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Graham Fink's photos find beauty in a 'wonderland' of rubbish

Graham Fink finds beauty in the most unexpected places, which explains why the ad man has taken a series of photographs in derelict buildings and rubbish dumps in Shanghai.

Fink, who has been chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather in China since 2011, has called his new exhibition "Ballads of Shanghai" because each of the photos is about "telling stories", he says.

There is a haunting, melancholic quality to the dozen or so images on display at the Riflemaker Gallery on Beak Street in London’s Soho, just a few hundred yards from M&C Saatchi’s headquarters on Golden Square, where he used to be executive creative director.

Fink, whose day job involves working for clients such as Coca-Cola, took the photos in his spare time, using "normal cameras". As he admits, the photos are "very different from advertising".

He explains: "Since I’ve been a kid, I’ve always been fascinated by places that have been pulled down and derelict buildings and rubbish sites. It’s almost kind of like my secret places that I’ve found – ‘they’re mine’. You see things there. I find beauty among all the rubbish."

He hasn’t exhibited the photos in Shanghai yet but local friends have seen them. "A lot of the Chinese people said to me that, ‘This is negative what you’re showing’ and ‘why don’t you show the beauty?’ But to me, I find beauty in among this rubbish."

Fink describes the discarded and broken items that he has photographed as "like these tiny little pieces of life, like stories, that are still there."

He gives the example of one picture, called Are You Sitting Comfortably?, that shows a discarded armchair, with flowers on it.

"To me, that represents a choice of that family. At one point, they went to a store and they made a choice with their hard-earned cash to buy those particular chairs. A lot of care and thought went into that and they would have taken them home and sat in them and there are many things those chairs would have seen. There was a past.

"And now, here, many years later, the family has been moved out of their house or forced out of their house and these chairs are just left on the rubbish. But if you look at those chairs, with the flowers in them, and the way the sun is around them, and there’s a playing card just below it, it’s very, very beautiful and it’s like the stories are still lingering on.

Chinese cities have been growing dramatically in the last decade as new buildings are erected and older sites are torn down and Fink does not think he could have taken these photos in London.

"To me, Shanghai is very unique. One thing I do like about it, as opposed to London, is that you kind of go anywhere. Here, you’d never be allowed into the places – because of health and safety. I don’t recall hardly ever hearing the words ‘health and safety’. I just walk around with a camera. You’re allowed to walk around, you’re allowed to photograph them. They’re like wonderlands."

Fink has always been more than an ad man as he has directed music videos and run his own production company, Fink Tank.

He has shown two previous exhibitions at the Riflemaker Gallery. Two years ago, he showed art works that involved him physically cutting into film and marble to create visceral images.

Last year, he pushed boundaries in a different way by "drawing with his eyes" with technology that tracked his eyes and allowed him to create images just by looking at a screen. Again, there was a violent quality to the portraits and self-portraits that he created.

"I’ve always liked finding the life amongst the death," he says, comparing some of his previous work to the new photos of derelict buildings and rubbish dumps.

"There is a kind of pulling everything down. It is the end of something. But I see this as, it’s after the end but it’s before the new beginning, and I get excited about that."

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