When an anthropologist starts photographing… «The Italian Asian» Margot Errante – on taboos in Chinese portraits, the therapy of mirrors and the governments we deserve

The task of understanding art and art market of the country whose standards and rules of behavior are so different from the reality of one’s familiar culture is incredibly difficult. In this regard, the status of the most unknown and controversial country for ages seems to belong to China. Thus, the only wise and effective approach to the empire of the “sleeping dragon” would be through a guide, whose experience and knowledge would be enough to explain all the intricacies and peculiarities of Asia. In my story the role of the personal Virgil belonged to the Italian Margot Errante – a person with quite a long list of professional roles. She is a photographer, a lecturer, a translator, an ethnolinguist who has been dealing with the issue of China since the 1990s. Her photographs have been published in numerous media, including «China National Geography», «South China Morning Post», «Home», «PRC» and others, and in 2010 she also acted as one of the curators of the Hong Kong Pavilion at the 12th International Architecture Biennale in Venice.

I met Margo in her Hong Kong studio apartment, where we talked about the changing face of Asia, the existential nature of the portrait and uncertain future of China.

Margot Errante

Margot Errante. Self-portrait. From the private archive


Bleek Magazine: Your range of professional specializations is quite impressive: you are a cultural mediator, anthropologist, linguist… What place does photography have in the list?

Margot Errante: I did not go to a photography school and neither was I meant to be a photographer. When I was very young, I always had a passion for art and wanted to do art school. But in the 1990s it was not easy because Italian parents would say, “No, what would you do, when you are older?”. So, I had to pursue my second passion – foreign languages. I studied English, French, a bit of German, Portuguese, Spanish and then Chinese, which was for me the unknown, a real mystery. And you can imagine that in those times it was actually such – pretty much an unknown land. This interest brought me to China but photography has always been something I did, despite being not my only focus.

Sometimes people say, “Oh, you have a degree in Chinese, a Master’s Degree in Anthropology but you never worked as a translator or a researcher and now you are doing photography. Don’t you feel like you are wasting your time?” And my answer is “No” because all these things are certainly reflected in my photography, in particular my way of looking at people. Society would have been very different for me if I hadn’t had that background.

Margot Errante

Margot Errante. Ode to Snow 2008, Tianjin, China. Courtesy of Margot Errante

Bleek Magazine: Now you are working mostly in fine art photography, aren’t you?

Margot Errante: I do commission portraits. But actually, I came to China as a student of Chinese language in Beijing, and later on I started working as a travel photographer. Then becoming very interested in the urban landscape, I moved to architecture photography. It was a pre-Olympic games period, when they were tearing down everything, virtually destroying cities and I could not but witness that. It was so shocking for me to see how quickly it was happening and how people went from euphoria for the newness to depression for the loss they felt after a while. Since when the party is over, what is left?

I strongly believe we are our memories – once you take the memories away, you feel a sense of emptiness. So I was very interested in studying how Chinese people were relating with the new spaces built to make them living there, but… not necessary for them, in the anthropological sense of the word.

In Hong Kong I also worked as an architecture photographer and when it became rather difficult due to the market situation, a friend of mine suggested me to do portraits. Here there is really a huge community of expats which is usually made of very wealthy people coming from abroad to follow their husbands or wives. Moreover, there is a solid tradition of children and family portraits – something we do not actually have in Europe. And I think it is a shame because here I started to appreciate it.

Bleek Magazine: Are there any cultural or social factors that explain the popularity of the tradition of family photography?

Margot Errante: It might be connected with people’s social status and leisure. When we have more time, we become more relaxed. And when we are in a relaxed state of mind, there is room for art. Some of the Chinese families living in Hong Kong are very rich and they have a tradition of taking their family portraits every year. They do not have to do with immigrants or unemployment problems here.

Moreover, most of the children here are sent to a boarding school at the age of 11 or 12 to England or the USA – and this is probably another reason. They come here for Christmas and they want a portrait to look at it for the next 6 months until they are back for summer to celebrate a moment. Many expats take photos to send them to their country for their parents and friends. Hong Kong is a city where everyone is connected and disconnected at the same time. People come and go, there is a lot of movement.

Margot Errante

Margot Errante. Fritz and I 2016, Hong Kong (triptych). Courtesy of Margot Errante

Recently I have also had a few clients who were in their 50s – beautiful women who started coming to me asking me for a portrait, “Before I become too old I want to take a very nice portrait of myself, a bit more boudoir…” Some women do it to offer it to their husband as a birthday gift. Some do it for themselves. Just because they want to remember how they are.

The fashion of portraits also quickly spreads thanks to social networks. For example, once you take a portrait of a pregnant woman and she puts it on Facebook, many other pregnant women would want to have such, too.

