Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Ryan the 7-year-old Eco Entrepreneur

Ryan Hickman from Orange County, the United States, is not your average eco entrepreneur. For starters, the seven-year-old founded - and became the CEO of - his own recycling company, Ryan’s Recycling Company, aged just three years old. His road to eco entrepreneurship and philosophy are straightforward: he likes “sorting the cans and bottles” and the idea of “getting paid to help the earth”. 

With the help of his father, Damion, and mother, Andrea, Ryan set up Ryan’s Recycling Company in 2012, and has been the CEO of a sustainable green business since. Four years on, Ryan’s business is as strong as his determination to help the earth, with approximately 49,000 pounds of waste recycled for 40 customers spanning over five neighbourhoods. With the revenue, Ryan has been able to save up around USD10,000 for his college tuition, with USD1,600 donated to charity - so successful and in multiple ways sustainable is Ryan’s Recycling Company that it puts many of us grown-ups to shame. 

We had a quick chat with Ryan, whose current long-term goal is to buy a real garbage truck and continue recycling through his adulthood, and his supportive father Damion, also the graphic designer behind Ryan’s Recycling Company’s website, business cards and flyers. 

1. Why did it occur to you to found a recycling company on that fateful day when you went to a local recycling centre with your parents in 2012? 
I don’t remember why since I was only 3 but I really like sorting the cans and bottles and getting paid to help the earth.

2. What were your exact wordings when you said you wanted to become the owner of a recycling company?
(Dad answers this one) Ryan said he wanted to start collecting recyclables from all the neighbors because he figured every hour could save cans and bottles for him.

3. Tell us a bit about the division of labour within Ryan's Recycling Company?
My mom, dad and I do all the recycling. Oh, and my grandma too. My dad drives me to the recycling center and my mom helps too. My dad lifts all the heavy stuff in and out of the truck.

4. What was the neighbours' response when you handed out plastic bags for them to save their recyclables for you?
Most of our neighbors save cans and bottles for us and they are so happy to save them for me.

5. How do you juggle your job as CEO and school?
I recycle a little bit at school too and I like to think about recycling even when I’m at school but I get my homework done and like hanging out at school with my friends.

6. What are the future plans for Ryan's Recycling Company?
I want to buy a real garbage truck some day and I want to continue recycling until I’m an adult.

7. Your advice for anyone who might want to start their own recycling company?
It’s hard work but it’s worth it. My mom says it’s important to wash my hands after recycling. Anyone can recycle and it’s good for the environment.

8. What's the best thing about being Ryan Hickman right now?
I’m happy to be cleaning up the world and it’s pretty cool that all people checking out my story are interested in my recycling.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Marcel Heijnen: The Accidental Cat Photographer

You would have heard of Dutch photographer Marcel Heijnen, dubbed by the SCMP as the ‘cat photographer’, not least because of the buzz he created, unwittingly, with his Chinese Whiskers photo series depicting Hong Kong’s shops cats (IG: @chinesewhiskers). Heijnen and his newly acquired title as the cat photographer is all over the place, making headlines as far as the Guardian, the Metro, and Al Jazeera

Admittedly, cats in their effortlessly dignified, imperial posture are fun to watch, but amidst that oohing and ahhing, and the emotional resonance we draw from the photos, haven’t we forgotten to ask who is that man, often allowed nothing more than 10 seconds to press the shutter before the good-natured cats hopped over to him for attention? Who is that man that can be seen carrying a glass panel around, working on a series that tricked people into thinking it is nothing more than a photoshopped creation? And who is that man, who claims he does nothing full-time, because he believes that if you do things with a passion, then one thing will lead to another in this world, where opportunities abound?

On a quest to find out more about Marcel Heijnen, I had the Dutch photographer and visual artist sitting with me on a random flight of staircase in Sai Ying Pun, speaking about the power of a photograph that catches your attention for longer than half a second, Jeremy Irons and Irish potato farmer, the peculiar beauty unique to Hong Kong, and, well, cats. 

1. What was Marcel Heijnen like as a boy?
Quite independent, as my parents told me. I was alone for five years before my sister came along. My dad is a graphic designer, so I got interested in design quite early on. He was also an amateur photographer. We had a dark room at home, so that’s probably how I first got interested in photography. I was trained as a print-maker, so there was a lot of time spent in the dark room, lots of physical messing around with film. I came from the analogue era, and I did my last film shoot in 2004, when I was in Japan. But for the rest of the last 10 years it’s been all digital. 

2. What brought you to Asia in 1992? 
I used to work for Philips electronics as a graphic designer. I did that for three years in Singapore, another three years in Hong Kong. I took a sabbatical from my design job. I didn’t have a clear plan, but I wanted to work on music. I finished an album that year, I called it Residue. At the same time I knew that I wanted to do something with visual arts, and photography would be a logical step. I had a lot of nice photos, but nothing as consistent as a series that I could call my own voice, visually. 

