Having recently celebrated its seventh anniversary, Voices of Photography magazine has come a long way since it was established in 2011. Nearly a decade and 24 issues later, the Taiwanese periodical has successfully presented a dynamic range of photographic work and written perspectives on a number of compelling topics, from the shifting culture of photobooks to the importance of photography as a tool for political resistance.
That last point even piqued the paranoia of the Chinese government, which has taken to systemically clearing shelves of VOP since its Protest, Activism and Images issue was disseminated in 2014. Despite this bureaucratic shut-down, VOP continues to develop groundbreaking presentations of the photographic medium, including their own collectible offshoot SHOUT, as well as an online bookshop featuring works by the artists they highlight in each issue of the magazine.
In this interview, VOP’s founder and Editor-in-Chief Wei-I Lee speaks to LensCulture about his lifelong interest in photography, what prompted him to start his own independent publication, and why it’s important to bring multiple perspectives together into one volume.
LensCulture: There are countless ways to get involved with photography, but publishing always stands out as an interesting vehicle because it comes from a desire to work with photographers to create awareness about their own work. Tell me, what are some of your earliest memories of realizing you had an interest in photography?
Wei-I Lee: My earliest memories go back to the candid photographs taken by my family. They loved taking pictures, and they still always try to keep good memories alive through the medium. I was always told that I don’t know how to smile for the camera, but I always found it interesting that I could interfere with a photograph in the moment it is taken, and that it’s a medium that can simultaneously take and make a moment out of reality.
LC: What were the events that prompted you to start putting together Voices of Photography?
WL: I’ve been interested in drawing, making images and editing since I was a child. I studied journalism in college, and took classes on making short films and photography. Ever since then, I became more and more curious about images. But after I graduated, I worked as a journalist at a newspaper. I didn’t like the tempo of my life as a daily news reporter, and when I stopped to think about what I really wanted to do, I decided to pursue a publishing project that related to my major interests. So, I quit my job and founded VOP in 2011.
LC: I have to ask that deeply annoying and terrifying question: are you a photographer yourself? Or do you mostly stick to the publishing of others’ work?
WL: I’m a photographer in the way that everybody else is, but I definitely consider myself to be more of an image reader and editor than an image taker.
LC: VOP is such an interesting publication because it’s a magazine, but it really has these multiple layers of material and interpretation. Yes, there’s text and images on the main pages, but there are also additional inserts on different paper stocks. You play with a bunch of things in your design, from full bleeds to showing the materiality of photobooks. What inspired your creation of VOP as something dynamic?
WL: I made my first zine when I was five years old. It’s a saddle-stitched bound booklet with my drawings inside of it. In a sense, VOP was like my second publishing project, after this zine. Every time we make an issue, I feel like I’m creating something brand new, and I will probably never get tired of that feeling.
Before I started VOP, I was an eager reader who wanted to learn more about photography, but books and magazines in bookstores never satisfied me. So I thought to myself, why not try it out on my own, sourcing the reading material I was searching for? It was very personal; I wanted to make the very magazine that I wanted to read, sharing my concerns about photography with others. I wanted to make a publication focused on the metacognition of photography, asking questions like: What is photography? Why do we need it?
LC: What do you set out to accomplish with each issue, and what kind of content do you create?
WL: We have different themes for each issue, and focus on topics like violence, memory, rebellion, the list goes on. Some past issues have also focused on Taiwan and Asia’s photographic culture and history. In each issue, we explore these topics in photography by featuring works of visual art, as well as interviews with artists, publishers, curators, art organizations and other professionals. The main thread throughout all the issues is that we are constantly promoting image reading, critique, and writing that will contribute to the history of photography.
We also publish a series called SHOUT, showcasing new artists. It’s more like a contemporary visual notebook that sheds light on the creative visual thoughts and work of young artists in diverse and undefined forms. I don’t want to be a typical photography magazine – I want to keep being dynamic and flexible, and not position ourselves so that we get stuck in a fixed place.
LC: What kind of photography do you find you are personally drawn to?
WL: I like photographic works that reflect and question photography itself – something counter-intuitive. I like projects that bring up questions, forcing us to ask: Why?
LC: I heard that your publication caused quite a stir with the Chinese government. Why is that?
WL: We’re based in Taiwan, and we don’t have regulations for publishing here specifically, so we never get shut down here. But China has their own set of rules. In 2014, we published an issue called Protest, Activism and Images, which discussed the photography scenes and movements in Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Japan. We shipped the issue to our usual stockists in China, but then we were informed by a local bookstore that our magazines had been forcibly pulled off the shelves by officials from the Chinese government – some bookstores had even been fined. Additionally, many online platforms promoting VOP hosted by Taobao, Wechat and Weibo have all been forcibly taken down. It’s funny to know that a big government would feel intimidated by a small magazine. Regardless, we will always stay true to ourselves and continue saying what we want to say, even after incidents like this. I believe this is the core and true spirit of independent publishing.
LC: The latest issue of VOP focuses on photobooks, which is an interesting topic for a photography magazine to take on. Why did you decide to create an entire issue focused on this practice, and what is some of your favorite content from the issue?
WL: I’m interested in photobook publishing because it’s a huge part of the culture of photography, and has recently become more important than ever before. We make a photobook issue every two years, looking back on the publishing scene in Taiwan especially, creating a report on today’s culture through our discussions and writing.
This year, we put out an open call for Taiwanese photography publications to submit their work, and received more than one hundred contributions, which is a huge jump in numbers from our previous years. In this issue, we created an “international photobook party” on paper, bringing together critics, publishers and collectors from countries all over the world to share their favourite works.
LC: Looking back on all the issues you’ve put together, what do you think has been the most challenging one to produce, and why?
WL: It would definitely be the artist issue we published recently on Kao Chung-Li. Kao is a very special Taiwanese artist who exemplifies the complex relationship between viewing, imagery and history through experimental films, photography, animation, sculptures, image installations, visual toy inventions, and even essays on visual imagery. He is one of my favourite artists in Taiwan, and it’s a daunting challenge to make an issue about him and his abundance of artworks. I spent months with him, researching and organizing his 8 mm films, slides, manuscripts, photographs, animated drafts, working notes and objects in his personal collection. I had a hard time putting everything together, but we finally made it. I have some great memories working with the artist, and learned so much more about photography with him.
LC: Why do you think photography is an important creative medium to promote and spread awareness about in Taiwan? What is it about the medium that you want people to stop and think about?
WL: People are constantly producing images these days, and it’s about time we slow down and digest photographs, questioning ourselves and asking why we need photography, how we find ourselves manipulating it, and how and why it manipulates us.
Editor’s Note: Click through the slideshow below to check out all of VOP’s past covers!