Most people say that Hong Kong is exclusively a business city. It is not true. There are artists, but the problem in this city is the rent. It is so expensive that it kills all the small businesses. If you want to have an exhibition and rent a big space, you need to invest money, which artists usually do not have, unless they do a lot of commercial work. If the rent becomes reasonable, as it is in Europe, art will be flourishing everywhere. I know many very interesting people here, but they cannot survive.

Another problem is that most of the galleries want only Chinese artists and it is also only them who get scholarships or grants. But still I can say the situation is moving, it is better than before, it is growing and there are many parallel activities. There is also «Art Basel» and «Hong Kong Art Fair» here now.

Margot Errante

Margot Errante. Family portrait. Courtesy of Margot Errante

Bleek Magazine: A Westerner photographing Asian people… What does it actually look like? Is it a hard task to get “access” to their inner world?

Margot Errante: Well, I remember that when they first told me, “You could do commission portraits!” I said, “NOOOO! I will never do that! How would I do that? Seriously?” I felt I was downrating my skills. Like now I would say I would never do weddings. But… that always depends… If you told me to go to Cambodia to shot a wedding, maybe I would be interested in that. But later, to tell the truth, I started to enjoy it very much, because actually in this way I came back to my anthropology years.

I am very lucky because I really find it very easy to connect with people and portrait is of course a very psychological interaction. It is all based on it and somehow could also get very challenging. My way of making portraits does not follow a “standard” scheme – when you come to the studio and have a white background, flash lights, “Smile!”, click and I will give you 500 photos which you can take home and do whatever you want with then.

The first thing I do with people who want a picture is talking. I make the room look very dark and it already makes the environment very quiet and intimate, putting them in a very different psychological state of mind. It sound like a joke but what my friends have been advising me recently was to open a consultancy studio. Since in my portrait photography practice I discovered that people do have a need just to have a conversation and be listened by someone! After the photo-shot they often say, “Oh, I feel so relaxed now!” or “I feel I have been doing yoga, or a meditation session, or a….

Bleek Magazine: … photo yoga!

Margot Errante: Photo yoga – exactly! Photography really can be very therapeutic and what is more – I strongly believe that portrait experience itself is something everyone should go through once in life! Certainly I am talking not about “sit and smile”, “chin up, chin down”, “look right, look left”, but about deep intense emotional portraits. It is more of a very intimate moment of connection with another human being.

Margot Errante

Margot Errante. Freya. Courtesy of Margot Errante

I do not have many Chinese people as clients and it can be explained by several reasons. First of all, I take low key portraits, they are pretty much dark, which the Chinese do not like that much being used to the society where everything is overexposed and has to be bright, washed out and beautiful. The Asian society wants you to look happy all the time – otherwise you would be seen as a loser.

Another thing is to make people accept the fact that you do not necessary need to be smiling in a portrait in order to look good. Because the portrait is not about smiling and looking happy at all. It is a moment. If you are smiling – okey. If you don’t want to smile, it is okey, too.

The Western people usually say, “Oh, I don’t like it when they ask me to smile, I feel like an idiot in front of the camera!” – which is true, I would feel the same! Whereas Chinese people say, “Oh, but I need to smile! I don’t want not to be smiling, because people would think I am sad!”

Bleek Magazine: And why is that? Any particular cultural connotations the smile has here?

Margot Errante: In China face is really very important – much more than it is for us. They find it impossible to allow anyone else to have a glimpse of their own reality. And surely they do not want to go to a photographer who would look at them and say, “Oh, I see something there!” They would start feeling very uncomfortable. It happened to me a few times, because I did do a few portraits of Chinese people and after looking at them, they asked me not to put them in my portfolio.

In Asia in order to be accepted in society you have to be like anyone else. When I was teaching at the university in China many years ago, in the beginning I did not understand why when I was asking questions, nobody would ever answer, even if they did know what to say!

So, one day I talked to another Chinese teacher who I got very close to and I asked her, “Do you think they are scared of me?” And she said, “No, they are not scared of you, they keep silent because it would put them into a very…

Bleek Magazine: … uncomfortable position in the eyes of others? Like why would you show off??

Margot Errante: Exactly! Even if you know the answer, you are not supposed to make a distinction by raising your hand and showing your knowledge. We are too far into individualism, and they are too far into socialism, collectiveness. The good way would be a way that still does not exist – somewhere in between…

What is more, I would say that Chinese people have a very hard time to look at themselves in the mirror and admit that they might be vulnerable. They always have a mask, a form of the social role they constantly perform. Photography is always about trust. But even more – it is not just about trust to me as an artist, it is more about trust of who you are.

Margot Errante

Margot Errante. Utopia Tian An Men 2000, Beijing (composite Image). Courtesy of Margot Errante

Bleek Magazine: Does it have to do with the history of China and the attitudes they have developed in the course of time?

