5 important lessons by a master of photography – Lu Nan (呂楠 )


Lu Nan (born 1962) is a legendary Chinese photographer and a Magnum correspondent.

Lu Nan, 1990 (Magnum Photos)

By nature, Lu is extremely reserved. He keeps a very low profile and doesn’t appear much in public. In fact, apparently, he even doesn’t like to talk about his work in his own exhibitions – appearing there only as a visitor. Somewhat ironically, there are also very few portraits of him.

He has released three major works. In 1989 he started The Forgotten People: The Condition of China’s Psychiatric Patients (completed in 1990); in 1992 he started the On The Road: The Catholic Faith in China (completed in 1996) and in 1996 he began the Four Seasons: Everyday Life of Tibetan Peasants (completed in 2004). These were combined together in a single book and released as Trilogy last year.

In 2006, he also completed a project in Burma about drug addicts.

His photographs of people are often quite somber and even eerie that will not leave anyone indifferent.

Immerse in your work deeply

In his Trilogy, he focuses on people. The Forgotten People shows the lives of mental patients and their sufferings (he visited 38 mental hospitals); On the Road is about the daily lives of the people in church (he visited more than 100 churches) and Four Seasons is about the regular farmers and peasants of Tibet (during the 8 years he spent at least half of the time living there).

Through these photographs, I hope to find the basic and long-lasting characters of human beings.

Lu Nan

It took him 15 years to complete this massive body of work.

Lu clearly did not finish his projects in a hurry. He committed to his work and took it obviously very seriously. For him, it’s about the work, not about the fame.

Lu Nan, 1993 (Magnum Photos)

Now compare this work ethic and attitude to some Instagram photographers who can’t wait to get the likes on their photo of a lavender field – yet another meaningless photo to join thousands of similar photos to be forgotten as quickly as it was shot.

I did that, as well. I chased the likes and followers until I realized how pathetic and pointless it is. More likes or followers is not going to make you a better artist. Doing the work will make you better.

Respect your subjects

Lu was asked how he is able to take photographs of his subjects e.g., the drug addicts in Myanmar (aka Burma) and he answered by saying:

“I just respect them and care about them. … They are the same as us.”

Lu Nan

Now, even though Lu Nan is not very active in the busy social life and prefers to stay quietly behind the scenes, he must have great social intelligence. You need excellent social skills and empathy for people to let you inside their homes and to photograph them.

Lu Nan, 2006 (Magnum Photos)

I think what Lu Nan really means by this quote, is to be normal, not to treat them as freaks or as simply something to photograph.

A parallel can be drawn on how most “regular” people act around celebrities. They are unable just to be normal and treat them with respect. They start to act really weird around them, putting them on a pedestal and so on. This is why celebrities only hang out with other celebrities. They can be at ease around them, knowing that this other person doesn’t want or need something from them (selfie, autograph, answers to their questions, and so on).

If you can be normal with people who have higher status than you just as well as you can with people in a lower position, is a sign of high social intelligence.

Photographic whole

The strength of the chain is decided by its weakest link. I think the same applies to photography: you’re only as good as your weakest image.

Each image of mine is independent, although each image serves to form a whole. Therefore, I do not have one photograph that makes more impression than the others.

Lu Nan

How many bands have made one-hit wonders and then disappear as quickly as they appeared? How many bands have put out good work consistently over decades and remained relevant?

Lu Nan, 1995 (Magnum Photos)

When Martine Franck made her first famous photo in Nepal, Koudelka told her that if she makes ten more similarly worthy photographs, then she can be considered to be a great photographer. As we know, Martine made many great photos after that.

This is why Magnum photographers are the cream of the crop photographers. They put out amazing images consistently. They don’t depend on one or a few good images.

Use black and white to express a certain mood

There’s something unexplainable in black and white photography that makes it very different from color. Note: not better but different!

Lu Nan, 1989 (Magnum Photos)

I believe both black & white and color photography can produce good works. I choose to shoot in black & white, first because of my subject – most of them are in black, grey & white tone; another reason is that black & white photographs can express serious and deep thoughts better.

Lu Nan

I’m personally also drawn to black and white grim images. I’ve always liked the deepness and darkness in art.

Nearly a decade ago, when I was into mixing electronic music, I was also inspired by the chilling deep and dark minimal vibes. The darker, the better.

Although I don’t mix music anymore, the same tendency continues in my photography.

I don’t think using color film would fit Lu Nan’s photographs of the Trilogy at all. Black and white emphasizes what he’s trying to convey. Color would weaken that considerably in my opinion. Pain and sorrow, and black and white go hand in hand.

