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'I don't like Shanghai, I love it!'
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German photographer Thomas Fuesser captures the very human, unadorned faces behind Shanghai's glittering facade. The subjects in passport-type portraits wear no clothes, no signs of status - and look straight into the camera, writes Jenny Hammond.

Shanghai's iconic skyline, dazzling facade and fashionable people are known to all, endlessly photographed. But a German expat photographer wants to strip away the externals and gloss, reveal the essentials and "give Shanghai its human touch" - the faces of human beings.

Thomas Fuesser's ongoing project "188 Faces of Shanghai" features celebrities and prominent figures in the arts, entertainment, business, civic affairs and other fields - as well as ordinary people who have made special contributions to the city. Twenty-eight subjects have been photographed so far.

The subjects in passport-type portraits are naked from the shoulders up, unadorned, without signs of status. They wear little or no makeup, no jewelry - and they look straight into the camera. The requirements and format are the same for everyone.

The simple portraits are striking.

Fuesser, 47, says he chose the number 188 "because it's a lucky number" in Chinese. The numeral "eight" is lucky because it can be pronounced to mean "wealth," double-eight is very lucky. The numeral "one," pronounced "yao" could mean "I want."

"I fell in love with Shanghai since the first time I came here in 1993," says Fuesser who has traveled back and forth and finally moved here last year. "I decided to do this project as everyone knows Shanghai's skyline but not the faces behind it. Shanghai is a story of success and I wanted to give that story the faces of normal human beings."

He aims to complete the project around October 2008 and show it to a wider audience. He also hopes to send "188 Faces" to some of Shanghai's sister cities, as an "ambassador" exhibit before the 2010 World Expo.

Fuesser finds his subjects through research and word-of-mouth, 80 percent of them are of Chinese origin. "There are a few Western faces, sure, but all of them should be residents of Shanghai and should have done something interesting for this city," he says.

Born in Essen, Germany, Fuesser studied communications and design at the University of Essen, moving in 1985 to Hamburg to start his career. With a background in communication-design and film rather than photography, he chose Hamburg because "it's a media city, with lots of film, advertising and print companies."

His dream, however, was to go to the United States and work for Michael Ballhaus, the famous German cinematographer.

Fuesser didn't make it to the States at that time. His first professional job was as a lighting assistant for Arthur Penn on his movie "Target."

"This was the start and I noticed that I would do it differently."

It was this realization that led Fuesser to open his own studio in 1987, working as a professional photographer for magazines, advertising and arts, for publications such as Stern magazine and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a major newspaper.

"I used my studio to learn how to create my own light, sometimes I would work 20 hours a day to realize my ideas," he says.

Three years later, having made a name for himself, Fuesser was invited to a gathering in Berlin of the world's famed directors of cinematography. It was the first time all "The Masters of Light" in cinematography came together. He was invited by the Academy of Arts in Berlin and the European Film Academy in Berlin and its president, director Wim Wenders.

The famous participants included Henry Alekan, Carlo Di Palma, Billy Williams, Haskell Wexler, Robbie Mueller and Ballhaus.

During that event, Fuesser took everyone's portrait. "I was very interested in portraying them, as usually no one pays any attention to those who shoot the films - it is mainly the actors and directors who get the attention of the media." As examples, he cites the great work of Hong Kong film maker Wong Kar-wai and his director of photography, Christopher Doyle.

Following on this successful project - portraits of great cinematographers - the young photographer decided to concentrate on portraits. "It was amazing to capture people in a way you usually would not in ads or magazines."

Explaining what lead him to China, Fuesser says that in 1993 he got a call from Berlin's House of Culture, which was holding for the first time in Europe a Chinese avant-garde exhibition. The Dutch curator was Hans van Dijk.

That was the first time since 1989 that so many Chinese artists came together as a big group overseas, says Fuesser. The names are famous today, but back then they were just beginning their international careers.

They included Su Tong, author of the novella "The Red Lantern;" film director Zhang Yimou; Cui Jian, China's godfather of rock; and modern artists like Zhao Bandi, Ni Haifeng, Feng Mengbo, Fang Lijun, Gu Dexin and Wang Guangyi.

They are the history of the 1990s art scene in China, he says, "so meeting these people was my door to China."

He visited for the first time in October 1993, invited by van Dijk, to photograph the living conditions of artists and portray China's "new art scene." He traveled to Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou. "I fell in love with the people in China, especially Shanghai."

From that time, Fuesser spent a few years traveling back and forth from Shanghai. In 2001 his solo show "Please Don't Move" featured 86 portraits of performing artists from all over the world; he was invited by the Third Shanghai International Arts Festival. In December 2006 he presented two new solo shows at the Second Lianzhou International Photo Festival in Guangdong Province.

Last month he exhibited his work at the Pingyao International Photography Festival, curated by Jean Loh of Beaugeste Design Shanghai. Further, he and two friends had also been working on an Internet platform for a cultural exchange program between Hamburg and Shanghai, called "City Culture Channel Hamburg-Shanghai." Hamburg and Shanghai have been sister cities for more than 20 years.

It became clear that the project needed someone based in Shanghai. The culture channel is organized as an Internet art communication platform in cooperation with designers of art and new media in Hamburg and Shanghai and the Technical University of Hamburg. Discussions are underway with the Shanghai University of Science and Technology.

The project is supported by the Ministry for Cultural Affairs of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg and is expected to be part of 2010 World Expo Shanghai.

Fuesser finally moved to the city last year, working on the Website, producing art books and commercial catalogues and pursuing personal projects such as "188 Faces of Shanghai."

As he looks ahead, Fuesser says, "I have spent 20 years of my life in Essen, a further 20 in Hamburg so maybe I will spend the next 20 in Shanghai.

"I don't know for sure what will happen after I finish my project but I do know for now that Shanghai is my new home."

(Shanghai Daily October 9, 2007)

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