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Wednesday January 23, 2013

Justin Guariglia gets into the essence of photography

Justin Guariglia, seen here in Japan, believes in immersing himself in a culture so that his photographs
would capture what is below the surface. Justin Guariglia, seen here in Japan, believes in immersing himself in a culture so that his photographs would capture what is below the surface.

It is an open classroom out there for photographer Justin Guariglia as he soaks in the diverse cultures of different nations.

I’M an artist using a camera” – that’s how renowned photographer Justin Guariglia describes himself.

Give an artist a pencil, and he’ll sketch a work of art. Similarly, give Guariglia any camera, and he’ll probably give you a great photo.

“You just gotta know where to point (the camera),” says Guariglia. “When I started out, I was using an old, crappy camera, but I had great pictures from that time.”

It may look as though Guariglia, 38, was catapulted into the glamorous world of professional photography, but in reality, like everything else, this world traveller’s career curve had its humble beginnings in the small suburban town of Maplewood in New Jersey, the United States, where he grew up.

Guaraglia is well known for his work for National Geographic Traveler and Smithsonian Magazine, and also for books such as Shaolin: Temple Of Zen and Planet Shanghai. He took a southward journey from his adopted home Taiwan to Kuala Lumpur last year on the invitation of Panasonic to give a talk at the “Building an Econation” forum at the International Greentech and Eco Products Exhibition and Conference.

Guariglia has immersed himself in the natural world and in ancient architectures, soaking in diverse cultures from around the world. His experiences strengthen the aesthetics of his photographs.

“To truly capture a culture in pictures, one has to understand it,” says Guaraglia.

He showcased some of his photographs at the forum, moments frozen in time at the Taj Mahal and other ancient sites in India and also the beautiful natural structures of Halong Bay in Vietnam.

Justin Guariglia captures captivating cityscapes on camera, although he
feels more at home in a natural setting. Justin Guariglia captures captivating cityscapes on camera, although he feels more at home in a natural setting.

Some years ago, Guariglia was in Johor to work on Johor: Asia Latitude One, a book commissioned by the Johor royal house. Apart from pictures of the traditional aspects of the state, there are also shots of the natural beauty of our southernmost state, in particular a stunning aerial shot of a mangrove swamp and its turquoise waters.

Guariglia feels more comfortable in natural settings than in urban landscapes, although he has captured his share of cityscapes and urban architecture in fascinating angles.

“The urban landscape is very interesting, but I don’t know if I want to live there,” said Guariglia. “I’d rather be in the jungle. I like to be in the natural world near water with plants and animals. For me, that feels very natural. I grew up in a very green, small suburban town. Our homes were very close to each other, but we were separated by trees. It still is very green. It hasn’t been developed.”

Guariglia, 38, grew up in a creative environment. His mother was an artist and was involved in theatre. Guariglia took up photography when he was 22.

“I started doing photography when I lived in Beijing,” he said. “Before that I had no interest in it. I wanted to be a businessman.”

He remembered arriving in Beijing “under the veil of darkness”. He was 21 then, and eager to learn Mandarin. Along the way he taught himself photography.

“At that time Beijing was an amazing place,” said Guariglia. “It was a big cultural shock for me. It was a very formative part of my life. I was too overwhelmed to have any first impressions. It was sensory overload. I was maxed out. What I encountered were just so far removed from anything I grew up around. And there are so many rich cultures that go back thousands of years. Remember, I come from America and my culture is a couple of hundred years old.”

Guariglia returned to the United States for an internship at Magnum Photos in New York, where he began to learn about documentary photography. He came back to Asia in 1988 and started freelance work for various magazines.

‘To truly capture a
culture in pictures,
one has to
understand it,’ says
Justin Guariglia. ‘To truly capture a culture in pictures, one has to understand it,’ says Justin Guariglia.

Since then, he has lived in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Shanghai, and has settled down in Taipei. In Shanghai, he worked on the book Planet Shanghai (2008), exploring the uniqueness of its pajama-clad denizens, and life in the back alleys of the city that is slowly being crowded out by modern architecture.

It is easy to draw comparisons between that and the fast-disappearing hutong (alleys) of Beijing, particularly during the construction frenzy leading up to the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. While Guariglia’s photographs of modern cities are captivating with a larger-than-life perspective, he clearly has a love for the old, too, and a yearning for its romance and nostalgia.

“I’m a romantic at heart so I love the old stuff,” he admitted. “I love things that have withstood the test of time. I love things that are hundreds and thousands of years old. I feel a connection with those things. It’s the same way I feel about some of my photographs 10 years later, I look back and say ‘Oh, I still love that picture.’ There are certain pictures that will stand the test of time.”

One of the photographs he showed at the Building an Econation forum was that of Halong Bay being swamped by tourists in kayaks. Such pristine beauty that is the work of nature, becomes fragile in the midst of an industry that can sometimes be intrusive or even destructive.

Guariglia lamented the negative impact of big group tours. The worst of these is when tourists cause traffic congestion, do not support local businesses and leave their rubbish behind.

“This is increasingly a problem all over the world,” he said. “The real big problem comes when the areas are not managed properly. A good tourist is somebody who understands where she or he is, and understands and respects the people and their culture.”

That is also part of the work that he does, learning and experiencing a culture before he is able to take photographs that go “below the surface”. For Shaolin: Temple Of Zen (2007), he visited the famous 1,500-year-old Shaolin Temple in China numerous times before he won the trust of the main abbot and was allowed to photograph there. Guariglia became the first person to document the highly secretive Shaolin sect, guardians of a renowned form of kung fu.

Asked which of the cultures that he has experienced is the most difficult to get to know, Guariglia gives a surprising reply.

“I still don’t know most of the cultures,” said Guariglia. “I’m still learning. I don’t understand American culture, although I’m a product of it. I think we live in societies that are so disconnected from our cultures ... So I don’t even attempt to understand what’s going on or where everything’s going. I do read a lot, I’m interested to know what’s going on in the world. But I don’t understand it, it’s so complex.”

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