London-based fashion and portrait photographer Ester Keate travels to China to explore the lives of factory workers. A trope heavy with cultural and political connotations in Western contexts, labour in China is to some an obscure area. Many would rather assume than investigate. Many more take media portrayals of these environments at face value.
Ester Keate discovers that there´s more to see and know about factory workers in China, and that recording their daily routine should be an exercise in truth, and an honest search for their stories.
This series captures the ethos of the workplace: the balance of work and rest, bodies and machines, spaces and non-spaces. Keate successfully grasps the fullness of the moment, pushing her medium to nearly transcend its own boundaries and leave the viewer wanting more: as we look, we almost wish for stillness to give way to movement, and for silence to become sound.
Elena Stanciu: Can you tell me a bit about your work as a photographer – your inspiration, how you started, what drives you?
Ester Keate: Both my parents are photographers, so I have always found it natural to use a camera to explore the world. When I travel, I spend the entire time taking photos, and when I am at home, I think about everything I see around me as of a possible shoot location or inspiration for a series. I´d say that what drives me is a love for taking photos, an instinct rather than a rationalisation.
ES: How did you come to work on the Factory Work in China project? Was it a subject matter you already had in mind? Did you go in with certain expectations? Were they met, or rather proven wrong by the reality of these factories?
EK: I am fascinated by factories in general, and I particularly like photographing people at work, I think this universal activity is worth investigating in specific contexts. I went to China with the standard Western preconception on Chinese factories – that they would be awful places, with poor conditions and overworked workers. I was sure it would be a struggle to get access and be allowed to take photos – that I was going to be met with suspicion about my reasons to photograph these places, and that people would want to hide the conditions in the factories. What I found was the complete opposite. I found happy workers, proud to show me around and happy for me to photograph their work space and routines. I came to realise that, although from our point of view, the factories might not be perfect, the people there see them as a vast improvement on what they were experiencing just five or 10 years ago and are now happy with their jobs.
ES: What impact do you hope this project will have on viewers?
EK: I hope that these images will lead people to question their preconceptions on China, and start to think about how images and representations in general are being circulated by our media outlets. You wouldn´t assume that a world so open and mobile as ours today would still allow space for prejudice and misconceptions about other cultures, but it is sadly true. With all the access to remote place, ease to travel, and capacity to communicate instantly, I think we all have a duty to think twice about what we believe to be true of the information we receive, either from media, or from other sources.
ES: There´s a lot of prejudice in the West regarding production of goods in China – after doing this series, is there something you can add to the conversation regarding labour environments and conditions, quality of workers´ life, or their own way of seeing their work?
EK: Of course, there are a lot of improvements that can be made to labour regulations and workers´ rights in China, as in other places. However, while I was meeting with workers and seeing how they live, I had a strong sense that what I had heard from the UK press about China was proven not entirely accurate. I think we are led to believe that conditions in China are much worse than they are and that they have extremely unhappy workers, when, in fact, the country seems to have pulled the largest percentage of its population out of poverty faster than any other nation in history.
I think that we should always fight for improved welfare, and the press should pick up on injustices and flaws in companies all over the world. Nevertheless, we need to be able to discern facts from prejudice, and challenge bias when we encounter it.
ES: Looking through your work, I see you combine fashion photography and glamorous topics with social documentary photo projects, more real and raw. How does this series fit with your other work and your aesthetic generally?
EK: I just love to photograph people and tell a story. In both fashion photography and portraiture, I have the chance to work closely with talented, creative people, and I´m grateful to always be able to find a story to explore. My documentary series follow a similar pattern, in that I always go somewhere to meet people and use my camera to find their story. I never really start out with a clear idea of what the series will end up being, I just let myself find it slowly through the images.
ES: The River People, The People of Paradise, or Life under Siege are all series that look at Asian social and natural environments. What interests you about this area?
EK: Partly it is just that I have been lucky enough to have had reasons to travel there recently. However I do find the area very intriguing. China especially is the only place I have been that has never been a Western colony, so it is now quite free of embedded Western influence. The culture and attitude of the people are very different from what I see or expect in the UK and Europe, and that is what I enjoy exploring when I visit new places – being surprised by what might be other people´s mundanity.
ES: Photography is interesting in that it can be medium for both unfiltered recording of reality, and (re)interpretation of facts and truths – where in the tension between the two do you consider your work to be?
EK: With my documentary series, I prefer not to plan a project too much. I do some research into the history and current affairs of the country, but try my hardest not to allow any preconceived ideas to influence my work. I´d rather have a natural response to the place and the people there. The interpretation part comes in when editing and selecting the shots. Then, I use what images I have taken and what I have learnt about the place and people to put together the project. It is a form of translating of what I´ve seen first-hand, and I suppose I cannot detach my way of looking from the final result, but I´m not entirely sure that I should.
ES: Is your photography a tool of learning more about people? If so, what are the most important lessons you´ve learnt so far?
EK: Most people hate having their photo taken. Just kidding! I guess what I take from it all is that we should (as much as possible) never judge or assume we can understand others based on our own experiences and culture. It´s safe and comfortable to apply a familiar lens to everything and use what makes sense, but this will never lead to genuinely understanding other cultures. Open-mindedness is so important, and sometimes sadly overlooked as a necessary feature in a world as interconnected and global as ours.
ES: Did you ever experience your work to be misinterpreted? How do you handle that?
EK: Normally, I don’t mind. I think different perspectives are just as valuable and often just as valid as my own. I try not essentialise anything. However, I have had issues with the Chinese factories series: I struggled to place them for a while, as everyone expected a horror story to go along, about the horrible working conditions in China and so on. I have found that the meaning some find in these photos is not as I intended, but replaced to fit some ideas people already feel comfortable to have about this topic. This saddens me, as I become aware of the power of image as a core element of our culture, and think about how easy it is to manipulate and mislead using images. I think this should give artists a sense of responsibility – and it very often does.
Words: Elena Stanciu
Photography: Ester Keate