Documentary photography is a way of witnessing and capturing otherwise unknown people and places at a moment in time. Ruben Terlou is an award-winning Dutch photographer, a journalist, and medical doctor. He is known for his ability to seek out and capture special and secret places in the country that fascinates him more than any other – China. He has presented the highly acclaimed VPRO six-episode documentary, “Along the Banks of the Yangtze, China through the eyes of photographer, Ruben Terlou.” And in early 2018, he released a second documentary television series, “Through the heart of China.”
Ruben’s fascination with China began at age 19 when he lived there studying Mandarin for almost two years with a dream of basing himself in China as a professional photographer. Although that dream was not realized and he returned home to study medicine, his passion for China remained. He channeled his passion into two documentary series for Dutch national television about contemporary Chinese life in which he combined his photography. We spoke with Ruben about documentary photography, and why it is that in the making of a television series, photography played a central role for him.”
“By stopping time, these photographs offer a moment of reflection on the characters and their stories.”
What was your motivation or inspiration to investigate Chinese culture and people?
“Although I have been studying China for almost 15 years, I still find it extremely fascinating, and I think a lifetime will not be enough to really know the country and its people. China is one of the largest world powers and will significantly shape our world during the 21st century. Therefore, I am convinced we all need to know and understand it. But we can hardly put a face on it yet. Let alone do we have any idea of how the average Chinese man lives and works, or what his ambitions or fears are.
This continuing amazement is not surprising when you take the enormous scale of the country and its fast-paced development in mind. China’s development occurs at a higher rate than the population can comprehend and internalize, and therefore unusual situations arise in daily life. I aim to document these situations and the adaptability of the people, how they struggle, overcome or deal with the impact of the economic progress.”
“My approach is to combine film, photography, and journalism, and to make deeply personal portraits which illustrate the larger developments or story on a societal level.”
What’s most important for a documentary photographer?
“Having a clear idea of what is your central theme and focus is important in documentary photography. Before embarking on a journey, we do lots of research into historical, socio-anthropological and political backgrounds of the places we visit. In my experience, these are essential points, as people appreciate when you are genuinely interested, and only then are willing to share their dreams or fears.
Once we decide what we want to shoot, we push on relentlessly. People often told me the situations I wanted to photograph, and witness were impossible to obtain. But by being creative in finding solutions, we succeeded in getting rare scenes, like a so-called ghost wedding, or a Taoist hermit living in a very remote mountain cave.”
The documentaries are television productions, so why was photography an element of this at all?
“Being a documentary photographer, it was only natural to use photography to engage with the people. In the final edit of the television documentary, scenes are often concluded by a photograph. By stopping time, these photographs offer a moment of reflection on the characters and their stories. I believe it works well and I am happy we combine video and photography in such a way that a large audience can appreciate it. Our first documentary series had over one million live viewers per episode.”
What made you choose medium format for your documentary photography?
“Shooting this project would bring me to very special and difficult to get to places and situations, like coal mines on the Inner-Mongolian steppes, the gay scene in Beijing, cancer hospitals or rural funerals. China is at a crossover point in its history. Much of what I witness will not be there to document in a few years from now. I wanted to create monumental images. For this, I simply need the best in sharpness, resolution, colors, and contrast.
But working in such dynamic situations require easy handling, so I was not sure if medium format was an option for me until I discovered the Phase One XF camera. Its autofocus function allows me to work fast and make razor-sharp images in spontaneously arising situations, and the IQ3 100MP Digital Back creates wonderful, natural results even in low light. I love using the live view mode; it gives me ultimate control over my photography. Honestly, I cannot think of a better system.”
To see more from Ruben’s documentary visit his website here.