and the resulting images will amaze you. You’ll improve very quickly. Even if you want to go back to shooting on the auto settings, knowing how the camera works is extremely beneficial. Also, as I said before, I am also a big proponent of shooting a lot. If you are shooting digitally there is little reason not to. That being said, just because you shoot a lot doesn’t mean you should show everything! Feature your best work. Brother I have images floating around out there in cyberspace I wish I could get back! For portraits, try getting close and filling the frame. Yes, of course there are times when you want a nice wide angle shot for context but experiment with getting in tight on the subject. Finally, there are so many great resources on the web to help you improve your photography, spend a little time searching and you’ll be surprised at what is out there. I mean you really can find just about any answer to any photography questions just by spending some time with your favorite search engine.
Where can we find your images?
I have the Expatriate Games website which includes my blog at http://www.expatriategames.net/. In fact, we just launched a new site design and for the month of September I am giving away a lot of cool stuff to celebrate. All anyone has to do to be eligible is go to the site, subscribe to the feed, and then leave a comment somewhere so I have a way to contact the winners. The prizes include an Apple iPad (yeah really), a Canon EF100mm f/2.8 MACRO lens, a set of Phottix Strato 4 in 1 wireless triggers, autographed limited edition prints and copies of Saving Faces – A Portrait Collection. You can also find me on:
I’m a social butterfly, I hope you’ll come say hello.