I participated in a very intensive workshop in Singapore which was very instrumental in getting me started. There was a format of five days, full-on, with mentors, setting yourself with projects, shooting all day, meeting sessions at night. I did a little project that was kind of related to Residue. It became a project about interiors of houses in progress on the same stretch. The cool thing about that workshop is that you do that for five days, there will be a presentation, and a year later you do a reunion show. That’s actually very powerful, because during that year, you have access to one of your mentors, and you’ll have an exhibition that you work towards. That year inspired me to start thinking what I want to do.

3. Tell us a bit more about your Residue photography series? 
I had a Residue-like image that I shot of windows in France a long time ago. It had the building, the reflection, the textures, all the elements. I kept on coming back to that image, which was shot five years prior. I told my mentor that I wanted to do a series. Everyone seemed to like that image. I have thousands of images of textured walls, of reflections and bubbles, but that image was something special, so I wanted to do more. And then the problem came: I started meditating on how to do more of that? How am I supposed to find that stuff? You can’t go through the city to look for something that is textured and reflected at the same time. 

And then it occurred to me that I could bring glass around. I started just messing around, and later finding - just by experimenting - what kinds of textures work, and what time of day to shoot. I realised that I’m restricted to using just the last 10 minutes of daylight, because during the night it is too dark, and during the day, everything is so clear and bright that it will be a very obvious kind of image, and I want the merging of background and the reflection - I wanted the image to show as if the textures are eating away the buildings. That’s more or less the theme: the impermanence of cities. 

I started replicating it in other cities. The response was very positive from the start. Within a few months I had a solo show, I started taking it to art fairs and doing limited-edition things. I then met Sarah Greene, founder of the Blue Lotus Gallery, who suggested that I did a book, and the rest of the things just started snowballing, not as crazy as the cat series, but at least I got to know some publishers, so when I did the cat series everything became easier. The first edition of the book is very successful, it’s been sold out already. The Residue series gives me enough credibility with publishers, and created a path for me. The series defines me more as an artist - it’s more unconventional and unique - but I don’t mind that people now think I’m a cat photographer. I’ve been branded by the South China Morning Post as the cat photographer, I’ll take it just fine. It’s a different audience.

4. What were the surprising finds from when you were working on the Chinese Whiskers series? 
I went with a Cantonese speaker, who is also the translator for the book, to interview some owners to get a little bit more information. The belief, about why the cats were there in the first place, was to catch mice. But the cats looked very comfortable, and well-fed too because they’re a bit fat, which makes it hardly convincing that they are mousers. What I didn't know is the fact that the cats are there to repel mice. I never knew that story. If you put a cat in the store, and the mouse is in the back lane, it probably won’t go into the store because it smells a cat, and then it would go to the neighbouring store. It makes sense that there are so many stores with cats, because if your store is along a stretch, and all your neighbours have a cat, you’ll need to have a cat too, as otherwise all the mice will be going to your store! That was quite an eye-opener for me. 

I’m also quite endeared by the fact that a lot of the shop owners genuinely love their cats. To be honest, my perception of Chinese people’s treatment of animals hasn’t always been positive. I remember 20, 30 years ago, I was in Guangzhou and there would be dog meat in the markets; and there are still a lot of shops around here in Sai Ying Pun that sell shark’s fin, which isn’t particularly nice to animals either. But then there are these shop owners who are very loving towards their cats - they interact with the cats, they’re amused by the cats, they’re amused by the fact that I’m taking photos of their cats. 

The shop cats have it all figured out. They know that they don’t actually need to do anything. They do their job just by sitting there and getting fed, while the people around them work really hard. So the cats are the real shop owners. They are very ‘Zen’, very sedate and at ease despite the activities going on inside the stores, boxes being moved around. My only challenge was when the cats noticed me, they would come to me because they like attention. At times when I saw a beautiful spot, and when they saw me, especially when I lowered myself, they’d go, “Oh that guy is going to pet me!”, and they’d come over and I’d lost my shot.

5. Are you a cat person too? 
I’ve always had cats. Since I was about 10 my parents have had a cat, and I was crazy about the cat. When I moved out on my own at around 21, I adopted cats straight away. When I moved to Singapore, within no time, there would be a stray cat coming to my house and I’d let it in - I ended up having five cats. When I left Singapore, I left them with a friend. But I’ve just adopted a kitten here. On New Year’s Eve, someone found a kitten at a bar, and I took the kitten in. I’m co-sharing the cat with a friend because I travel quite a bit, I don’t want to be restricted by having a cat here, and I don’t have a social network so much to have people coming to my apartment to feed it when I’m away. Then I found this friend who lives just around the corner and wanted the cat. We’ll have the cat one week each, and when I’m travelling someone will be there to take care of the cat. 

