Tugo Cheng is easy enough to miss. Sitting in a cafe and working on his laptop shortly before our interview, the photographer looks like any other office employee on a lunch break. But while his smart blazer and round glasses would have him appear perfectly at home behind a desk, the unassuming 35-year-old is an old hand at exploring such far-flung locales as the mountains of Xinjiang and the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, where he captures the starkly beautiful landscapes in photographs that have netted him awards from the likes of National Geographic and Sony.
With his iPad at the ready, Cheng swipes through some of his photographs. In one photo, fine cracks zigzag across a rich brown surface in what appears to be an abstract image, but it turns out to be a shot of local salt miners crossing salt flats in the Danakil Depression (“Salt Miners”). The swirling white salt and brown sands create a tableau that’s almost ethereal. From such a far away, bird’s eye view, the miners in their orderly line appear more like ants than people, lonely and swallowed up by the vastness of the plains.
In another photo, a series of coloured circles spread out across a white fogged sea. The image appears more like a drawing than a photograph, but it in fact depicts a series of circular fishing nets in Fujian (“Circles”). While shot very differently compared to “Salt Miners” — it’s a completely different setting and area of the world with a radically different composition and angle — “Circles” possesses a similar dreamlike quality. At first glance, the repeating fish nets seem to be a manufactured aspect of the artwork rather than naturally occurring, but the lone figure of a fisherman disrupts the pattern, revealing the work to be a depiction of real life.
With evident amusement, Cheng recounts an instance where he got into a 30-minute long conversation with a gallery visitor about the shot, only for the viewer to realise the artwork was a photograph towards the end of the discussion. “He thought it was an ink painting,” Cheng smiles. Although quiet and soft-spoken at the beginning of our conversation, he becomes more animated while discussing the subject he loves. He relishes these sorts of responses. According to him, good art has to surprise. “I quite like people being confused,” he says. “The photo is ambiguous, so it leaves room for imagination and stimulates the thinking process.”
Cheng’s unconventional approach can be chalked up to his background as an architect. In fact, Cheng made his first foray into photography as a university student, when he purchased a camera while studying architecture in London. Perusing his City Patterns series reveals an obsession with lines, shapes, geometries. “The order and rhythm in landscapes resonate with what I have learnt in architecture,” he explains. “Architects draw plans and layouts whose lines are not easily seen after the structures get built.” The detail and repetitions in “City Patterns” call to mind intricate maps or blueprints.
The series also exemplifies a technique that Cheng has become known for: aerial views shot with the help of a GoPro mounted on a drone. The images are otherworldly and meditative. Whether it’s a sewage treatment plant that transforms into a whimsical carnival ground (“Ferris Wheel”) or the majesty of the hills in Xinjiang that appear as a multitude of red and green waves, Cheng’s works evoke a quiet serenity in whoever views them.
Cheng has made a name for himself as a fine art photographer. “Fine art photography is about how the artist sees the world, while photojournalism is about capturing the world at that moment,” he says. But his works also possess a quality that’s documentary-like and anthropological. Perhaps this is because, no matter how dreamlike his works might appear, they are very much the products of meticulous research and consideration. Cheng usually travels to a region multiple times to get his shots; he began his Coastal Geometries series on Fujian in 2015, and he doesn’t consider the project finished yet.
Choosing where to travel is also a very deliberate process. While discussing his Art of the Land — Ethiopia exhibition, he describes an article he read about the Ethiopian vernacular salt mining industry, where workers gather salt by hand and transport it to market utilising traditional camel caravans. “Because of modernisation in the region, this traditional culture will be gone very soon,” he says. Private companies have signed agreements with the Ethiopian government in order to open salt mining farms and factories, meaning that this method of hand-mining salt will soon be gone.
And then there’s capturing the shot itself, which can take all manner of time and trouble. While traveling through the picturesque Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan during a thunderstorm, Cheng famously became trapped in a tunnel due to a landslide, only surviving due to the bravery of his driver. To create “Farming the Sea,” Cheng revisited his chosen site until the weather was perfectly overcast — too much sun would have caused reflections — then patiently waited for a fisherman to take the perfect position on the water.
The presence of a single figure swept up in a wider natural or urban landscape is a stylistic note that features in much of Cheng’s work. A minuscule house sits amidst the rolling hills and winding rivers of “Xinjiang #1.” Two figures make their belaboured way across the snow in “Heilongjiang #1.” These elements not only throw the sheer scale of the landscapes into stark relief, but grant them a measure of humanism.
“The idea behind ‘Coastal Geometries’ was to show the perspective of the fishermen,” Cheng explains. “To see the interesting views that they encounter every day, but that they don’t realise are interesting because they’re within them. If you zoom out a little bit, you can see that it’s a very calming, poetic seascape.”
This human touch is important. Cheng aims to do more than showcase intriguing landscapes; he intends to tell the stories of the people who live within them. From a technical standpoint, Cheng does this in his aerial works by shooting from a lower perspective so that he captures the people as well as the landscape. This also grants his works their signature ethereal, tranquil effect. When speaking of other Hong Kong aerial photographers, such as Andy Yeung, Cheng explains: “Their perspective is from a lot higher. They see Hong Kong as a concrete jungle, with skyscrapers and density, but by shooting from a lower angle, I want to reveal the story of Hong Kong and the life of Hong Kong people.”
Just as Cheng finds beauty in unexpected places — not only in stunning mountain peaks, but in sewage treatment plants and bus stops (“Ferris Wheel”, “Minibus”) — the same is true of discovering cultural value in Hong Kong’s overlooked urban environments. “Public housing estates, for example Wah Fu Estate in Pok Fu Lam, are a kind of history book of Hong Kong from the 1950s up to now,” he says, explaining how the estates bore witness to Hong Kong’s population growth and changes in city planning.
So far, Cheng has exhibited mostly within Hong Kong, but invitations from more foreign galleries are beginning to pour in, a response that Cheng finds encouraging. He says people in other countries appreciate the “very Chinese” images of his Discovering China and Coastal Geometry series. He plans to continue working on Coastal Geometries and City Patterns, with hopes to publish a books on each series — the latter to be combined with the dizzying Hong Kong photography of French photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze, the ground-up counterpoint to Cheng’s aerial shots. The two have been in talks with National Geographic to potentially get the books published.
In the meantime, Cheng continues to traverse the globe, showcasing its wonders through his unique lens. “There are a million places that can be discovered anew from a photographer’s perspective,” he says.
Peruse Tugo Cheng’s photography for yourself at Water Colours in Harbour City until February 12, or at Art of the Land — Ethiopia, showing at The Haven until February 28. Click here for more information.