Of course, that doesn’t mean all black and white photos are about pain and sorrow.

Photography is a study of light

Without light, you don’t have a photograph. Except if you use an infrared flash – which I believe is nevertheless considered to be “light.”

Lu Nan, 1989 (Magnum Photos)

Either way, different light can drastically change the feel of a photograph. Lu Nan is a master in understanding the light, and he creates a series of photos where light touches on people’s faces or where it forms a silhouette.

In order to be a good photographer, it is necessary to have a good understanding of light – and that doesn’t mean to only when is the golden hour.

I you want to know the story behind these and many other great photos, I recommend checking out his Magnum profile page.


What to photograph?

Here’s a thought: it’s not about what you photograph, it’s about how you photograph.

We put so much emphasis on what is “worthy” to shoot and what’s not. We often make a huge deal about taking pictures as if we would have something to lose if we take too many photos or photos of “unworthy” things.

Or perhaps, it’s that we want to not look weird by taking photos of random things.

But we should photograph everything that even slightly draws our attention. Why? Why not!

There’s nothing to lose and so much to gain.

When I take pictures of random things, I don’t worry about if any of them is going to be decent enough – I don’t care.

I photograph them because they look interesting and because it’s a practice. It’s an exercise to practice my composition – and e.g., mannequins are perfect for that although you can also very well practice composition on trees, street signs, buildings – virtually on anything basically.

I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.

Garry Winogrand

So be creative, walk around in your room or office and take pictures of the mundane “boring” things and try to make aesthetically good photographs. Simplify the scene, create ambiguity. It’s all just a practice. Do it for fun without any outcome in mind.


8 important insights Marc Riboud can teach you about photography


Marc Riboud (1923 – 2016) was a French photographer. He joined Magnum in the fifties and left the agency in 1979.

“We learned that the magazine was doing a story on the best and worst of British cities and Leeds was the only city left to do. Capa said, ‘Perfect, give him Leeds. It is the dullest city in England and he comes from Lyons, the dullest city in France. He is the perfect choice for the story!’”

Marc Riboud, Magnum Stories

To best characterize Marc Riboud would be to use the word “shy.” At least this is the word he used a lot to describe himself.

He was definitely more of an introspective photographer who fought for justice (he was a member of the French resistance) and was against staging and “cheating” in photography. He liked to stroll and take long walks. His favorite places to photograph according to him were streets, villages, and countrysides. In a sense, you could call him a romantic photographer.

Interestingly enough, he wasn’t afraid to get close to his subjects. Or maybe he was, but he did it anyway. One of the iconic pictures of photography history clearly proves that.

Marc Riboud, 1967

This photograph shows the juxtaposition of the ugly and the beautiful which he captured in many of his other photographs as well.

Even though his photos have very strong composition, he was criticized for being a bad storyteller. Even Henri Cartier-Bresson told that to Marc.

Indeed, according to Marc Riboud, he did not like the story aspect of photography and eventually became too independent to be a story photographer and left Magnum.

Below are some of the interesting ideas Marc Riboud had about photography.

A photo is a surprise

“Why dissect and comment a process that is essentially a spontaneous reaction to a surprise? This can’t be analysed …”

Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

For Marc Riboud photography is a reaction to a surprise, and good photographs come from being surprised. Perhaps this was also the reason he did not like doing stories as stories mean planning and you can’t plan being surprised.

This is an interesting point of view of photography. Yet, it makes sense. We photograph what draws our attention and curiosity. For a nature photographer, nature offers surprises, and therefore he photographs these events. For him and other similar minded people, these surprises make sense. For a fashion photographer, they might not. And the other way around.

Marc Riboud, 1982

The cat in the picture above is a surprise, and according to Riboud, if you remove the cat, the photo doesn’t work anymore. That’s the surprise – not the naked woman in the mirror.

Marc Riboud, 1969

The photo above was taken in Vietnam in 1969. According to Riboud, he was probably the first European these kids had ever seen.

“There was a fashion, for a while, of becoming a miner to photograph miners, or a muslim to photograph muslims, etc. I don’t believe in this, because if you become like the other, the surprise is gone. You better remain yourself and let yourself be surprised.”

Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

This photo clearly portrays a surprise and curiosity. This photo demonstrates that there’s no need to hide yourself as a photographer. Many street photographers try to stay invisible. Yet, if you’re invisible, you miss out on a lot of great pictures. The surprise by you and by your subject is what makes the photo often interesting. No need to blend in.

