When did you discover your interest in photography?
It was always present ambiently in my life. I lived with my maternal grandparents from the age of two to four. My parents were journalists and stationed in Kenya, so I got to know them through photos. When they picked me up and brought me back to Beijing, they showed me all these photos of their life in Kenya. So I reconnected with my parents through photography.
Also, my parents always had little cameras around, just in case they needed images to accompany something they were writing about. When I was six or seven, my dad gave me a small digital camera, and I started taking pictures of friends and children in the neighborhood. It’s really cute to look at them again, and see kids from a kid’s angle. That was my first hands-on experience.
“I don’t think people should come out of high school and know what they want to do for the rest of their lives.” – Sirui Ma
Are you able to define what it is that attracts you to the medium?
I am able to directly translate what I’m seeing and show that to other people. That’s harder when there are different layers to a practice. With styling or painting, it takes more to get a message across. Photography feels much more direct.
You’re describing a skill here. Was that trained or do you think you have an innate talent for it?
I definitely have a natural inclination to it. But I’m also still working on it. The more time you spend doing something, the more of a voice you find. Maybe we shouldn’t expect to get into something and immediately see results. It’s discouraging to see other people shoot to astronomical success in the snap of a finger. In reality, for most people, that’s not the case. There is lots of experimentation and failure.
“School felt like a supplement to a career that was already developing.” – Sirui Ma
Can you tell me more about your education?
I dropped out of my art degree in New York after three years. I felt the need to really focus on one thing. I applied to two photography programs in London. It was a bit of a shot in the dark, but I got into both, which I felt was a sign to restart and focus on one subject. Being an older student, I felt I was in a different place. The other students were really still in their fun phase. I don’t think people should come out of high school and know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. It was good for me to have those three years of not knowing, exploring, and then going into it knowing what I wanted. Because I had that experience, I really maximized the facilities. That was the most important thing. I created a workflow where I went in, did my schoolwork, and then left to do my professional work. School felt like a supplement to a career that was already developing. Having the structure of school is very helpful when you’re exploring. It felt like a safety net. Just having the support network of technicians that you can ask questions and advice.