Greg Girard

Interview Jay Kim Valentine
Photography Greg Girard
Featured in Issue 4

Greg writes for Issue 4: HOME STRETCH,

"I wish I had rented that place overlooking the runway at Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong in 1983. It was a fourth floor walk-up facing a busy street next to the runway fence. The kitchen window looked straight down the runway. The real estate agent pointed out that there were no aircraft arrivals or departures after midnight, as a jet screamed past the window, the reflection from the fat shiny metal underbelly flashing through the room for an instant. I didn’t know it at the time but I would be in and out of the airport constantly in the months and years ahead. Soon after I started working for magazines covering news in the region, and I could have walked to the check-in counters in minutes. I ended up living on the other side of town on Hong Kong island, but nonetheless ended up becoming attached to that airport. After being away on assignment and returning to Hong Kong there was that very particular thrill of flying into Kai Tak. Returning to one of the world’s great cities, with an airport that was practically downtown. The final approach involved a 45 degree right turn below 500 feet to line up with Kai Tak’s single runway sticking out into the harbour. Invariably on that home stretch there were passenger screams, from first-timers, as the aircraft banked hard low over Kowloon City, building rooftops and windows flashing by with impossibly close views of people eating dinner or watching television, and then suddenly the runway, the roar of the reverse thrust, and the clapping from the relieved and the appreciative as a cabin crew member announced, “Welcome to Hong Kong”. Kai Tak closed in 1998 and that magnificent home stretch like no other disappeared forever."

Greg Girard (b. 1955) is a Canadian photographer who has spent most of his career living and photographing in Asia. In 1974 he first arrived in Hong Kong by ship, and for the following three decades he has photographed the topography of post-war Asia during a time when the accelerator was pressed on globalization. His work often examines the physical and social transformations that shape a city. Greg’s images have a very distinctive, nostalgic and emotive quality that is often synonymous with the fantasms of cinema, with the honesty of a place and time once so deeply lived. In his commercial work, he has photographed critical pockets of history on assignment for the likes of National Geographic, Times, Forbes, and more. Pulled from his archives much of his personal work chronicles his time lived in Asia in the form of several books, international exhibitions, and Instagram posts. I met with Greg over coffee and we talked about transitory spaces, Kowloon Walled City, capturing the intimate and the overlooked, and more. All of the featured images were photographed in Hong Kong and selected by Greg along with the narrative that he wrote above for the story, encapsulating his Home Stretch.

JV: I’m very interested in your images surrounding transitory spaces and moments. Like a plane taking off or a scene through a hotel room window. These are moments that you wouldn't have necessarily noticed, unless you thought to notice them.

GG: I think you said it very concisely— unless you thought to notice them. It matches something that you have in mind, maybe not necessarily in words, but a feeling— a suspicion, an inkling, something that’s there already that you kind of get to be alert to when you’re a photographer because you’re thinking about what makes a picture. In the early days, I just wanted to travel. And everything about travel is wrapped in this kind of unfulfilled desire to be out in the world moving around, and anything that was connected to that was a part of that for me. Maybe it was a young romanticized thing, but you do things in your own way and try to make it your own no matter what you were influenced by. The idea of travel, of escape, the freedom, the in-between-ness of it, is something that always appealed to me.

JV: I can see how that also ties in with your most recent show, “American Stopover,” where you took images in your layovers to Asia in California, which is a destination for some, but it was a space of transit, an in-between moment and location for you

GG: Because the United States is such a powerful magnet, and such a final destination for so many people who aren't from there, who try to go there, whether that is to live, to work, or just to visit. It's sort of the ultimate destination in our world. For me, it was more transient than an ultimate destination, and I think that was interesting to consider as a point of transit rather than a final destination.

JV: You’ve also had a project that followed long distance truck drivers in Japan, in which these moments of transit were the focal point.