Be a curious wanderer scrutinizing details

He said that he liked to constantly wander around, scrutinizing details that might have been insignificant to others.

Marc Riboud, 1965

I think this is an essential aspect of being a good photographer. To be interested in details others don’t see.

Regarding the image above – according to Riboud, it’s the curves that make the photo – not the windows by themselves. This is a seemingly insignificant detail to many, but I guess this is also the reason Riboud was a master of photography.

A picture can’t be trusted

“The target of our line of sight is reality – but our framing can transform it into a dream.”

Marc Riboud
Marc Riboud, 1987

You may not recognize the person in the photo above. He looks just like any kind and gentle old man. As Riboud says: “You would invite him to your home or hire him to teach your children.” Yet the “gentleman” in the picture is Klaus Barbie. Google him!

“The idea of photography as evidence is pure bullshit. A photo is no more proof of any reality than what you may hear being said by someone in a bus. We only record details, small fragments of the world. This cannot allow any judgement, even if the sum of these details may convey a point of view.”

Marc Riboud, Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

This is also why the best photographs are ambiguous. If the story in the picture is too obvious – the picture is boring. That’s why I personally don’t like funny street photos. They lack ambiguity. They may be funny, but that’s about it.

Even if you’re shy, you need to get close

The simple lesson is this: when photographing a protest, not only do you need to get close, you need to photograph the faces of the people.

Marc Riboud, 1962

I haven’t been to many protests, but I have seen how other photographers work. They mostly stay in the sidelines or worse, they stay in the back.

Nobody wants to see the backs of the people. It results in boring pictures – unless you know what you’re doing.

You need to get inside the crowd. This makes the viewer feel as if he’s in action. The picture above is very powerful just because of that. Riboud is inside the action – he’s not a spectator – he’s a participant.

Riboud agrees with Capa, who said the famous quote: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” And Riboud was the shy one!

Riboud gives another piece of advice on photographing protests: move backward. Otherwise, you would get in the way as people are moving forward.

You need the technique and sensitivity

“Technique and sensitivity go together, one cannot exist without the other. – As with music : no other form of expression is constructed with such mathematical precision, and yet it grips our senses and our guts.”

Marc Riboud, Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

Having a photographic eye is not enough. It’s not enough to be a sensitive artist. You also need to have a strong foundation on e.g., composition. You need not only to see interesting moments or details, but you also need to make them work as a photographic whole.

Marc Riboud, 1953

“We cannot create forms, as painters and sculptors do, but our purpose is the same : to simplify what we see, in order to make it understandable.”

Marc Riboud, Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

This is also why it’s necessary to take many pictures. Not to take many pictures just for the sake of it, but you’re essentially searching for the right photo with the right composition. You change the perspective, angle, framing – you are looking! For Riboud this search is a “visual and sensual pleasure.”

Always strive to make better pictures

“When somebody asks me what my best photograph is, I answer, I hope to do it tomorrow and thus try to change my way of seeing.”

Marc Riboud
Marc Riboud, 1967

Don’t hang onto your old photos. This is an idea I personally also resonate with. For me a photo is just a photo – it’s not some sacred magnum opus. Always keep moving forward.

Ask yourself, “does this stand out?”

“I recently spent a whole summer gathering my photos from the last 35 years and editing them for an exhibition. It was an interesting exercise. I didn’t look for any link between the ones I chose, neither by subject matter nor by style. I only asked myself : “Does this one stand out?”

Marc Riboud, Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

This is actually really good advice when selecting your best shots. We don’t always know if our certain photo is good or not, but we immediately recognize a photo that stands out. It takes place in an instant. You know it immediately if your photo stands out. And if it stands out – it must be good.

Marc Riboud, 1979

Do not stage a photo

There was an interesting discussion between Marc Riboud and Frank Horvat where they were discussing staging in photography. The interview can be found here – I highly recommend reading it if you want to have a deeper insight into Riboud’s personality.

Marc Riboud, 1957

Riboud says, “that the role of photography is to record what’s there, not to stage.” To which Horvat points out that if we make a portrait photo, we tell the model to move there, or pick up something – which is essentially staging.

“All the erotic photos I’ve seen, and where I could sense some kind of emotion, were staged. And staging is an art by itself, I wouldn’t know how to stage a photo in which the emotion seemed genuine.”

Marc Riboud, Marc Riboud, Interview with Frank Horvat

For Riboud, it’s more complex than that. Just by telling someone to do something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s staging. It’s not staging if they don’t “pretend to be anything but their own character, in their own environment.”

For more amazing photos by Marc Riboud, check out the website dedicated to his art.