His passion for street photography is evident in each and every one of his colourful, life-affirming photos: with a keen eye for interpersonal encounters, Jerry Gao captures everyday life on the bustling streets of Beijing. In this interview, Gao speaks about how he captures compelling little stories straight off the streets, and reveals who inspired him throughout his never-ending, photographic journey.

Please tell us a little about your background and how you first got into street photography.
I am an art-based, creative director working at an advertising agency in Beijing. Due to my professional background, I’m always looking for consumer insights. I enjoy observing people’s lives, their states of being, and contemplating the underlying reasons behind those states. That’s why I love street photography, as it provides me with the best opportunity to observe the world outside of work.

What initially drew you to using a Leica camera to capture your images?
The Leica camera, especially the Leica M model, is, in my opinion, the most portable of all cameras that can achieve professional image quality. This is one of the main reasons why it ensures the best street photography experience. Another reason is that the Leica M is the most intuitive camera to operate. It puts all the functions within reach of the fingertips, allowing for intuitive operation with just a simple movement of the finger. In addition to the features I need, it doesn’t give me any seemingly “advanced” ones that are actually fancy and unnecessary. In street photography, the most important thing is that the camera be intuitive, quick, and offering a seamless experience. So, as long as I continue to do street photography, I won’t use any other camera model as my main camera.

Your work focuses on everyday life in Beijing. What is it about these moments and scenes that inspires you?
Like many beginners, I initially pursued exquisite compositions and beautiful colours; but later on I realized that street photography that only focuses on form is not the best. The best street photography not only has exquisite composition, but also conveys a story. Currently, my primary goal is “story-telling”, followed by composition and colour, and so on. Beijing is a city with stories. It has a long history, a variety of people, and interesting moments happening on the streets every day. I like to capture every moment that has a story. They are not always happy, but they must have a story, which becomes a memory of the city and increases in value over time.

Are there any particular cities or neighbourhoods in China that you find especially inspiring to photograph?
I live and work in Beijing, and before going to work every day, I always take some time to shoot on the streets, which has become a habit for me. I don’t think Beijing is the best city for street photography; but since I don’t make a living from it, I have to do my best with the limited environment around me. In fact, no photographer can go just any place they want to shoot, at any time. Utilizing the environment around oneself is a required course for photographers. The “Drum Tower” in Beijing is an area I pass by on my way to work, so it has become a place where I shoot almost every day. It’s a place of historical interest and an old residential area, so there are a large number of out-of-town tourists and local residents meeting there every day. The collision of different life states happens at this millennium-old location, making it a place where stories are constantly unfolding. This is why I love this place and one of the reasons why I love the city of Beijing.

Your work often captures moments of joy and connection between people. Can you write a bit about the importance of these themes in your photography?
I like photography that has a story, not just something that is beautiful but empty. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy observing the stories between people and insights into human nature, so this is the focus of my observation on the street. Beijing, as a city, has people from all walks of life, ages, and social classes, including people from various countries. Each person’s life experience is different, but it’s not interesting to just observe individual differences. When two or more people meet and intersect, the story immediately becomes very interesting. For example, an encounter between a tourist and a local resident, or between children from two different families, or between construction workers and white-collar workers, and so on. I like the collision that occurs when different people meet. This makes me feel endless pleasure.

What role does colour play in your photography, and how do you approach colour in your editing process?
Colour is one of the elements I instinctively like, and I prefer strong colours. The Leica camera’s colours can make me feel strong without being cheesy. During the shooting process, I often choose an environment with a strong contrast between light and dark. My EV is always -1. In post-processing, I adjust the black level, brighten the white, brighten the shadows, and darken the highlights in Camera Raw. This further increases the contrast and enhances the colour texture of the photo.

How is your selection process? How do you decide which images to include in your portfolio, and which ones to leave out?
My current criteria for selecting pieces of work are: firstly, whether there is story being told; secondly, whether there is a strong composition and colour scheme. Of course, these criteria are not set in stone, and my highest standard is to combine the elements of reality in a magical way.

Are there any photographers or artists who have influenced your work?
Martin Parr is one of my favourite photographers, and has greatly influenced my work. His work always captures the magical side of the real world, which is what I find most stunning. “Capturing the surreal in the real world” is something I’ve been striving to achieve in my own photography.

What advice would you give to other amateur street photographers who are just starting out?
Always carry your camera with you, no matter where or when. Observe and capture anything that catches your eye, and then reflect upon why you took that shot and what motivated you to press the shutter button. Don’t worry too much about photography classes or what the masters have taught you. Just start shooting as soon as possible.

Jerry Gao, a self-proclaimed “street shutterbug”, lives in Beijing, China. He is a passionate observer who adores life, and enjoys documenting it with his Leica camera. Above all, he loves telling stories about this world to others. Find out more about his photography on his Instagram page.

Leica M

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