GG: It’s funny because that was one of the early stories that I did when I first started making a living as a photographer. I got hired by this magazine called Asiaweek, which is long gone now. I was basically their only photographer and in a way I was sort of an editor as well. I got to dream up stories and go and do them, so it was one of the early things I wanted to do. I lived in Japan earlier, and had never been there working as a photographer. I made pictures there as a young photographer, and this was my first chance to do it as a formal photographer, so I flew out from Hong Kong to do them. I was a broke, young English teacher with absolutely no credentials to be teaching anything back when I was living in Tokyo, so this was a nice departure. I was staying in a good hotel, and had the where with alls with the backing of a magazine to do what I needed to do with the story. And it was so great to have the resources of the local correspondent, to get in touch with people and organize this story, and get introductions, and do it. Probably the biggest thing about formal documentary work or journalism is knocking on doors and introducing yourself and explaining to people what you do.

JV: A lot of the pictures that you’ve taken are in peoples’ intimate spaces, like their homes or like the truck drivers in their cabin. And that takes a lot of trust, for people to allow you into their lives in this intimate way to be photographed in close quarters. Can you tell me a bit about what that was like?

GG: To be honest, I probably developed more of a relationship before I started working professionally, in the sense that if you are not doing it professionally, it really is just you. There’s no magazine behind you, there’s no reason for it, it’s not going to be published— there’s no reason for it other than that you’re doing it for yourself. And so in that case, you really need trust. When you have a magazine behind you, there's a certain advantage behind you, an institution that legitimizes your inquiry. You might be carrying a letter of introduction, and there's all kinds of props that you can use to get into people’s lives. But when it's just you, you have no other way.

The picture is the goal, not to get close to somebody. But I think that as a young person, when you get started and it’s just you, establishing relationships is a really important first step. And you consider that a lot more when you are just doing it by yourself.

JV: You also left home, when you were pretty young. And the first place you went to was Hong Kong. Did you have a moment when you finally let this place like home to you outside of the place you grew up in?

GG: It felt better than home (laughs). Home wasn't anything I was looking for in those days. I made it my home years later, and that took some adjustment. I wanted to be living here. But becoming a photographer was the making of a new home. It wasn't really place related, it was really about how you lived your life.

JV: What was your approach to familiarizing yourself with the place as a newcomer?

GG: To familiarize myself, I walked the streets, and went to the ordinary neighborhoods that were more interesting to me than the ones that were better known. I kind of wanted to find my own through walking the streets, meeting people, having relationships, friendships, intimacies, and you kind of make the place your own that way. I was always interested in making pictures about the city I was getting to know that I wasn't seeing. Even local artists or photographers weren’t making pictures of the city that I was living in, so I made them myself.

JV: I’m paraphrasing the excerpt from your book, Hanoi Calling— it reads something along the lines of wanting to feature the places that better define the city for the people who actually live there that don't necessarily always get the spotlight, rather than the those go-to sites labeled as an attraction.

GG: I think early on I had this feeling that the way to photograph a place is so that it is interesting to the people who live there, so they can react to it like, “I've never seen a picture of this before, or done this way,” whatever it might be. In our lives, like you said, we tend to walk past these things, everyday things in our lives that are the world we live in and sometimes, an outsider has the advantage of seeing it all fresh and showing it to you, so maybe I got to do that. I was a newcomer.
    Photography itself was a rare enough thing that there weren't enough pictures of a place. That was kind of the function of the place photography used to be, in the sense that there was a minimal amount of technical knowhow and it was expensive to buy film and process it. A certain amount of time has to be devoted to it to get to the level of the craft that is producing things that are looking good. And it's all quite different today. Yet we still go to make the same kind of pictures— of yourself, our friends, the go-to sites. I don't think it takes anything new to see a place afresh, it takes your eyes and your mind, not your equipment — that's the cliche but it's still true today.

JV: It’s interesting that you mention how the places you capture might not have had someone come around and photograph it in that way before, which I think is especially relevant for the places that don't exist anymore, like Kowloon Walled City, where you practically were there for the years of the home stretch of its existence.

GG: I was there from ‘87 to ‘90. The place was torn down in ‘92, and the last two years, as it emptied out and became kind of a demolition site, and life was already kind of gone from it. I knew it as this vibrant living thing, and I wasn't attracted to the ruin of it as some people might, who if they had just came across it as a ruin would have found it fascinating and interesting in that way. But I was really devoted to showing it as a living breathing thing.

