This morning, I had my meeting with Wang Dan. To be able to meet one of the ringleaders of the 1989 protest, the man who was at one point #1 on the Chinese government’s blacklist, you can imagine my excitement.
Our conversation went by a lot quicker than I expected. What was planned to be an hour long interview actually ended in half that time. Wang seemed pretty jaded about many of the questions I asked, perhaps because he gets pestered by a lot of American journalists with these same questions anyways. I wish my Chinese was a lot better, so that he could’ve talked more in depth about his opinions. Who knew slacking off in those grade school Chinese classes would actually come back to bite.
On a related note, I’m starting to realize that interviewing people is really damn hard. I’ve done a lot of interviews in the past for UX research, photo projects, old bosses and generally just probing my friends to no end, but when you’re dealing with some really influential figures who’ve lived through way more shit that you have, the last thing you want to do is look underprepared or waste their time.
“When you’re dealing with some really influential figures who’ve lived through way more shit that you have, the last thing you want to do is look underprepared or waste their time.”
Finding the right blend between an organic conversation and curated “wishlist” of interview questions is really hard in practice. I went from having a very artsy-fartsy idea about examining subjects in the present and the past images that have shaped them, to scrapping half of my relevant questions during the actual interview. I mean, it was hard to justify why asking about their Twitter activity was even relevant to their cause. And I certainly wasn’t going to say “Oh, it’s for art. It’s not supposed to make sense.” I’m not here to mystify matters.
I think the photo session was the hardest part. What is the purpose of this? What meaning does it have beyond a confirmation of a living, breathing subject? What value does it have for the interviewee himself? I think that lattermost question boggled me the most. I mean, all I took were a few decent headshots on my digital and film cameras (my Art teachers would be disappointed), but I also couldn’t justify to myself to take any more than necessary.
For these people, what really mattered were the ideas they hoped to trasmit to the youth, not some flattering photos I take of them that make them 20 years too young. Even more, we were meeting in locations far removed from the context of their actual work, so there wasn’t much material to work with.
Nevertheless, I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll have enough to turn this project into a compelling book by the end. Good things of course take time.