Mahanakorn Building - Tristan Zhou
Mahanakorn Building in Bangkok taken by Tristan Zhou

Born in Tokyo, raised in Shanghai and emigrated to make his fortune between San Francisco and Seattle, Tristan Zhou is a true citizen of the world. His photography tells the urban landscapes, the great metropolises, with their out-of-scale projects and their inhabitants walking around like on a boundless set. His story begins like that of many other photography lovers. Finding himself alone in a new city, Tristan takes his camera and sets off to explore.

After experimenting with various genres, from street to portrait, he decides to focus mainly on aerial and urban reportage. Back in Shanghai, in 2017 he manages to meet some of his idols, and in the meantime he builds a large following. From then on, projects and trips multiplied. What is still there, however, is the sense of wonder that leaks out from his nocturnal yet luminous cities, where one can get lost and find one’s own identity.

How did you start your career as a photographer?

I started as creative director at a video production company in San Francisco. Then I moved to Seattle where I started freelancing. I didn’t have much to do in the early days, so I picked up the camera and went to explore the city. That’s probably how I started.

The Space Needle shot by Tristan Zhou

Is there any particularly important shot among the first ones?

Probably the Space Needle drone photography. No one had ever photographed it from that angle or perspective, and it went viral among Seattle’s residents. That shot definitely helped me get started and give me some visibility.

I read that you were inspired, among others, by the work of Andreas Gursky and Jeff Wall. In fact, your images look like they were taken from movies. How do you get this effect? Are you a methodical planner?

I would say so. I pay a lot of attention to my subject matter and lighting, which is crucial for the kind of image I want to achieve. Watching movies is one of my hobbies and I majored in filmmaking in college, which helps.

Hong Kong streets viewed from above by Tristan Zhou

As your education suggests, you seem to be attracted to all forms of art. Your subjects include some of the most iconic architecture in the world, like the Interlace in Singapore, the Jewel Changi Airport waterfall, the new library in Tinanjin or the MahaNakhon in Bangkok. What is architecture to you?

That’s a good question. As you can see in most of my works, in my photos I like to tell the impact of man: whether it’s the subject or the context. For me, architecture represents the evolution of the human being. From the traditional ones in Beijing’s Forbidden City to modern ones like MahaNakhon in Bangkok, every single architecture tells the story of the people of its time. That is why I like to document them from my point of view.

Big cities are often depicted as modern hells, yet in your work they seem like quiet, safe places. Many of your photographs present only one person, but the mood is more wonder than loneliness. Is this your view of modern cities?

I love big modern cities. I feel alive walking in a busy city of Tokyo, taking the New York City subway and looking at the beautiful skyline of Shanghai. A big city is made of people, and I love the fact that each one of them is unique and in its own way fascinating.

Macau buildings shot by Tristan Zhou

You seem to have a penchant for central perspectives and serialized objects. Why is that?

Ahah, I’m a little obsessive-compulsive, so I like symmetry and central perspective. I just like to look at them.

How did you find your style at a time when in theory everyone can take a good picture and tend to follow the exact same trends?

We’ve come to a point where we’re saturated with all kinds of images. I have to say that I think it’s inevitable to be influenced by trends and by what’s around us. A style is like a person: what you see, feel and experience forms your style. So you have to keep thinking, trying… I think that’s how I found my style.

The Interlace in Singapore shot by Tristan Zhou

You’ve always moved around in your life. Is travel your state of mind?

Travel is a double-edged sword for me. Yes, I like to visit different places and meet new friends, but to be honest, I’ve moved around a lot since I was born. I was born in Tokyo, moved to Shanghai with my family when I was 11, and then moved to San Francisco for college again. Sometimes, deep down inside, I feel like I don’t belong anywhere, like I don’t feel at home anywhere.

Are you planning any trips to Europe?

Yes. I’ve always wanted to visit Europe. The only European country I’ve ever visited is the United Kingdom. I am insatiable, I would like to visit them all in one trip, so I am still planning everything. But I’m taking part in a photo exhibition in Germany next fall, so that might be a good time to explore Europe!

What are your future plans?

I’ve been studying some places in Vietnam for a long time, so I hope to go there soon. I’m a real fan of Southeast Asia.

A market street in Hong Kong shot by Tristan Zhou

What don’t you like about being a photographer?

Many people still don’t understand the effort we put into creating our work. Although it seems like a “free” job, where you spend your time however you want, being a freelance photographer is financially unstable and forces you to do much more than just a normal office job. You can’t complain because it’s your job, but photographing things you don’t like really sucks. Ideally, you want to photograph everything you want and people pay you for it… it’s every artist’s dream. But only a fraction of us can afford it. So sometimes I’d like to have a normal job and keep photography as a hobby, photographing what I want.

Suggest three young photographers that we should follow.

Hong Kong aerial view taken by Tristan Zhou