An Interview with National Geographic Award-Winning Photographer Tugo Cheng
Jacada's Q&A with Tugo
You started your career as an architect. Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into photography?
I first started shooting for my studies when I was in architecture school, and only became more serious after I graduated bought a DSLR camera. Architecture has prepared my eyes for photography. The aesthetics trainings in architecture, such as lines and geometries, scale and proportion, light and shadow etc. are all important elements in photography at the same time which help us frame our pictures properly. And more importantly, architecture has also trained my brain for photography in terms of imagination and creativity. In architecture school, we learnt to explore new ideas by challenging and testing them in a process of trial and error as well as surprises. And this mindset, to me, is extremely important in photography. For instance when I was shooting my aerial series City Patterns in the past two years, there were a lot of unexpected outcomes and that was an adventure that I enjoyed a lot. Life is like a box of chocolate and so is photography – you never know what you are going to get.
As you are named a Perspective 40-under-40 Artist this year. What is the key to creating good images in art and photography?
To me, a good image should do three things: First of all a good image has to surprise people. Whether it is a new perspective, new lighting or a new subject, it has to bring in something different that people did not expect. More than that, a good image should also inspire people to think behind and beyond the picture itself. And most of all, a good image should touch people’s hearts and connect the photographer with the viewers through an artistic expression. And that is exactly where art comes in.
You always pay attention to order and rhythm with images, can you please explain more?
Because of my architecture background, I pay much attention to the lines and geometries of buildings and captured a lot of architecture shots when I first started photography. However later on I found that this order and rhythm was also expressed in some cultural and natural landscapes: for instance, a lot of unintentional landscapes such as rice terraces, tea farms and aquaculture fishing were all created for food production purposes, with nature reshaped applying local knowledge.
Can you pick two of your favourite works and tell us about them?
Both pictures are aerial images which captured the Danakil Depression in northeast Ethiopia from above. In the first picture “Salt Miners”, we can see the intense texture of the vast salt flats in the region where local salt-miners, the Afar people, transport their hard work using the traditional camel caravan. The picture shows us the unique culture of the Ethiopians and their most ancient and grueling trade which is now threatened by modernization and infrastructural development.
The second picture “Toxic Terrains” captured the bizarre colours of the Dallol sulphuric hot springs consisting of mineral salts and acid. It depicts the otherworldly landscape of Ethiopia like an abstract painting with the silhouettes of people walking on the canvas. These pictures reveale the lesser-known nature and culture of the country from a new angle.
About 'Art of The Land· Ethiopia' exhibition at The Haven
How did you curate, design and choose the images for the exhibition?
Although it is not the most popular destination to travel to, Ethiopia is a fascinating piece of land in the African continent and there are a lot of otherworldly natural landscapes in the country. For instance, the colourful sulphur springs, the active volcano Lava Lake, the vast salt flats in the Danakil Depression Area which is known for its Martian terrains and extreme climate.
Apart from amazing nature, the exhibition will also cover some traditional culture and architecture: The camel caravan and salt mining trade of the Afar People who make their living by extracting salt from the land by their own hands every day; and the Rock Hewn Church in Lalibela where underground churches are carved into the land of rock. These stories are all about the “land” of Ethiopia and how people deal with it.
What do you hope the audience will see and feel from these images?
In addition to understanding more about the country, I hope the audience will be surprised and inspired by the uniqueness and diversity of the natural and cultural landscapes of Ethiopia which can hardly be found anywhere else. I also hope my images can touch their hearts and that they will like the way I tell all these stories through visuals.
How does your core message through the exhibition match Jacada Travel’s mission and ethics?
Jacada Travel pursues strong ethical and conservation-related missions which match with an important basis of making travel a positive experience on the environment and giving back to the community. This is good to raise awareness and let audiences and travellers keep in mind or re-think the meaning of travel.
At the core of this exhibition, I am trying to show the astonishing face that exists in an ‘exotic’ destination such as Ethiopia. I hope this inspires people to think behind and beyond the photos as well as their travel experiences. And most of all, to truly touch their hearts and be connected to the world.