6. What is photography to you? 
It’s about capturing change, capturing things that are disappearing or things that don’t exist anymore. I know it’s a cliché, capturing a moment, but in a lot of my works, such as the cat series and Residue, despite them not being visually similar (although you can argue there are textures in there), I was capturing things that are disappearing. The cat series isn’t just about cats, it’s more about the stores, it’s more about the environment. I’ve recently started a new series about dogs in garages, and with that I think I’m getting closer to my Residue series, because those textures are really raw.

7. Your definition of a good photography? 
In this day and age, a good photograph is one that makes you stop to look at it for longer than a half-second. When everyone is scrolling and it just stops you in your tracks, and you think about it for a little bit. A good photograph is a photograph that evokes response, whether it be sadness or happiness, such as how the cat photos bring a smile on people’s face, and that’s, for me, a really nice thing to be happening - at least my photos have done something for people.

8. What does it take to be a good photographer? 
Patience. Preparation. I think it’s very important to think in series and stories, not in individual images or simply the beauty of the image itself. I’m used to taking photos while travelling around, trying to take a nice shot, but at one point you’ll need a narrative, you’ll need a slight signature and consistency of your materials within a series.

9. Do you remember your first time in Hong Kong? What were the things that got you wondering? 
It was probably 1989, I was here for work. I was given a nice hotel room, I’d never stayed in a nice hotel room before. I had a view of the city’s skyline from the hotel room, it was just an overload of visual excitement. I had a nice Hong Kong colleague, who was adamant on showing me the city. He took me out almost every day, showed me the Walled City of Kowloon. I still have some slides of the outside of the Walled City. If I had known that it was going to be torn down, I would have taken more shots. 

10. What are the aspects of Hong Kong that intrigue you? 
Density, textures, contrast of city and nature. The water, the mountains, the high buildings, the density, the messiness - there’s no city quite like it. Hong Kong is an impressive city, especially for someone from Europe who is not used to this kind of scale. Take the hills and water out of the cityscape, then it would probably not be a very pretty city, but the fact that you always see green hills behind the buildings is just amazing. Hong Kong is beautiful, in a strange way. You have all these alleyways, staircases, that is just beautiful. I like the fact that Hong Kong is still very raw and messy. Even in areas with skyscrapers and glass-and-steel buildings, on ground level there’d still be a market, where people are cutting meat or cleaning fish, people doing things in back alleys…even Singapore isn’t like that anymore. Singapore is much more manicured.

11. Your favourite places in Hong Kong? 
I love the area around here. I’m right between Sai Ying Pun and Sheung Wan. I walk one way and I’ll be on Tai Ping Shan Street, with all the galleries along Hollywood Road; if I go the other way then it’s the more traditional face of Hong Kong. I also enjoy the fact that you can take the MTR, and within half an hour you’ll find yourself in areas like Sham Shui Po, which are still very raw and interesting. I went the other day to To Kwa Wan, and it felt like a totally different world - I could have been in China. It was industrial and messy, very different to Central Hong Kong.

12. What’s the best thing about being Marcel Heijnen right now? 
The freedom. The freedom of doing what I want to do, not needing to worry about things too much. I’ve got a few income streams so that I can start doing the things that I want to do. Very often, because I do things with a passion, they turn into another little income stream.

People who’ve known me the longest always ask me, “So now you’re doing photography, guess photography is your full-time thing?” And my response is, invariably, “I don’t do anything full-time!” just to annoy people a little bit. But the question is, why does it have be full-time? When people ask me what do I do full-time, my reply would be, “Depends on which day you’re asking.” Take today, I shot some portraits, I’m doing an interview, I’ll need to take my cat to the vet, and tomorrow it will be something else. I watched an interview with Jeremy Irons, who said this whole thing of work is just an invention. In the past, depending on where you lived, assuming if you were Irish, you would plant potatoes and then you would play music for a long time. You can have fun, and then you’ll get the harvest. That wasn’t a job kind of thing. You might have fewer choices in those days, but life was more relaxed and healthier and happier.

Apparently, my character profile according to some spiritual people is that I’ll start something, get it running for a while until I get bored with it, and I’ll go start something else again. You’ll figure out your weaknesses and strengths after a while. You’ll learn to trust the flow, that you’ll stumble upon new projects. This cat series is a total coincidence. I’d just moved to Hong Kong, a week later, I saw this cat in a shop. The photo became a series, and a year later the series became a book, and later there was an exhibition, and a lot of articles about it. It wasn’t a planned thing, it wasn’t like I planned to move to Hong Kong to shoot cats in shops. If you’re flexible enough, and willing to go with the flow and see what happens, you’ll start to see that things will actually happen. it’s a mix of doing the things you like to do, and responding to your surroundings.

*Hong Kong Shop Cats is available at all major bookstores and Blue Lotus Gallery.