Margot Errante: Chinese people are like children, they are much more instinctive. This may sound very shocking but they are. And only adults are able to look into themselves. For example, a Chinese friend might find it absolutely all right telling you in the morning after your sleepless night, for example, “Oh, my God, you look so bad today!” I swear, they do! Just like children who have no idea about the boundaries! Chinese people are the same!

Every time I would come back from my summer holidays, they would say, “Oh, you have put some weight, you have been eating a lot!” Or I showed them some photographs the other day and a Chinese guy told me, “This is when you were fat!”

Many people think it is almost contradictory because despite being unable to look at their own reality, they see yours and they tell it to you. But it is a typical childish attitude. And the reason why they are children is because they live in a social and political system where they take no responsibility. Ever.

Starting from the times of Confucius they are used to follow the rules. There is always their government to think for them.

Chinese people are not really that much into democracy. Chinese activists or intellectual elite who make university talks about freedom and the right to vote constitute only a tiny minority of the population. Well, nowadays intellectuals in every country of the world represent probably only 10% and Trump is a good demonstration of that.

Margot Errante

Margot Errante. Courtesy of Margot Errante

Imagine 2 billion people who until 10 years ago were farmers. They are not really willing to have the burden of being responsible of the future of the country which is essentially a very heavy responsibility because on a larger scale whatever happens you are the one who has influenced it.

When you work with a Chinese person and something breaks – you know what reaction they would have? “It broke!” and never “I broke it”. Here in Hong Kong, for instance, at the age of 6-8 years old kids are not even able to wear their shoes by themselves! Because there has always been someone doing it for them – choosing for them what they should eat, what should they do, or accommodating them. I would not even use the word “spoiled”, they are far beyond that – they are unconscious about themselves. Because if you do not experiment things, you will have no idea of what you want or do not want. And thus – no idea of who you are! So, you just remain a child… And children are totally unable to behave in the society which is why the only possible government that would ever work in China is the one they have right now. There is no other way.

Many years ago people used to say that China would collapse because of pollution. And I have always said that it would happen because of human beings. Because they are totally unaware of who they are, as well as unable to acknowledge the presence of other human beings. They travel on the surface all the time! And you cannot do that forever… At some point you need to look around. And they do not want to do that because they would not like what they would see. But at some point they will have to…

Bleek Magazine: But why did you then choose to stay here in Hong Kong?

Margot Errante: I arrived in China when I was 19 years old. And for a young person being in a developing country is fantastic! It was the best moment of my life! Any developing country has the energy – everything is moving, people see the opportunity, people dream and they dream big, and you are young and you almost feel immortal! On the other hand, it was an old Asian country with the charm of the Asian culture which I always loved anyway. But to answer your question I would say that I stayed in China because I fell in love with its people…

I said all those things about them mostly from a rational anthropological perspective. But there is a good side of it, which I appreciate and which made me stay here for so long. Every child is mean and every child is good. This good part comes from them being naïve and welcoming, they do have their prejudices and can be very racist, but as a first impact they are always open to others. It never happened to me to have a Chinese person saying “No, go away!” They are open to you and are always so curious!

Margot Errante

Margot Errante. New Year’s Bubbles 2017, Hong Kong. Courtesy of Margot Errante

When I was in China in the 1990s there were so few foreigners there – I actually had a crowd following me in the street! I think I am in thousands of family portraits in China, since everyone was seeking to have a photo with me! But it has changed a lot… it is pretty sad but it did change… China has been transformed into the factory of the world!

Hong Kong has nothing. At all. Zero. No western culture, no eastern culture, no Chinese culture. China? Zero, it is gone. It was gone already with communism, it came late for a tiny period of time, it was totally destroyed by consumerism. Money is the new Chinese culture. You cannot build a country on that. The core of the country should be its values, not money, consumerism….

In Tsim Sha Tsui there is a long fashion street called Canton Road. If you go there and you will see queues of people standing at the entrance to a Chanel shop with their luggage which they want to pack with clothes, shoes and sunglasses. From Chanel they would go to Armani and then to Dior and so on. They are billionaires! I saw a couple of 18-19-years-old young people spending 200 000 euro on jewelry in a Cartier shop in 15 minutes!

But then if you ask them what they know – nothing! They do not know who they are, but they know how much money they have. And they think they are what they have. What if there is a war tomorrow and they lose everything? What would they do? These are the people who would hang themselves. As a matter of fact, China and Japan are the countries with a highest rate of suicide. If they can buy things and they have access to that market, they suicide a bit later. But they still do. And it is very sad.

In Asia for example there are even specific blogs where people are looking for companions to suicide together, and we are talking about 17-19-year-olds! And they really do it!

