Greg Girard talks about photographing Hong Kong and South East Asia since 1974
3rd April 2019 by Will Stewart
MadeGood – A lot of your work was produced in China and Japan, and other parts of Asia in the 70’s and 80’s. What took you out there in the first place, and what made you stay around for so long?
Greg Girard– I first visited Hong Kong and SE Asia 1974-1975, and lived in Tokyo 1976-1977 and 1979-1980. I wanted to visit that part of the world from a young age, I can’t really say why, other than it seemed very far away. But what pushed me over the edge and made me want to take photographs there was a picture in a Time-Life book, in series on photography published in 1972, which showed Hong Kong harbour on a grey afternoon with the neon signs atop low-rise buildings on the waterfront. I mention this photograph, and reproduced it, in my book “HK:PM. Hong Kong Night Life 1974-1989”. It was as if the exotic was made ordinary and the ordinary made exotic. On an open-ended visit to Hong Kong in 1982 I ended up finding work as a sound recordist for BBC TV News and covered news events all over Asia, as part of a small HK-based news crew. In 1987 I started working as a magazine photographer, having been offered a job by Asiaweek Magazine, after going to Sri Lanka to photograph the civil war there while on summer break from the BBC job. So, that was pretty much a dream come true, making a living as a photographer while based in Asia in a city I loved.
MadeGood – I live in Osaka now, that might have something to do with why I gravitated towards your work in the first place. I bet Japan was a very different place back then? there must have been very few Canadians, for starters.
Greg Girard– I guess it was different, in the sense that of course there weren’t as many non-Japanese living in Japan at the time. But somehow Japan today doesn’t really feel all that different to me. But, if you put me asleep and took me out of 1980 Tokyo (the last time I lived there) and dropped me in 2019 Tokyo and woke me up, probably the strangest thing would be finding someone from Nepal or Thailand behind the cash register at Lawson or 7-11 and us speaking to each other in Japanese. I’m not sure why but it still gives me a slight science fiction sensation every time it happens these days when I visit. Perhaps because in 1980 Tokyo that scene wasn’t anything you could anticipate, in the sense of how Japan would change and how the world would change. In any case I expect that feeling of strangeness will soon subside as the utter normality of the scene continues to repeat itself.
MadeGood – On your website it seems like you’ve published a fair number of books over the years. Have you always worked in a self motivated way, did you have particular jobs or assignments that propelled you to work?
Greg Girard– Early books were the result of invitations to collaborate or publish. More recently, in part because of the way publishing has changed (publishers less willing to fund the books they publish/crowd sourcing offering new publishing possibilities), I’ve been fortunate to be able to fund books by appealing directly to supporters, whether they are print collectors or book buyers. I spent more than twenty years photographing for magazines, and while for a time it was exactly what I wanted to do, it was always something of a parallel world. By that I mean for the most part it existed separately from whatever long-term project (or no-term project) I happened to be photographing. Sometimes there was overlap, and sometimes I wished there was overlap when there wasn’t. But eventually I realized I would have to turn my back on magazines if I ever wanted to start, work on, and complete, something that I really cared about.
MadeGood – You seem to have photographed overseas American servicemen quite extensively over the years, what in particular inspired that?
Greg Girard– When I first lived in Tokyo, in 1976, the first night in my tiny newly-rented apartment west of Ikebukuro, I was listening to music on the radio in the dark, feeling contentedly far from home, (from “the west” I guess you could say), and at the stroke of midnight the US national anthem began to play, and the announcer’s voice informed listeners that we’d been listenng to the American Forces Far East Network. It broke the spell so to speak but also shifted things in the sense I started wondering what these towns hostng US military bases might be like. So I started visiting and photographing some of the base towns near Tokyo, like Yokosuka, where the US Seventh Fleet was, and still is, based.
MadeGood – Do you have any thoughts on the current protests in Okinawa over the planned new military base? Have you, or do yo plan to photograph that conflict in any way?
Greg Girard– I made a book about Okinawa, published in 2017, titled “Hotel Okinawa”. I decided to leave the protests out of the book. I was interested more in the day-to-day reality of living alongside the bases. In the past I did photograph the protests when I was doing reportage for magazines, but for my own project I wanted to move beyond the conventional coverage that drives so much of how Okinawa is depicted.
MadeGood – A majority of your work looks to be shot on medium format film, even your newer photos. What’s kept you from moving to digital, and how does the cost of processing film impact your work, considering it must have been a lot cheaper 30 or 40 years ago?
Greg Girard– I do shoot some digital these days but mostly I still use medium format film. I like the look of it, and somehow I end up making better pictures when I have to slow down and consider each frame I make. I’m not sure film was that much cheaper in relative terms 30 or 40 years ago. It’s always seemed expensive to me. In the beginning to save money a lot of photographers (myself included) would buy film in bulk and roll their own cassettes.
MadeGood – Your instagram profile says “In the West. Formerly in the East”, but you tell me you’re back in the East again. Are you working on something particular?
Greg Girard– I live in Vancouver now but visit Asia pretty often. I’m working on a new project in Japan. Too superstitious to say much about it but all will be revealed in due course!