Interview, Paul Hoi -
On a Different Plane
Paul! What kind of dreams do you have?
I dream of all sorts of things, as most semi-functional humans do, but ever since I went to New Mexico, there’s been recurring dreams of White Sands, or a landscape that’s really similar to that — an open space like White Sands or Bad Water Basin at Death Valley that’s under a soft, diffused light. And there’s a looming feeling that there’s a transition happening, whether it’s going to get dark soon, or that I need to go somewhere or find something. I had that feeling when I first started going out to Death Valley on my own, so maybe it’s a part of that.
I also had a dream recently of a fast food spot that opened under my apartment, and they were selling Kit Kat bars along with their meals. I was pretty bummed when I woke up and realized it wasn’t real.
Do you feel that sometimes your subconscious is creating the photographs for you or in some way controlling how you create?
I think that’s always at work once you have a basic grasp of the instrument you’re working with. Echoing your last question, I think I’m drawn to a sense of openness in my travels and in my photos. I like the desert for that reason, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a bit more averse to crowds or groups in general, especially in interior spaces. When that obvious openness isn’t there, I try to plan my shoots or use my camera in a way to allow that feeling of openness to reveal itself.
Some of the photographs feel like a whisper, vague as if a fading memory or a dream. Is this how you see the world or you ought to see it?
I think so. I think a significant part of it has been my experience as someone who grew up in another country before coming here at a young age. I grew up in Hong Kong and came to the States when I was nine. It was a very decent childhood, both here and abroad. But it was massively confusing, and it’s felt as though most parts of my life, all the way down to my sense of home, language, and so on, are a bit in flux. It’s a common story for lots of immigrants, I think, but I was lucky enough to stumble on the arts to learn to articulate these things for myself.
I think as I got a bit older and started doing trips out to the desert and abroad, that feeling of transience on my own life evolved into other questions. Anyone who’s been out to the desert can tell you a bit about that feeling of massiveness and age that exudes from the land. You’re just surrounded by things that have been here long before you came and will be around long after you and others have passed. You’re looking into the past and future all at once. The sands, the stars, the hills, the moon. It’s a very humbling feeling, with a quiet, underlying sense of terror that you’re lucky just to be there as a tiny, cosmic blip. The desert doesn’t give a shit about your career or social circles.
Can you recall the moment when your pre-determined idea of reality was shaken and you were introduced to a more psychedelic world?
Going off of the last question, I think coming to the States was the earliest event that resembles something like that. I remember being at the Hong Kong International Airport when I was nine, seeing adults around me crying and hugging each other as we stood in front of the terminal. There were these huge, staggered panels in front of the terminal that block you from seeing what was on the other side. It was my first time flying, and even though I’d told my friends and myself that we were moving to the States for years, I obviously didn’t understand what was happening. I remember the yellowish lights at the airport, the high ceilings, and I remember that weird feeling of knowing there’ll be massive, impending transition for everyone who was going to the other side of those panels, and that I was going to be a part of that.
I don’t remember anything between that and waking up intermittently after we were picked up at the San Francisco Airport at night. I remember waking up in my aunt’s car and seeing the lights on Golden Gate Bridge, falling asleep again, and then making out the vague shapes of the rolling Sonoma County hills. I really felt as though I’d really entered an alien world. I wasn’t sad about it at the time - I was excited, even, but it was obviously confusing, and the whole experience left a deep impression on me that things and circumstances can change quickly.
Other than that, I’ve experimented with psychedelics, and it’s been quite beneficial for me, creatively and otherwise.
..how do you feel towards reality now? Is it still subjective or universal?
I’m not really sure. I go back and forth on questions like that. I think at large, the world is made up of subjective differences, and people find their own journey and others like themselves by engaging in these differences.
Can you walk us through your process, exactly, how these moments come to life through you?
