From paddy fields to high-speed trains, markets stalls to mega-cities, street scenes to absurdities, the French photographer, Jean-Luc Feixa, travelled across China – a country defined by fascinating contradictions. The outcome was Hexie Hao, a black and white series both graphically clear and poetic at the same time. We spoke with Feixa about a journey caught between dream and reality.

Green rice terraces, flashing advertisements, overwhelming megacities – I imagine China as a very colourful, rather dazzling country. Why did you choose to photograph in black and white?
That’s right! China’s cities are full of neon lights, and nature offers beautiful colours. Nevertheless, I chose to use black and white because I wanted to create a kind of wandering notebook, revealing a journey between dream and reality. I didn’t want to adopt a documentary approach, anchored in reality; in that case I would have chosen colour. Black and white was perfectly suited to my desire for a more poetic form. When you look at the photos, some elements betray modernity, but many are timeless.

Your portfolio also shows colour photos. What kind of photography do you prefer? Or do you change easily between colour and black and white photography?
My favourite medium is black and white. As with Hexie Hao, I like to use it to tell short stories, wanderings between fiction/dream and reality. I think black and white is very good for that because it automatically detaches you from your environment. Besides, I only use it in analogue photography. So, I develop my films and I take my time; it’s a whole creative universe that I love.
I sometimes use colour, but only in digital and more in a documentary and descriptive approach, anchored in my daily life. This was the case for my latest book, Strange Things Behind Belgian Windows, published by Luster editions.

With Hexie Hao you named you series after the high speed train that runs from Beijing to Shanghai. How was it to travel with this train? And how was it to travel through China at all? How long did you stay?
It was quite an adventure! I stayed in China for one month with my girlfriend. We travelled through several time zones at a rather frantic pace, staying a maximum of three nights per city or place; and we spent a lot of time on the famous trains, including one 11-hour trip between Guilin and Xi’an… That train was quite fantastic, disconcertingly modern, and the life inside was very rich: all these families getting on at each stop, people sleeping, eating, meeting there for a few hours. But, for my project, it was the outside world and not this inside universe that interested me. Nevertheless, it was fantastic to be able to cross the country at this speed and in this atmosphere. Thinking back, and with all modesty, our journey reminds me of Raymond Depardon’s excellent book, Le tour du monde en 14 jours (Around the World in 14 Days), which contains photos of each of his stopovers.

At the same time Hexie Hao means “harmony”. And yes, your images mostly show harmonious, gentle or funny situations. They often show a wonderful harmony between the architecture, the urban structures and the people. How did you experience China? Would you describe it as a harmonious country?
I was fascinated by China. Fascinated first of all by my ignorance about the country, its history, culture; and by my preconceptions. Of course, I only stayed one month and won’t pretend to be an expert; but what I saw was quite unsettling because I was expecting to see a very different country. For example, I was surprised to discover such rich and resplendent nature. This is the case, for example, along the river Li with its sugar loaves bathed in clouds. I was also surprised by such a gap between tradition and modernity. How two opposing worlds intersect, cross each other and have a dialogue. The country is developing at an incredible speed, and you can really feel this dynamic. I don’t know if China is a harmonious country, but let’s say that the extreme beauty and tranquil force of nature seem to compensate for the speed of development and the fury of the cities. Moreover, the architectural or natural curves were perfect for quite harmonious framing; for example, for the mother and child in front of a lake near Guilin.

What fascinated you the most when travelling through China?
I was fascinated to go through cities with millions of inhabitants – cities with names that are completely unknown in Europe. I’ve crossed through many of them by train. By the way, my first picture, the one of the girl looking out of the train window, was taken in the vicinity of Beijing. Seeing these thousands of black frames, behind which a silhouette could be seen from afar, was dizzying.

How did people react when they realized they had been photographed?
Very well. I never had any problems. That’s also the advantage of the Leica M6. It’s very discreet and I probably looked totally old-fashioned compared to all the other westerners with their big reflex cameras…

I imagine China as a place where you can photograph a lot of situations. Do you think you missed a photo? And, if yes, do you regret it? Or is that “part of the game”?
I did miss a couple of photos. Notably one, during a Dantesque storm in a paddy field, that I regret very much. The setting was beautiful, but the person working on the terrace immediately saw that I was going to take a photograph, and all the magic disappeared. I also missed a beautiful scene with some married people in a restaurant in Shanghai. But that’s part of the game. To reduce this kind of frustration, I didn’t photograph markets or overpopulated places to avoid being drowned by the crowd and getting dizzy. I am not a “mass” photographer. So, I preferred to take my time to take care of the frames and isolate people in more serene places.

How would you describe your photographic approach?
For Hexie Hao, I chose not to impose a theme and to leave with a vague idea. My trip was exceptional and I wanted my photos to reflect my state of mind; I wanted my Leica to be a direct extension of my eye, and to photograph what appeals to me. Whether it was a beautiful graphic composition, or a gas mask dispenser. Once back in Brussels, after a few weeks, I started looking at the photos and organising the project. But on the spot, I was free of any pressure. It was also a special trip because I wasn’t alone, and so, I couldn’t necessarily go wherever I wanted. So, I travelled with my Leica M6, about 20 rolls of film and a 35mm lens. It was a simple approach. In the end, you might think that there were a lot of constraints, but it gave me a lot of freedom.

Do you have (photography) idols, iconic people, or some artists who have influenced you?
With regard to my black and white work, I love photographers with strong contrasts, such as Sergio Larrain, Renato d’Agostin, Gabrielle Duplantier, Raymond Depardon, Mario Giacomelli; or, of course, several Magnum photographers, including the talented Cristina Garcia Rodero. At Pingyao, for the photo of the dog in the door, I obviously had in mind the magnificent picture of Marc Riboud; the one taken from a shop with a multitude of windows framing life outside. Concerning my influences more broadly, I particularly like American realism in painting, with representatives like Edgar Hopper. The idea of describing a reality, while tinting it with a touch of melancholy and solitude, irrigates my work. My grandfather, André Graciès, who was a painter, was also a great influence. He was able to convey a very special sweetness in his paintings, which I also try to have in my photos.

What kind of equipment did you use? Which lenses, which films? And how did it all perform? Where there any tricky situations?
I shot with my Leica M6, a Voigtlander color skopar 35mm lens, a small “point and shoot” camera and about 20 rolls of fomapan 400 film. In terms of climate, I went through different extremes, with very high temperatures in Beijing for example, and extreme humidity in the rice fields. But my Leica M6 is older than me and has survived worse in the past… I had absolutely no problems at all, except perhaps in shooting some very contrasting scenes, with some areas being very bright and others completely in the shade. I’m not very good at technique, I must admit, and some of my pictures have slight blurring or a few “accidents”, but that’s part of the process. That’s also the beauty of the project. The photos are not necessarily perfect, but they represent a particular feeling at a particular moment, and that’s what matters to me.

Jean-Luc Feixa has been taking photographs for about fifteen years. As a daily spectator, he likes to leave his gaze at the mercy of “mundane scenes”, until identifying the anecdote that will transform the pallor of the anodyne into a beautiful picture. He is particularly absorbed by the nuances between architectural lines and human figures that he tries to capture during his wanderings. In between, he works in Belgium on personal photo projects mainly with analogue and in black and white. His work has been showcased in several galleries and festivals in France, Belgium and Dubai. His latest book, Strange Things Behind Belgian Windows, is published by Luster edition. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.