On a trip to Shanghai and Lishui in 2019, photographer Vanja Bucan grabbed her camera and set out walking through the surrounding concrete, urban landscapes, snapping street photographs that at first seemed to contain typical subject matter: strange corners and pockets of the setting, backyards, objects laying on the ground and, of course, people.

For many of us, the concrete mosaic of big cities can feel cold and impersonal, but as Bucan honed in on the comings and goings of passersby in her surrounding streets, all she absorbed was warmth, friendliness and energy. “The streets were full of life,” she explains. “They could be incredibly narrow or very wide, smelling of food, spices and sometimes mould. People exist on the streets more than we see in Europe. Life feels more public, and you feel safe strolling around.”

Untitled, 2020 © Vanja Bucan

For Bucan, making the foundational images with her camera is only the first step in her creative process. “I prefer to enrich the story after I make the principal image,” she says. Soon after returning home from China with a vast collection of photographs, she began transforming her static shots. “I think like a painter, really,” she reflects. “Once you start practicing this way, you consciously choose scenes and photograph them in ways that you know will permit an intervention on the photograph afterwards.” Bucan creates posters out of each of her selected images, and then adds objects atop and around them, folding the pictures and even cutting parts of them out. Her final works are 3-dimensional collages that she makes a final photograph of. She explains, “When I make an interesting background photo, I call it a good start.”

Untitled, 2020 © Vanja Bucan

Bucan’s images of the two Chinese cities include vibrant additions of flowers, textiles, pottery, fruit and modelled hand gestures, breaking up the monotony of the grey walls to add the human presence she felt so intensely while coursing through the streets. Her final shots feel like living, breathing structures, mirroring her own sensory experiences. The juxtaposition of the title—Concrete Flowers—feels particularly apt when looking at her images, where nature and industrialization collide into explosive optical illusions. The incorporation of bright foliage and plants acts as a metaphor for the liveliness she felt despite the urban buildup of the cities. “What is the opposite of concrete?” she asks. “I think it’s nature. And plants have colours that inject positivity into the scenes.”

Untitled, 2019 © Vanja Bucan

For Bucan, each image also acts as a symbolic representation of the atmosphere and feelings she felt during specific events. “This work is a reflection of the different moments of love that I experienced during my stay: a father carrying his daughter; the fish lady explaining something to me in Italian; my lovely guide taking me to lush gardens in Lishui; the big pomelos that grew everywhere,” she muses. “The images reflect a dreamy interpretation of local imagery, which was all new to me. I was also inspired by the huge colourful billboards with lotus trees and singing children that I saw everywhere in the streets.”

Untitled, 2020 © Vanja Bucan

At the end of the day, Bucan hopes that her images act as a counter narrative to the stereotypical imagery we see of China, and that they can instead present a positive escape “amidst the vampirical and serious reality that we are oversaturated with today.” As an artist, Bucan loves breaking down stereotypes and the narratives we assign to people and places. “There are different ways to approach the concept of representing reality,” she explains. “My work focuses on details, and is made over the course of a number of steps. We need to focus more on slow photography, and think about new ways to intervene with the medium.”