Hailing from Wenling, China, JiaHao Peng is a horticulturist photographer based in Los Angeles. The 28 year old photographer is committed to capturing the beauty and serenity of the natural world in which we inhabit. Elsewhere meets with him over a call from his studio to talk about moving geographical locales, his favourite plant species and how he goes about embracing change.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you started out as a photographer?
Most of my teenage years were spent at boarding school. Digital devices were prohibited there, apart from digital cameras. I couldn’t have a cell phone or even an MP3 player. I started out just using an old digital camera and taking photos of whatever was around me, which was mostly plants because I was and still am, really fascinated by the beauty of nature. After I graduated from high school, I got my very first DSLR camera and I started to take photography a lot more seriously, finally shooting portraits of people.
How does shooting people differ from still life photography?
I found it really interesting to document unstaged moments and the people who I met on the street. Real life and real people. These moments are really precious to me and I always feel a sense of calm when I photograph them. I love these periods of intimacy so much. I want to be able to record them so I can look back and feel the same emotions.
What do you love about photography?
It helps me to understand myself and my emotions. I believe human life is short and fragile. If I don’t document these moments in time, they’re gone forever. That’s why I think photography helps me to understand how I feel in a particular moment.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. What influences you and your practice?
I get influenced by whatever happens around me. I think social media is the biggest platform that feeds my creative practice. Before social media and the pandemic, I was able to go to see different exhibitions, check out book fairs and go to different places to get inspiration. I still do this but social media gives me so many immediate contacts and points of references.
What do you think makes a good photo?
For a photo to be good, I think first and foremost it has to be eye-catching. I lose interest if it’s something that I’ve seen hundreds of times before. If a photo doesn’t trigger me to stare and think “Oh, why was this taken?” I don’t find it interesting. A photograph has to spark questions in me to grab my attention.
Are there any photographers whose work you admire?
I love the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. He took black and white photos of vegetables along with the human body which are extremely inspiring to me because they relate to my own experience. When I first started out, I took a lot of still life photos, especially of plants, flowers and the body. I would never try to mimic his work though because they’re just too beautiful to even try to recreate.
“I know people are scared of change but for me I try to embrace it.”
You moved to LA from China, how did that influence you as an artist and a photographer?
My practice and my view of how I photograph people has changed since I moved. LA has far more diversity compared to China. There are so many different kinds of people who have shocking and interesting life stories. Back home, I photographed people with the same ethnicities and backgrounds. It’s like being in a bowl of rice all your life and then you’re suddenly taken out and thrust into a hot pot. There’s so many more ingredients, spice and flavour. I’m so glad I now have the opportunity to photograph people with different cultures and different upbringings.
In what ways is LA the same and different to what you expected?
I’d never been to LA before I moved here, so I really didn’t know what to expect! I had no relationship with it and so I had to start building something brand new. It’s like a blind date with a city. I only knew the basics about LA — that it’s a city in Southern California, it has beautiful weather, and Hollywood is there. LA is so different from what I expected, it actually blew my mind! Since moving here, I haven’t really left Southern California for a long trip away because everything is here on my doorstep. I can go to the beach and sunbathe or go to the mountains and see the snow. The possibilities are endless! It’s just like a small universe. To me, LA is the mother of everything.
Do you ever miss China and your hometown, Wenling?
I miss my parents, family members and food. Mainly the food! My dad has a friend in LA and they always make me the local food from my hometown. When I first moved, I would drive down to Orange Country which is like an hour away just to eat their food. It reminds me of home. Where I grew up has a very specific type of cuisine and whenever I taste the food it takes me back to family and old friends.
“It’s like being in a bowl of rice all your life and then you’re suddenly taken out and thrust into a hot pot. There’s so many more ingredients, spice and flavour in LA.”
Could you ever see yourself moving back to China?
I don’t think I could move back to China because I love diversity too much. I just want to live somewhere that is full of different kinds of people, food, culture and everything. I will go back to China every once in a while, but I wouldn’t live there long term. My parents want me to go back and my mom keeps saying I should open a print shop or studio and do wedding photography. I was like, “that’s a good idea, but I don’t think so” because there are not a lot of opportunities for creatives in China. There are people doing experimental things in China, they’re opening the public’s eyes to see things from another point of view. It’s changing but slowly.
Your last project, Best By, was created during the pandemic. Can you tell us more about what it was like to work on a project in such a challenging climate?
Before I started Best By, I was using film. I took a lot of large format, 35 millimetre film photos which I then sent to China and scanned them in to get digital files. That’s my regular process for obtaining photos. When the pandemic hit, I could no longer send my photos back to China easily. I had to stop using film all together and started taking photos on a digital camera for fun. So the project started as a way to spend my time during the covid restrictions.
I believe there’s a date that the pandemic will be over that’s why I named the project Best By. We’re living in a time period where we all have to find a different way to live our lives. I think the most difficult thing about the pandemic is that we all have to accept that life is changing. I know people are scared of change but for me I try to embrace it. I’ve gone from having no real background in photography, to then studying something so creative and moving locations. I feel like I adapted to the pandemic and the changes it brought the best way I could.
“Real life, real people and moments of intimacy are really precious to me. I always feel a sense of calm when I photograph them.”
What drew you to capture the natural world?
I was mesmerised by the beauty around me. I love when there is no one around me and I’m completely submerged in nature. It’s just you and nature. That year, my husband and I travelled a lot because we both got laid off, so there was nothing left to lose. We moved across the country from Ohio to California and saw so many beautiful national parks. I photographed them all, from the parks in New Mexico, Arizona to Joshua Tree in Southern California. It was so deserted, there was no one there and it was really quiet. It felt lonely sometimes, but we took comfort from being surrounded by nature.
What do you do in your free time?
I spend hours and hours taking care of my plants everyday. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night just to admire my plants. I’ll look at them and be like “Oh my God, this new leaf is wonderful.” I will then just set up a background and flash to shoot them. It will be really late and I’ll be taking pictures of them for about an hour and I will have forgotten that I was supposed to water my plants! A lot of my photos are spontaneous.
What’s your favourite plant?
I love Anthurium but recently my favourite species has switched to Philodendron Glorious. I’ve started collecting them and Serviam and I have a lot of ferns and tropical plants too.
Your portraits capture beauty in a lot of different ways. How would you define beauty?
It’s hard to say. Something can be physically ugly but still be beautiful to me, for example, my dead plants. They have brown leaves and burnt edges and they are not attractive by definition but they are overwhelmingly beautiful to me.
What is your favourite project you’ve worked on?
I think Best By is my favourite so far. I had so many interesting conversations with some really wonderful people whilst working on that project. It means a lot to hear that my work is liked and respected.
What can we expect to see from you next?
I’m working on a new project called Foliage which is all about plants. The pandemic feels like it’s over even though it’s not. Everyone has had or has been touched by Covid. This new project is a way to start afresh. Hopefully, Foliage will be something positive to come out of everything we’ve been through.
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