With the invention of digital photography and its integration into every smartphone on the planet, most of us constantly document everyday life for the sake of it. We take photos of our food and other mundane events, adding it to the endless stream of imagery in our digital camera roll, never to thoughtfully consider it again. It’s rare to come across a massive collection of candid photos that evoke a sense of intimacy that’s inseparable from their fleeting nature – a decisive moment rooted in the tenderness of affection and understanding.
For artist Coca Dai, this impulsive documentation defined his photographic practice far before he had a smartphone, resulting in a massive archive of images of his wife, Judy Zhu. Coca began photographing Judy soon after they met in 2008, and never, ever stopped. After almost a decade, the photographer realized that his archive actually functioned as an impressive coming-of-age story of a young woman who, over an endless stream of visual documentation, fluctuates between love, anger, irritation and calmness. His series Judy Zhu 2008-2015 is the raw story of a modern woman, carefully documented by the co-lead in her daily life.
Coca first published a book of this work in 2015, and at this year’s Jimei x Arles International Photography Festival, selected images were brought together in a solo exhibition by curator Holly Roussell. In this interview for LensCulture, Coca speaks about how his family history propelled his obsessive photographic practice, and why his images reflect the nature of contemporary Chinese photography today.
LensCulture: You initially grew up in Wuyuan County in Jiangxi Province, where your mother was sent from Shanghai during the 1970s. Later on, you were sent back to Shanghai with your siblings to live with your grandmother, which is where you first started photographing. Tell me a bit about the influence of this history and Shanghai on your work.
Coca Dai: My siblings and I were brought back to Shanghai due to national policies, so there was this disconnect with my family that is always important in my work. I was the first person in my family to ever go to university, and that trajectory really embodied the different experience of living in Shanghai versus the countryside. When I was in the country, we were all kids playing outside, living a free life. But when I got to Shanghai, I really had to focus on getting into university. While I was in the city, the countryside changed a lot, and I felt I could never go back. My old home was no longer there. I was also very different than the people who grew up in Shanghai, because they were city kids. They had spent their entire lives there. I worked so hard to get into university, and while I was in school, it was all I focused on. But when I graduated, I started taking photographs.
LC: How did you integrate yourself into the art world after such intense studies?
CD: I created an art website called cocaart.com, and ran it from around 2005 to 2015. It had information about all sorts of different events, whether it be contemporary art or photography, all happening in Shanghai. I still do the same thing on WeChat, in a group that has hundreds and hundreds of people in the arts. I post about new art and music events about 15 times per day. But in 2000, this type of online community was a very unique idea. It was especially important for the development of contemporary art in Shanghai, and it was an important feature for connecting people with one another and informing them about what was going on in the city.
LC: So your involvement was twofold: you were creating this online community while also starting to take photographs yourself. At what point did you meet your future wife, the subject of your main series?
CD: In my photo work, I was always heavily focused on my family situation, especially when I would go back to the country for the New Year to have meals with them. But I met Judy in 2008, around the time I was still focusing on the website.
LC: It’s wild to think that 2008 was now a decade ago. The photographs of Judy are interesting because they’re so candid and natural, like outtakes on a personal film roll or things that some might deem too candid for a fine art context. Were these images always intended to be shown, or did you realize you created something special later on?
CD: In 2015, I decided to show the work for the first time. When I showed Judy all the pictures, she was very moved and agreed that they should be exhibited, which was never their original intention. I was moved by the fact that the reception of the photographs was the recognition of Judy as a strong woman. Even though the work was never intended to be shown, it was always meaningful to me. When I finally created a book of the images, I presented it as a gift to her, and we looked through it together. It was something I wanted her to have for herself, because she had never seen most of the photos.
LC: Why do you think you were compelled to take so many photos of her in so many different situations? Many people take pictures of their loved ones, but these feel so different – simultaneously tender and candid at a consistent, high frequency.
CD: I am very worried about what I will lose, and I think that is partially influenced by losing my home, and going through this massive change where I couldn’t go back to Wuyuan and have it be the place it was when I was young. I’m constantly taking photographs, because if I lose things, at least I have photographs of them. I am terrified of losing Judy and no longer having her. These moments pass by, and then they’re gone and you can’t go back. My work is a lot about time, love, and the things that are close to me. It’s all about holding onto things, because I am worried they will disappear. There’s no real sense of security in China, and I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. There are 70-year leases on property and land in this country – you don’t own anything, you rent it. No one owns anything, and there are a lot of things that give you a sense of insecurity. I feel this dramatically.
LC: And this passion for recording and documentation is deeply tied to photography as a medium.
CD: Yes. I find that photographing something is a form of love. It’s not just about looking at something and taking a photo after thinking, “Oh, that’s cool.” Photographing my wife while she’s having our children, photographing my children, photographing her while she’s pregnant – it’s not just about taking a picture. It’s something more.
LC: What type of photography equipment do you use?
CD: I use all sorts of different things, and I’m constantly taking pictures, so I use all types of film cameras. The book only includes film photography – no digital. I still use my phone and digital cameras all the time, but they just weren’t included in the publication or exhibition. I find film has this kind of temperature that I prefer.
LC: How do you archive this endless stream of imagery?
CD: I have hundreds of card disks. I have all my film as well, but I scan all of it. I make so many photos, and when I think about it, this is also related to China, in a way. I find that Chinese photography is going through this rapid development, and China as a country is in rapid development itself. It wouldn’t make sense for me to take the calm photographs that you see from somewhere like England, where you feel a certain stillness in some of the images. For me, it’s important to take a lot of pictures to parallel the rapid development going on around me.
I have a lot of work that I haven’t shown anyone – and maybe I won’t show it to anyone for a long time. But as far as I’m concerned, at some point someone could look at it and see something significant among the mass.
LC: The exhibition here in Jimei is a very nice play off that sentiment. The images aren’t hung in a traditional way – they are asymmetrically placed across the wall, and a few collections of images are even bound in flip books for people to walk up to and leaf through on the wall. Tell me about those decisions and why they were important for presenting this work.
CD: For me, the idea of a book reminds me of Chinese calendars, which we also flip through manually. When making the exhibition, it was fundamentally about how we translate a photobook project into something where you can still have the experience of passing time while looking at these intimate pictures. It’s a project about love, right? It’s not a project where you want to see everything at once – it’s about the experience of passing time while looking at these intimate pictures. Presenting the work on the walls in this way keeps that anticipation, and you also spend a lot of time looking at it and going into the work, which parallels the intimacy of the project.
LC: As we’ve discussed, this project is very personal, so what do you want other people to take away from it?
CD: I hope that people interact with the books and look at them until the end. I hope I capture them until the end, so that they want to look at every page. I hope people leave with the feeling of having understood a form of love.