Oh, hello Chrystal! How are you? How's your 2018 so far? Hello! So far the signs are good – 2018 is the year that I set up my business Ding Creative to take on commercial work, and I'm pushing forward with several projects in my documentary practice including Genetopia (in collaboration with the Society and Ethics Research Group at the Wellcome Genome Campus), and A.N.Other – a collection of short stories about a fictitious surrogate agency that is being written through a lean start-up model.
That sounds like a great start indeed. Let's start with a little introduction... For those Gluggers who’ve never heard of you: who are you, where are you from, and what do you do? I’m originally from Harbin, North-East China, a place known mostly for beer, sausages, and -40 degree winters, but I’ve spent most of my life in the UK and was raised in Birmingham. That said, I was raised in an intense Chinese community in Birmingham so while I sound fully English, I’m hiding a lot of Chinese culture under my skin. By training I’m a photographer and a writer with a background in media/advertising, but these days I mostly divide my life between my fledgling documentary practice as a Multi-Disciplinary Artist, and my work as a commercial Photographer/Artworker. I’ve been described as a bit of a ‘comb-shaped person’ in that I’m fascinated by everything, and use collaboration as a way of getting deep into multiple things.
Wow! I like the 'comb-shaped person' description but how did you end up doing what you’re doing now? What’s the back story there? The short answer is: by doing one thing, then the next thing, then slowly realising how all the things add up to make the meal I’m eating. I left university with 30kg of luggage and dreams and moved to Australia, then Mongolia, then China, travelling and photographing without much focus, just being guided by what fascinated me. But I realised that while I was enjoying the freedom I was still very much in learning mode and wasn’t ready to just surrender to my own tastes and whims; I wanted to get into "a Real Industry" to learn more about business, so I worked in a full-service marketing network for two years (Dentsu Aegis Network), eventually ending up in the Strategic Innovation team. From there, I did an MA in Photojournalism & Documentary Photography, and am continuing to develop what I do.
That's an awesome progression.. As a kid, though, did you always dream of working in the creative industry? Absolutely, but I never understood the industry bit (or the creative bit, for that matter.) Most of my family started off as academics or scientists, and I was never really exposed to a very business-savvy or creative environment until my early 20s. As it turns out, I find the ‘industry’ bit as interesting as the ‘creative’ bit, and while I’m glad my 'childhood self' was a free spirited creative explorer, I’m equally glad to be working with discipline and focus now. 99% of the job is just showing up every day, which is harder than it sounds, but equally so much easier when you love what you do.
Very true! Who would you say have had a significant influence on yourself and your work? Well, when I was a teenager I visited London to see Annie Leibovitz’s ‘A Photographer’s Life’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. After spending a few hours at the exhibition I walked out and realised that I couldn’t look at a single painting. I felt exhausted, like I’d met face to face with all of the people she’d taken portraits of, and spent time with each of them. I thought: I want to do that. I want to make work that gets so close to you that it sticks around and bothers you...
Of course then there’s all the people I’ve worked with along the way too. My supervisor Dr. Phil Connell at university always encouraged me to spend time with what was difficult, because if you found you couldn’t understand it at first glance — that usually meant there was something there to be found. And my colleague Bram from my media days always used to refer me back to my gut: what was I REALLY trying to say? What was the most ‘me’ way to say it? Bram never let my first draft through, and I’m forever grateful, because it always pushed me to go further. Nowadays I have a sort of ‘board of executives’ in my head made up of friends who do and think differently to me – they are my bedrock of support, advice, and inspiration.
That's great to hear. So, next question is always quite a charged question, but with your hand on your heart… Do you love what you do? What is the best part? You’re right, because love is a strange word. I love what I do the same way I might love a partner. Sometimes we disagree, sometimes it annoys me, sometimes it’s boring, but at the same time it’s pushing me, helping me grow, and motivating me to be the best version of myself. For me the best part is when a client or collaborator gives me a challenge and I can work on rising to it. I live for the times that I can expand my own limitations to create something neither I nor they expected but are delighted by.
In 10 years time, do you see yourself doing the same thing as you are today, or are you hoping to evolve into another practice or try another area of the creative industry? Yes and no. I see myself very much at the beginning of what I’m doing now. I think I’d always like to feel like at least 40% of what I’m doing is new. I wouldn’t even name a specific ‘area’ of the creative industry – 10 years is a long time. Who knows, maybe I’ll be in some sort of partnership with an AI by then and raising hybrid machine-human children… What I hope to evolve is my skillset, knowledge, and network, but what I’d like to hone and get better at is my vision and its execution.
Yeah, good point actually – who knows how we'll be operating in the industry in 10 years time anyway. Super interesting note on being 'in a partnership with an AI' though – we should follow up on this in a decade and see what's happened!
Anyway... If you were to give ‘your younger self’ some advice relating to the first couple of years in the industry, what would that be? [Laughs] Tricky! Because my ‘younger self’ is me now I think. So I’ll just collate the best advice I have been given the most times by the most people: take time, don’t rush, and don’t be afraid to be a beginner.
It's so important to recognise isn't it – everyone's been a beginner, or had a 'first day at work'. Alright, so if you’re having a bad day, or running low on inspiration, what would be your number 1 tip to back into the swing of things again? Run. For a long time. It gives my mind time to actively think about nothing in particular, which either clears it, allows it to chew through the things it’s too full of, or creates space for things to enter in. Or not. The beauty of it is that even if I think of nothing and achieve nothing, I’ll have been being productive and doing something that will make me ready for whatever comes next.
Good stuff! Let’s go a bit dreamy, shall we? If you could swap job with –anyone- in the industry, who would this be and why? Because I’m a complete sucker for difference, it would be a man or a trans person with a tech background. Can I say Elon Musk? I consider him creative. I’m pretty sure the pressure would crush me, but I’d be exposed to so much that isn’t what I’m exposed to now. And also I’ve always been fascinated to know what it would feel like to be a Caucasian male rather than a young female migrant.
Ok, and last but not least! Please fill in the below with a link, name or quote:
o Best book on creativity: Not ‘on’ creativity per se, but that’s because I mostly feel most creative when I’m not looking directly at ‘creativity’, so Harukai Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
o Best book on careers or business: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
o Best website for inspiration: A recommendation from a friend
o Best portfolio I’ve seen lately: http://www.christopherunwin.com/play/
o A dream client: 23andMe
o A dream employer: Future of Life Institute – I’d love to work for these guys on crafting the visual language around AI.
o Best podcast I’ve listened to recently: You Had One Job by Scott Brown (Act Three of this episode) on This American Life https://www.thisamericanlife.org/603/once-more-with-feeling/act-three-0
o Best piece of advice I’ve ever been given: “Go where the hurt is.” Either you’ll process your way through it, get an idea of how to fix it, or you’ll realise what really matters to you.
o I’d like to see a profile on: Joe Snape, an old acquaintance from orchestra days who is now a creative maverick musician – I’m always fascinated to see/hear/experience his work, and don’t understand his creative process at all so naturally I’m curious…
This articles is part of our Glug Profiles series – a series of interviews aiming to highlight journeys and insights from creatives, makers, doers and cool cats from all walks of life in the creative industry, and the world. Get in touch with Malin if you'd like to take part: firstname.lastname@example.org