Reflections In The Eyes Of Another | 2009

Reflections In The Eyes Of An Other is a series of photographs of zuo tai bar-workers and their clients in Shanghai, China. Masters of the ambiguous gaze, these young hosts and hostesses are often university students hired by bar and nightclub owners to mingle with paying customers – engaging in conversation or playing dice-games with real clients in order to encourage them to spend more money on drinks. The zuo tai arrive pre opening-time, positioning themselves decoratively around the club before the night’s first genuine customers are permitted to enter, thus making the venue appear more popular with a young fashionable crowd than is actually the case. For the most part rather bored – and anyway unable to be heard much above the din of commercial RnB and dance music blaring from the speakers – the zuo tai effectively spend much of their nights ‘elsewhere’, communicating with friends via instant messaging.

Despite this almost journalistic facade to the work, in producing the series I was more interested in expressing something of the underlying sadness and malaise increasingly found in contemporary urban society; where the necessity to protect oneself from a life lived in such close proximity to several million largely indifferent and uncaring strangers, coupled with the creeping realization that any attempt to truly know and understand the experiences of another human being is anyway largely a futile quest, has lead to a uniquely modern form of loneliness and alienation.

Fully blurring the boundaries between passive-observation and staged-reality, Reflections In The eyes Of Another is probably the clearest example so far of a manner of working I have come to think of as ‘contaminated-documentary’. This term should not be taken as a suggestion that I believe there exists a ‘pure’ or ‘uncontaminated’ form of documentary, but rather that by means of such techniques some of the problems inherent to the genre are pushed to the fore – instead of being unreflexively buried in the creation of dishonest fables dressed as the compassionate reporting of ‘hard-facts’, as is so often the case within more traditional spheres of documentary photographic practice.

What this means in concrete terms is that I control certain elements prior to the ‘event’ in order to guarantee the outcomes I require, but that once these interventions are in place I then allow the situation to unfold as ‘organically’ as possible, often with the subjects unaware that they are even participating in any kind of ‘performance’. In this case, much as the zuo tai surreptitiously infiltrate the throngs of genuine customers in order to encourage greater spending, I passed the day prior to producing the photographs discretely placing artificial lighting in all corners of the venue in order that I too could covertly exercise a certain degree of control over the evening’s proceedings.