Moreover, I believe that China is one of the most misunderstood countries of the world. And one of the reasons is the coverage it gets in the media. When there was SARS and then the Olympic Games and the Tibetan revolt I saw that journalists had no idea of what was really going on, many foreign correspondents in Beijing could not even speak a word of Chinese, totally relying on the information given to them by people who could say whatever! In my opinion, journalists as ambassadors should be in the country only if they speak the language, especially when it is such a complicated country as China! Here language is everything!

And there is another problem – people believe in anything! They even believe the Internet! As one of the quotes I have recently found says, “Nowadays everyone has a degree from the university of Google”. I hate the statement some people say claiming, “It is true, I read in on the Internet!” This is the anti-truth!

Margot Errante

Margot Errante. The Wa people. Courtesy of Margot Errante

Well, first of all, truth does not exist. Secondly, especially if it is written on the Internet, you should be very careful about what you are reading! And this is exactly why I think everyone in life should take a portrait! I am serious! I am not saying this because of my business, ha-ha-ha… I really think it! Let me explain.

For a year I lived with the Wa people in the middle of the jungle doing my research and also photographing them. When they saw their photographs for the first time, they were shocked. Everyone in front of their image for the first time has a terrible reaction because you always have a different perception of yourself, about what you look like. In modern society we have mirrors, whereas the Wa people never saw their images, until one day I took a photo, I developed it and I showed it to them.

I think human beings need to be put more into a position where they have to look at themselves, whether they like it or not. Society nowadays is doing exactly reverse, government are doing reverse. When Berlusconi was elected in Italy, they were broadcasting soccer on TV in order to distract people. Whenever in Italy there is an important law that the parliament has to pass, there is something happening on TV so all the Italians are watching it and thus the government can do their things, sign the papers and then it is gone. Trump’s election is another demonstration to that. When you are distracted, it is where you get lost and the more you get lost, the more you lose yourself.

So, people need to be put in position where they have to think, and the first thing they should think about is themselves. Because this is where it all starts. And then you can go to a society or politics, you can go to the Moon if you want. But you are the starting point, as a human being. If you are not able to do that, if you are not connected to yourself, how can you be connected to other people? A portrait is that time of experience which helps you understand yourself.

We always say, “People don’t read, people don’t love, people are mean, people are lazy, people are shallow…” But it is not true at all! I think just the opposite. I think people are very sensitive, and being shallow is just a protection. And when you dig a little bit, there is the whole world that opens! And I believe that my work is a demonstration to that.

There are very basic human needs we all have, even though we do not want to recognize that – to be loved, to be seen for who you are, the companionship… and when those needs are not met, the distortion happens. Unfortunately, we are in a society which is structured to keep us even more far away from ourselves. Vulnerability, for instance, is seen as a sin. Nobody wants to be vulnerable, but it is just a part of our nature! We need to admit that we have needs and that there is nothing wrong with that.

Margot Errante

Margot Errante. The Wa people’s settlement. Courtesy of Margot Errante

Bleek Magazine: Some critics say that in Asia nowadays there is so little critical photography. And if some criticism is present, it shows itself in some sort of indirect and metaphorical way.

Margot Errante: Partly it happens because of fear, partly – because of the lack of critical observation. And again it goes back to the individual. How can you critically look at society if you do not have any criticism towards yourself which does not mean at all to destroy your ego. It just means to be able to recognize certain things about your personality.
How many people do you know who are able to question? In China you will not find many of them. Even the boldest ones think that the best way to deal with the Chinese government and the Chinese society is not go straight to the point but to walk around it. The problem is that during the walk many things would get lost. And the final result will not be the same.

When I think of Chinese society I become very pessimistic, even it is not my usual attitude. I am an optimist, but I see the extent of the psychological and economical damage they have done. And it is really high. I do not know how they are going to deal with it. It really takes a super strong and wise government to deal with a country like that. It is very difficult.

Bleek Magazine: But the situation in the whole world is not so brilliant… It is hard to be optimistic observing the things that are going on around…

Margot Errante: Yes, but you know what… Look at the women’s march Washington – it is a clear demonstration of one thing. Elections are numbers, and I was sure Trump was going to win. In order to win any election and attract the masses you need to raise a few topics: racism, labour, machismo… all these sensitive narrow-minded issues and people will vote you.

But in terms of the general situation I remain optimistic. The masses are lazy. Yes, they vote. Yes, Trump is the president. But Americans who did not vote him are not lazy sitting on a chair – they are marching down the streets! And I think it will be very difficult for government nowadays to have total manipulation and control of the county as it was many years ago. The new generations are better, they are better educated and more exposed to multiethnical worlds. Italy, for example, is not the same country it was 20 years ago. And young people are more ready to accept the change of multiracial Europe than the previous generations.

© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich.