Shooting Street Photography In The East vs West: An Interview with Ying Tang From Shanghai/Cologne

Eric’s Note: I had the chance to interview Ying Tang, a street photographer photographer from Shanghai, China who currently works freelance in Cologne, Germany. She studied photography at both the New York Insitute of Photography and the School of Photography of C.C.S.F. and has her work featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and The International Herald Tribune in China. Keep reading to check out this interview to find out how she got started in street photography, and what she looks for when shooting in the streets! 

1. How did you get started in street photography?

It is about six or seven years ago when I started a bit serious about photography and tried to find a way improve photography generally. At that time I was studying the photography course in San Francisco. Street photography at that time seemed to be a natural way for me to do it since I didn’t have to spend money on model or secure the studio. Shooting whatever I see allow me to study light and work with exposure and composition. I started with still life I found on the street, from that I started interesting in people and visual story about them.

2. How do you shoot in the streets? Do you interact with your subjects when shooting, or do you prefer to be more discrete?

Normally I don’t interact with my subject too much, but there are always exceptions because when you are on the street, basically you can not control light and subject like you do in the portrait shot or studio shot. I always keep my eyes open and follow the instinct. Sometimes people let you be around with them, you certainly feel be accepted, so in that cases I stay for a while and observe them and see if in any point, there is interesting visual images I can come up with.

3. Where do you find inspiration – and who are some photographers who have influenced your work?

There are a lot photographers I love, such as Elliot Erwitt, HCB, Trent Parke, so on. I also love to check the daily news images or any magazine pictures. Now a day we are living in a very visual world, there are so many pictures around us, we can very easily get inspiration from.

4. What do you love most about street photography?

There are so many positive aspects about street photography for me. It allows me to go out on the street and observe life around me. It makes me realize how the others live. I also realize when I am with a camera, the people around me certainly see me a lot differently, sometimes it becomes a great chance for others to talk to me. Specially when I go to a foreign country, when I don’t speak their language, with my camera I found people start interesting in me and like to know me, talk to me, even I don’t understand them at all. At that situation smiling at them is a great way to make everything acceptable.

5. What are the differences you notice shooting street photography in different countries? Do you find people in the west more apprehensive to getting photographed when compared to Eastern countries?

Certainly shooting in Europe and American are much difficult because people here certainly concern more privacy issues for taking street work. On the other hands in Asia when you hold a DSLR on the street, people automatic consider you are doing a serious photography work. You are the pro. You know what you are doing. Specially considering about taking kids pictures, in Asia basically I can stay with the kids till I get a great shot. The parents certainly don’t look at me as a harmful people. They feel be proud the fact that you are interested in their children. There are something special about their children.

But this is not possible in Europe here. Taking pictures of kids seem bring more trouble. The first few days when I arrived in Germany and took pictures around the fountain area, where there were handful kindergarden kids playing around. At the moment when I raised the camera at my eye level, the teacher called up all the kids away from the fountain. I was so surprised. Since I moved over here, I found kids pictures are almost impossible to get unless it is in the Carnival festival here.

6. What are some of the most memorable places you have shot street photography?

Photography is a memory recording, we use photography to remember what it was and how it was. So every place I have shot always can bring me some special memory about the place and the people I have talked to or seen. Places like Shanghai feel closer for me because I was born there and could use language to talk to local people and can share more experiences with locals there than the places like San Francisco, NY, Cologne, or others.

7. Describe your thought-process when starting a street photography project. Do you prefer to plan your project before-hand, or figure it out as you go?

I think the street photography is very different from travel photographer because most of travel photographers have to do a lot researches or make a lot connections before they arrive the location and start their projects. Street photography is not something you can plan, it is the life of how it is, it is way to document the life without any planning or posing. We capture what it comes to us. Usually a street photographer lives in the city where he does all the street shoot, so it gives a lot time to work on the city and the places.

8. How do you determine when a project is completed?

This is a hard question. There is never one single project I posted online I will consider them those are finished series unless I have no other opportunity to be there or shoot there again. I also do a bit travel project, those I will consider them a bit differently because of the limited access, limited days I can spend on it. So I will consider those finished when I return from those countries. I think a photographer should always constantly look and try to find something interesting. That motivate me to go out as much as I can on the street I am living.

9. What are some projects you are currently working on?

Currently I am living in Cologne, that is where I am living now. I spend quite a bit time on the street every week. The city is much smaller, the landscape is much simplified, of course the surrounding is much clean and in a good order. I have shoot there for the past two years and still keep working on it till I feel it is time to make few series. The shanghai project took me three years to finalize how many series I can come up with, I guess I am still working on that.

10. What is some advice you would give to aspiring street photographers?

I think the most important thing is make yourself feel comfortable with what you are doing and having a comfortable shoes walking around the town. Try to be nice to your subject as you can, bring some smile to them after the shot. Make them feel you respect them. I think street photography is not a easy photography, it requires years of working and good concentration when you are out on the street. Most of respectful street photographers having been shooting on the street for more than 20 to 30 years, that take years of hard working and passion on it. So be patient on it. Good images will come when the time is right.

11. Any people you would like to mention or give a shout-out to?

There are so many good street photographers I have seen from flickr, some of them shot many many years. Matt Weber is one of them. He has been shooting as a street photographers from 90s. He has excellent collective images from 90s of New York. I think he should be the one to get mentioned.

Follow Ying

Make sure to follow Ying on Flickr, and check out her past interviews on Invisible Photographer Asia as well as this 5-minute clip about her in Chinese.

Which of Ying’s images speak out to you the most, and what questions do you have for her? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! 


Don’t Miss Out on Free Updates!

If you want to stay in the loop with my travels, upcoming workshops, free e-books and presets, join my street photography newsletter below:

  • Abtin Eshraghi

    Most of Ying Tang’s photos are excellent. Although I’m not a fan of watermarks at all!

  • Michael Meinhardt

    Great! Thanks!

  • David Lang

    Great Pictures, no.1 and no.5 are my favourits

  • Wall Art

    Vintage style of photography looks good, i think lot of people going this way, remember b&w pattern looks good as we have so many options to convert simple picture into marvelous one.

  • Michael

    Some nice work and interesting to hear about the different reaction to a photographer taking pictures of kids in China. I like the black and white images but I’d be curious to know why she chose to shift her color digital images to black and white.

    • ying tang

      Thank you for having a chance to be interviewed by Eric

      Answering your questions about why I chose black and white instead of color. I think from six years ago when I started working on the street, that is something I am sticking with and find I can express my image better with mono tone. Yes, that is a period of time I am also thinking using color. For example when I have a series travel images from Istanbul, I chose color instead of black and white. I think there is nothing wrong with go either way black and white or color, both can work. Photography is not just one way, like music, some people choose jazz, some like pop music or country music. There is nothing wrong with which one you choose, to the end it is the style you work with. I believe no matter black and white or color, to the end it is the story of images speak more than which one you choose.

      I hope that answers your questions.


  • Mike Avina

    Another great article!

    • Eric Kim


  • George Smyth

    Very nice work. I agree about the watermarks, they are distracting and intrusive. Once I get past them I can enjoy the image.

  • Fabrizio Q (fabuchan)

    I have been following Ying work for a long time and I think her views of the world around her are really great. I have also had the luck to see her work in a gallery in London in occasion of last year’s London Street Photography Festival, and – needless to say – looked stunning in print!

  • Dovholt

    Wonderful images, Ying. I like the way you fill the frame with your compositions. Big like! :)

  • Trevor Marczylo

    awesome interview, as always amazing photos Ying:)

  • Hugh

    Ying Tang first day at work in Shanghai Nong Tang

  • Pingback: black white()