17 October 2017

Capturing the Surreal in the Everyday

17 October 2017 - Written by Gemma Padley

A collection of beautifully surreal images depicting Qian Zhao’s daily experiences in the U.S. call upon viewers to look closer and investigate what might be really happening in his photographs.

© Qian Zhao, from the series, Offcut, The Edge

Photography’s ability to provoke and mislead has a long history, and it is these qualities that Chinese photographer Qian Zhao embraces and plays with in his series, Offcut, The Edge - an exploration through photography of his daily life and imagination.

Zhao began the project in 2014 shortly after he had moved to San Francisco from Shanghai. To begin with the work was little more than a few notebooks containing fragments of text that served to set the tone - among them, ideas such as ‘keeping distance’ and ‘watching from afar.’

“Initially, I did not have a clear idea of the direction to go in,” he says. “In 2015, I encountered significant difficulty in that I seemed to be doing repetitive work. I was getting good pictures, but there seemed to be no way to [develop] the work. I began to rewrite my statement, [embracing] the slight confusion and imbalance caused by the collective experience of time difference… I re-organised my previous images and shot much more… [I explore] the so-called real and fictional intertwined space, and this sense of imbalance.”

© Qian Zhao, from the series, Offcut, The Edge

Zhao worked on the project through 2016 and recently published the work as a book with Jiazazhi Press. He shot in and around the San Francisco Bay Area and occasionally in other U.S. cites.

When making the series Zhao “kept a distance from the city he now lives in”, he says, and explains how he used landmarks, shopping malls, and neighbourhoods that were new to him to construct an “unreal city [through] images and memory” - to create “a fictitious city based on an actual place that is transformed by an associative process.”

In his images, people seem to appear from the mist, he says, and the surreal is never far away. “The slightly off-kilter images connect to something odd but interesting … When I took the pictures, I focused on the simplicity of colour and composition, which can make the images look computer-generated or staged. For me, the images have an imaginary space behind the surface,” he adds. “The content can never be separated from the form.”

© Qian Zhao, from the series, Offcut, The Edge

Taking inspiration from science fiction and installation art, Zhao says his vision is “not locked into one perspective”; rather, he endeavours to explore the world around him from multiple viewpoints. “In this work I collect fragments of daily life,” he says, “and in the book I ordered the images to create a framework, [but] there is no exact storyline. In this way the work can be much more open.

“I am the one who takes the photograph, but I am not the only one who creates that photograph,” he adds. “I feel responsible for both the artistic and the documentary value of my work, and hope that the viewer can find their own meanings in my images.”


Qian Zhao is a visual artist who divides his time between San Francisco and China.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.


Early Careers focuses on a series by a photographer from the Photographic Museum of Humanity’s online community.

Written by

Gemma Padley

Reading time

3 minutes

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