JV: Was there a moment when you were there that the urgency of the city’s existence became especially clear to you, that this was the final stretch before the end?

GG: Probably the big pivot point between KWC and Hong Kong itself really came when the government announced that the place was going to be demolished. The Walled City was an anomaly, technically a piece of mainland Chinese territory near Kowloon by the airport. That means that Beijing has ultimate say about it. I remember seeing that announcement, and it alerted both Hong Kong and Walled City residents that the days in the KWC were numbered. And it's going to vanish. What that meant for me was that suddenly people who were living in the city had this new framework to understand what someone like me was doing— the place was going to disappear so he’s here taking photographs of it.
    Before the announcement, there was still some hostility towards a foreigner with a camera wandering around. The way that I [overcame] that reluctance and hostility, was that I was using a lot of equipment, like lights, so it was a big production to be photographing. I just started working for magazines, so I was doing portraits for Fortune or for celebrities, as well as [covering] civil wars, coups, and natural disasters. I applied this elevated way of portraiture of good lighting systems to make people and their spaces look good, rather than to do it in black and white and make everything look dodgy and more grim than it actually was.

JV: I think you’ve created some of the most intimate and objectively candid images of daily life in some of these places that don't exist anymore, whether they were erased by force like KWC or the parts of Shanghai that were left behind, or erased by time like Vancouver of the 70’s and 80’s. There is so much to learn and take away from these photographs beyond the hard historical facts because you’re given the ability to see life from the inside perspective.

GG: Oh, thank you. That was one of the fundamental things that my colleague Ian and I were trying to do. We didn't know each other until we were both introduced through being interested in KWC. The first thing I understood about the place after getting over the physical, psychedelic fantasy of the physical structure, was that it was just a normal place where people were trying to live lives and raise families. It's not like it's a huge enlightenment to say that, but it ran counter to what everyone was saying about the place. The only information about the place was that it was dangerous, full of the vices of society, the drugs, prostitution, gambling; it was the old fashioned moral judgment about a bad neighbourhood. The reputation continues even after the reality was changed. And all those things were true about KWC, but when I started photographing there in the 80’s, it was just people trying to live their lives. Seeing that and understanding that was so different from everything we’ve heard about the place.

You could try to make the place worse than it was by continuing to focus on its history and making it look like this horrible den of iniquity, in which some journalists and documentary filmmakers continued to do into the 80’s, really astonishingly. They refused to believe what was in front of their eyes and tried to cram this place into the outdated notion of the Walled City. It was full of families and people trying to make a living in really grim conditions.

JV: Do you see yourself more in the role of a historian or a novelist?

GG: I wouldn’t say historian because I had no interest in my pictures being made for some sort of historical record. I always made the pictures of now, for now. And I never, especially when I was young, considered, “Oh this would be interesting in 20 or 30 years.” That was absolutely the last thing on my mind. But it's interesting to say novelist, because that probably comes close to what matches, a novelistic impulse to photograph the world, but it's not exactly reality. It's fictionalized through the lens of you. And that’s very different from the journalistic impulse to show the audience what is happening.

I certainly wanted to share the work, but I certainly did not know how to do that, especially pre-internet. How would you get anything out there? I think it's a really good choice to call it a novelistic impulse. And indeed, I was reading a lot of novels at the time that kind of felt closer to what I was doing and what I wanted to do, that the pictures that were out there at the time that you would come across. It was a much smaller environment to be looking at images, and very few places to look at Photography with a capital P.

JV: What’s your relationship like with the internet today?

GG: Well, I think it's a part of life now, inescapable for everybody. I'm a little bit of a late joiner for social media, but some years ago, rather than posting phone pictures, I started posting my scanned photographs. And I started with what was my ‘real work,’ rather than personal work (except the old ones). I did it as a way to find out about Instagram, and show my early work. And it's snowballed, so it's a part of my day or my week, to post about the things that I’m photographing or things that I’ve scanned in my archives. It’s an ongoing meandering of my pictures.

JV: Thank you, Greg.

You can find more of Greg’s work at his Instagram and website. Greg is back living in the Greater Vancouver area and he is still photographing the city as he sees it. He is currently represented by Monte Clarke Gallery.