Sure. It’s fairly straightforward, to be honest. If I hear or see or read about somewhere that left an impression on me, I usually try to research and plan a trip around that thing. I’d scour the internet for any places that seem interesting in that region. I usually get a map, markdown everywhere that I’d like to go, then edit down the trip depending on budget and time. I used to plan thing down to every single day and every single thing I’d like to shoot, but as I’ve gotten more comfortable traveling on my own, I’m a lot more relaxed in my planning. Nowadays I keep the itinerary shorter, leave buffer days in-between key locations, and I just keep my eyes and mind open as I’m on the road.
I like to play with different equipment, so the equipment varies quite a bit from one trip to another. The most recent trip I was with New Zealand was shot with a modified infrared mirrorless camera, which was really fun. On another trip, I brought an 8-lb medium format with me on a three-week trip through the Atacama Desert and Patagonia, which was incredible in its optic quality but was very challenging with its size and operating mechanisms. I bought that same medium format along with a Minolta instant camera with me to the Arctic Circle, and the temperature gave the development of the Impossible Project film pretty otherworldly colors. I have lots of different experimental filters I like to play with - diffraction sheets, star splitters, etc. It’s good to experiment, as the challenge of different equipment can help you re-engage with a familiar process from a different angle.
After I come back from the trips, I spend a few days editing down the photos and depending on the scale of the trip, I try to have about 10-20 photos that make up a rough ‘series.’ I then begin post work on each of those photos, and occasionally revisit the other raws — sometimes I might find some that aren’t strong shots per se but do a good job of tying the other shots together.
Stars have been a major element in your photographs. What attracts your towards the astral?
Well, I think I’m attracted to the night in general. I’m an incorrigible night owl, and I really enjoy shooting after other people are gone. Again, it allows that sense of openness. I love shooting under the full moon, because it’ll likely be empty, and the breadth of the landscape almost seems to extend further under the even light. It almost seems to repaint a familiar landscape into an otherworldly dimension. When I was in the Atacama Desert, I really wanted to photograph the Hand of the Desert sculpture, which is a massive 11-meter tall stone sculpture in the middle of nowhere, and about an hour outside of the nearest city. I scouted the location during the day, but when I drove back around midnight, pulling up my car and seeing the giant hand slowly lit up by the headlights of my car was pretty wild. That region has the clearest sky in the world, and NASA deploys missions there because it’s more similar to the terrain of the moon than anywhere else on earth.
I also think the stars and the moon are probably the most self-evident signs that we’re guests passing through in a massive space, regardless of where you are on this planet. I think on top of the sense of openness that I’m attracted to, I’m drawn to that idea at large.
..and has there been any experiences on the astral plane of consciousness?
Interesting question. I do think there’s a very special feeling of adventuring and photographing under the full moon, of seeing massive, sun-soaked landscapes under a softened, diffused moonlight. Planning a trip, taking time off, saving money, and finally being out there on your own seemingly in the middle of nowhere under the moon, trying to create a beautiful thing. There’s nothing like that when it works out, and it always works out in its own way.
Is there any specific artist or genre that you listen to - and how does it affect your creativity?
I actually stay away from listening to music as I’m shooting or editing. I don’t like that the music might potentially be filling in a part of the photo that isn’t actually there. I want the photo to do that on its own whenever possible.
That said, I listen to lots of music. I really like ambient music like post-rock and post-metal – Red Sparowes, the Album Leaf, Jonsi/Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky, Pelican, Russian Circles, etc. I also really love Tycho. Every now and then, I like to go back to droning hardcore like Defeater and Modern Life is War. As of late, I’ve gotten more into retro electronic music like Kavsinky, MOON, and Perturbator. I guess the genre is called Synthwave? The Hotline Miami soundtrack is great.
Lastly, what would you like to suggest or share with other photographers?
I think the photographers whose work I’ve always been drawn to are people who lead interesting lives, and them being photographers is almost a footnote to what their lives are like. I think it’s important to do that - to relax on the self-conceived identity as a ‘photographer’ every now and then, fall in love with something outside of photography, and pursue it genuinely while having a camera at your disposal.
Interview with Paul Hoi