Imagine your life taking place on two stages at the same time. One: the movie-set of a big-budget Chinese TV production. The other: on the least fancy streets of this same country. Which one would you choose to take for real, which one would be a game? And for whom would you play?
American actor Jonathan Kos-Read faces this situation every day. In his professional life, he plays Westerners in Chinese films. He might be British, Italian, American, doesn’t matter. He’s not bad at what he does and has been making a good living for almost 20 years. If you’ve ever watched a Chinese movie or TV show, maybe you’ve seen him—somebody has to play the rare white person in the Chinese world.
That being said, Kos-Read’s roles aren’t cushy: “In the movies, the main problem I have is not so much playing bad guys but playing dumb guys. I’m often the foreigner who comes to China, falls in love with a girl, pursues her—but inevitably, in the end, she makes the right choice and stays with her Chinese boyfriend. If I’m lucky, my character dies and does so heroically, sacrificing himself for his Chinese friends. Sometimes, it’s not so happy. Still, I don’t have it so bad; the Japanese get the worst of it—they can only be bad guys.”
(Kos-Read on the set of a recent film)
Alongside his staged, professional life, Kos-Read seeks out other ”stages” in his free time—namely, the stage of the streets. Indeed, the widely known actor doubles as a less widely-known Beijing-based street photographer. Too Chinese to be a tourist, still too American to be Chinese, Kos-Read finds himself caught between two stages, two worlds.
In this interview, conducted by journalist Anna Akage, Jonathan Kos-Read tells us about the balances he faces between art and money and how it is to be on both sides of the camera lens.
LC: How did an actor start doing street photography?
JKR: It started about 5 years ago. As an actor, I needed nice pictures from movie-sets to show other directors what I looked like. While I had a pocket digital camera, it wasn’t really enough—film-sets are actually very dark! So I needed a better camera to make a decent picture. At the time, I was taking part in a TV show with a guy who played Bruce Lee (he looked exactly like Bruce Lee). He was also a good photographer. He brought me a Nikon D90 with a lens kit. At first, I had no idea how to use it, so my assistant was the one taking my photos on the movie-set. But once I started learning, I began to practice on my own and so it all began.
LC: But how did you come to street photography?
JKR: I like telling stories, and that’s actually one of the main reasons I like acting. It gives me a lot of pleasure to gather, shoot and put these stories into a frame. I have been living in China for a long time and sometimes it’s hard to communicate with people who don’t know anything about my real life. Photography helps me share all the interesting stuff that happens around me.
LC: What stories are you trying to tell with your pictures?
JKR: I don’t think of myself as a person who has a specific theme in his photography. Instead, each of my photos has one thing in common—that they capture a little story and are ready to share it for those who take the time to look.
When I go out to shoot, I always have a story on my mind. It’s weird and I’ve checked it a hundred times: if I go out into the streets without a story in my head, I will shoot nothing. But if I go out having a story on my mind, even if I almost never tell that specific story, I will be sure to find another one.
A perfectly told visual story—that’s what inspires me. I really like the Zen calm (the focus) of stepping out of my door every day with only one goal in mind: tell a story. I like the way it leads me instead of me leading it.
LC: Do you pretend to be a movie director with your street characters? Do you ask them to act, to pose?
JKR: No, I have enough of that in my movie-job. Sometimes, I see a photo in my mind but nobody comes to finish it. I get frustrated but all that is left for me is to wait. Once, I had to spend three hours in one spot before I got the shot.
LC: Are you still a foreigner in China?
JKR: Obviously I will never be Chinese and there will always be some things I can’t get used to because I didn’t grow up here. I’m still a stranger for Chinese people, especially in small towns. But still, I have been living in China for almost 20 years and I speak Chinese fluently.
Last year I was a curator of an exhibition in Beijing called “Us-Them.” The idea was that Chinese and foreign photographers shoot China differently. But what’s interesting about this difference is the specific way it is expressed. In the show, there were several walls: one wall with photos of China taken by international photographers, the opposite wall with pictures shot by Chinese photographers, and in the middle—a blank wall for visitors to write what the differences were, in their opinion. People wrote some really interesting things; one of my favorites was: “Foreigners see things that Chinese people don’t see. And Chinese people see things that foreigners don’t understand.”
Chinese people are very ambivalent about their country: there are things that they are embarrassed about and things they are proud of and almost no neutral things in between. Chinese photographers take pictures with passion or anger. Meanwhile, foreigners shoot the strangeness of this country, as if they are keeping records.
LC: You already have a full-time acting career. Are you ambitious about your photography?
JKR: I have my job. I’m an actor and on some level, that’s an art. But I betray it every day for a paycheck. If you sell your art, if you have a boss, that’s just something you have to do. After all, at the end of the day, you have to pay the bills.
Still, when I started doing photography, I found people who wanted to pay for it. At first I thought, “That’s amazing! I’m doing stuff I think is great and other people actually like it!” But after thinking about it I decided not to take any money for photography. I don’t want to ruin another art form by making myself have a boss.
I’m totally serious to this decision. While I always have to compromise in my other art—photography, this is mine. Success is mine. Beauty is mine. And failure is mine as well.
LC: Does that mean you’re more honest in photography than in your acting?
JKR: Yes, absolutely. For example, if I was doing photography for money, I would shoot more. But then I would be less committed to making each photograph perfect. By shooting with somebody else in mind, I wouldn’t be keeping true to my artistic vision. So instead, I shoot less but I love it more. Photography is a small part of my life that is pure.
When I had just started shooting with my first “real” camera, I read an interview with Ansel Adams. In it, a reporter asked him if he could give advice for beginners. Adams answered: “Look behind you.”
When I read that, I thought, “What pretentious advice!” I discarded his words, thinking that some people could be great photographers but also total jerks.
Two years later, I was in Shanghai hosting a travel program about the city. I found myself up on a tall building and we were shooting the iconic skyline of Shanghai. I tried many different things—longer exposures or different angles—but they were all crap. No matter what I did, it looked exactly like all the other photos of Shanghai’s skyline.
I was starting to feel bad about myself and suddenly, that interview popped into my mind. I stood up, turned my back to the scenery—and was blown away. Behind me, I found an amazing shot, still one of my best. It was a great lesson not only for photography, but also for life.
—Jonathan Kos-Read, interviewed by Anna Akage
Editors’ Note: Anna Akage is freelance writer from Kiev, Ukraine. More of her work can be found on her writing portfolio website.